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  • NYFA Alum Boise Esquerra’s “Blackwater” Screens at 2021 Slamdance Film Festival

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    Known both as a festival “by filmmakers, for filmmakers” and for its Oscar-qualifying short film awards, the Slamdance Film Festival has long been a mecca for emerging independent directors. This year NYFA alum Boise Esquerra, a graduate of the Los Angeles campus’s MFA Filmmaking and MFA Screenwriting programs, will be right in the middle of the action when his episodic film Blackwater screens in the virtual festival February 12 – 25, 2021. 

    In the days leading up to the festival Crickett Rumley, NYFA’s Director of Film Festivals, caught up with Boise to talk about the personal experience that inspired his series and the importance of filmmakers from diverse backgrounds telling their own stories.

    NYFA alum Boise Esquerra

    Cricket Rumley (CR): Hi, Boise! Congratulations on getting into Slamdance! Tell us a little about yourself.

    Boise Esquerra (BE): I’d be happy to. I am a Native (Hopi) and Mexican American filmmaker enrolled in the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Parker, AZ. I am a recent graduate of the New York Film Academy (MFA Screenwriting) and hold a BA in Digital Filmmaking and Video Production and an additional MFA in Filmmaking from NYFA. I love storytelling, creating, and everything that entails filmmaking from start to finish. Currently, I reside here in lovely Burbank, CA, and am represented by Sandra Avila at Inclusion Management.

    CR: Tell us about your film. What is it about and where does it take place?   

    BE: Blackwater is an episodic pilot about Native American country music star Birdie Blackwater whose career is fizzling due to excessive drinking that began 10 years ago. Upon moving back to her home reservation, barely clinging onto what little dignity she has left, Birdie is arrested for a barrage of drunken charges and lashing out at tribal police officers during a late-night performance. The next day, tribal courts order Birdie to complete 180 days of wellness therapy and intense probation or face two years in prison. Birdie now finds herself contending each week with a group of offbeat individuals who each possess their own…“unique” mental limitations. The story takes place on a fictional Native American reservation call Red Rock. 

    CR: Sounds very powerful. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this story? 

    BE: The inspiration for Blackwater came about in September of 2018… a tough experience. I had started a new class (Transmedia) at the New York Film Academy in Burbank, CA. The ultimate goal of the class: develop, write, and shoot a web series pilot. During the first half of the six-month course, I was given the news that my older brother Brandon had developed cirrhosis of the liver to such a serious extent that he would need a liver transplant. My brother had gotten this condition from depression and extreme alcoholism after the death of our mother in 2015. The additional news I would receive from him is that he would be opting for hospice care and wanted to just go peacefully with family for the remainder of his time. That news, to say the least, was devastating. 

    Shortly after his funeral, I returned to my Transmedia class. The project I had been working on up to that point was scrapped. I wanted to write something I was familiar with. I had felt my brother in my heart moving me to lean into all that I had experienced with drug addiction and dependency. I also wanted to heal from losing him to alcoholism. Thus, I put forward a new proposal to my instructors, which was Blackwater

    CR: Boise, I’m so sorry for your loss and the pain your family must have experienced. It’s truly inspiring how you were able to transform your personal tragedy into a meaningful story, and so quickly. 

    What was it like to direct the film?

    BE: My favorite experience directing Blackwater was working with such a phenomenal cast and crew who brought their A-game to each and every scene both on and off-screen. I mean, this was a set from heaven, and pulling off a thirteen-page script in just one day with minimal time, a skeleton crew, and several different scenes went by like clockwork. Heck, we even had an hour to spare after the whole thing was over! Directing that day was one of the best experiences I ever had on set.

    Kyla Garcia as Birdie Blackwater (“Blackwater”)

    CR: You directed a thirteen-page script in one day? Wow! Dare I ask what was the most challenging thing about making the film? 

    BE: It’s crazy because you usually are anticipating challenges that may or may not arise on the day of production, and they did of course, but they were minor and quickly remedied. No. The challenges here were definitely in the final days leading up to production. You would think that getting a simple location (an empty room) for the group scene would be easy-peasy in LA, but when you’re working with a shoestring budget, a simple task all of a sudden becomes a near impossibility. And that was the case up until the last week of location scouting. We finally locked our location, which was an old American Legion post here in Burbank. It was great because they had everything we needed for each scene! 

    The other difficult part was not in pre-production or production, but actually editing. Here I am, dealing with footage of numerous great takes from each actor/actress and reviewing them over and over. Now, you have to realize, that when you’re dealing with high caliber talent as we had, each throwing you grade-A performances with each take, it is extremely hard to pick the right one! This was mainly the case with our main character, Birdie Blackwater, portrayed by Kyla Garcia. What she brought was gold, I tell ya…GOLD. So for her, sorting through the stuff she gave us and settling on certain clips was by itself a two-month process. Keep an eye on Kyla, SHE IS AMAZING!

    CR: It’s true – Kyla is downright riveting to watch. Besides the editing, what did you learn while making this film?  

    BE: To say I didn’t learn much would be a “shooting myself in the foot” moment and never being able to walk right again, hahaha. I learned a hell of a lot. But I’ll narrow it down to one thing above others, and that was giving my talent the freedom they needed to experiment with their characters and craft on set. There was a lot of ad-libbing, and the more I stepped back and let them have at it, the more they gave. Their performances were elevated, and aside from the few adjustments I gave every now and then, I just kept my mouth shut and steered the ship. I believe this is extremely important because, by the end of any script, these people are going to be the ones who embody this person you wrote, and ultimately bring them to life – and not only the talent, but the entire crew as well. 

    As a director, I realized that you can only hold onto the material for so long before giving it up. You must trust your talent and pass the baton you have and be the coach they need, guiding them from the sideline. Hopefully, if you put in the hard work needed in pre-production and cast the film right, the process will fully evolve on its own. You only need to sit back and enjoy the show at that point. 

    CR: Can you talk about the development process for this pilot and the class you developed it in? 

    BE: Given I had changed my proposal during the six-month Transmedia course, development for Blackwater was done in a three-month period, which is not much time. But…it came very easily to me. The vision for it was clear, so it was really a matter of honing in on what was already in my head. I knew I wanted to do something that was set in a Native American world, and I completely cast with Indigenous talent. This was something I have always wanted to do, I just felt I hadn’t honed in on my craft enough back then. But now it was different. I felt confident enough to give it a try. It was a matter of finding the right, tone, cast, and overall theme, which it turned out to have many. 

    CR: Do you have any special shout-outs to faculty or staff who really helped or inspired you?  

    BE: One of the coolest things about the Transmedia 1 & 2 courses at NYFA were instructors Jenni Powell and Chris Modoono. Not only were they extremely wise and easy to talk to, but their guidance was priceless as they were able to get me from concept to a finished pilot. I can’t stress enough about the creative freedom Jenni and Chris gave us in class. I really owe the experience and opportunity to them and to NYFA. 

    CR: That is so cool. You know every teacher’s dream is to inspire and elevate students at the level you just described. 

    Let’s talk about the amazing festival run you’re having with Blackwater.  

    BE: Blackwater has garnered twenty festival selections, five of those being the Austin Film Festival, Slamdance, Nashville Film Festival, Hollyshorts, and Cinequest Film and VR Festival. 

    CR: That is any filmmaker’s dream list! So what are you looking forward to with Slamdance? 

    BE: I hope to get as much positive attention as possible and of course find a potential buyer or investor for continued production. Native American content and storytelling are so important in this day and age — and extremely hard to find. Slamdance is one of those benchmark experiences you constantly take a step back and go “Wow, I did something really cool here” and realize you’re on the right path. I also hope to network virtually and meet many of the talented filmmakers at this year’s festival! 

    Poster for “Blackwater” pilot

    CR: You will definitely have some great opportunities there. Do you have any advice for recent graduates making their way into the professional world?  

    BE: I would say be consistent, persistent, and honest in your work and what it is exactly you want for your future. Filmmaking and its many crafts are a life long pursuit. Pursuing it should make you happy, grateful, and full of good spirit to have such a calling. If it doesn’t, maybe take a step back and re-evaluate. Focus on what you want, whether that is screenwriting, directing (or both), and constantly sharpen your craft and talents in that world every day in some shape or form. Look to each day as an opportunity to move towards that ultimate goal, and eventually one day…you’ll find yourself there. But don’t forget to have fun and relax along the way. Be happy. 

    CR: Those are very wise words. And speaking of wise words, let’s talk about these trying times we live in today. Do you want to share any thoughts about the importance of film in the lives of humans living right now? 

    BE: Well, if I do share anything, it’ll be about the importance of diverse inclusion in today’s film industry and breaking the current mold at hand. And I am speaking specifically to Native American inclusion. Native Americans are perhaps the most underrepresented culture in the film and television industry right now in terms of film and television content, screenwriters, directors, and leading talent. We as Native Americans have been fighting an extremely uphill battle in finding large, fair platforms or opportunities to tell “our own stories,” tell our own history, and voice our own point of view. Since the dawn of cinema, history has been flat-out brutal in our depiction, reducing us to “elk skin and feathers,” mascots, savages, and whatever else the multitude of history books will have you believe. We as a people, as a culture, need to be allowed to write and depict our own stories, our own views, and our own history. Blackwater is one such example out of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. The time for diverse inclusion is now, and Hollywood needs to comply accordingly. 

    CR: The time is definitely now, and I’m so happy that you and your work are a solution to this lack of diversity in Hollywood.

    So how we can watch your film during Slamdance and see your Q&A? 

    BE: Slamdance is an online format this year, meaning anyone with a computer or smart TV can access it for only ten bucks. Yes… $10. We’re talking the crème of the crop here, people! Although the official schedule of events isn’t out yet, getting your pass now will ensure you do not miss a single screening. All films will be viewable throughout the festival from February 12th – 25th

    Blackwater will be screening in the “Episodes” block with many other awesome filmmakers and their films, and you will also be able to watch our Q&A as a bonus feature. Go to www.slamdance.com now for your ticket! 

    CR: Thanks for stopping by, Boise. Congratulations and best of luck!

    [NOTE: NYFA students can get their festival passes for $5 by using their NYFA email address].

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    February 11, 2021 • Diversity, Entertainment News, Film Festivals, Student & Alumni Spotlights • Views: 1664

  • New York Film Academy (NYFA) Alumni Debut Feature Film ‘Cheerleader’

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    New York Film Academy (NYFA) Filmmaking alum Irving Franco debuted his first feature film, Cheerleader, produced in collaboration with two fellow NYFA alumni, brothers Dario and Fabián Vejarano.

    Irving, who grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from NYFA’s 1-Year Filmmaking conservatory in 2008 at NYFA’s New York campus. There he met fellow 1-Year Filmmaking student Dario Vejarano, who originally hails from Spain and who shot Cheerleader as director of photography. His brother Fabián attended NYFA’s 8-Week Screenwriting workshop in July 2014.

    Irving Franco Cheerleader

    NYFA alum Irving Franco

    “My time at NYFA was really important to me,” says Franco. “That’s where I met some great friends and long-term collaborators. That’s where I had the chance to try things, experiment, mess up, and learn. Filmmaking is not easy, but it is a deeply rewarding experience. NYFA is where that started for me.”

    Franco’s hard work, networking, and experimenting paid off as he was able write and direct a feature film, Cheerleader, which has gone on to perform well on the festival circuit since its premiere. 

    The film tells the story of Mickey, a promiscuous teenager reeling from heartbreak who seeks calculated revenge on her ex-boyfriend. To date it’s been an Official Selection for a dozen film festivals across the country—including the New Orleans Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, and Florida Film Festival—picking up several nominations and awards along the way, including two special jury prizes and a top 40 ranking out of 7,500 Slamdance Film Festival submissions.

    New York Film Academy congratulates NYFA alumni Irving Franco, Dario Vejarano ,and Fabián Vejarano on the success of Cheerleader and encourages everyone to check out the film, available now on iTunes and Amazon video.

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  • NYFA Improv Instructor Bill Watterson to Premiere “Dave Made a Maze” at Slamdance 2017

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    New York Film Academy Improv instructor Bill Watterson’s directorial debut film, “Dave Made a Maze,” was recently highlighted in Variety as a ‘notable title’ in competition at Slamdance 2017. The festival, which launched in 1995 as an alternative to Sundance, has included showings of such notable titles as Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity.” The fest, which takes place at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 20 to Jan. 26, will screen 19 movies: 12 world premieres, three North American debuts, and one U.S. launch. Slamdance alumni include Christopher Nolan, Marc Forster, Jared Hess, Lena Dunham, Benh Zeitlin, Seth Gordon, and Lynn Shelton.

    bill watterson

    Watterson also has a series of web shorts that he wrote and directed, which led to a TV deal with Brandio Entertainment. As an actor, he performed motion capture and voice over for the video games “LA Noire” and “Lost Planet 3”; appeared in the films “Ouija,” “Jenny’s Wedding,” and Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys”; and TV credits include “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” “The Soul Man,” and “The Young & The Restless.”

    “Dave Made a Maze” took home the Audience Award at Slamdance, and did so again at The Omaha Film Festival, Boston Underground Film Festival and Fantaspoa Brazil. The film also garnered Jury Prizes at Florida Film Festival, Sun Valley, and Calgary Underground, and has played festivals in Switzerland, Poland, South Korea, and more.
    “Dave Made a Maze” will show at Sitges later this year in Spain, and the trailer reached over 2 million views in two weeks. The film is being distributed in North America by Gravitas Ventures and will be in theaters in over 15 cities in the US and Canada, including here at The Santa Monica Laemmle, starting on August 18th.

    We had a chat with the director and instructor before his upcoming January premiere at Slamdance.

    Congrats on being accepted to Slamdance! Can you tell me what “Dave Made a Maze” is all about?

    “Dave Made a Maze” re-imagines classic 80’s adventure films with a modern comedic edge and a higher body count. Dave, a frustrated artist, gets lost inside the cardboard fort he builds in his living room, and his girlfriend Annie must lead a band of oddball explorers on a rescue mission. The handmade fantasy world features the in-camera effects of puppetry, stop motion animation, and optical illusions.

    How did the film come about?

    A friend of mine from Second City started writing a whacked out script based on an anecdote I’d told him about my mother coming home and panicking that I had gotten lost in a pillow fort I’d made in my bedroom, even though I’d followed protocol and left a note saying I was having dinner at my friend John Richards’ house. She tore the fort apart looking for me. Steve had 60 pages by the next day. Eventually we zeroed in on the themes and started working together to finish the script.

    How were you able to raise funds for the production?

    We got some great talent attachments early on, drawing on contacts at Second City and work we’d done as actors. Some of our production design team came from “Robot Chicken,” and since the handmade look and animations in the film were so important, that caught a lot of investors’ eyes. The film is entirely independently financed.

    Will we be seeing you on screen as well in this film?

    I have a very brief cameo as a still photo on a keyboard box. It was such an ambitious film and we had so little time to prep and even less to shoot. It felt irresponsible to focus on anything other than directing.

    As an improv teacher, what sort of advice or direction did you give your actors?

    It’s always good to be in touch with your instincts, to respond honestly to the things happening before you, to be quick on your feet, and to ask yourself and your actors ‘what if?’ Those are foundational improv skills that also apply to directing. I definitely let the actors play around with dialogue to make sure they were comfortable and felt safe and supported, and because they’re all so gifted comedically. But we had a lot to get done, so I had to be careful not to let the train get off the tracks.

    Bill & Meera

    What do you hope to achieve at Slamdance? Are you looking for a distributor?

    Right now, we’re meeting with sales agents to help us find a distributor at the festival. It’s an honor to be there, and we want to be sure to capitalize on the opportunity. We made a very strange movie, and I’m hoping to find like-minded people in Park City who enjoy the silliness and heart of the film.

    What advice can you give to filmmakers looking to direct their first feature?

    Take all your successful director friends out to lunch and pick their brains. Shadow them on one of their projects if they’ll have you, and take lots of notes. Ask your editor what they hate about directors they’ve worked with in the past, and what mistakes to avoid on set.

    Read Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies” and know your movie’s theme in and out, and filter all your decisions through that. Everybody wants to direct the movie; keep a small council, and defer to the best idea, whether it was yours or not. Know that the movie you shot will be different from the movie you edit; don’t fight it. Be grateful to the people who are working their butts off to bring your project to life. You cannot get anywhere without them.

    Anything else you’re working on now or in the near future that you’d like to share?

    I just walked out of a pretty huge meeting that I don’t want to jinx. I shot a series of shorts with a puppet that I’m almost ready to share, and I’m dusting off other pitches to have a better answer to this question come festival time!

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    December 2, 2016 • Acting, Faculty Highlights, Filmmaking • Views: 5789