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Director Carlos Lopez Estrada Talks About “Summertime” “Blindspotting” and “Raya and the Last Dragon”

Carlos Lopez Estrada

With a film that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and in the midst of its festival run at Guadalajara Film Festival: Los Angeles, Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada has returned with his second feature, Summertime, which is due to be released next summer. A few days ago, Diego Andaluz had the pleasure to speak to him about Summertime, Blindspotting, Raya and The Last Dragon, and the journey of his career from music videos to feature films, and his love of the fine arts. The transcription is below:

Diego Andaluz: So just a question off the top, what inspired you to become a filmmaker in the first place? 

Carlos Lopez Estrada: I think there’s a number of things. I come from a small family in Mexico City that was very immersed in the arts on different levels. My grandma was a theatre actor and my grandpa was a journalist, he covered entertainment and culture. Both my parents met working in a TV studio down here in Mexico City. So I feel like to some, to some extent, I’ve been surrounded by people that have been dedicating their entire lives to the arts. I think probably the very first spark came from my family. Then, we moved to the States, and I think a lot of it has to do with after I moved to the States, I didn’t speak English very well, and I was very shy. I’ve just always been a shy person.

So I think that, in addition to not being able to communicate properly made me become really introverted and really introspective. In high school, I turned to photography and fine arts. I did a lot of painting, I did theater in my high school. I think [with] all of  these skills that I was developing, eventually, I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do professionally, what I wanted to study for, and I realized that film was the one medium that would allow me to still keep my toes dipped in all of these different disciplines. So you know, there’s obviously photography and music and acting and theater, and a lot of art concepts that are applied to film. So I figured that it’d be the best way to make a decision and not make a decision.

I could still explore all these things that were interesting to me. I went to film school, and I guess that’s another story. But more or less, I think those are the two, three factors that led me to pursuing film.

Summertime

DA: That’s really nice to hear. Film is one of my favorite arts as well, specifically because of the fact that it brings all of these art forms together into one medium, so it’s cool to hear that you feel the same way. 

Carlos Lopez Estrada: Yeah, I was also not a great student.  I had a hard time with school. Film school seemed like it would allow me to develop the parts of my brain that I was better with, and not focus as much on all the academic stuff that I was really, really struggling with. I eventually developed a fondness of education, but that took a while.

DA: Your first feature was 2018’s Blindspotting, but I’ve seen that you’ve also had an extensive background in the world of music videos. What led you to direct music videos at the start of your career?

Carlos Lopez Estrada: As I was mentioning, I was sort of in my high school stages where I was still trying to figure out what I was doing. Music was one of the things I was very interested in, and I played in bands. I did the whole high school garage band thing. I would get back from school and I would turn the TV on and it was just MTV, essentially until I went to bed. So music video culture is a part of my DNA growing up as well. Eventually, when I went to film school, I had all these friends who were playing music. Some of them were starting to get a little bit more traction, and some of them you know, would get, like indie label deals, and they would start to need music videos, they wouldn’t have a lot of money or had really small budgets, and it felt kind of like the perfect opportunity for me to get a kickstart on working professionally, even if it was with very small scale projects. I would work with my friends, I would get to put together a little team from the people that I’ve been collaborating with within film school.

 The film department would allow you to sometimes borrow cameras from them, shoot in their sound stages, their props, they would let you use their editing suites in the post-production facilities. So I had this little infrastructure to start working way, way before we were ready to work professionally. So it became really like our learning opportunity to work with a bunch of different artists and get experience and just get our hands dirty on film sets. And honestly, I think it was the best way I could have ever gotten started because it just gave me four or five years of low-stakes projects where I was learning to hone the craft, to understand how a set is run [and] how the projects are put together.

By the time I finished film school, I felt like my friends and I definitely had just enough experience that we weren’t completely lost in the professional world. And we were able to continue pursuing these opportunities with four-plus years of onset experience, which I thought was invaluable.

Diego Andaluz: So overall, what was the journey going from film school to music videos and then to a narrative feature like Blindspotting? How did you go about planning and raising the right awareness so that you could get proper resources to make the film independently, and what was it like transitioning from music videos to feature length narrative films? 

Carlos Lopez Estrada: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think another reason why I thought music videos would also be a good way to get started was that by collaborating with artists, you are also getting exposure from their fanbase, from the people that they have access to. So little by little, you are able to create a bigger network of collaborators. There are a lot of paths to get started, but it felt to me that it was more logical [to do that] than it would be to make a short and have to hope that someone would see it at some festival or that it would catch the right eyes online. Music videos sort of come in with a built-in audience from each artist that you’re working with. So I figured, well, if nothing more, at least more people are going to get a chance to see my work and hopefully that way, I’ll just continue growing.

Honestly, it took a while.I started making [the] videos, probably my sophomore year of college, and after graduating, I moved up to LA and I did videos probably for like, six, seven, maybe eight years before Blindspotting came. I started working with production companies, which led to commercials. So it was still in the short form world but I feel like [I kept] evolving. You keep meeting new people and your work sort of like, grows with you. There’s a very direct connection with music videos and with my first feature, I don’t even know what year this was.

It must have been like six or seven years ago, but I did a $1,000 music video for this rap group Clipping called Work Work. With the $1,000 you are barely able to get the essentials but we were just a little bit crafty and [used] equipment and crew from another shoot and we put it together very haphazardly, but that kickstarted a really long collaborative relationship with Daveed [Diggs]. We did that video, it went well and they were very happy with it and I loved working with those guys. So then we did another video for them. Long story short, I think we ended up doing like seven or eight Clipping videos in the span of three years. Daveed moved to New York to just start working on Hamilton, and I moved to New York for different reasons, but we found ourselves in New York together at the same time, and he was still making music on the side from Hamilton. I had heard about this script that he had been working on for years with his close collaborator, Rafael Casal. They had been writing previous versions of Blindspotting, I think it had been six years at the point where they presented to me.

The day that Daveed left Hamilton, he got approached by a group of producers that he had known previously, [who] had asked him what the plans were for Blindspotting, and they decided that they wanted to pursue the movie.
Because I had been working with Daveed for so long  on music videos, and we had done a few other things in theater, I feel like it just made sense for them to work with someone that they had a close collaborative relationship with, someone who they trusted someone, who had experience in film, theater, spoken word, rap hybrid, as we have been doing all the projects that we’ve been doing played in those in those universes and Blindspotting, obviously, was a blend of disciplines. So they invited me to join the project in 2017. We all moved to LA to work on the newer draft of the screenplay. And then that summer, we were shooting in Oakland. Next January, we were premiering at Sundance. So it all happened very fast. But as you can see, it was a very direct connection from like music video work to my first narrative film opportunity.

DA: After the success of Blindspotting, what inspired you to make Summertime as your next project?

Carlos Lopez Estrada: I had been asking myself that question of what my second feature will be, and I’d been reading some scripts, I’d been thinking about some of my own ideas, exploring all kinds of things. Even though I had stumbled upon a few things that seemed really promising and I had a few ideas that I really wanted to pursue, something clicked when I saw this spoken word showcase that the artists who eventually wrote Summertime presented and performed, and I just got this feeling that I had witnessed something that was really special, that was really powerful, and I wanted to help become some kind of platform or amplifier to the work that the poet’s have been doing. I was so moved, and I reached out to the director of the nonprofit organization called Get Lit. I said, “Look, I don’t have a fully-fledged idea, I’m not sure what this potential collaboration can be, but I would love to talk to you all and see if there is a way that I can bring my skills as a filmmaker and we can combine it with your [collective] skills as poets and multi-disciplined artists, and we could do something. I’m not sure if it’s a film, I’m not sure if it’s a theater piece, or if it’s a spoken word tour, but we should just talk”. They were very, very receptive and immediately just said, “Yes, we’re in!”. Then I thought about movies like Slacker, I thought about some of these ultra low budget movies that to me felt so raw and felt so earnest, and I knew that we wouldn’t have a lot of time, I knew that we wouldn’t have a lot of money.

So the pitch that I shared with them was, “Look, why don’t we make this movie for as little money as possible, just our friends and cameras running around the city, and each poet would write and perform their own piece. Then we’ll work together just figuring out how to piece it into a larger narrative. Obviously, all poets are living in LA and speak about certain issues of identity and belonging, and whatever their sense of community is and the things around them. It seems like LA the city is a common theme in most of these poems, so why don’t we just make it a day in LA featuring the cast of these 25 poets, and we’ll just see where it takes us, we’ll just follow one short story to the next, and we’ll shape it together!”. That was a little over a year and a half ago, at the beginning of the Summer of 2019. Then we were shooting the movie at the end of the summer. Then again, in a very similar timeline to Blindspotting, in January 2020, we were premiering at Sundance, which was a beautifully insane experience.

DA: Summertime was made in a much different way than how you approached Blindspotting. It had first-time actors, a looser narrative structure, a highly collaborative script, and documentary-like aspects to it as well. So what was the transition like going from a film like Blindspotting to Summertime? Were there any new challenges, differences or similarities in moving from one production to another?

Carlos Lopez Estrada: Yeah, there are both. I feel like if you see Blindspotting, fine. If you see Summertime, there’s obviously a lot of stylistic and narrative tools that we use. Music drives a lot of the story. It’s sort of like a heightened way of understanding a city. Obviously, there’s a lot of spoken word and rap featured in Blindspotting, and there’s also a lot of it in Summertime. So I think there’s definitely a lot of parallels to the way those two movies came together. But in terms of the development, the production, and the construction of the piece, yeah, they could not be more different. Summertime was conceived as an experiment of sorts. And I call it an experiment because we didn’t have a script when we decided to make the movie. 

We were able to get backing from a production company, a financier company in Los Angeles, which was unbelievable because we thought we’re gonna put a little bit of our own money and do it for absolutely no money. And we got just enough to do it. It was still a hybrid low budget endeavor, but we had enough to treat it a little bit more traditionally, as a movie in terms of hiring a full crew and having a proper schedule. We originally thought that we may end up shooting this on phones, which was not the case, but we were prepared for it. And the same spirit carried on to the movie, regardless of the fact that we had a little bit of funding. But what was so special and so scary about Summertime, is the fact that we agreed to do it based on the fact that we were going to find the movie in the process of making it.

I normally have a script and you come up with a schedule and you say “we know the locations that we need, and we know the actors that we’re going to look for”, and we have a sense of when and how we’re going to be able to do this. But because we didn’t have that, it was just a hypothetical pre-production, right? The very early stages of pre-production [were] just like, “look, we have these 25 people. We have these poems that vaguely give us a sense of where we will shoot them; we still don’t know how they’re going to connect. But as we dive into the process, these questions are hopefully gonna start getting answered”.  Then we had to find a group of people that was okay with that unknown factor. Because not everyone was, you know, it’s not the most practical way to make a movie, but we found a really, really incredible crew, and we essentially just started workshopping these poems and these stories.

Every day, for two months, we had a screenwriter who came on to also work with us on holistically shaping the movie in all its pieces. Two months later, we were jumping into real pre-production, and we had figured out a lot of these things, but we went into shooting with a lot of variables still unknown. As I mentioned, 100% of the cast is first-time actors. A lot of the poets had performed in multiple ways, but no one had worked on a film set before, even the supporting characters. So the people that you see, just all over the city, and the people that you see in the burger shop, all of the supporting characters, 100% of them were non-actors, that casting directors found scouting the streets, essentially, it would just be driving around different populated areas.

They drove around malls, they would ride around community centers, and just meet people that were going around their day, and just film them on their phone and say, Hey, tell us a little bit about yourself. And if you would be interested in taking part in this movie. So for all of these reasons, it’s just an incredibly unusual, very scary process and a really good learning experience. Because you have to essentially let go of all your preconceptions of how to make a movie and how the system of putting together a movie works and just say, “Hey, this is going to be different”. But we believe the result is going to be so much more special because we’re giving ourselves into this process, and we did. So I’m so glad we did. I think the poets had an incredible time and I grew so much as a filmmaker and as an artist for it. I think the movie feels really alive and really honest, because of it.

DA: In your career so far, like you’ve tackled a wide variety of different formats, styles, and genres from music videos to television shows, to theater and even animation in the near future. And then of course the artistic hybrid that was Summertime. So what has been your favorite format to tackle? And are there any other forms of media that you hope to explore later in your career? 

Carlos Lopez Estrada: Yeah, I think I’m a really scattered thinker. In high school, I was doing as much creative work as I could, whether it was collages, and music, and assistant directing, and theater, and playing in bands and doing photography. And I think for whatever reason, that’s just the way my brain works. And it’s really hard for me to sort of like say, you know, this is the one thing that I’m going to be doing for a long time. So I love animation, I grew up watching it. Being able to work in it now has been like a real surprise in my life that I’m just happy to have a chance to do. I love Summertime because it feels so unlike anything I have ever probably will ever do. I think I am most driven by that creative impulse of just being challenged and being put in a place that’s outside of my comfort zone. Having to find collaborators that are specific to the needs of the project and the needs of the story. Because I feel like that has really enabled me to just explore places that I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own and I think that collaborating for Summertime we brought on an incredible documentarian, a director called Sean Wang, who did a lot of the documentary pieces. He just became an integral part of the movie.

From day one, I think Summertime felt really unique for a number of reasons, but one of them being Sean’s voice and the footage that he captured, which is absolutely stunning. We only did that because we knew that we were going to shoot in LA, we knew that we were going to try to capture a part of the city that is unscripted and that we weren’t going to write and then stage it, we just wanted to capture a day in the city. So bringing out a documentarian felt like the best way of doing that. And like that, I would hope that I could keep surprising myself and allow other voices and other artists and other people to come into my process or to give me a glimpse into theirs. Hopefully that way, I think I’ll be able to keep doing projects that feel fresh and exciting to me. Whether I have a specific genre [I’d like to tackle], I don’t know, I love theater, I would love to do more theater, I’m super happy doing animation. So I’m glad I could be doing that. 

The documentary aspects of Summertime were really satisfying for me to both shoot and then to put into the film. So I feel like diving a little bit into more traditional and documentary filmmaking sounds exciting to me. [But] maybe music. I love music. I don’t really know how yet. For Summertime, we’re gonna release the movie in June. And we’re releasing a book of poetry by all the poets and we’re also releasing a soundtrack. So I feel like even within these projects that I’m doing, I find ways to certainly keep my toes in another discipline. I don’t really know how else to do things. So it’s not so much like a choice. I feel like I’m just trying to embrace the way my brain functions. And it’s been fun so far. So hopefully, I’ll be able to keep doing well.

DA: That’s great to hear. You also have quite a robust slate in terms of larger projects like Raya and The Last Dragon and a few other animated films up your sleeve. What is it like moving from kind of smaller productions to larger studio pictures, and do you ever see yourself coming back to smaller indie films like Summertime? 

Carlos Lopez Estrada: Yeah, definitely. It’s funny how no matter the amount of funds and resources that you have, you’re going to be running into the same problems, which is: you’re not going to have enough time, you’re not gonna have enough money, and then you’re gonna have to bend over backwards to make sure that the story that you’re telling, can still be told with whatever limited resources you have. So obviously, it’s very new and very different for me to be working at a studio. Raya, for example, had a crew of like 500 plus people, the studio has 900 people, and sometimes you know, all of them get to work on the movie in one way or another. So that’s completely different from the Summertime experience. But I feel my upbringing in independent filmmaking really did teach me a lot of really valuable from filmmaking lessons that I’m still applying. And the bigger projects that I have done.

For that reason, I really hope I will figure out a way to continue doing that kind of project. I think the way that they ground you and I think the perspective that they give you and by being limited and by being constrained I feel like the creative decisions that you have to make are so much more unexpected and surprising. For that reason, I really hope to keep doing that. I’m happy at Disney, I honestly found a place that was so interested in telling the stories that I wanted to tell and supporting me as a filmmaker in the stories that excited me, so I cannot complain, I’m just very happy there. But I would definitely love to bounce back and forth because I feel like I’ll never be able to really move away from my indie roots. So hopefully, yeah, I’m trying to figure out if I can do a documentary in the next few years, and I’m gonna try to keep making music videos. So hopefully, there’ll be a nice balance there.

DA: What advice would you give to aspiring young filmmakers out there who are trying to make their mark?

Carlos Lopez Estrada: The advice I would give, it’s very particular to my experience, so not to say “hey, do this and you’ll be good”, but I decided early on as I was making music videos, that I was making short-form content, that I was going to try to pursue making the things that I wanted to make, whether I got an opportunity to make them or not. If that meant shooting videos on my phone, I shot a lot of videos on my phone. And [I did], they’re some of my favorite videos. If that meant working with a tiny, tiny crew, and then having to work nights and weekends to be able to use production resources that I wouldn’t have otherwise, [I’d do it]. But it was essentially my friends and I, my small circle of collaborators who I went to film school with, we established this no-excuse filmmaking philosophy, where we need to get experience, we need to be able to do the projects that fill us and that feel exciting and motivating to us. And it’s likely that we’re not going to get a lot of opportunities or a lot of money to do these because, you know, we’re young, and we haven’t proven ourselves. So let’s just figure out what we’re going to need to do this, and the most independent of ways, a way that we try to just follow our gut in terms of what’s exciting and what’s inspiring.

That led to a really creative time in my life, which was like my late 20s, in which I was working on projects that were really exciting working with people that I really respected. And that is really how I connected with the beat. That is sort of like how the next chapter of my life was unlocked. So that philosophy was very healthy, and very helpful for me. Of course, you know, there’s real-life you have to deal with and not everyone is able to just dedicate their lives to just pursuing these passion projects. But I feel if you’re able to find that balance, and if you’re able to pursue these kinds of projects that really get your blood pumping, and really get you excited, I feel that just starts unlocking all these other opportunities. And you’ll start meeting the people that you need to meet, the like-minded people that you’re going to end up collaborating with, and getting the kinds of projects that are really going to get to showcase your voice.

So, for me, that was the most important decision that I could have made as a young filmmaker (and again, not to say that that is what I feel everyone should do), but that really enabled me to start finding my creative voice. I think that was invaluable. So whether it’s that or something else that allows you to do that, to start exploring things that really feel meaningful and important to you. I feel like that’s probably what I would say. That’s a very long-winded way to give very abstract advice [laughs].

DA: Well Carlos, thank you for taking the time to come here and talk about your films! Summertime was a treat, and I can’t wait to see how your future projects pan out soon!

Carlos Lopez Estrada: Thank you!

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Written by Diego Andaluz

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