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HollyShorts Interview: Talking ‘Bertie the Brilliant’ with Gabriela Garcia Medina, Vicki Syal and Prince Pieters

With one of the most charming films at the 2023 HollyShorts Film Festival, it’s hard to believe that film wasn’t the first love of filmmaker Gabriela Garcia Medina. The former spoken word poet directs Bertie the Brilliant, which follows a young Latino boy from a working class background who desperately wants to see his favorite magician perform. In celebration of the film’s latest festival screening, Awards Radar caught up with Garcia Medina, producer Vicki Syal and its wonderful star Prince Pieters to discuss the making of the and its beautiful message of community.

Shane Slater: What was the inspiration behind telling this story in this way?

Gabriela Garcia Medina: Originally, I had heard my aunt tell a story years ago about when my cousin was a little girl. My cousin’s now 30 years old. And when my cousin was a little girl, we lived in Cuba, and she really wanted to buy a hot dog. And it was like $1.50 in Cuban money, and they didn’t have a lot of money. So every day, they were like, “If you work really hard, we’ll give you a quarter, or we’ll give you a dime.”

So my little cousin who was like eight years old, would do her chores and do her homework, and my aunt would give her a dime or a quarter. And when she finally raised some money for this hot dog, she overheard my great-grandparents – because we all lived in the same house – talking about milk, and how because it’s the Special Period in Cuba, they hadn’t tasted milk. In years, they didn’t even remember what milk tasted like. So my aunt took my cousin out to buy the hotdog and instead, she came back with some milk from the black market for my grandparents.

That made my family so emotional. I didn’t know that story until a few years ago. And when I heard my aunt tell it, the emotion was so overwhelming even so many years later. I realized, wow, this is a really universal, timeless story. Like, how can I take this? And how can I tell a magical, positive story about a little kid who does the right thing. So that’s really where it came from.

SS: The film opens with Maya and really puts her at the forefront of this story. There’s all this debate about children being in drag spaces, so how did you approach that? And were you worried about there being any pushback to that aspect of the film?

GGM: It’s interesting, I made the film before. So I made it in like, 2021, before all these laws happened, and mostly because I love the drag community. I’m a big fan of Shea Couleé, I’ve seen every Drag Race. I just think it’s such a wonderful, beautiful, creative, gorgeous community. And I wanted to celebrate what it’s given to me by just showing it in this beautiful way. And the only push back that was difficult, was to ask a young actor to play in drag. Originally, we wanted to cast an actual drag queen. But every young boy that would say they wanted to do it, when it came to doing it, they wouldn’t want to do it.

We came to realize even more that we need this, that we need to tell the story in this way. Because I don’t want these little boys to feel this way. Like why not? Why can’t you wear makeup? But it was a very difficult thing. Prince’s mom actually explained it to me in a way, how it would affect him. She was like, “You know, it’s a beautiful thing. And we believe in it. But he also has to go to school. And he also has to face his friends.” So there’s a reality for him as well. And so we’re like, “Oh my god, what are we going to do?”

Then in the midst of that, we couldn’t find a drag queen because they were all shooting Drag Race All Stars. And so I had cast a magician who was going to still be a feminine magician. And then we were going to have Bertie want to be a drag queen, even though he didn’t know anything. He just admired this female and didn’t know why he was doing these things. But then that actress we had cast wasn’t COVID vaccinated.

So we had to recast and we got this audition from Donna, looking like the artist Prince and we were like, “Oh my God, a Drag King!” This is great, because we can have Bertie still get into drag but it’s more “masculine” and then he’s comfortable with it, but then I’m still telling the story in a way that’s still real and honest to me. So everything just sort of worked out in that way. And I think hopefully Prince was happy, and hopefully he felt good wearing this purple beard.

SS: how did the producers and Latino Public Broadcasting Corporation get involved?

GGM: Vicki is someone I admire very much. We met at a film festival, LALIFF. She had a film she had produced and I had another film screening. And when I heard her speak about her film, I knew that I wanted this woman in my life. And I just knew by the way she spoke about her film, that I needed to work on something with this person. And so we worked on a project together and it went great. And so I was like, “Hey, do you want to help me produce Bertie?” And that’s sort of how she came on board.

Vicki Syal: It was when I saw Gabby’s film, and it seemed like we were bound to run into each other eventually. It was just a matter of time, like we were meant to be together at some point. And when I saw the kinds of stories that she made, I was really drawn to those because I love magical realism. I love happiness and optimism. I love children characters. So I feel like so much of the work that we put out there can be very serious. There can be a lot of trauma. And a lot of those stories need to be told. But sometimes I would love to see deep, profound stories that aren’t centered around sadness, especially for children.

And like, the points that Gabby was making before about how as we were casting, we were realizing we are trying to create a project that will hopefully provide opportunities and safe spaces for people to go and express themselves even more. And Gabby gets you involved and she will go to bat for you. She will throw 1000 opportunities at you. Gabby is a collaborative person. And when she brings you in, she’s not just bringing you in for that element of your role, she’s bringing you in because she knows that whatever you have to contribute can be applied like outside your role, across departments.

GGM: The way it started was, I originally had made these two really cheap movies, I worked, I raised the money, I figured it out. It was like a $9,000 two-day movie and then I distributed with HBO. And then I made another movie, which is the first project that Vicki and I worked on together. Then I made a $3,000 movie, eight hour day, we sold it to HBO. And so I was like, “You know what? This is crazy. Why am I putting out all this money upfront, and then it ends up at HBO?” I’m just going to ask HBO for money.

So I went to Warner Media and I had a contact there. And I knew they had this social responsibility grant. And I was okay, you guys have distributed these two films, why don’t you just give me money to make the next one. So it was a whole process. But eventually I did get this grant. But then, of course, it wasn’t enough because I wanted to make this a musical. And it has to have magic and it had to have real doves. It had to have all this stuff.

So I was like, “Okay, this needs money, we need to finish this. And we need a partner.” Whereas Warner Media gave us a very generous grant, they weren’t super involved in the process. They were just like, take this, here’s our social responsibility. And then I applied for Latino Public Broadcasting. And it was just amazing, because not only did they give us funds, but they were actively involved. They really cared. Not to say that our folks at Warner didn’t care, but we are just so grateful for how, not only financially they’ve been involved, but also how actively they care about Bertie being so good and being seen. I mean, we got PBS with them. It’s really helped us.

So we’re so grateful. And I hope that I’ll get to do many more projects with Latino Public Broadcasting. The only sad thing is that I did hear that the House is voting to get rid of funding for these public services. Which sucks, because you need places like Latino Public Broadcasting, to support us in telling our stories. So I’m really glad that you’re interviewing us. And I’m really glad that I’m able to tell you about that.

VS: Yeah, I mean, it just seems you can see it across the board, right? People aren’t understanding or prioritizing the creators and how important these stories are to our communities, how important they are to our culture. And it’s happening at every level. I mean, we’re all going through it right now as writers and producers and actors. So I really hope that there can be wake up calls shaking everyone and saying this is where you go to heal. And if you’re not supporting that, then there won’t be any place.

SS: Prince, what was it like to be the star of this movie?

Prince Pieters: It was unreal, because this was my first short film. and my first lead role And I didn’t even know what even to do. Because it was just so exciting. The experience was awesome.

SS: Were you interested in magic before and had you danced before? You had to do so many things for this film.

PP: Well, my uncle, he’s a magician and that was awesome. I thought it was so cool. After he showed me all his magic tricks. I really started to like magic. And this being a movie about magic, it just made me even happier.

SS: What was your favorite part of making this film?

PP: My favorite part was probably when the hotel manager was chasing me and my grandma, because it was just fun to run around. And everybody was there and it was just so cool.

SS: The musical elements were such a nice surprise. So what inspired those scenes?

GGM: Before I was a filmmaker, I was a spoken word poet. That was my job. So I would tour colleges. And I would do like this one woman spoken word show. And for a long time, while spoken word was very successful for me, it also trapped me. It trapped me in that it was what I became known for. So I was afraid to do anything else. And so when I went to grad school to become a filmmaker, I was like, I don’t want to do any spoken word poems. I don’t want to perform for anyone, because I knew that if I did perform, it will be like, “Oh, this is my thing.” Look at how good I am at this right?

So I made it a point that I’m not going to do any spoken word. So I just focused on film stories. and this was the first time where I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna mix my love of spoken word poetry, I want to bring this in and see how I can weave it into this world.”

So I had access to tracks and I wanted very specific types of tracks because it’s expensive when you license music, and then you have to license it again, after you do the festival rounds for distribution for however long, and then you have to license it again. And I don’t have money for that. So I was able to get into the Warner Media music library. And I said, “Hey, I want songs that sound like 1970s Italian pop. And there was one song in particular that I wanted. And they sent me a bunch of sounds and I was like, “Alright, I’m going to use these songs for my score. And I’m going to use the songs to write songs too.”

So I got to write the songs. I’ve never recorded a song before. That was honestly my weak point. I’m so glad that I had Chris Fox and Carmel Simmons. Incredible women who are both singers and they just knew how to direct people’s voices. And I learned so much from them.

SS: Short films are a labor of love. And the way the story unfolds really reminds you of the power of working class solidarity and community, epecially with the strikes happening now. What was this filmmaking experience like for you? What were some of the takeaways and memorable things about this project?

GGM: I’m really glad you picked up on that, because that was definitely a theme. I didn’t want to be afraid of putting maids in my story, or working class people, because everyone says Latinos shouldn’t be playing maids. But I disagree with that. I think Latinos should be able to play anything as long as the characters have humanity. They can play absolutely anything. And so I wanted to make this a blue collar community that maybe doesn’t have that much, but they come together to support one another. And they come together to make the magic for Bertie. So that was just really another important theme that I wanted to be in there.

And then in terms of just collaborating, it’s my favorite thing. It’s why I moved from spoken word. Spoken word was such a lonely career. It literally was a career, I made good money doing it. But I got just really sad after two years of doing it. I was by myself at like, 100 different colleges, just doing my thing. I could be in my head, and nobody would know. And I was still doing the poems.

Film is so collaborative. You can’t make a film without a team. And I just love people’s input, just coming together.I still get to orchestrate it and I still get to bring it in. But I feel like I see these people shine in all these ways. And it’s like we’re coming together to create this thing that isn’t just visually joyful and happy but hopefully, we learned and we grew and we became better artists because we did it.

So to me, what’s been most memorable. That’s why I keep working with the same team over and over again. I feel the sense of loyalty to these people who have worked with me for nothing, for like no money, just because they believe in the project. And they believe in me as a filmmaker. I’m forever indebted to that. It’s just very special.

VS: I think there’s there on one hand, this feeling of summer camp, especially for an indie movie. Maybe nobody knows each other, maybe you’ve only met a few of those people. And then by the end of it, you’re going to leave with a shorthand, you’re going to leave with solidarity, you’re going to leave with respect and admiration, you’re going to leave with some hilarious memories and stressful memories.

When you watch a team of people, it’s like Formula One racing, and they all just run in and they all grab equipment, and they all do the thing. And the other thing is, they’re all consummate professionals. So everybody starts off as one person’s story and one person’s vision, but the second everyone is on set, it belongs to everyone, and everyone wants it to be the best that it can be because everyone takes so much pride in their own talents and their own skill set.

I remember when we were shooting in the laundromat, the musical scene. We were in the valley, it was the summer, it was definitely over 100 degrees in there. And at some point, I ran down the street, and I just got a bunch of popsicles, like so many popsicles. Because you look at everyone’s faces, and they want to give you the best. And their faces are melting. And so just seeing the look, and not just from the kids, sometimes it’s just the smallest thing, but it shows that we care about you. We want you to be happy, we want you to be healthy, we want you to be okay.

That’s why I love indie, because I don’t think you can get into indie and not feel that way. That’s something we’ve lost, right? As you get bigger and bigger, they don’t care about people as much. I will choose indie every single day, just so that I can go there and feel that camaraderie.

GGM: To add that, that’s also a testament to Vicki strength as a producer, because I didn’t even think about that. But yet, she understood what the team needed to do better and to just feel like they were appreciated and she just did that. And so this is something that should also be a testament to her as a producer. Just being there and not only solving problems and putting out fires, but also realizing what the team might need to bring up the energy and pick up the vibe and it literally did change everything for everyone. It helped us so much. And I think a lot of times producers do go unthanked. So I think I do have so much to be grateful for.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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