37th BFI Flare 2023
Originally published October 6, 2022 during sitges film festival
Unidentified Objects is music video and commercial director Juan Felipe Zuleta's debut feature that makes its European Premiere at the 2022 Sitges Film Festival. Peter, isolated, worried, wracked with guilt is awoken one morning by his neighbour Winona who persuades him to lend her his car. But Peter has a condition, he's coming with her. Part road movie, part buddy film and part mystery fantasy Unidentified Objects is everything and anything you can think it can be...and yet its core two people in search for meaning and purpose.
How is it going?
Good. How are you?
Great thank you. I saw the film last night, and sometimes I have to be in a very specific mood to watch movies, which is really strange for me. And so I put your movie on and I just instantly just got pulled in by the music, from the opening credits, by this sort of beautiful colour. And then, after about five minutes, I was just hooked, just completely immersed in whatever was happening. I was willing to go on this journey with "Peter" and "Winona". Unidentified Objects has already had a really great festival run, and you've picked up a couple of awards. How's that experience been? Has it been what you were expecting, or has it exceeded your expectations?
Thank you. I'm very happy that the movie created that impact on you. That means a lot. And that obviously is what we work towards, which is to make sure that we can provide a great experience to viewers and audiences and really be able to connect with the characters. Unidentified Objects has been a journey where we've been rowing in the dark for too long, so every single festival that has reached out and every award we've won has, in many ways, exceeded our expectations. I've seen this movie thousands and thousands of times. I've poured my entire heart into this film.
I've shown it to people I trusted, and we built a good network of feedback to get it to where it is. We really poured a lot of work into it, but once you start showing it to audiences and you start really seeing that the movie actually works and people are reacting, and now I've had the opportunity to see it in theatres and listen to people laugh, listen to people cry, listen to people gasp, and see the story do its work. As a first-time filmmaker, it has been life-changing and something that I don't take for granted. I'm not from a family of filmmakers, and this really is my first film. I'm the first one in my family to get into filmmaking. So it's a world that I'm discovering through this film. I've never been to Sitges before, and I've never been to the festival. So we're incredibly excited to attend and, obviously, meet filmmakers and screen our movie there.
When your film has been screened at a film festival, have you sat with the audience or have you grown a little bit exhausted with seeing it?
I've sat through some screenings. For example, at Fantastic Fest we had two screenings. The second screening was on at two different screens at the same time. I sat through the first one, and I couldn't see the second one. I saw the first five minutes from the hallway, stepped out, and came back for the last 15 minutes. You know, there's a point where you've seen it so many times that it's kind of like, just a little bit painful. It's a little bit exhausting, but I still enjoy watching it. So I'd rather sit outside and listen to people react to it, literally in the hallways or something, and just close my eyes and listen to try to perceive the audience's reactions. Maybe in Sitges I'll catch one of the screenings, considering it's my first time at the festival. But now I'm starting to wonder if I will ever want to watch it again fully. That's the curse of being a filmmaker.
Your brother did the music in Unidentified Objetcs and, with him being older, what was that dynamic like working with him on your debut feature film? movie?
My brother is seven years older than me, and actually, I don't think I would've been a director or a filmmaker if it wasn't for him. He's the first one who took the first step forward. He's not a director or he doesn't work behind the scenes, but he's a filmmaker and he works as a music supervisor for big movies. And he also composes independent movies. Earlier on, he was working for composers. One of the ways in which I really started to realise that this could be a career was visiting my brother in LA when I was still in high school and being able to go to the composer's offices and see how they were making the music. So, for one thing, I grew very nerdy about film scores.
I realized extremely talented composers were truly inspiring and touching me. And, funny enough, a lot of my playlists were like movie scores and stuff like that. I would consume music because I started to discover, in some ways, that my music in films started opening my eyes to the industry, seeing it through my brother's perspectives. And then, eventually, I decided to pick up a camera and shoot. My brother has scored every single short film I've directed. Most of them are small short films. The last couple of short films I've done are documentary shorts I made after college. The rest have been music videos and commercials, and I've been working on screenplays just because short films are hard to finance and to distribute.
I see music videos as akin to short films, but the artist has a platform through which they can distribute them to millions of people. As a result, it is already reaching an audience for them. My brother has always been a major collaborator and a major advisor in my career. And working with him was something that we were able to start very early on in the process. So I brought him on when we had the first draft of the script. I sent it to him and he read it and he knew, "Okay, these are analogue scenes." And he and I love analogue things; the analogue synths that have been used in "Blade Runner" or "The Social Network" etc.
As we started shooting the movie, he was starting to compose and make sounds, and it started to develop themes. It was really experimental, really trying to understand the sound of Unidentified Objects. So when we started editing the movie, surprisingly enough, we didn't use much temp music from other composers or from other sources. We were really using a lot of the library my brother was creating and kept creating. So, for example, if I saw a movie that I really loved, I would have him watch it, and then I would say, "Like, this tone in this particular scene, I love this...".
And then he would go and experiment with that. I think this is the best collaboration we've ever had. We literally learned a lot about each other. And I think our relationship, like relationships with other collaborators and filmmaking, is most importantly about understanding each other and the language that we speak. Because when I say dark or "I want this to be ambiguous," it may mean something different to everybody. Developing that vocabulary with him and being able to trust each other and being able to be honest with each other, which at the same time is hard because it's your brother. You have to be able to say, "This doesn't work," even if he's been working on something for weeks, I think we were able to find that balance and use our brotherhood to build trust in each other. I think that's the core of the film and is one of my favourite things. I'm so proud of it.
"That's something that you plan very subtly. I also kind of like to go and film with that in mind, understanding that we're in the character's heads and this is the way the character sees the world."
Finally, how close were you able to keep to the script once you started shooting? There is such incredible ambiguity about whether it's real, a dream, or all imagined. After watching the film, I found myself wandering around my house trying to do other work, but your film was still going round in my head.
I'd say we were, for the most part, very loyal to the script. I was very involved in the writing of the script, I wrote a 30 page treatment with Leland. One thing I've got to say is that I'm a big fan of ambiguity in cinema. I'm a really big fan of having movies that make you work as a person, as an audience member. And you have to almost play detective, trying to understand where this is going. A lot of it comes from editing and how ambiguous you want the story to be. I do have to say that there were a lot of b-plot lines or subplot lines in the original script that I completely removed because I thought they were providing unnecessary information to the story.
I did shape the narrative in layers, trying to understand the different perspectives in which this could go. Obviously, there's the theory that they're going to an alien abduction, so there are multiple parts of the story. They say the bridge people can manipulate your reality and your perception of your reality however they want. That's something that you plan very subtly. I also kind of like to go and film with that in mind, understanding that we're in the character's heads and this is the way the character sees the world. So maybe his reality is being affected by a being that's not there. Again, I have my own theories, but I shoot it in a way and I tell the story in a way that I can leave it open-ended and that I can also let people make their own interpretations.
And obviously, I have my own, Leland has his own, and Matthew, the lead actor, has his own theories. At the end of the day, what matters most to me is the emotion and the character's journey, and making sure that it feels real and honest. And then when it comes to plot, I mean, there are people who have told me that Winona, the entirety of "Winona" is a mirage in "Peter's" reality. She doesn't exist, almost like in Fight Club. And if you actually watch the movie, that actually could work, and it could. People have told me, especially at Fantastic Fest, that there are a lot of people with interesting backstories and conspiracy theories.
It's very exciting because I think a lot of things could work and the stories built in that way really do. It does it. It matters to some people, but I think at the end of the day, each person should draw their own conclusions. I would be kind of like cheating if I went and told people what the true ending means and what it is. For me, it has a heart, it has a direction, and I think everything is there. And if you watch him, you'll understand that I'm communicating things that are very specific. Thank you. I'm glad that you were wondering around in your living room. That's awesome.