THE NEW CURRENT
Why are straight actors still cosplaying as LGBTQ+ characters. Benoit Blanc didn’t need to appropriate the Queer community to seem interesting or cool or relevant.
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.
Hi Leland, thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you enjoying Sitges, have you been able to enjoy much of the festival?
I’m absolutely loving Sitges so far! It is my first time at this festival—and my first time back in Spain in seven or eight years—and I’m overwhelmed by the scale, the quality of all the films, and the enthusiasm of the festival-goers in a positive way. Our only challenge has been striking a balance between enjoying the atmosphere and seeing all the films that we’re interested in. How can anyone choose between going sailing—Juan, our director, is a lifelong sailor—and a block of terrific films? But that’s a champagne problem.
Unidentified Objects has already had an incredible festival run, picking up a couple of awards along the way, what has it meant to you to get this type of reaction for your film?
For me it’s been eye-opening, because as an artist, you spend years creating a project that comes from a very personal place; a place of passion. And so even if I love my film—and I genuinely do—there is no guarantee other people will resonate with it. What I’ve learned is that our film is even more universal than I imagined; that everyone all over the world can connect with this idiosyncratic, genre-bending story of two outcasts on the road. When I meet people who are crying because they were so moved by Unidentified Objects, or tell me that it is one of their favourite new films, it fills me with incredible love and gratitude. I remember telling the same thing to film-makers that I love. Now it comes full circle.
Any nerves ahead of your European Premiere, are you looking forward to watching Unidentified Objects with a Sitges Audience?
Personally, I’m always a nervous watcher — maybe because I cannot watch my own projects without thinking of new ideas or new things I would like to try, even after it is finished! You can usually find me at the back of the theatre, ready to slip out if I feel anxious during a screening. But after Fantastic Fest and Outfest, I do feel more confident than I normally would. Our film really has a lot of European inspiration—in that it takes influences from European cinema almost more than American cinema—and I am hoping that a European audience will connect with it in a meaningful way.
Where did the inspiration for Unidentified Objects come from and what was the experience for you writing the story with Juan Felipe Zuleta?
This was a film conceived, written, shot, and edited during some of the worst early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Juan and I were both not in a positive headspace at the time, after losing funding for a different feature for pandemic-related reasons outside of our control. Unidentified Objects came about as a direct reaction to these setbacks. We knew we had to create something or lose our minds; a film that could touch on our feelings of isolation, frustration, and desire to change our lives.
At first, Juan came to me with an idea for a short film to collaborate on. But as we developed the short, it became clear that it would be expensive—by our standards—to produce. We were left with a decision: Make a high-budget short, or raise that same budget for a low-budget feature instead. Juan and I chose the latter.
Because pre-pro for the short was underway already, we knew we had a 15 day window in roughly three or four months when our incredible crew would be available. That meant we needed a new, original film ready to shoot by then. Juan and I went into overdrive. Our ideation process is very collaborative; I would send five pages a day, he would give notes on them and send them back, and I would make edits while also working on the next five pages. This process resulted in a fast turnaround for the initial draft of the script, which we then continued editing together—and with our creative team, including our actors—even up to the day of shooting. Looking back, it was far from the typical film-making process. But we were making far from the typical film.
When writing the screenplay was it always your intention to have Peter be a Little Person and once casting Matthew Jeffers did he offer any insights that you were able to incorporate into his character?
The intention was always to have the main character Peter be portrayed by a little person (LP) performer, from the very start. There were two inspirations for this decision: One, we were tackling themes of intersectionality, and wanted to capture that in a character that we had never seen on-screen before. In this case, a queer dwarf. Two, we wanted to use our resources to create opportunities for performers who do not often get leading roles. Having an LP character as the lead would allow us to push ourselves as storytellers in new ways by breaking from narrative tradition about who should be the focus of a narrative. This was Matthew Jeffers first film role ever, and he is the world’s most amazing collaborator. Matthew constantly pushed us to go further and deeper with our approach to the character; refusing to soften edges unrealistically or pull punches when it came to intense story beats. As a result, we believe that our film has really tapped into authentic, unique elements of the LP perspective because it was not made from a position of timidity about offending the audience. We wanted to show the undeniable beauty and the ugliness. Matthew gave us the guidance to do that, and his contributions are a huge part of why he soon became a full-fledged producer on the film, as well as the lead actor.
Have you always had a fascination with dreams?
It’s funny to admit, but I am terrified of sleep and of dreaming. Maybe I am a bit of a control freak, but I find the idea of unconsciousness terrifying in the abstract. I want to be in control of my own mind! So with this film, I wanted to tap into that eerie lack of control by refusing to provide clear “explanations” to the story. We never explicitly say if anything the characters experience is a dream; we present scenes, and the audience must make their own decisions about the nature of the film’s reality. As a result, we have heard lots of different theories about the film, the characters, and the underlying themes. People come to us with new ones all the time, which is always a surprise and a delight. I know I have my own private interpretations of what is going on in the film, as do the other members of the cast and crew.
There is a near invisible thread between the themes of dreams, memory and reality that’s never too clear if what we are seeing is real or part of Peter’s fantasy/dream. How did you manage to create a screenplay that so delicately balances these themes without needing to be too blatant or specific with your dialogue?
Excellent question. The key was rewriting; and I include editing as part of that process. We had so many ideas and ambitions for this film. Then over time, as we developed the screenplay and—later—edited the footage, we gradually honed in on our “invisible thread” with renewed clarity and intention. Don’t get me wrong, it was always there in the script. But a truly delicate balance requires multiple rounds of analysis and clarification on our part. Very little good art is precisely balanced from the moment it hits the page.
As well as co-writing the story and writing the screenplay you also produced Unidentified Objects, did this make it easier for you and Juan to collaborate on your text and make cuts when/if needed?
My background is in theatre, so for me, making this movie was my film school. Being a producer was like being in the world’s best Cinema Studies class with Juan—and the rest of our team—as the teacher. Making cuts was painful for me at first; I got very attached to my work, and this was my first-ever produced screenplay. I did not initially understand the process of how a film actually comes together in post, and it took that hands-on producer experience to learn why cuts should be made and where. Now, going forward, my writing process has improved because I have a better grasp on the nature of cinematic storytelling itself.
As a writer and producer is it important for you to be flexible when working on project like Unidentified Objects or are you someone who likes to stick to what you might have planned or envisioned?
Flexibility is everything. While writing, while shooting, while editing. Maybe it is because we are still relatively young—Juan and I are in our late 20s—but our vision is always being actively developed during the film-making process. Not to mention the practical concerns; if we cannot be flexible, we could never have a finished product at the end because the shoot would fall apart. Writing is a very precise, controlled art form. But making movies, you rarely get—or want—everything the exact way you first planned it. I am still learning new ways to be flexible as an artist all the time.
What was your favourite scene to write and when it was shot did it come out the way you have envisioned it?
My favourite scene to write was the diner scene, where Peter and Winona start to bond for the first time. We were dealing with very acerbic, strong-willed characters who do not follow the traditional rules of “likeable” protagonists. This was the scene where we started to understand—and like—them better. It had everything I love in a dialogue-heavy scene: Venomous repartee, frenetic pacing, and even a really juicy monologue at the end. Every writer’s dream!
"...I think Unidentified Objects really hits the nail on the head when it comes to themes/elements that matter to me: Unforgettable one-of-a-kind characters, snappy stylised dialogue, genre-bending elements, a leftist political perspective, and an emphasis on the nature of identity."
What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from this experience and what would you say Unidentified Objects says about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?
The most valuable lesson I have taken from this experience is, as I mentioned, what it genuinely means to make a film. Writing is one a part of it, and going forward I want to continue developing a much more meaningful relationship to the film-making process as a whole. But in terms of the story, I think Unidentified Objects really hits the nail on the head when it comes to themes/elements that matter to me: Unforgettable one-of-a-kind characters, snappy stylised dialogue, genre-bending elements, a leftist political perspective, and an emphasis on the nature of identity.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Not always, but pretty darn close. I’ve been a writer since I knew what writing was, for which I am grateful. Most people never figure out what their passion in life is, and I found out at a very young age. But I only really got into film in high school, thanks to the Cinema Studies classes of Ted Walch: A legendary teacher at my school, who tragically just passed away. He spent decades informing generations of students—including several famous film-makers working today—about the nature of film not just as something you do for fun, but as meaningful an art form as painting or sculpting.
How much has your background as a playwright helped you in your approach to your filmmaking projects?
Playwriting has both been a blessing and a curse for my approach to film-making. On the one hand, it has really taught me to put character and themes and language above everything else. It has also taught me to embrace struggle, and to relate to the audience as a living creature and a partner; not an enemy, not an alien. But on the other hand, the nature of the mediums is so different that I constantly have to remind myself: “You don’t need a monologue explaining how a character feels when a single ECU shot of the actor’s face says it all without a word.”
What has been the best piece of advice you have been given?
“The hardest part of writing is writing.” Making yourself write every day even after a project stops feeling “fun” is the greatest challenge of the form. Everyone can write but not everyone can do the work of writing.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer someone wanting to get into filmmaking or scriptwriting?
Every single thing comes down to the people you know. I am nothing without my partners, especially Juan, who shares my creative vision. Find partners who see the world the way you do. And most importantly, find partners with follow-through. It is easy to get started. It is almost impossible to go all the way and finish something.
And finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from Unidentified Objects?
I hope they leave the film with a sense that they are not as alone as they think they are; and that even though the world is unbearably cruel, finding joy and connection is a powerful form of resistance.