Behind the Scenes: Meet the winner of the AT&T Film Awards Best Spanish Language Film
In October, we called for submissions for the 3rd edition of the AT&T Film Awards, an open competition seeking imaginative, undiscovered short films from aspiring storytellers. Filmmakers answered the call, with 664 outstanding entries vying for a shot at prizes including cash awards, trips, camera equipment kits, and a summer film program at the USC Cinematic School of the Arts. Now here’s your chance to get to know more about the winner of the Best Spanish Language college filmmaker award Miguel J. Soliman for his short drama, DESDE EL PRINCIPIO.
Miguel J. Soliman hails from Jersey City, New Jersey holds a Bachelor of the Arts in Film Directing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and recently received a Master of Professional Studies in Directing from the School of Visual Arts in New York. For winning the award, Miguel will attend a summer filmmaking course at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles, where he’ll participate in a 6-week program producing short films at USC as well as on the Warner Bros. Studios backlot.
Q: Describe your project and what you aim to achieve with it
A: My short film, DESDE EL PRINCIPIO, deals with the lack of honesty, intimacy, and communication in a relationship between two people who work together as loopers. It was my goal to direct a love letter to films–specifically films about making films–and pay tribute to cinema by telling a unique story about the lives of those behind the curtain (or camera, more precisely).
I also aimed to achieve the personal goal of telling a story utilizing Spanish language that didn’t involve stereotypes of the “Spanish character.” The parts written were for any actor to play them and in any language one could translate the material into. A race didn’t need to be specified. The dialogue and structure of the piece eliminates the need to look at a skin tone, but I knew I wanted something to represent me and my voice as an artist so I chose Spanish. The story is a conversation between two people who were once in love and what people remember after watching the film is the way in which these two people bear their souls to one another, not the language they say it in.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your short film?
A: I am a hopeless romantic when it comes to people and cinema. I grew up watching films like Bowfinger, Cinema Paradiso, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios and Living in Oblivion. At their centers lived the true hearts and dreams of their characters. I could not think of what my thesis would be for my master’s program at the School of Visual Arts. Nothing was coming to me, but it was these fundamentally human stories that helped me dream up the initial concept for my story–two people discovering themselves through cinema. I closed my eyes and the first images I saw were of faces in a dark room, lit only by the light of a projection. Then I heard their voices, but over the images of two other people. I knew then the key was in dubbing and the rest was history.
I wrote a first draft and got notes on it from Alex Dinelaris who was my mentor at SVA. I went back at it for weeks, but I could not crack the story. The actors were not involved with each other in my version of the story. So I got an introduction to Alex’s writing partner, Nicolas Giacobone, and the story took off. He suggested the two be married and the secret be the wife’s. In my draft, the secret belonged to the male character (he was in love with his co-looper, but he lives that fantasy out in the film, never revealing his feelings to her). We made the switches and he went off to write the dialogue on his own.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your team and how you worked together to create your entry.
A: The film would not be what it is without the enormous contributions of the team in every respect. That is the absolute truth. Anyone who thinks a director is solely responsible for an entire film is mistaken. And it was the script that got us all together with every effort in place. I think everyone felt it was going to be a meaningful short in many regards because of how honest the dialogue was. It is not easy making a film people will care about especially with how accessible filmmaking is today. Everyone is making a movie; my grandmother makes movies on her phone. So one has to impress more than 20 years ago, and even more when categorized into the “sub-genre” of short films. Everyone on board wanted to tell this story and believed wholeheartedly that it would not just go on a shelf in my apartment. It is a special feeling when your team believes in what you’re creating and this blissful trance we were all in sustained itself all the way through post-production and even into circuiting the film. We still can’t believe the beautiful reception our short has received and still have to pinch ourselves to remind us that we’re not in a dream-state.
Q: What do you find most interesting about making short films?
A: I love telling fully arcing stories within a span of 12 minutes. I do not like it when a snob comes a long and takes the short for granted. I think the most interesting part of telling a story in the short format is that emotionally it can be just as strong, if not stronger than, a feature. I have seen the impactful Denis Villeneuve-directed Polytechnique, and I have seen the Joy Webster-directed short Game–both of which tackle gun-violence in incredibly powerful ways, but share significantly different runtimes. I also enjoy the use of time and presentation in the short format as a screenwriter because I was taught to economize the page and that every piece of information presented needs to be vital to the story you are telling. I find that the least amount of information rendered while continuing to move the story forward and not losing your audience is more of a pleasurable experience in film viewing than explaining everything in a rushed or dragged out fashion. For me, an awareness of craft sets the bar from appreciating a film and being immersed in one–and most times that awareness also dictates how much time a moment (and ultimately a film) needs to breathe for. Filmmaking and visual storytelling become second nature to you, and if you’re a hair off of the mark or become self-indulgent people sense it.
Q: What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
A: My biggest challenge on this film was saying goodbye. I mean it. Of course there were obstacles, but none of them stopped us from making or completing the film. None of them were big enough or their solutions amazing enough to answer this question with. They were regular film issues, but we got over them and in the process became a family. I still keep in touch with many crew and cast members, often calling or emailing each other to chat–and on more subjects than just film. But mostly film because we’re nerdy that way. I think we’ll overcome this challenge somehow…maybe by getting together to make the next thing, whatever that may be.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve entered your work in a contest?
A: This is in fact the first time I have ever seriously entered a film in any capacity, competitively or not, that I have made for viewing and any sort of consideration or recognition. The short has been received well and we have taken on a number of recognitions since we began circuiting earlier this year. Awards have included Best Short Film at the New York Latino Film Festival and Best of the Fest at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Directing Showcase this summer.
Q: How did you first get interested in filmmaking?
A: I grew up in a hard working household. If my parents were out working a long shift, then grandma was watching me or I was watching myself when the time came. Most of those afternoons I’d avoid doing homework to watch Dr. No, Godzilla, Indiana Jones, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Most kids that age ask for bikes, toys, and video games. I asked for a VCR and homevideo lessons on romance, heroics, scare tactics, and humor. Later it became a DVD player, but the dream remained the same–to affect people. I wanted to defeat satanic tribes in India like Dr. Jones, but make people laugh by moving and behaving negatively in church like Mr. Bean. I wanted to create special effects like Tom Savini and Rick Baker and dangle from a wire like Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible. Trouble was I had more awareness and respect for filmmakers than having an interest for being in front of the camera. It was on my 12th birthday or so that I received a book titled The Art of Bond. The introduction was written by Steven Spielberg, who I knew from Jurassic Park, but didn’t know he had a personal connection with the double-0 agent. He detailed his dream of wanting to direct a Bond film. The dream never came true for him due to “cultural differences,” which I was all too familiar with from growing up Latino in the US. But Spielberg stuck to his dream and created the American Bond–a whip-wielding archeologist from Princeton who symbolized for Spielberg a Jewish superhero who fought off the Nazis. He even cast Bond (Sean Connery) as Indy’s dad, mirroring the character’s origins from the inkpot. And that’s when I realized three things: 1) you can steal, 2) you can honor, and 3) you can stick it to whoever by making your own yes. I was hooked there.
Q: What does the AT&T Film Awards and contests like this mean to you?
A: First of all, it is an honor and a privilege to be considered a finalist. When opportunity reveals itself, one has no option but to take it and make something good out of it. Contests like this one have had a growing influence on filmmakers. It adds challenge to the artistic and provides a competitive edge, for better or worse, for creating more grappling films. To me, it means more exposure, more support, and more encouragement from influential voices. And though for now we are still divided by race and gender, rather than solely by genre and an equal measure of talents, the competitive categories by which contests such as these operate under render recognition to the underdogs. I think it’s a great idea to encourage recognition within artists, especially the lesser known and/or upcoming artists, but it is the duty of said artists to maintain appreciation for other films as if it were a non-competitive environment. My truth is the less films there are in the world, the more empty the world actually feels. So festivals and competitions do more good than harm in my opinion.
Q: Who have been your biggest influencers in the film industry (directors, writers, teachers, etc.) and what have you learned from them?
A: Pedro Almodovar, Alex Dinelaris, Rowan Atkinson, Eric Idle, Javier Bardem, William Friedkin, Robin WIlliams, Wes Craven, Steven Spielberg, Penelope Cruz. The list goes on. And yes they are mostly men. But I learned to be a good person through these influential figures and their bodies of work; especially the work. We live in a time when so many heroes are falling from grace like flies in Hollywood so it’s hard to look up at anyone anymore. But it’s comforting to me that my list of heroes is longer than the list of ****bags polluting the mainstream and being dragged out.
Q: What advice do you have for new filmmakers just getting started in the field?
A: Know your script as intimately as your actors would. Know the answer to everything, but give space for creative input from your team. Always say hi and bye. Have fun. Never complain about a bad day. Don’t take things too seriously. Structure. Structure. Structure. And give it your all every time.
Q: What video technologies do you see shaping the future of film and content creation?
A: Every video technology advancement affects the future of film, and there could be positivity in all of it. VR, streaming, watching content on a cellphone, whatever, there is no doubt about that. Never cancel something out because it is new or not “in.” Accessibility could be a wonderful thing. After all, we’re not making opera for the rich; film is the art of the working person. It is escapism at the end of a week of hard work. But just remember that like a camera cannot ever be the human eye, no machinery can replace the human heart. And for the love of all that is sacred, do not ever forget the old ways. The experience of going to a movie theatre or seeing a movie on film are absolutely irreplaceable.
Q: What are your future plans for your project?
A: Ideally, I’d like DESDE EL PRINCIPIO to have an international run on the circuits before it becomes available online or something. We have premiered and screened domestically in the US for a few months, but we are turning our sights abroad for 2018. Other than that, I get asked all the time if this short is a preview or a taste of something larger and I always have to squash those ideas right away. I think the film is what it is and does not require a longer story. One can exist, and I will always keep my mind open, but I feel like this short does things so right on so many levels that an expansion would somehow diminish its quality. I’d hate to see that happen.
Q: What would the summer program at USC Cinematic School of the Arts prize mean to you?
A: The USC prize would mean a great opportunity for me. As a first time filmmaker, I do not have a strong network established yet and it would be great to continue to gain more insight while building a community with strong roots. It would also feel like an invitation to the hottest college for filmmaking rather than having applied, which would mean huge points within my family. They’d brag for days. And to step in the halls and on to the lots where so much greatness has walked before me would be a reminder of the great responsibility I owe to those whose shoulders I’d be standing on moving forward in my career. I strongly believe in what is mine is meant for me and no one can take that–I trust the road I am on will take me somewhere high no matter what turns come and the time it takes.