Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Leslie Rivera
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Puerto Rico-born, West Chester-raised Leslie Rivera has been an active member of the Philly arts scene for years, touring for years with the Rennie Harris Puremovement dance company and founding the band El Malito and the 33rd Century. Made as Rivera began returning to personal filmmaking after a long absence, As White as It Gets is an intimate portrait of Rivera’s partner Megan, who discusses the complexities of raising a multi-racial child in the USA.
PFS: How did you get into filmmaking?
LR: While on tour with the Puremovement dance company, I wanted to have a book for one of our longer flights and I bought Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel without a Crew. I read that book, and the way he made filmmaking sound and the way he practiced it sounded to me like a sport or like dancing. Like, the more you do it the better you get at it. So we went on the tour and when we got back I bought a cheap video camera and VCR, and started making movies, editing between the camera and the VCR. I made a ton of terrible short films. But, you know, they got better and better. And then something strange happened. I started to meet people in Philadelphia. I was the winner of Philly Pitch one year during the Philadelphia Film Festival. And I was a finalist for Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. And things were humming along really well and I decided, “You know what? Filmmaking’s not what I want to do right now, I’m going to become a musician.” So I dropped filmmaking for about six years to become a musician, and I had a band, and we played a whole bunch of shows in Philly, New York, and other places. And my daughter was born. When my daughter was born I was like, “Oh, I can’t do this music thing anymore. I’m not making any money from it.” I’d always been doing film, because I was making my money as a freelance videographer. Even though I wasn’t making my own work I was still involved in the craft of filmmaking. So once my daughter was born and I left music, I came back to filmmaking pretty hard, in terms of creative filmmaking. I came back with a hunger that I guess I’d put to sleep. So As White as It Gets is one of my first creative films since I came back to filmmaking.
PFS: Had the work that you’d making before been in the same vein as As White as It Gets? Were they documentaries?
LR: Not at all. The majority of the stuff that I made pre-music were short narrative films. I’d never technically made a short documentary or documentary. So yes, you could technically call As White as It Gets my first foray into documentary. It’s definitely not normal for me.
PFS: How exactly did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary about this particular subject?
LR: It all started because I’d bought myself a new camera and new lenses that I was really excited about. And when you do that you just start shooting everything. And the closest thing to me that I could just shoot at any moment was my daughter. We took a trip to Puerto Rico to visit my family and I shot there. Every moment I had to shoot and test out my equipment, I did. Then one day my partner and I got into the fight that she talks about in As White as It Gets. Two days later we were sort of reflecting on that and talking about it. And the idea hit, and I was like, “Oh my God, I can make something out of this.” So I asked her if she’d be willing to do an interview about the fight that we’d gotten into and some of the things that we’d talked about, and she said, “Fine let’s do it.” I think the idea popped into my head because as we were talking, I realized that the imagery that I’d shot of my daughter, and of my partner, and of myself could be the B-roll. It came together very easily and kind of organically.
PFS: What was actually shooting the interview with your partner like?
LR: So, we put our daughter to bed and shot the interview in our living room at 11 o’clock at night. We were both kind of relaxed, and I pretty much told her to recount everything that had happened leading up to that moment. And she did it beautifully. I have to give her most of the credit because she gave me most of the material. I’d never really sat anybody down and done an interview before, so looking back I’m like, “Oh my God, I kind of lucked out.” The thing that was even more interesting to me is that we did this serious interview about the fight we had had and her feelings about our daughter being multi-racial, and all those things. And then it was kind of getting late and I was ready to pack everything up, and she was like, “Hey, let me do something for your behind the scenes, the bloopers.” I was like, “No, this is not going to make it into the movie. So can we just pack everything up and call it a night?” And she was just like, “No, let me just do some stuff.” So all of the parts where she’s says, “This is as white as it gets”—that’s an improv that she completely riffed off the top of her head. And I humored her. I was like, “OK, I’ll shoot it.” But as she was doing it I thought, “This is dumb. I’m not going to do anything with this.” I started editing the film, and it was just so serious. Most of the narrative work that I’ve done has been either comedy or comedic in nature. And I just knew that this was not me. Then I started watching the blooper reel and I was like, “Ohhh, there it is. That’s what the film was missing.” So I started splicing the bloopers in there and it all came together. It felt like my work. It felt like me. So chalk that one up to being open to different ideas, being open to the process, and humoring your partner.
PFS: That’s super interesting since “As white as it gets” became such a prominent part of the film. Apart from adding some humor and levity, what do you think those pieces brought to the film?
LR: Well, first I think it humanizes Megan, because it shows her being completely herself. Megan is a very funny individual and I think she just completely comes to life in those moments. That’s how she is 90% of the time at home. So it was very easy to recognize that instead of the seriousness. The juxtaposition made sense to me. If Megan and I were having a serious conversation it would kind of go like that in some ways, right? Second, I feel like even though she was being funny, there was still a ring of truth to the stuff she was saying. Those are the kinds of things that everybody kind of knows but that you’re not necessarily supposed to say. It’s funny because I almost feel like the blooper sections really say a lot about the subject matter.
PFS: For sure. In terms of the overall look, did you always know you wanted it to be in black and white?
LR: Not at all. I’m really into pointing the lenses at lights so that you can get really nice flares. So that’s how I lit the interview. And I kind of overdid it. There was a big flare that just looked terrible in color. So I switched it over to black and white and that fixed it. So I was like, “Well I guess the whole piece needs to be in black and white.” So it was literally not an artistic choice. It was totally a way to fix a mistake or try to hide a mistake that I made.
PFS: I was wondering about the music too. Were those original compositions?
LR: No, that music I found on YouTube. I knew what I wanted and could hear something in my head but couldn’t describe it. So I started going on YouTube and searching for minimalist, dark music. And I found that piece. I used that as my temp track and then I was like, “Crap, I like this piece. That means that I need to be legit about it and give credit to the composer.” It took me two weeks of going back and forth, because I searched for the artist and found that it was an electronic artist based in Estonia. I’m going to be completely honest with you: with the way things are in the world right now, I was like, “There’s no way this person’s going to allow me to use their music for this film. For all I knew they could be some right wing guy in Eastern Europe.” That’s what I was thinking the whole time. So it took me some time to get the courage to email. I messaged him on Facebook and he turned out to be the nicest guy in the world. He watched the film and was like, “Oh my God, I love it. I’d be honored for my music to be in your film.” It just kind of floored me because I had all these negative thoughts and fears in my head, but he turned out to be like, “If you ever make it to Estonia let me know, I will show you around everywhere!” He was just really excited that I wanted to use his music. There are a lot of times where I can’t necessarily explain the choices that I make, they just kind of feel right. And I knew that the music couldn’t be overly dramatic, but I also knew that the music couldn’t be funny because Megan was already being funny and I thought it would make it really cheesy. I kind of just felt like the music needed to be something that you felt versus something you listened to or heard. My instinct was that it should be kind of drone-y, kind of ambient. So I don’t know, it just feels right.
PFS: What are you working on now?
LR: After watching Black Panther, it lit a fire under my booty to make more creative work. So I decided that I would revive my YouTube channel and start making content for that. I’m not really into digital effects, but I’m into green screen, filming real objects, and just composing everything together. So I’m making a 50s-style monster/sci-fi movie. I’m using miniatures for the sets and for the cars, performing in front of the green screen, and using stock footage for some of the backgrounds. This time, it’s purposely in black and white because it’s a 50s-style movie. But also, in order to promote it, I don’t want to just make a movie, put it out there, and try to promote it. So I thought maybe a better alternative would be to do a behind-the-scenes of the process of everything I’m doing week-by-week. So I’ve been making a video, two videos, three videos a week of the behind-the-scenes of this video I’m making. And it’s pretty cool, people really like behind-the-scenes stuff. I think they like it sometimes more than whatever the movie they’re watching.
As White as It Gets screened on Friday, May 11 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.