Paul Booth chats to Filmmaker Yaitza Rivera…
I met Yaitza Rivera at the SoCal Film Festival where she picked up the “Best Director” award for her directorial (film) debut Red Poppies. After she graciously gave me time at the festival and wrap party, I felt she would be a good choice for the series. It was not because I met her, it was because (like her film) she has a unique perspective on life and art. Enjoy!
Paul Booth: How long have you been an artist? Are you theatre trained or did you work on film sets?
Yaitza Rivera: I’ve been acting and directing for 15 years, ever since I started college and all my time was spent at a theatre, either helping the costume department or just watching the process and the rehearsals, until naturally I started acting in the plays. Then came directing. At age 22 I directed my first full length play and started my own production company in Puerto Rico. Through the years I’ve directed 14 plays.
PB: What made you want to make a movie, besides that you like movies?
YR: I love the idea of having your work recorded for posterity, to review it years later and see how you have changed. Also, you can always show it to people. When you do theatre, you never get to keep your work available, either people go see it when its running or they miss out on it.
PB: What are your three favorite movies? What director influenced you most in making Red Poppies?
YR: My top three are Great Expectations (the Alfonso Cuarón version), The Hoursand Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella). These are my top three, because to me they are perfect; the story is compelling, the directing is amazing and the acting is superb. I thought of Red Poppies as a mix between real life Tim Burton characters, which to me are dark, gloomy and mischievous, Plus I liked the Brokeback Mountain “feel” where everything around these characters is a character in itself. In Brokeback MountainAng Lee created this amazing atmosphere that makes you feel like the space is a third character in this love story. Everything, from the landscape to the shades of blue feeds the story. So, I wanted everything around the characters in Red Poppies to serve that same purpose. In a way, all movies are like this, but in some films it is very present and well thought of. I tried to achieve this with Red Poppies and when I watch it I think I did.
PB: You adapted this from a play, what was the most fun in doing someone else’s work?
YR: The playwright Tim McNeil and I have a good relationship, I’ve directed three of his plays including this one, he trusts me as a director and I respect him as a writer. He had the goodwill of letting me adapt the play and the only thing I did was cut it so we could make it into a 15 min short . I made some of the explanations, that the characters make, especially Iris, more visual to save time. The producer Kristian Van Der Heyden was part of this process too. In the end, I decided to keep most of “my version” but, for example, the idea of changing the fly that is in the play for a butterfly was Kristian’s and it turned out to be a wonderful idea, because it opened the door for me to find a closure at the end that wouldn’t have been possible with a fly. But, I wouldn’t say it’s fun, because it was very stressful, you don’t want to make the writer mad about your decisions, especially when he is your friend. Luckily, he is happy!
PB: How did you cast the film? Was it hard to find a guy willing to be so vulnerable?
YR: Zulivet Diaz was always going to be Iris, because Tim McNeil wrote this character for her, but the guy was a little hard to find. We had auditions and as soon as I saw Chervine Namani I knew he was Abbott. I find that it is very hard for young actors to be genuinely vulnerable, they only know how to cry or be sad with anger at the core of it, and Chervine didn’t have that issue. He can go there, easily. I don’t know if it’s the French in him, because I think French actors are all so emotionally available.
PB: You seemed to have an excellent artistic vibe with your actress? How often have you worked with her?
YR: Zulivet Diaz has been my best friend for 10 years. We had a production company in Puerto Rico with other friends. She has been the lead actress in most of the plays I’ve directed. To me she has an innate ability to communicate feelings, it’s in her face and her eyes, without her even making a sound. Some people have that and it’s wonderful, cause you can’t train for that, you either have it or you don’t. I respect her as an actress, but when we work together we bud heads a lot. Friendship, I guess, makes us more open to express our opinions about each other’s work more bluntly, but it’s fun and I know if she says something she does it for the good of the production and I’m sure she thinks the same of me.
PB: Your film takes place in one location, how much did you rely on your theatre training?
YR: Theatre came in very handy. I am a “blocking” director in theatre. I believe that to walk to a certain place or sit or stand up in a certain line makes the message flow to the audience more easily and clearly. Some actors can’t appreciate that, they don’t see the point, they want to be “free”. But in film blocking is almost a necessity, so I feel more in my element and I find less of a resistance from actors. For Red Poppies we just made them go around the same spot in such a way that it made the space look much bigger than it actually is and less boring for the audience.
PB: How do you keep it interesting with such a limited space? How you make talking heads more lively?
YR: Making the space bigger and being more realistic about the type of conversation they are having. We all agreed that you don’t have this dense conversation in 20 minutes, you have it through the day, mixing it with other topics, laughing and joking. That’s why you see them sitting in different places, walking and people leaving the house, which creates a sense of time passing.
PB: I sensed a great “tension” between the characters, was it meant to be more physical or emotional tension?
YR: I think it’s both, the script is very sexual and the characters have a very strong sexual chemistry too. It’s part of their love and their history, in a good way (first sexual experience) and in a bad way (rape). So, this sexual tension has to be there all through the movie and they did a great job. I see Chervine’s eyes when he is talking to her and it’s there. I see Zulivet’s hands even when she is touching the butterfly and it’s there as well, so they did an awesome job at being very conscious of it. The emotional tension too, of course. But, I mention more the sexual, because I feel that for the emotional they get a lot of help from the text.
PB: What is your favorite playwright? Do you have any favorite film versions of a play?
YR: I have many, and I’m an avid reader, but I have to go with Tennessee Williams. I’ve directed three of his plays and he is the reason I love Tim McNeill’s work so much too, because I see the influence and I love it. Favorite versions, that is a hard one. I think it’s very hard to do a film version of a play and I was very scared about that with Red Poppies, because I am a very harsh critic of that. But, out of the top of my head, right now I’d say Angels in America. That’s a great film version of the play.
Writers note: If you have not seen Angels in America, watch it today. It is 6-hours, but garnered Emmys for Al Pacino and many others. It is one of the finest works of art to be produced in the last century. Incredible film!
PB: Do you have message for the readers?
YR: If they want to do a film they should to just do it, but take their time. Make sure they got the right crew to make it smooth, the right amount of money to make it worth it and the right talent to make it memorable.
PB: What is your goal with filmmaking? And Message for others pursuing a career in film?
YR: Advice is a tough one because the more I learn the less I seem to know. I suppose my advice is to go make some advice and then please be sure to share it with me.
Interview by Paul Booth
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