The most distinctive feature of the filmmaking team of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer is the bags under their eyes. It's one day before the first night of Borscht9, a film and visual arts festival Leyva co-founded with kindred spirits at New World School of the Arts back in 2004.
Leyva admits he has been sneaking in bedtime from 6 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. Instead of an alarm clock, he's pulled from his slumber with the chimes of text messages and email in-box arrivals. He's often in such a haze of semi-consciousness that he dreams he answered emails, but it's just a dream and not reality. Mayer excuses herself if she picks up her cell phone to respond to text messages, her team is in the middle of making stages and backdrops for "The Multiverse," an interactive evening of Borscht films, video games and more at the YoungArts campus.
Though Borscht is a complicated hydra of local and visiting filmmakers -- not to mention aspiring filmmakers who apply for entry before every festival -- Leyva and Mayer have been behind some of the most noteworthy work of the festival. In February of this year their work was the subject of a retrospective at the Glasgow Short Film Festival. In 2012 the pair were among Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film."
Their shorts have been featured at back-to-back Sundance Film Festivals. In 2012 there was The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a short that re-imagined the life of 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell through the structure of Chris Marker's famous 1963 short La Jetée. Campbell played himself in it. Then there was their was 2013's "#PostModem," a brilliant musical short that was both critique and celebration of futurologist Ray Kurzweil and humanity's obsession with immortality via the Internet.
For this year's Borscht, Leyva and Meyer once again take on the existential while examining a celebrity fallen from grace in Cool as Ice 2. It's a sequel of Cool As Ice, a 1991 movie vehicle starring Vanilla Ice (famous line: "Drop that zero and get with a hero"). It's a sequel that could only come from the mind of Leyva and Mayer. The short posits a cosmic scenario where Vanilla Ice becomes the last human being in the universe where his only companions are galactic phenomena like wormholes and a dwarf star that offer him a chance at redemption in a moment that is both profound and hilarious (eat your heart out, Interstellar).
Leyva and Mayer met when Mayer applied for Borscht in 2009. Though her application would have been a red flag to some, Leyva was intrigued. "It was about how great cats are and puppies," he says and turns to Mayer sitting next to him. "We thought you were like a crazy animal lady. So we brought her in for the interview just to see if she was actually a maniac."
She defends herself saying, "I was actually misinformed by a friend of mine ... I was unaware it was for narrative short films, so I applied for a faux talk show for people and their pets."
Though Borscht did not commission the idea, Mayer volunteered to work on projects, and the pair found a chemistry that has developed into a collaborative shorthand. "I think we just feed off each other's ideas," says Mayer.
"The individual ego is not in the picture when we're doing stuff creatively," adds Leyva, "so it's very easy to shoot down ideas that we don't like, and no one gets personally hurt."
During the interview the duo sometimes complete each other's thoughts or eagerly endorse the other's statements. They admit that they think about identity a lot -- maybe too much -- particularly how it's represented in art or every day life. It could be their own personal identities or the subject of their work, be it a fictional character or real person. They talk about identity and perception as informed by brand logos, mall chain stores, teenagers' bedroom walls, the Internet and all its private mediums made public.
As ominous and serious as it sounds sometimes, Leyva and Mayer above all like to approach their work with a sense of humor. Yet their work is about shaking up people's perceptions, which are too often lulled into a manipulated sort of consciousness. For instance, Leyva does not like comedy in the way most people think about it: a funny movie or a standup act. "I hate the idea of having this weird social contract when people are telegraphing that they're making a joke and you are supposed to laugh," he states. "I find that really strange because it's not actual humor to me. Your brain's not laughing, your monkey-self is laughing, if that makes sense. So when someone makes this zinger in a movie, people know, 'Oh, I need to laugh.' We talk a lot about taking those moments out."
"Subverting them too, if anything," adds Mayer. "I think our approach to that comedy and entertainment is us working through our understanding of the saturation of current pop culture. It's kind of our way to maneuver around some things that we're presented with."
Indeed Cool As Ice 2 features an amazing joke at the crux of the film. It's not worth spoiling here because it is brilliantly informed by how the viewer perceives Vanilla Ice -- born Robert Van Winkle in Dallas and raised in South Florida -- and his history, which the filmmakers wittily summarize with choice vintage TV clips and surreal re-enactments based on Ice's 1991 autobiography, Ice By Ice.
Originally, they admit, they tried to approach Ice's management to have him star in their surreal sci-fi biography/musical, just as Luther Campbell did in The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke. But to no avail, the filmmakers were given a runaround by his manager. "Luke was just much more accessible than Ice was," explains Mayer. "We don't really know much about him. I'm sure he's a nice guy. Unfortunately, we tried to get to meet him through this project, but it was made more and more difficult as we pursued it. But maybe he was just not interested or maybe his manager made it unaccessible, or I don't know ... but we found a creative solution for it."
Did they ever. An actor stands in for Ice with a blank mask and Ice's face is projected on top of it, recalling the art of Tony Oursler. "It's almost better that it's this mask," says Leyva, "that it's this archetype of someone that they can look up to and project literally what we want on to them and the film straddles that line where most of the things that happen in the film at the beginning are literally taken from his autobiography. A lot of the voice over is right from the autobiography ... It's sort of juxtaposing the void of humanity that we afford celebrities with this very personal story and all the pain he sort of went through and goes through. Even with the Uncle Luke, or whenever we deal with celebrities or the idea of them or their mythology we always try ... not to play anyone out."
Don't misconstrue their tribute to Vanilla Ice as some schadenfreude-like joke. "I don't think we ever make fun of Vanilla Ice in that movie," says Leyva. "I think we just kind of tell his story, but then we take it to this kind of heightened place."
"He was an incredible dancer, and he was incredibly talented," Mayer says of Ice.
Leyva adds without any irony, "He was like one of the high watermarks for cool for the human species."
Mayer and Leyva seem to have a lot of sympathy for celebrities. "When we researched him," Mayer says of Ice, "we looked back and we did say, 'He really was cool.'"
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"But he did change," adds Leyva. "Everything around him changed, and the context changed and the story they wanted to craft around him changed, and you hear celebrities talk about it all the time. Mostly it's like Kanye ranting, 'They build you up, they tear you down.'"
"Cool As Ice 2" will show as part of Borscht 9 at the Knight Concert Hall on Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m., at Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets $25. For more information: borschtcorp.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.