Sometimes failure leads to success. With the short film Scenes From Our Young Marriage, filmmaker Ronald Baez learned that lesson. What began as a feature production became a lengthy journey to create a short film that would screen at Borscht's West Kendall International Film Festival and the Miami Film Festival this year.
“We were working off footage from a feature that we weren’t happy with,” Baez explains. “So we wondered, 'Is there a different film here that we might be able to find and curate?'” After sending parts of the feature to friends for feedback, he realized there was.
It was fellow filmmaker Jason Fitzroy Jeffers who told Baez that what might be off with the film was the length. “He said, ‘I feel like I really understand the experience of the characters, and the only problem is you’re delving so much into a couple of different things.’ And he suggested to isolate individual scenes to try to find a story there.”
At the time, Baez’s wife was watching the Ingmar Bergman film Persona, which sparked another idea in him. “Jason said the word 'scenes,' so I sat down to watch Scenes From a Marriage and noticed that the narrative played second to the emotional build.”
“So I thought, What if we took that model, and instead of making it about a narrative and a story, we made it about an experience and had the audience fill in the blanks with their own personal anecdotes? That way, it becomes more about witnessing something that you recognize than it is about watching a story of an act finish.”
What that idea slowly but surely led to was the final product that Baez jokes was built by “creating some relative order inside an amorphous bunch of information.” But getting through the production itself was no small feat either. Baez lived with some of the cast and crew for three and a half months inside a home that was almost entirely hand-built by production designer and art director David Hans Lau.
Monica Lynne Herrera and Eric Soto, the two actors who play the protagonists in the film, were in a five-year relationship at the time of production. “They’re both Method actors, and both left behind a lot of their relationship,” Baez says, which was something that surprised him.
“As a director, it always feels like no one cares as much about your film as you do, and Monica was really good about being there with me and never letting fatigue or fear get in the way of what we were doing,” he adds. But though Herrera was an easy find, casting Soto as the male protagonist was a different story.
“We spent four months looking for the character of Jeremy and refused to move forward until I found an actor I was really comfortable with. Eric had been reading for the character because he was hanging out, and we were auditioning for another character, and he hit it off with the actor who got the role. So I had Eric finally audition for the role.”
But casting Soto inevitably became strange because he based his character on Baez. “We were living together, and he started acting and sounding a lot like me. One time my wife went and hugged him from behind while he was half-naked in the kitchen,” he laughs.
Life and story blended into each other plenty as Baez pulled from many aspects to make the film. “Everything that’s in the movie is actual conversation that occurred,” he says. “But only one of the scenes is a conversation between me and my wife.” The rest came from a writer friend who Baez thought “had an interesting dependency, and I knew I wanted to turn them into characters at some point.”
Baez also pulled from other films. He loved the intimacy and camera manipulations he found in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, a tense car sequence from Blue Valentine, and chapter breaks from Dear White People. The last helped shape the nonlinear nature of his film, which he explains ended up nonlinear because “it’s really easy to take an individual day for granted.”
He says, “It’s funny how you take an individual moment for granted, and then when you stack them up, they have this effect. You build this idea of what something is or what might happen. So that’s why we wanted to start with a prelude. This is what you’re going to watch: a couple from start to finish. Then it’s the other parts of their relationship and the idea there is to juxtapose the promise of possibility versus the actual happening.”
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As artistic director of the Miami Film Development Project, Baez says it’s impossible to talk about Miami filmmaking without discussing Borscht Corp. “I think those cats are doing some of the most interesting things being done in this city, even if you cancel out the fact that they’ve sent a film to Sundance every year for seven years and all those films have been brilliant — especially Bernardo Britto’s Yearbook, which I have a particular kind of love affair with," Baez says.
“Being here, you don’t have access to millions of dollars and studios, but you do have access to artists because you can email these people," he adds. "And I feel like where a lot of people complain about Miami filmmaking and a lack of infrastructure, I also think if you’re trying to make films in Miami, the only way to do it is by piecing together concern beyond yourself.”
Baez and his partners built the Miami Film Development Project with that notion of filmmaking as a collaborative effort. “If you can’t muster up fascination, respect, and love for artists who are doing incredible things in Miami... you have no business making films in Miami.”
Scenes From Our Young Marriage
Part of the Miami Film Festival shorts collection, Love Is the Answer, Vol. 2. 3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 11, at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71st St., Miami Beach; 786-207-1919; miamifilmfestival.com. Tickets cost $13.