Growing up in Kendall, Juan Pablo Reyes enjoyed hearing his mom regale him with tales of clients in green-card marriages.
"She was a paralegal working in immigration law for 35 years," Reyes tells New Times
. "These stories she told always stuck with me — about couples who didn't match physically or personality-wise, but they made it work to get their goals. It was fascinating to me: to pretend to be in love for two or three years. They'd create these fake photo albums and fake weddings."
Years later, while back in Miami to work as a camera operator for the reality series Basketball Wives
, Reyes started writing the script for Samland
"I'd write every morning for an hour. Writing doesn't come easy to me, but I started getting down the original spine of the story of a green-card marriage movie," he says. "Originally, I had the main character working in Hialeah at a rundown Cuban restaurant."
When he got stuck on the script, Reyes reached out to his former teacher at Braddock Senior High, Karen Herzog, to help him flesh it out.
"She taught me TV production in high school," Reyes explains. "She really introduced me to the idea that film could be a career. She helped me see movies in a different way."
While creating an interesting script provided one set of challenges, actually getting the movie shot was a whole other ordeal. While the entire film was filmed in only two weeks, those two weeks were spread out over two years.
"We started raising money through crowdfunding. We got enough to shoot for seven days in 2018," Reyes says. "Then we used this app called ClapIt, where actors exchange money for parts. We were able to shoot another three days in 2019 with that. We then got six investors who allowed us to finish it in four more days of shooting."
Still, there was a bright side to the stops and starts.
"The delays let us really dissect things," he notes. "We could see where the holes were and how to make the movie better."
The finished film starts with a raid by immigration agents with snippets of footage of President Trump spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric.
"We wanted to give people the perspective of what it feels like to be an immigrant. A lot of immigrants make choices because they have no other choice," Reyes says, adding that his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia. "I grew up around aunts who had to do housekeeping to make it in America. But then, growing up in Miami in the 1980s with my parents being Colombian, they were around these cocaine cowboy circles. So we were also around people who did things the wrong way and ended up incarcerated."
Samland director Juan Pablo Reyes
Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo Reyes
Opposite the version of the American dream represented by Venezuelan immigrant Paz (Carlos Montilla), the film's other protagonist, Paz's wife, Sam (Hanna Balicki), represents the American nightmare.
"She threw her life away because of drugs and gets married to a stranger for the money," Reyes says. "It was important for me to show both their perspectives."
While the script began as a road movie starting in Miami, financial constraints moved the setting to Southern California, the area Reyes now calls home.
After a decade of working on Samland,
Reyes finds it hard to believe the movie is finally out. And while the seeds of the film came from his mother's stories, his next film will be about the stories his father told him.
My dad and my uncle owned a nightclub in Miami in the '80s. They had a house band. It was kind of like a supper club. I always heard stories about how someone got murdered in the bathroom once. So it will take place on New Year's Eve in 1981, and it will crosscut all these different stories based on the perspective of a child."
Samland. Available on-demand via Apple TV, YouTube, Prime Video, and most other streaming services.