When we saw the stills from Jorge Rubiera's new film, we were stunned. They transported us to another time and place. Rubiera, winner of the New Times MasterMind award for narrative, is someone who knows how to hold a camera and when to take a shot.
The current working title of the conquistador flick is "Birdwatchers" and it will screen at the seventh annual Borscht Film Festival. The organizers were very impressed with his body of work, which includes music videos for ANR and Animal Tropical (of which he is the drummer), a recently wrapped full-length feature film Meniscus, and a Spanish language short set in Little Havana called "There are Trap Doors."
His latest, "Birdwatchers," takes a compassionate approach to imperfect characters. The film is a sort of postmodern conquistador tale shot with no crew
and a hand-held camera, in the style of D.A. Pennebaker. He wanted it to
have a documentary feel. "I don't root with anybody," Rubiera adds. "I just wanted to create an atmosphere of what this time might have been like for individuals. You always see this sort of macroscopic view of history."
We spoke with Rubiera at length about the soundtrack, his friends, and his casting process.
New Times: There's no dialogue in the whole movie?
Jorge Rubiera: No dialogue. Well, there ended up being a little bit of dialogue because of improvisation. And it's in Spanish, but it's only in Spanish for accuracy's sake.
Tell us about the film's music.
I collaborated with Jose from my band (Animal Tropical). But there just wasn't a lot of time to do a lot of collaboration, so I did a lot of it myself. We're very into classical music and took a bunch records that were important to us -- not necessarily things that were like period significant to the film, but just music that I thought would benefit the film.
I have a really bad record player with awful sound, I mean, it's scratchy and it's out of tune, and I warped the sounds of the records and then I layered things. I recorded something three or four times and then warped the sounds of the record. Most of the music, pretty much all of the music comes from a record that's been manipulated and layered.
Will we recognize any of the songs on it or will it be too warped?
I don't deny that somebody might recognize some of the music, of course. There's one scene where the music is way more warped than other scenes. My bass player Jared watched the film and he said, "oh, this is so and so," in one of the scenes and he recognized it as some Venezuelan music, contemporary Venezuelan music. It just depends. It's not so distorted that it became original music. It just changed the inflection. I wanted it to invoke humor and disturb. When you warp music, it becomes atonal and kind of disturbing and at the same time there's a little bit of humor in it, cause we're all aware of the sound of a warped record.
Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
I did this photo shoot for my wife's business, and it was like the first photo shoot we did and it was really important so she and one of her collaborators bought me this really big atlas from the 1600s. I love it, it's wonderful. And I was looking through this atlas and I was looking at the New World, and then that led me to pick up a couple of books, and I started reading a book by Bernal Diaz called The Conquest of New Spain and it's written by this conquistador 50 years after it happened, but he was in Central America when they first were spreading their influence.
And I basically I was moved by how ridiculous it was. The notion of coming to a new place with the sole purpose of changing the religion of the people who live there, and wearing this leather and this armor in this tropical place and walking through the swamp and getting disease and dying. And also, like the ridiculousness of the fighting between the indigenous people and these like armored, musketed soldiers. It's just all ridiculous and everyone's made a fool. I think everyone is sort of humiliated. And I wanted to make a film about that humiliation. I bought the armor, like a year ago, almost a year ago, and I've been aging it, rusting it, things like that.
Who did you cast in the movie?
All the actors in the movie are musicians. I used Jesse Jackson as the main character, Jesse Jackson's not in the band but he's a friend of ours, he's a musician, he's also in Meniscus. Jose is another leading character, Humberto Jose Castillo. Roy Hunter from a band called Ice Cream, great band. And then a painter friend of mine named Hugo Hernandez. Those are the main characters, three of them play conquistadores, Roy Hunter plays and indigenous person. It's sort of non-specific whether its the Caribbean, or whether it's North America, South America, Central America. It's obviously Spaniards. It takes place between the 1500s and 1600s at some point, but I don't really define any of that stuff.
What's it like working with your friends? Do you usually work with your friends?
I always work with my friends. You have to work with strangers, but the strangers, I work with them in a friend capacity. So anytime I have a set, I maintain that the most important thing is that everyone enjoy what they're doing, so I don't impose anything that would cause stress on the actors of the crew. Like if that's going to happen then it's just not worth shooting the film.
In Meniscus, Jose is the main character again, Jesse Jackson is the supporting character, and then the rest of the cast are people that I cast in North Carolina. But working with friends is great because they're willing to do things that strangers may not be willing to do. Like Roy had to walk around basically nude through the whole film. I mean, completely nude. When he sat on the floor of the jungle, in the Everglades, I mean, his humanity was on the floor and he walked around barefoot and he climbed trees and all this stuff, and he was covered in dirt the whole time. I can't express enough thanks, he's an amazing guy.
Another thing is the way I cast. I cast based on, I look at the traits that I want the character to have, and I cast someone based on those traits. I don't like working with actors. I'm not a fan of actors because actors are...
They act! Yeah and if you can find somebody who already embodies what you're looking for, it's not a matter of acting, it's a matter of learning lines.
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The Borscht Film Festival takes place on April 23 at 8 p.m. at the Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami). Visit borscht.info.