When Miami-based filmmaker Kenny Riches got the call from the Sundance Film Festival, he could barely hide his excitement from close friend Robert "Meatball" Lorie. Riches' film, The Strongest Man, had been accepted and Lorie was the film's lead. They were both working on building the VIP section at Design Miami when Riches' cell phone rang. "It's hard because when you get the call you're really not supposed to tell anyone for a few weeks because they don't announce it publicly for a while," he said.
He had to finish working the rest of the day and kept the news to himself until the festival made it official. "It was crazy," he added.
In the movie, Meatball stars as Beef, a Cuban-American everyman who conceals the fact that he might be the strongest man in the world. It makes for a practical skill at the construction site where Beef works with his best pal Conan (Paul Chamberlain), a short, stocky Korean who lives in the shadow of his successful older brother. Beef and Conan are kindred spirits; man children fighting insecurities while trying to find a place in the world. Ashly Burch plays Illi, Beef's love interest, only he is both too clueless and awkward to let her know.
The film -- which also features notable supporting turns by Lisa Banes as a pompous art collector and Patrick Fugit as a German-accented new age guru -- is a surrealist vision of Miami. It's a Miami where bizarro prankster art is king, a Miami inhabited by lurching, dark figures with glowing eyes who come out at night. As the two friends take on a quest to find the physical manifestations of their spirit animals -- a chicken for Beef and a dog for Conan -- Beef's beloved gold-plated BMX bike is stolen. The search for the cherished object is a familiar motif -- a stand-in for a man trapped in a kind of arrested development.
About two-and-a-half-years ago, Riches put down roots in the Magic City. New Times caught up with Riches on his way to Sundance.
New Times: What was your reaction to getting the invitation in Sundance?
Kenny Riches: It was exciting. You finish a film and then you submit it to Sundance because that's what you do. That's part of the process when you make an indie film (laughs). But I had no idea. It's really crazy. I don't really have any connections to Sundance even though I'm from here [Salt Lake City].
Are you nervous?
I mean, I don't like talking to people. I don't like people looking at me. I don't like that, but I'm not nervous for people to see it. It's done, and like all movies, people will either like it or they won't. It's out of my control at this point. I made the film I wanted to make, and if people receive it well, and it gets picked up, that would be amazing. If it doesn't, then that's fine, but it's already done its job for me, just getting into Sundance. I'm only nervous about having to be with people (laughs).
Miami is an important character in the film. How did it influence you?
I think Miami plays as more than just a location. I think it's a character in itself ... There's no place else in the United States like Miami. The things you see and hear in Miami are pretty specific to the city. In talking to friends that are from there, they kind of begrudgingly admit that they're from Miami, but for an outsider, Miami's so cool and interesting. It's full of those characters. It's full of the Meatballs, and this strange culture clash that you have. You have the Latin-American influence and the Caribbean influence and also European and the New Yorkers who are snowbirds. It kind of has this weird melting pot of people and everything works out great. Sometimes it doesn't, like how people drive there (laughs).
Meatball is a well-known performance artist in Miami. What does a non-actor like him bring to the creative process for you as a director?
He's done some performance videos and things like that, but he's never done anything as formal as creating a linear story where you have to maintain a certain character throughout 90 minutes of storytelling. Because I wrote the film specifically for almost everyone in the film -- certainly Meatball, Paul and Ashley -- so it really helped to try to play up to their strengths, but Meatball did really well. I made him kind of a quiet character, very introspective. I think he could have held his own had I given him a lot more challenging dialogue or something like that. I think he really understood what I was going for. He's a smart guy.
There's some arch commentary on art in the film. What are you saying about Miami and its art scene?
It's more satire. Being able to laugh at the art world that's there is interesting. It's also important to not take things so seriously. There's an interesting thing happening with those first generation kids who are growing up in Miami and went to art school and came back and were raised under this umbrella that is Art Basel. The artists themselves are kind of snarky themselves and make snarky art, which is kind of awesome. They're also kind of making a commentary on the art world, and I always really enjoy seeing stuff like that because once you move to Miami you really see how saturated all the art fairs are during this one, little time of the year. I think, for my next film, I'll focus on different things, but in this one, because Meatball does art in real life, I think that it just made sense, and I like the idea of different levels of class that happen in Miami, that pop up right next to each other. Overall, I'm not trying to say anything about the art world. I'm just trying to poke a little fun at it. I'm also an artist, so...
Glass houses, right?
Yeah. I'm not gonna lie. I definitely was a little nervous to go there just because if it is offensive I know tons of collectors in Miami as well (laughs). But I think everyone gets it. There's something funny about laughing at yourself.
What do you hope to get out of this exposure at Sundance?
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I think it has done a lot for me already. I really hope it gets picked up just so all the friends I have in other cities get to see it. You just kind of never know what's going to happen with a film once you're done with it. But I have other projects that are in the pipeline. I'm really excited just to get back work.
The Strongest Man will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25 and has three other screenings after that at the festival. For all screenings, visit sundance.org. In March, it will also play during Miami Dade College's Miami International Film Festival, which will announce its schedule on Tuesday.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.