Interview with director Charles Mesa

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I’m a visual learner and a visual thinker. It was elementary school, on the yard, where I realized I thought differently than most of my peers. Not only in the way that I explained things, but also in the fact that I was okay with being alone, because I had my mind to fill in the blanks. To this day, I can’t explain a concept without seeing it first. To me, that is tangibility: seeing is believing.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

I see the “no film school/film school” argument as a gray area, rather than black/white. There are some that learn practically, by just doing it, and there are others that prefer instruction. My life and background was my film school. My tuition was renting gear, paying crew, and making a dozen unwatchable shorts. I feel like either way, you’re going to spend time and money. So, ask yourself, “Do I like to create my own path, learn from experience, and can I hold myself accountable?” or “Do I prefer instruction, tried and true practices, and a system that is structured?” Choose what works for you.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

Keep going, sort of. The first leap is scary and difficult, yes, but it only happens once. The steps that follow do get easier, but there is an aspect that I definitely missed out of the gate, and that’s being present and mindful of what you’re doing. Just because you’re making choices does not mean they’re good ones. The hardest moments for me are when I’ve dug myself into a whole, because I’m not actively thinking about the choices I’m making and learning from the little mistakes. “Keep going” does not just mean maintaining momentum, it means maintaining the -right- momentum, and it’s something I have to conquer everyday.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

There’s too many to pick the most important, but I can say that the most recent lesson I learned from “Parched,” is that most things come together if you hire capable people and create an environment where your vision is clear and then you give everyone the room to work. In my earlier work, I thought my job as a “director/producer/screenwriter” was to do everything in my power to get the project done. I just wore all the hats, stressed myself out, and the project was worse for it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very particular and because I’m a visual thinker, I see everything in my head, from the lighting, blocking, down to the color of socks on my actor’s feet, but if I communicate that to someone who’s a lot more capable than I, then my job is done. All that is left to do is to create a productive, safe environment where their job is possible.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

Parched had a series of disasters that were a blessing in disguise. When I first started pre-production, I had this mindset of going bigger with everything. Hire a working TV actress, get a big music video DP and hire his crew, go to a prop rental  and replace all my furniture in my house. I fundraised, I worked overtime, I begged, borrowed, and stole to do it big… and I lost it all. I saved checks, petty cash and big bills and on the day I went to the bank, my wallet fell out of the car. I lost everything. I couldn’t pay my crew, so they left. I was convinced that “Parched” wasn’t going to happen, but my support system (my fiancé and sfx make-up artist on Parched, Lex) made me see the light. I had to focus on what mattered most: telling a good story with people I trust. So, I made a few phone calls to some old friends and co-workers I met on past gigs and they all came to support the project. I have a rule on my set, “Everybody gets paid and everyone goes home on time.” I owe that much to my crew, because I know how demanding I can be when we’re there and “on.” I lost the money–I couldn’t afford to pay a big crew, but I had enough to pay capable people at my level. The world made the right choice for me. I was able to rely on my actress, because I knew and trusted her. My crew and I are all young and had something to prove, and we did. I believe we did.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

The actress I originally hired was incredibly talented. I watched her reading of Rebecca and my jaw dropped, but… she wasn’t really interested in exploring the role further. No conversations, no blocking–she wanted to come in on the day of, do her thing, and call it a day. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that mentality. I wish I was comfortable enough to trust my abilities in the moment, come in on the day of, see the performance on the first take, make tweaks, and call it a day, but I’m not there yet. So, I made the tough call, and I decided to go in a different direction. They say 90% of making a movie is casting. Although I don’t believe that percentage is accurate, I am still willing to admit that it is a vital decision when making a picture. I chose Christine Celozzi and it’s the best decision I ever made for “Parched.” I trusted her and she trusted my direction and story. Together, we conquered the script.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I like to think that I maintain a good balance between work and play, and by work I mean my cast and crew are forced to listen to what I say, and play being the vice versa. Creating an environment where you have your rules set, but making sure your cast and crew knows that there’s a time where you’re willing to bend or break them for a good idea is key. I set the rules and atmosphere for a project early, so I attract like-minded people. During pre-production and rehearsal, I give the crew/cast my bible for that department (music, stills/scenes from other films, artwork, colors, furniture, design, font, anything really) so they know the rules. After our vision is focused, it’s time to play; we mix and jumble our inspirations together and make the project what it will be. On set, I like to keep things mostly set in stone. I’m not someone that does a lot of takes (unless it’s a technical/vfx shot), because the exploration and prep work has gone in before. On set, playtime is over, and the work begins.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

I’m of the opinion that audiences don’t know what they want, and I say that not as a director, but as an audience member. Before I made my first short, I used to sit around all day, watch movies, and then discuss it with my other cinephile friends. Our opinions changed, we had interesting conversations, but one constant was that we could never all agree on one thing. There’s no such thing as making a movie “the right way,” there’s only -your way- and some people are going to think your way sucks, and others are going to think that you’re a genius, or you’re just okay, and some people aren’t going to think of you at all. I say do it your way. That’s the only thing that matters. If you win using somebody else’s formula, won’t you feel like you cheated or feel like it wasn’t your win? If you lose doing it your way, at least you won’t regret it. You’ll just fail miserably. There are worse things in this world.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

I feel like I’m the worst person to ask, because this is my first year during the film festival circuit and we’ve all spent the past 11 months inside. There were a few film festivals that were restructured and moved to drive-in theaters that I was able to attend here in the U.S., but the turnouts were modest to say the least. I look forward to the day I can shake the hand of someone, anyone that has found value in my work. I think connection is what we’re all trying to accomplish as artists. Connection to each other, to like-minds, to the world. That is the value I see in film festivals.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

I believe anyone that believes the world is black or white is doing themselves a disservice. I also believe that a sign of a good storyteller is someone that can’t help but put themselves into it. Think about your teachers in school when they would read a story to the class. Which teacher did you love the most, the one that read the page like it was Sunday scripture, or was it the one that couldn’t help being animated, present, and passionate? I could listen to Romeo and Juliet be told by 100 different people and I would have heard 100 different stories. Your idea is not what is unique. It’s how you tell it. Lastly, I’d just like to thank anyone that took the time to read this. I’m nobody special, so the fact that you found something of interest in this interview or my work really means a lot to me. It’s why I do it.