21 March 2017
The Power of Identity
Energised from a successful awards season in Hollywood, film producer Andrew Hevia joined the HKTDC International Film & TV Market (FILMART) on 14 March in Hong Kong to lead a personal sharing session on filmmaking.
As co-producer of the Oscar-winning Best Picture Moonlight, Mr Hevia shared his experience of being an independent filmmaker in Miami, that paved the way to his Academy Award win. Deeply passionate about authenticity and specificity in storytelling, Mr Hevia explained his approach to identity in film, the benefits of micro-budget community filmmaking, and how the same principles apply to Hong Kong filmmakers.
What inspires you as a filmmaker?
I’m from Miami, Florida and when you think of Miami, you probably think of beaches. I didn't grow up on the beach. I went to high school downtown and that’s where I met a writer, Tarell McCraney, who would later impact my life again with Moonlight. After my time in visual arts and film school, I moved to San Francisco, where I met Barry Jenkins, also from Miami, making a film called Medicine for Melancholy, a micro-budget feature film about San Francisco. People were very excited about the film because it’s about San Francisco; a movie about a community, a city and specific to the place it was made.
But this made me unhappy because I’m from Miami and Barry’s from Miami, but he made a movie about San Francisco. Why didn’t he make it in Miami? People talk about cities that are famous for being famous and no one is talking about Miami in the way that Barry and I understand it. I wanted to change this because when you think of Miami you think of Miami Vice, Dexter or Ace Ventura. What these all have in common is that these are made by people not from Miami, but set in Miami, on the beach. It’s not about Miami. I want to know about stories the neighbourhoods we grew up in. So I returned to Miami to tell stories that are set in Miami, about Miami, for an audience of Miami people and that are made by filmmakers who are from Miami.
“When you are creative, the end results are personal, original and not expensive.”
How did micro-budget filmmaking affect your creativity?
To share these Miami stories, my friends and I started making films without any money. This led to us creating our own festival called the Borscht Film Festival. We shot our films in the neighbourhoods of Miami, about these neighbourhoods and shot by people who lived in these neighbourhoods. We learned how to make movies cheaply and quickly. We taught ourselves how to make movies that were interesting and fun to watch rather than expensive.
Sometimes it can be better to have no money than some money. If you have some money, it’s a job that doesn’t pay well. But if you have no money it’s not a job, it’s fun. It’s about community. You’re focusing on art not money and you need to get creative. When you are creative, the end results are personal, original and not expensive. It’s easy to make things look like you spent money; it’s hard to make them good. After some success from sharing these Miami stories at my festival, that writer I had met in high school, Tarell McCraney, reached out to me with a piece that he wrote about his experience in Miami, so I connected him with [film director] Barry Jenkins.
Why is catering to a niche audience important for filmmaking?
It’s better to make a film for a small audience that cares than a large one that doesn’t. Moonlight and those films from my festival in Miami were about our audience and for our audience. We didn’t worry about if people in Los Angeles would like them; that wasn’t the point. People liked them because they were unique and because they were specific.
Independent film works best when it competes on ideas rather than money. If you have US$50 million dollars but your movie should cost US$200 million, you will always have less money than you need and your movie will look like that. But if you are competing on ideas, it is not about money, it’s about what you are saying. By focusing on Miami, we could explore the stories in our neighbourhoods, the stories that we knew that no one else knew, and that made our films personal and unique. We wanted to show you where we lived, who we were, and how we lived. We wanted to show you us. Which brings me back to Moonlight; I later received a phone call from Barry Jenkins. He had decided that the script that I had given him from Tarell McCraney should be a movie and I should come help them make it.
How did this style of narrative impact the film’s development?
Moonlight was a hard movie to make because people in the industry said it had limited appeal, because it had no movie stars, there were no white actors, it was an experimental narrative and no one internationally would ever want to watch our movie. So why would they want to give us money to make our movie? Put another way, the things about Moonlight that they say were problems are actually the reasons it worked. It was about and for a specific audience. When they say limited, what they mean is specific and that’s an asset. It was told in an unexpected way; it paid attention to craft over spectacle. Barry used to say that it was his goal to bring an art-house film to his hood. It competes on ideas: it’s about identity, love, masculinity, hope and loss. The reasons people don’t want to fund your movie are probably the reasons you need to make it. A movie that appeals to everyone is generic. Universal appeal is bland. Make films for you and your audience. Identity is specific and our film Moonlight is an identity film about Miami and about someone growing up poor, black and gay. Identity is how people see themselves and if you show people themselves, they will reward you with passion. A passionate audience will grow into a larger one. When people are passionate about your work, your work will spread.
How can the “specific” narrative in filmmaking benefit Hong Kong creators?
One thing about Miami that I recognised when I lived in Hong Kong last year was that Miami is a place nobody lives in; everyone is temporarily there. I think Hong Kong has some of those same issues. A lot of people are here from other places and they hold onto their other identity. I think that’s an opportunity to start talking about what it means to be here, to be from here, and what it is like to live here.