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María Alvarez: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

Interview with Guernslye Honorés

Always be excited to learn. Filmmaking involves creative problem solving on a daily basis. It is one of the biggest constants of our industry. Learn to enjoy and get excited by the idea of solving problems, rather than fearing it. A lot of the times, problem solving can sharpen your focus and strengthen the story through a creative workaround.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing María Alvarez.

María Alvarez is an internally recognized Cuban-Dutch filmmaker. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a BFA in Film & Television Production. Her films have screened at dozens of festivals such as the San Francisco International Film Festival and Cleveland International Film Festival, won awards from institutions such as Google, and screened in museums like MoMA.

Her short film, “Split Ends,” was a 2021 Horizon Award Finalist, premiered at the NALIP Latino Media Fest, and then went on to screen at the Cannes Court Métrage and NewFilmmakers LA hosted by the Academy. Her short film, “did i look cuban then?,” premiered at the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at NFFTY.

María is a 2023 Rising Voices fellow (Hillman Grad / Indeed), where she directed and co-wrote her latest short film, “Last Days of the Lab.” The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and has gone on to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival and HollyShorts Film Festival. “Last Days of the Lab” is an Oscar-Qualifying film for Best Live Action Short.

María is a freelance director and photographer in the narrative, music video, and commercial space working for clients such as Nike, Netflix, and more. She is currently in the 2023 Sundance Institute Latine Collab Scholarship program where she is developing her feature film script, “Guava Tree.”

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio to a family of Cuban and Dutch immigrants. This shapes a lot of the way that I see the world and the stories I want to tell. My dad is a self taught photographer and I grew up on the sets of his photoshoots. I was lucky that the world of cameras and the arts didn’t seem off the table or unconventional to me. I gravitated towards filmmaking because I loved the storytelling aspect of it. At the same time as this realization, my sister came home one year with a Flip camera and I became obsessed. I would make videos of everyone and everything around me. As I got older and realized that film was something I could study, I began taking it more seriously and creating short films. My friends and family would serve as the cast and crew members. I was also lucky to have a very supportive teacher, Mr. Houchins, who always believed in me and to attend a high school that had a film class. I began submitting my films to festivals around the world to build a resume for myself. Through that, I went to the University of Southern California to study Film & Television Production and I have been in Los Angeles ever since.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

One of the most interesting and serendipitous moments that happened in the process of making “Last Days of the Lab” was when we stumbled across the photo lab, Beverly Cameras + Hi-Fi. In pre-production, we compiled a list of 50+ photo labs in the Los Angeles area. We narrowed this list down to about 20. Our producer Po Wei Su and production coordinator Andrew Post then scouted these photo labs, camera stores, and repair shops. One of them being Beverly Cameras + Hi-Fi, a store that had been around since the 1950s and was closing that very week. “Last Days of the Lab” is directly about a mother and daughter preparing to permanently close down their family’s photo lab and takes place the last day the store is open to the public. To come across a place that was going through the exact same thing as our story reminded us of the importance of the story we were trying to tell.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

We were lucky to work with so many talented individuals in the making of “Last Days of the Lab.” From our cast to our crew to the folks behind the Rising Voices program, I’m grateful to have worked alongside such inspiring people. Filmmaking is such a collaborative endeavor. Our job day in and day out is to make creative decisions and be constant problem solvers. You want to go through these executive calls with people who believe in the same vision as you, and are just as excited as you are to create this film. The process of crewing up for LDOTL taught me the importance of trusting your gut. In the initial meeting with a potential collaborator, how have they shown up? What did they prepare for your call? What things excite them about the project? What questions are they asking you? What things do they want to improve? I want to work with people who are deeply passionate about what they do and who are going to push me to be the best collaborator I can be. If you feel any red flags in your initial meetings, those are probably going to become big problems later on. Trust your intuition and reveal your innermost passions. Passion breeds more passion, and I think it’s one of the best and most inspiring things about filmmaking.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m infinitely grateful to my creative partner and co-writer on “Last Days of the Lab,” Ethan Newmyer. He always pushes me to be the best artist I can be and endlessly inspires me to be better, speak from the heart, and lead with kindness. He’s my favorite writer and director, and so getting to work with him on this project and everything else we create together is a dream. He’s a brilliant artist, writes from a place of compassion, and always leads in a gentle and heartfelt manner. I’m lucky to know him.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m excited to still be showcasing “Last Days of the Lab” in the festival circuit. We are currently running an FYC campaign for Best Live Action Short Film. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and then went on to screen at TIFF, HollyShorts, and LA Shorts. We still have a festival run through the first half of next year, so I’m honored to keep bringing LDOTL to more audiences around the world.

Otherwise, I’m currently in writing mode. I am developing my feature film script, “Guava Tree,” in the 2023 Sundance Institute Latine Collab Scholarship program. This project has had a special place in my heart for many years, so I’m grateful to be bringing it to life.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

  1. Always be excited to learn. Filmmaking involves creative problem solving on a daily basis. It is one of the biggest constants of our industry. Learn to enjoy and get excited by the idea of solving problems, rather than fearing it. A lot of the times, problem solving can sharpen your focus and strengthen the story through a creative workaround.
  2. Be clear about what you do and what you want. Don’t say “I’m an aspiring director” or “I want to be a director,” own the fact that you are one.
  3. Find a group of people and peers who you trust to review your work and get notes from. I believe the best form of notes is when someone recognizes your own vision and what you’re trying to say, and gives you a note to help you get there, rather than imposing their own thoughts on the story.
  4. Trust your gut and intuition.
  5. Be a good listener.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

When creating “Last Days of the Lab” and all the films that I do, I think it’s a delicate dance of balancing all these things. I take all different perspectives into heavy consideration when making decisions, but at the end of the day, it has to be a solution that aligns with my personal vision. Compromise is a big part of being a filmmaker and a lot of the times I think it can actually push us in even stronger directions than we originally anticipated. All this to say, there is a fine line where compromise passes your limit and the film has fallen off track from your vision. I think recognizing when this happens is part of growing your gut and intuition as an artist and a filmmaker. At the end of the day, I try to make a film that I would be excited to see myself, because if my heartbeat isn’t felt in every aspect of the project then I’m wasting everyone else’s time and effort.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

One of our biggest inspirations in the process of making “Last Days of the Lab” was the work of director and writer Richard Linklater. He explores the passage of time through film in such unique and inspiring ways through “The Before Trilogy” as well as “Boyhood.” So much of our film was a vessel to talk about how each of us grapple with the passage of time, the tangibility of memory, and ultimately the end of an era. There is a specific quote in the the “Linklater / Cinema and Time” video by Kogonada, where Linklater says “you look at a picture of yourself when you were 10 years old, and stare at that for a second. And then look at yourself in the mirror, that’s a powerful connection, you to that person. And we all have that.” We took direct inspiration from this quote for the scene in which Lucia is flipping through old photos of herself as a dancer, an old dream of hers that she had to give up on, and then she catches her reflection in the mirror in the present day. Bigger than just this specific moment, the work of Richard Linklater was a big inspiration to us in the making of this film overall, as well as all of the work that I do.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Definitely! Here are some links to follow my personal work as well as the film.

María Alvarez — Director + Co-Writer of Last Days of the Lab

Ethan Newmyer — Co-Writer of Last Days of the Lab

Last Days of the Lab

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

About the interviewer: Guernslye Honoré, affectionately known as “Gee-Gee”, is an amalgamation of creativity, vision, and endless enthusiasm. She has elegantly twined the worlds of writing, acting, and digital marketing into an inspiring tapestry of achievement. As the creative genius at the heart of Esma Marketing & Publishing, she leads her team to unprecedented heights with her comprehensive understanding of the industry and her innate flair for innovation. Her boundless passion and sense of purpose radiate from every endeavor she undertakes, turning ideas into reality and creating a realm of infinite possibilities. A true dynamo, Gee-Gee’s name has become synonymous with inspirational leadership and the art of creating success.

María Alvarez: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.