Carlos Lopez Estrada On The Joy That Comes From Telling Stories About Underrepresented Communities

Carlos López Estrada at the World Premiere of Blindspotting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ryan Kobane.

Several years before making a splash at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival with two projects and being named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch, Mexican-born filmmaker Carlos López Estrada was already an acclaimed music video director and the proud winner of a Latin Grammy. López Estrada’s gorgeous, black-and-white paper cutout stop-motion video that he made in his garage for the song “Me Voy” (by Mexican-American sibling duo Jesse & Joy) earned him the honor a Latin Grammy in 2011.

If you look into his extensive catalogue of music videos, short films, and commercials, it’s clear that his ingenious and boundary-pushing perspective on audiovisual content has been brewing for a long time before his big current big breaks: the feature film Blindspotting and episodic series High & Mighty. From a stop-motion video made out of cookies, flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and dough for the song “Chocolate,” another track by Jesse & Joy; to visually impressive clip for Passion Pit’s “Carried Away” (Tiësto Remix) where bodies multiply in front of our eyes; or the sleek multi-language commercial for Corona titled “Movers,” López Estrada is the real deal when it comes to creating wondrous and imaginative images.

In Blindspotting, which was acquired by Lionsgate at Sundance and is scheduled for release later this year, the wildly original director partnered up with co-writers and co-stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal for a poignant, and often times hilarious, film about racial bias that’s set in Oakland. López Estrada and Diggs have worked together on numerous occasions before on music videos for the latter’s musical venture, Clippings. Similarly, he came on board as the director of the digital comedy series High & Mighty, produced by Warner Bros. Digital Network Stage 13, because he was the perfect artistic fit for writer Cesar Mazariegos’ story about Chelo Chavez (Jorge Diaz), a Mexican-American stoner in East LA who gets superhuman powers when he’s drunk or high.

Remezcla caught up with the prolific director at Sundance to learn more about both of his latest accomplishments and the influences that led him here. Here are the highlights from our conversation.

On His Relationship to Los Angeles and Oakland

I was born in Mexico City, and I lived there for about half of my life. I moved to the States with my family when I was 12. I moved to California for college, and I lived in LA for almost 10 years, so even though LA is not my hometown, it still feels like the first city that I really got to experience here in the States. I have no real relationship to Oakland, other than the fact that I know a lot of people from there, and I’ve worked there often. Blindspotting was written by Daveed and Rafael, who were born and raised there. It’s really inspired by their experiences growing up there, so that project I just really came onboard after. On High & Mighty, I met Cesar, and it felt a lot more local to me, just because I had been living in LA for so long, and I had gotten to experience the city over the last few years.

On the Thematic Similarities Between Blindspotting and High & Mighty

Both projects are different, as they should be, from one another, but they share a lot of traits, and one of them is that they are about people of color. In High & Mighty, it’s a Latino/Mexican man living in Los Angeles, and in Blindspotting, it’s an African American man living in Oakland. They are both trying to find their place in the city, both trying to figure out how to overcome hardships that they’ve been presented with, and how to function in the world that they live in. Even though one is a straight-on comedy, and the other one is a little bit more of a drama, I feel like emotionally there’s a lot of intersecting places for both of them, which is funny because the writers and production companies are so far removed, but both shows start with the lead character being let go from prison, and explain what the terms of their freedom are. Both characters throughout the projects, the movie and the show, have to learn how to deal with this new reality and how to face life after being branded, and after being given this new set of rules of what they can and cannot do, and try to figure out what that means for them as people. There are a lot of similarities between the two.

On How He Related to Both Projects as a Person of Color

I’ve been making music videos for the last 6 or 7 years, so I think visually my collaborators were excited about developing these stories with me, just to see what kind of visual language we could find and how I could translate their stories from paper to image. That’s technically, and on the more profound level, to High & Mighty I had a literal connection, because I am a Mexican living in the States, and to me it was very exciting to work on a project that had a predominately Latino cast and Latino characters, but avoided all of the clichés that we see so many times in the media. They are just characters that I had never seen portrayed by Latinos before, and to me that was very exciting; they were very well written, they were very complex, they’re extremely funny. To Blindspotting, it was less literal, but I’m an outsider in this country and I grew up speaking very little English, and I understand what it feels like to look around and to know that you don’t necessarily belong, and to have to find my way. I think the movie, even though it’s very specific about Oakland and very specific about the black experience, it’s a movie about identity. It’s a movie about a man trying to find his place in his world and his city and his community, and I think a lot of us relate to that, especially as minorities. I feel like we try to understand what our role in our communities is. Now with the political climate, being Mexican-American gives me a certain responsibility. I’m happy to be able to work on two projects where both the cast and crews are predominantly people of color, and each of them are just trying to do more work and represent the communities that they belong to, and just make sure that our voices are being heard.

Writer-Actor Daveed Diggs, Director Carlos López Estrada and Writer-Actor Rafael Casal attend the World Premiere of Blindspotting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ryan Kobane.
Read more

On Having White Characters Who Want to Belong

I think if you look at both characters, white males become the minority in both projects, which is ironic. I think the issues that both projects deal with are not exclusive to one ethnic group, or one race. Both projects, even though they’re hyper specific, one takes place in East LA in a Latino neighborhood and the other is a very Oakland-centric story and deals with African American issues, both have larger ideas about identity and people struggling with really human problems that I don’t think are exclusive to those two areas of California. I hope that people watching these are able to connect with them, whether or not they’ve lived in Oakland or have lived in LA. I feel like these are really well developed characters that struggle with real problems, real addictions, and real fears, and those are all things that we can all relate to.

On the Visual Influences That Shaped His Style

I grew up watching music videos. I definitely grew up in the MTV generation. I would get home every day from school and turn the TV on and see what’s going on with music and videos. I think all those guys in the 90s and early 2000s, like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Mark Romanek, unconsciously started teaching me a visual language that to me was very exciting and artistic. It was different from the kind of movies that I was watching. Then when I came to the states and I started working more in film there were others. I know specifically for Blindspotting I was watching a lot of Spike Lee’s stuff, because I think he more than anyone was able to combine style and strong aesthetic choices with really profound filmmaking and really profound ideas. I think for High & Mighty, the music video world that I grew up in had a big influence, because the show is really visual. There are a lot of effects, there are many chase and action sequences, and there’s a lot of eye candy. Blindspotting is also a little flashy, but they both required a visual language that wasn’t subdued and wasn’t subtle. I think both Cesar, who’s the writer of High and Mighty, and Daveed and Rafa, who are the writers of Blindspotting, from very early on said, “We want to make a visual statement. We don’t want this to be down the middle, we don’t want this to be just like the classic indie project. We want this to stand out, we want this to be colorful, and we want this to be unique.” It was my job to figure out how to translate that into images, and I think if you see both projects, there are obviously a lot of similarities, but also each of them has it’s very own unique identity, so I’m happy with that.

On How His Collaboration with Daveed and Rafa Started

I directed a music video for Clipping, which is Daveed’s rap group, about 6 years ago, and since then we’ve done 10 or 11 videos together. Rafa is his best friend, so he introduced me to Rafa, and when we were all living in New York, we did a bunch of projects for the public theater. The workshop these guys so is called Bars, and I film the showcase at the end of every workshop. It involves a lot of spoken word and a lot of rap. These are all projects that I think were preparing us for Blindspotting, because Blindspotting has a lot of musical elements, it has a lot of rap, it has a lot of spoken word and heightened language. I think all these projects that we had been doing through the years were preparing us for everything that Blindspotting was going to require.

‘High & Mighty.’ Courtesy of Stage 13
Read more

On Working on Both Episodic Content and a Feature-Length Film

It’s my first time doing both. Episodic was really fun. Honestly, High & Mighty, even though it’s 8 episodes, when you put them all together it’s over 100 minutes, so it’s essentially an indie film. It felt in many ways, even though I knew it wasn’t officially a movie, like we were shooting a film, because we had a 22-day schedule, and because we had 120 pages in the script. It felt a little bit like the smaller version of what was going to come the following year, which was Blindspotting. They’re both fun for different reasons. I think some people shoot shows actually episodically, episode by episode. They shoot episode one and then they’re done with that, and they shoot episode two, and then they move to the next one, which sounds very interesting, but the way we shot High & Mighty was like a film, which basically meant that on day one we were shooting scenes from Episode one, scenes from Episode three, and scenes from Episode eight. I don’t really have any other experience to compare it to, but I hope I can keep doing both.

On How the Concept of Blindspotting Applies to Different Topics in the Film

It’s about two different people seeing the same thing, and having a completely different reaction to it. Just because of your personal biases and your personal history and the way your brain is hardwired, you and I can look at the same person, at the same event, or same idea and understand it completely differently. The movie applies that idea to race, it applies that idea to the relationship between the police and African Americans, it applies that idea to gentrification, it applies that idea to toxic masculinity, and to gun control. That same idea is explored in many different scenarios with many different people, and to me, what the movie does is it encourages the audience to look a little closer and listen a little bit more attentively, and to understand the fact that your truth is real and it’s valid, but its different from my truth. Your truth doesn’t negate mine, and mine doesn’t negate yours, so even though I’ll never understand your experience, I should be open, and I should be just as interested in listening to you, trying to connect with you, and trying to figure out what about your experience is different than mine, where we can connect and where we can begin to understand each other a little bit better.

On Being a Latino Filmmaker in the United States

I was in film school when Cuarón, Iñárritu and Del Toro were doing some really fantastic stuff, so that was very exciting, and I think I’m part of this generation that’s just inherently more inclusive and inherently a lot more open to giving underrepresented communities opportunities. I did go to school with a lot of people of color. I did go to school with a few Latinos, but definitely not as many as there were white filmmakers. I think we’re all making big strides to keep doing work, and keep doing work that’s important to us, and keep doing work that represents our history and our heritage, so I do feel hopeful that this is exponentially going to continue to grow. I think there were so many important movies last year that were stories of color, and I think this year there are too. Even though it feels like we’re still in the shadows, we are so less and less, and hopefully soon we’ll turn our head and we’ll realize that we’re not in the shadows anymore, and we’ll realize that we’re getting the same kinds of opportunities and we’re telling the same kinds of stories, without them feeling like they’re a specialty category in the film world. It’s happening already, I just hope it keeps happening. The stories we tell are just as important as any other story, and I hope that we also continue to push to have female directors represented. I’m excited about other Mexican people living here in the States feeling like they have voices and that those voices are important. I hope other Mexicans here feel like they have lots of people that are representing them. It’s a responsibility, but it’s also a joy to be able to be a part of this, and to tell stories that I think need to be told and haven’t been told and hopefully will continue to be told.