Puerto Rican Screenwriter Kisha Tikina Burgos on Self-Criticism, Keeping It DIY & Passion Projects

For years Puerto Rican cinema has been flirting with a breakout moment, but given recent setbacks in the film industry and a festering economic crisis on the island, it seems local production may not grow out of adolescence for some time. But that doesn’t mean that the U.S. commonwealth (whatever that means) isn’t overflowing with talented creators doing important work, despite these adverse conditions.

One of the most promising screenwriters working on the island right now goes by name of Kisha Tikina Burgos. Along with her husband Arí Maniel Cruz, Burgos just wrapped production on her second feature film Carmín, which received partial support from the now-endangered Puerto Rican Film Commission. As in her previous feature Under My Nails, Burgos both wrote and starred in the feature, which took her back to her inland hometown of Barranquitas after living and working for nearly a decade in New York City. The project is currently in post-production and looking forward to a 2016 festival run.

‘Under my Nails’
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Released in 2012 and directed by Cruz, Under My Nails earned the top prize for Best Domestic Feature at New York International Latino Film Festival the same year, before being picked up for cable distribution by HBO Latino. The psychological thriller dramatized a murderous love triangle between a Puerto Rican-born New Yorker, her Dominican neighbor, and his Haitian wife, and was shot on a guerrilla budget in Washington Heights.

In addition to her film work, Burgos is also an accomplished playwright, with her recent play Memoria de Elefante garnering effusive reviews after its Puerto Rican premiere. Her most recent work, Enjaula, is currently playing at Puerto Rico’s renowned Centro de Bellas Artes. In the midst of her busy schedule, we took the opportunity to chat with Burgos about endless self-criticism, keeping it DIY, and a passion project about the history of Puerto Rico.

As a writer, what first attracted you to screenwriting?
I started my career as an actress on the stage and I still work principally in the theater, in addition to writing and producing films. I remember when I started out, what I found most fascinating about these plays was understanding how the author was able to take me on a journey toward his or her thesis about humanity, life, death, or politics. That process of analysis of a work in its totality always fascinated me more than the analysis of a single character. I knew very early on that I wanted to tell stories about my own experience and perhaps for that reason I always felt I was inside a film. Even today, I must admit, I still have the feeling of interacting with life with an external gaze observing me and observing itself from a distance. Since I was a child, I was always surprised by observing everything around me with close attention. One day my grandmother told me, “You keep quiet so you can watch everything,” then she smiled and in secret told me, “That’s what I like to do, too.” I suppose I got it from her! Ha ha!

I approached screenwriting after writing two plays and seeing several films that drove me crazy, including El lado oscura del corazón by Eliseo Subiela. That’s when I decided to write films! Isn’t that crazy? But since I come from the theater, I’ve never been intimidated by cinema. Obviously, they are very different languages, and that’s why I dedicated myself to studying screenwriting and will continue studying my whole life! But what I mean to say is that I tend to see the possibility of making the films that I imagine, as opposed to other colleagues who see it as something very remote and difficult to achieve on account of the costs and technical complications. In the theater we work a lot and do wonders with very little! Maybe that ignorance or lack of fear at the beginning of my screenwriting career led me to just jump in. Ignorance can be daring! That’s how I found my way to screenwriting: ignorance and a great need to tell stories.

‘Under my Nails’
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“That’s how I found my way to screenwriting: ignorance and a great need to tell stories.”

For you, what would be the ideal dynamic between a director and a screenwriter?
I suppose the ideal dynamic doesn’t exist since it’s by nature a conflictive relationship. The writer writes something that will never make its way into the film the way she imagines, since it goes through the filter and interpretation of the director. But the fact that this relationship may be conflictive is not necessarily negative, but quite the opposite; it is very enriching for the work. I am married to Arí Maniel Cruz, who has directed two features written by me and we always argue throughout the process, because sometimes one simple action can sum up an entire scene. And that’s painful for me at the moment, but later I see it in the context of the entire film and I love it and I ask myself: “Why the hell did I have to write all of that?!”

On the other hand, sometimes the directors cut marvelous scenes because they didn’t come out in terms of directing. It’s not easy for the director! The writer sits down to dream in the comfort of her own home, or in her favorite café and has time to perfect a dialogue or a description, but when it comes time to shoot that scene: the weather, money, the actor’s mood, time constraints, or any imaginable production setback [come along]. As the saying goes, “There’s a great distance between words and actions (Del dicho al hecho hay un largo trecho)!” The ideal is to continue growing and learning to write for the screen. I continue refining my eye as a producer and director during the shoots, so I can go more to the essence of the story while being realistic and fair to the reality of production.

‘Under my Nails’
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How do you see the professional landscape for screenwriters in your country? Are there many opportunities?
There are no opportunities! You have to create the opportunities yourself. Many people, in their desire to make a film, write without knowing or without studying how to write screenplays. Most of the time when they hire a screenwriter [in Puerto Rico], they prefer a foreigner. Similarly, as a woman, I’ve found myself at a disadvantage when being considered for screenwriting gigs. Machismo, the patriarchy, gender discrimination, or whatever we want to call it, gets to such a point that some people find it hard to believe that I’m the one who wrote the films we’ve made. Sadly, I must confess that this is the reality.

If you write in Puerto Rico, and I imagine in many other parts of the world, you must prepare yourself to produce and direct your own work. But this situation doesn’t surprise me and I’ve quite enjoyed doing things like this. I’ve accepted this DIY ethos since very early in my career. My own work has given me everything, including collaboration on other projects that I’ve been offered through exposing my work. Once you get good work out there, it can only bring positive things, because people start wanting to be a part of what you’re doing! Just yesterday, for the first time in my life, I signed a contract to write a feature for some very talented young producers. I’m happy because I love collaborating and because I know I’m finally getting to that moment where I can say that I live well doing what I love.

‘Under my Nails’
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“If you write in Puerto Rico, you must prepare yourself to produce and direct your own work.”

Which screenplay has been the most difficult for you to write and why?
They are all difficult to write because each story represents a new challenge. Until now, the screenplay for my upcoming feature Carmín (working title) represented a long and arduous process, because six years went by until it was produced and the screenplay changed along with me – that’s difficult and wonderful at the same time! Right now that project is in post-production and I see the final cut and say, “Coño, I could keep scrutinizing this story. What if this happened instead of that? Why didn’t I think of this or that conflict before?!” That’s how it is for me. The questions and possibilities that a story brings with it are infinite. So the themes I tend to work with – given that they’re so intimate – almost always transform along with me, with my experiences. But in the end I continue wondering and exploring the same mysteries, the same concerns. To dig deeply we must be certain that we’ll never reach the bottom, the end or the answer, ever!

If you didn’t have to think about budgets, producers, or other limiting factors, what screenplay would you like to write?
I would write a film about the colonial period in Puerto Rico and attempt to represent the past and the foundations of my country today, which was a Spanish colony and to this day continues to be a colony of the United States. I would like to show the roots of political and social chaos in the Puerto Rican archipelago.