How They Did It: Learning a New Culture and Creating Painterly Visuals to Make Despite Everything

The biggest challenge of working on my seventh feature film as a director was to do a comedy in another country. Humor changes based on specific cultures, that is why American comedies sometimes do not translate well overseas. I had directed movies in the U.S. and Mexico, but never in Spain. Spanish humor is more grounded, and their comedies are more dramatic—almost like dramedies. It was interesting to learn a new culture and humor, keeping in mind that the film was going to be released in 190 countries and in 18 languages.

My challenge was to make a laugh-out-loud commercial movie with great comedic timing, and yet make it provocative, controversial and dramatic enough to appeal to the audience in Spain, starring 12 of the country’s biggest stars. I immersed myself in Madrid, explored the city and watched many Spanish movies to get the rhythm and flow of their humor. I am grateful that we did our job and the humor has the right sensibilities for its country of origin. The movie is trending on Netflix in Spain and numerous countries, and is receiving critical and public acclaim.

Madrid became another character in Despite Everything. I was permitted to film in key places around the beautiful city, and was thrilled to film in the magnificent world-famous Royal Palace and also the amazing Plaza Mayor.

To be able to film the scene in the Plaza Mayor—which is usually filled with tourists—was special and it offered a unique setting for our film. The logistics of filming were made even more complicated because we needed to get a sunrise shot, and the sunrise light only lasts 15 minutes. To set up, we had to arrive at 4am—when it was still dark—and prepare for shooting as we waited for the sun to come up. Sunrise offered the most beautiful lighting imaginable, for skin tones and the entire scene. The old buildings were dimly lit with many antique lamps around the plaza that automatically turn off when the sun rises. In addition, the actress had to cry on cue in this scene as the steady-cam spun counter-clockwise, so I knew that not only was the timing with the sunrise going to be a challenge, but everyone had to move in a perfectly synchronized sort of dance as we rolled. We rehearsed in the dark, and when the sun appeared in the sky we did three takes. That was all the time we had. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

My vision was to use saturated colors and soft lighting in the scenes to enhance skin tones, and to make the sets as exquisite as a painting. We used a wide lens for comedic effect and a long lens for beauty shots of locations and women’s close-ups. In all my movies I like to keep the camera moving smoothly, using dollies and steady-cams.

Despite Everything is about four estranged sisters who are reunited at their mother’s funeral. Once they arrive at the reading of their mother’s will they are notified that their mother left them a video telling them that the person they believe to be their father is not their biological father and that the sisters need to find who their fathers are.

As a director, what attracted me to the script is that the characters are extremely rich in complexity and the dialogue is smart, witty and elegant. The structure of the movie resides in the suspense as the truth for each of them unfolds, and there is a big twist at the end.

The editing in comedy is key. The editing in this movie varies according to pacing of the scene—with quick cuts for back and forth banter, and longer scenes for more dramatic, visual, slower moments that need to be savored.

The camera moves accompany the emotions of the characters and the music score of the film has plenty of romantic chords for certain moments along with funny melodies to speed up the scenes and enhance the humor.

One of the best compliments people give me is that my movies move fast, yet they are short. I keep all my films in the 90-minute range. Despite Everything is 86 minutes, since Netflix did not require a specific running time. Because of that freedom the entire film is fast paced, and flows with artistic flourishes and creative, visual transitions.

I really realize the devil is in the details. I choose the secondary characters and extras in every scene, utilizing the ones who can add something special to the shot. I like the ones who have interesting comedic faces and give the best expressions, and I place them close to the lens to enrich the world we are creating.

The other challenge that I had to overcome in Despite Everything was to direct four female leads, all of whom are huge stars in Spain. I have dedicated my career to making movies about women, but I have never had the challenge of having four actresses in almost every scene. That required more camera set-ups and each actress had interesting questions, input, and ideas. I love working with actors and collaborating while on set, but the price of that is filming becomes more time-intensive. The payoff is the magic that works from collaboration, on the set, in the moment. There is never enough time to film anyway, so I believe in the experience and talents of the actors to elevate the project.

A few years ago, I directed Eva Longoria and Kate del Castillo in the movie Without Men, a comedy about a small Latin town populated solely by women. But the situation was different in that movie, since Eva was the main lead. Eva is extremely intelligent and experienced, and we collaborated beautifully.

I also directed Ladies’ Night and How to Break Up with Your Douchebag, both of which opened at #1 in the box-office in Mexico. These two movies had only two female leads each, but the magic on set was amazing and we laughed so hard, improvising and coming up with new ideas.

When people ask me why I make movies about women, I respond that I believe that life imitates art, so if I make movies about women leads hopefully more women will be the lead actor in films, and be leaders in life.

When I was studying in film school, I did not think about the odds being against me as a female director, or that it would be difficult for me to be a director, or that the statistics were not favorable for women, I just wanted to be a director. And I set my mind to do it without thinking about my gender.

People who are just starting in this business often ask me how I came to direct seven feature films. I respond simply that the key is persistence. I write every day from 6am until 10am. Every single day. Sometimes I create good stuff, sometimes just crap. But it is a numbers game, like roulette. There are more possibilities of winning if you have more chips on the table.

This business is challenging. Just when you think you have enough experience to handle it, something happens. When I was preparing to direct Eva in Without Men, we lost half of the financing a week before shooting. And thanks to Eva, we got it back. This happens a lot. It is a risky business.

My father thought I was not going to make a living doing this job. So when I told him that I wanted to go to college to study film, he worried. He did not want me to follow this career and told me he would take away the car that he gave me. I told him, “Then I’ll take the bus.” And I did. And here I am. You have to believe in yourself.

Another challenge I faced was racism. The first day that I was directing Sharon Stone in our movie Border Run, I felt so happy working at a big studio and directing such a talented star. That morning I ran into the women’s bathroom, and the accounting woman told me, “You need to change the toilet paper.” She thought I was the cleaning lady just because I’m Latina. And I answered her, “I’m the damn director.”

The best advice I can give is just to keep doing it. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a director, direct. Do not listen to what negative people say, listen to your gut. Work hard, get experience, and learn from mistakes. Simple, but true.

You have to believe in yourself to be able to sell yourself. Pitching projects and going to meetings is a big part of this business. They say, “It’s not who you know but who knows you.” They have to know you and want to work with you, to hire you.

If you set your mind to do anything, you can do it. I decided I wanted to direct movies when I was 11 years old, and now I am doing it. I wanted to be represented at CAA and I am, and I love my agents. I wanted to write a TV show for Amazon and direct a movie for Netflix, and I did both, and that movie is out now. If I can do it, you can do it.

One of the most exciting things about my new movie Despite Everything showing in Netflix in 190 countries is the exposure. Friends and complete strangers from Spain, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Israel, Argentina, Greece and other countries have reached out to tell me they liked my movie. As artists, we want to communicate. Netflix allows me to talk to the world. MM

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