The boldness of Blindspotting, an electric dramedy exploring race and gentrification in Oakland, gained director Carlos López Estrada considerable industry attention. But as the promotional cycle for that summer 2018 film came to an end, the longtime music video director couldn’t find anything that excited him as intensely as his feature debut had. Though he didn’t pen Blindspotting, the creative camaraderie he developed with writers and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal made it profoundly personal for him.
“I knew that unless I found something that I could feel equally as passionate about, I just wouldn’t want to engage in it,” López Estrada tells MovieMaker.
During his inspiration drought, López Estrada received an invitation to a spoken word showcase put on by the non-profit organization Get Lit-Words Ignite that was held in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. For nearly two hours, he listened to a diverse group of young artists talk about themselves and their varied communities. It all landed with a ravishing force.
López Estrada soon presented Diane Luby Lane, the director of the organization, with a plan for the poets to work on a narrative film. The idea was to workshop the movie with the poets rather than writing a script and having them act in it. The appropriately titled outcome, Summertime, premiered at Sundance 2020.
Similar in concept to an omnibus film, López Estrada’s sophomore endeavor consists of several segments. The twist is that instead of multiple directors, it has multiple writer-performers at the helm.
“We would be working on the script together. Each of them would write and star in their own individual scenes and then together, through the summer workshop, we would figure out how to piece all of these elements together into a bigger through line. That’s what happened for the next four or five months. That’s how we spent our summer of 2019,” he explains.
Every segment was filmed on location in a different corner of L.A., and the film’s behind-the-scenes philosophy hinged on a small crew that made the smallest possible production footprint. Using limited lighting equipment, the filmmakers shot as unobtrusively as possible in restaurants, businesses, homes, and on the street.
“We designed the production of the movie knowing that this was going to resemble a documentary shoot in the sense that we were going to be nimble. We were going to leave room for discovery,” he notes.
That meant a willingness to reassess if someone became excited by a specific location, for example, as the collaborators brought each stirring story to life. Such improvisation was possible because of its economical dynamic in place: less people and tools to transport and set up.
One exception to that mantra was a musical number involving 35 choreographed dancers. The production shut down a street with police cars and used multiple cameras to capture a set piece centered on an iron-willed Latina. The day before, the production had consisted of shooting inside a small house with just two people.
Sequences criss-cross the West Coast metropolis from the beach to downtown to the southeast as we follow LGBTQ+ youth, two burgeoning rappers, a multi-faceted Latino, or a fast food worker who’s had enough of his job. The emotional showstopper is delivered by Marquesha Babers, a young Black woman reciting raw memories of a traumatic relationship.
López Estrada recalls this being the most delicate moment, because Babers, in her first cinematic appearance, wasn’t playing a character, but sharing her truth. She accesses painful passages of her past in order to finally let them go. But to do it so publicly and on camera was uniquely liberating.
“I remember after we shot that scene, she had this huge smile on her face and was really breathing heavy,” López Estrada says. “You could tell that she had just found some closure that she had been looking for. That made us realize the movie had that power to heal. That was a special day.”
The director admits he’s had a complicated history with L.A., a beautiful sprawl that he hadn’t fully appreciated, despite calling it home for a long time. The creative circles he joined when he moved to L.A. after film school painted his relationship with the city. His network, made up of fellow filmmakers trying to make a name for themselves, was exciting but homogenous. The poets reshaped his experience.
“In meeting these poets, getting to go to all their neighborhoods with them, getting to meet their families, eat their foods, and understand their stories, I feel like for the first time since I lived here, which is over 10 years, I really got to understand the breadth of the city and see it under different lights. I fell in love with L.A. through my experience on Summertime,” he explains.
López Estrada made sure the structure of this lyrical anthology is close to his experience of that first Koreatown spoken-word event: About every three minutes a new person comes on screen and the audience gets to hear a new story. And the film’s visual style, tone, and pacing morphs to adapt to each new narrator.
“The images that each of the poets brought into our head were completely different, and the entire personality of the performance changed,” he notes. Some chapters are more musically driven than the rest; others offer broad humor that contrasts with the more moving sections. The languages spoken include English, Spanish and Korean.
López Estrada was mostly unfamiliar with the intricacies of spoken word until he became exposed to them through his friendship with Diggs: The director shot a series of bold videos for the Hamilton star’s experimental hip-hop trio, clipping. But López Estrada now recognizes a quality to spoken word that speaks directly to his ambitions as an artist. Chatting with George Watsky, a spoken word poet he’s known for quite some time, the director made sense of it.
“He said, ‘Seeing your work and seeing the kinds of stories that you gravitate towards the most, I think that spoken word became an important tool in your journey because it’s about finding the deepest truth behind someone.’ That really spoke to me because it’s true,” shares López Estrada.
In working with these poets, whose work involves looking inward and being vulnerable, he found kindred spirits. And even though he doesn’t consider himself a poet, his lifelong fascination with music and music videos — he grew up on a hefty diet of MTV — has made spoken word feel like a language inherent to him.
“The musicality of spoken word, the lyrical nature of the discipline, the fact it uses metaphors, descriptive images and heightened speech to communicate ideas, related to what I was doing in music videos. I was trying to find lyrical and representative ideas to communicate whatever the music was making me think or feel. I’ll probably want to continue to explore ways to incorporate spoken word in my work because it’s given me so much,” he says.
To follow up Summertime, López Estrada took yet another surprising career swing by becoming one of the co-directors of the Southeast Asian-inspired Disney animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon, released in March.
He had previously worked in the medium, most notably on a stop-motion music video that earned him a Latin Grammy, but in a truly independent manner with friends and insignificant resources. Now he was in charge of 500 people and a massive studio budget. It was a major and daunting departure from anything he’d done.
Understandably, there was initial trepidation that he would have no agency making a film intended for broad appeal. But even in the format of a family-oriented Disney animation blockbuster, and the parameters involved in making a movie meant to captivate a global audience, he maintained enough control to create something that genuinely thrilled him.
“I really value my independence and I really value exploring my voice and feeling like I can be artful with the work that I do,” he concludes.
Summertime, directed by Carlos López Estrada, opens in theaters on Friday.