Three years ago, Carlos López Estrada’s feature directorial debut, Blindspotting, opened the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, showcasing the talents of Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs and his collaborator Rafael Casal, in a film dealing with the gentrification and police discrimination that had plagued their hometown of Oakland, California.
Two years later, Estrada would be back at Sundance with Summertime, a very different collaboration with 27 young Angelino poets that combines music, spoken word and poetry to depict a single day in Los Angeles, but that would then be sidelined by COVID as Estrada would go on to co-direct the Walt Disney Animation movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, which came out earlier this year.
Executive produced by Kelly Marie Tran (who voiced the title character in Raya), Summertime is finally being released, and it’s a pretty amazing achievement both on the part of the poets but also on Estrada’s part for putting the different artists together into a cohesive story that goes off into many unexpected directions.
Below the Line got on Zoom to speak with López Estrada.
Below the Line: This is a great time to release this movie, even though it was probably delayed by COVID. It seems like the right time for people to get back outside again, and this has such a great summer feel. How did this come about, and how did you meet the group?
Carlos López Estrada: It’s a community of young spoken word poets from L.A. I met them about two years ago — we got invited to the spoken word poetry showcase, in which 27 of them performed one poem and then spoke a little bit about themselves and sort of like, what the game context for their work. I was just so inspired, and my brain went in a million different directions. I think I got to understand L.A. in a way that I never had, through the eyes of these really talented, young artists. So that was really the seed that started everything. I proposed to them that we work-shopped a movie together that we get to write and star in it — each of them would get sort of like their scene or their poem, and then we would build it together. And that’s how it all began.
BTL: Because of Blindspotting, I assumed you were from Oakland.
López Estrada: I think I just became like an honorary Oakland person from my first time there doing it, but no, I was actually born in Mexico City, and I moved here to the States when I was 13. I’ve lived most of my life in L.A.
BTL: Did you direct a lot of music videos before directing Blindspotting?
López Estrada: I did. Blindspotting was a direct result of music videos, because I did almost 10 years of music videos. In that time I met Daveed Diggs, I did a lot of videos for his rap group called Clipping — that’s how we met. That’s how we developed our creative relationship, and then right around the time that he finished Hamilton, he had been working on the script with his writing partner, Raphael. Because we’d been working together for so many years, they just invited me to join the project.
BTL: So once you convinced the group to make Summertime, did they each have poems they wanted to include, or did you help them put them together into a story? There is an overall story even though each has their own separate section.
López Estrada: It’s loose, and on purpose, we were hoping to keep it just like a little bit flowing. The conceit of how we put the movie together was that, because the poets were finishing high school, and many of them had the summer break and then were going all over the place. Some of them were going off to school, some of them started jobs, so we only had the summer to make the movie. In the beginning of the summer, we had no script, no idea, no anything, and towards the end, we had the finished movie. The conceit was that we were going to do this in a summer workshop, that it was going to be loose and fluid and that it was going to be imperfect. That energy and that spirit was going to be what was special about the movie. I think we succeeded at that. It’s a chaotic movie, but it has a lot of heart, and I think that the energy that we were able to put into it was really just a bunch of young people being creative and wanting to share their experience in the city.
BTL: It has great production value, though, including that musical dance number, which was a surprise, and each section has a very specific personality towards the respective poem and poet.
López Estrada: That was sort of the biggest challenge, to figure out how we could really capture the personality of the poets in each of their scenes. We allowed ourselves to shift tone and shift style and for the movie to keep surprising us, depending on what poet was being featured.
BTL: How’d you find the locations and was there a lot of run and gun shooting in the streets? I’m sure you had to get some permits, but you’re not shooting at the Griffith Observatory or somewhere like that.
López Estrada: It was a little bit of both. I mean, definitely all the stuff with big production, we had to get permitted, but we also had a documentary crew. We were shooting with our main crew and the poets on one side of this city, and then we had a documentary crew that was going through different neighborhoods and catching all those glimpses of real L.A. So all the people that you see in some of the montages or the street art or these connective tissue moments, those are like a crew of two people, just going around the city and trying to capture little corners of it.
BTL: But how did you decide on the locations in which to film some of the poems? Some of them obviously reference the location, like the one set in the bookstore, so were poems written beforehand and then modified for the location, or were they more freeform?
López Estrada: Unfortunately, there was no formula, just because each of them really required such a complete, different approach. Some of [the poems] existed, and we just adapted them. Some of them were created specifically for the movie. Some of them, for example, we said, “Hey, look, we need to get from A to B, and we want to do something in the bus. So Mila [Cuda], for example, wrote that poem specifically designed to be performed in a public space. It was a little bit of all the above. I think that’s what made the process of making the movie so exciting that we really had to put it together. We were in a room, meeting with different poets for like two months straight, every day, and trying things out, reorganizing it. They would bring new poems, they would go off and write a little bit and then come back, and it really was sort of like a workshop experience.
BTL: I also wanted to ask about the camerawork, which was very dynamic. Who did you work with as a DoP, because they used a lot of different styles to capture the performances.
López Estrada: His name is John Schmidt — he is a good friend, and a great DP. [He] definitely was up for the challenge, and it was a real challenge, because first of all, it was a small production, and then, second of all, there was so much uncertainty and so many unknown factors to how we were shooting. One day we would arrive to a place, and there would be tons of foot traffic, there would be tons of noise, and it was really hard to communicate. We would have markets or demonstrations, like we were really in the city, and every single day was a different location. You don’t have that thing that you have in most movies, where it takes a few days to warm up, and it takes a few days to settle, and then you kind of get into a rhythm. Just as we were getting into rhythm, we would be in a completely different world with new actors. So it was quite a challenge. It was him and then Sean Wang was our documentarian, who is responsible for a lot of those beautiful images of L.A.
BTL: I assume you filmed this in the summer of 2019, as it says, but did you start on post right away before the pandemic hit? And then you were also doing Raya, so I’m curious about the timing.
López Estrada: We shot the movie two summers ago, so 2019. It’s been very patient [waiting] two years for it to come out into the world. But obviously, it was pre-pandemic, which now is so meaningful, because we got to capture a life in the city before it completely shut down and the movie is all about interconnectivity, the movie is all about connections and strangers and being in the same place at the same time. The fact that it’s coming out now, the fact that people will be able to see it in theaters… I really wanted to release it last year, and even with all the stuff that’s happening, I thought it would be a really good contribution, because it’s such a wholesome optimistic movie. It just wasn’t in the cards, and honestly, I think it’s for the better. I think it’s the perfect time, and I’m just happy that it’s coming out now.
BTL: It’s all still very relevant and timely, but if it came out last year, we’d all be watching it at home, and it wouldn’t have the same effect, since we wouldn’t be able to go and enjoy the outdoors as much. How was it with making Raya at the same time? Was Summertime completely done while you were working on that?
López Estrada: The movie premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival then we haven’t touched it. It’s just been waiting for the right time to come out, and I got to do Raya in between, and it came out before it, which is all crazy. Also, I’m very happy, because I feel like through Raya, I met Kelly Marie Tran. We became really, really good friends, and she’s come onto the project as an executive producer. So everything happened at the right time, and I’m glad that the day is here, the time has come.
BTL: I didn’t realize before now that Summertime was at Sundance in January 2020. How did you get involved with Raya? That seems so different from both this and Blindspotting.
López Estrada: It was a big surprise. What actually happened and how I ended up in Disney is that there was an executive from the development team that was at the Sundance screening of Blindspotting, and it just happened to line up with this new era of Disney Animation where they were looking for outside directors. They usually just promote storyboard artists, promote writers, and promote animators. This is the first time they decided to look for outside directors, live action directors. They happened to see Blindspotting, and it still beats me, but something made them think that the Blindspotting sensibilities could somehow translate to Disney sensibilities. I’ve been there for two years, and it’s been a great experience. I’ve learned so much. I’ve loved animation for a long time, and I’m happy to be there. I’m also happy to have projects like Summertime that still allow me to exercise my live action muscles, and to have other things going on the side, but I love Disney. It’s been great.
BTL: It’s amazing to be able to go back and forth like that so easily, because not a lot of people do it. What have you been doing since Raya has been done since April, and Summertime was already done before that?
López Estrada: Honestly, it’s been a lot of work on Summertime, because it’s an independent release, so we’re really, really involved in the entire campaign and making it happen, which has been really fun. I’m still at Disney Animation. They invited me to develop another movie there, so I’m working there on a super-secret movie that will come out in a few years.
BTL: Nice. I know it always takes a few years to make an animated movie, so it’s a big commitment. Going back to Summertime, I’m curious how you put together your crew for the film. Were you able to pull in a lot of people from the music videos you had made?
López Estrada: I really try to keep my friends close. Summertime was a really good opportunity to do that, because I joined Disney Animation, and it’s such a specific world that I couldn’t really bring my friends over, because it’s so technical and so specific, and the people working there have been there for 30 years. But Summertime, it was really an opportunity to bring in all the people that I’ve been working with for years. The production designer [Tyler Jensen] I went to film school with, the DP I did so many music videos with, the producer I’ve been working with close for 10 years. It was the actors, it was the choreographers, it was the post people. It really just became sort of a family engagement.
BTL: Were the poets involved with picking their costumes, since I assume that had to be very personal and part of their personality. Or did you have a costume designer who was picking things for them to wear?
López Estrada: We definitely had a costume designer, but [Brianna Murphy] did such an incredible job of doing exactly what you just mentioned, talking to each of them, going through their wardrobe, seeing how they wanted to represent themselves, and what would capture their personalities best. We really wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible. So we wanted to shoot in real locations., include non-actors, and make this just feel as much as possible, as if we just took a camera and put it in the middle of a scene here in L.A. So that included the sound design, that included the costumes, we really wanted that feeling.
BTL: It definitely feels very organic, even though like I said before, it still has great production values. You actually ended up getting a great weekend to release this, because other than Black Widow and a few docs, there aren’t a crazy number of releases this week, so hopefully people will find this in theaters.
López Estrada: Thank you so much. It’s a movie that’s near and dear to my heart. And I know that it means a lot to the poets for it to come out. We’re just excited to get their voices out there and introduce people to these wonderful young artists.
Summertime will be available to watch in New York and Los Angeles theaters starting Friday, July 9, and then will be in other theaters starting July 16.
All photos courtesy of Good Deeds Entertainment.