Everyone knows Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Their shiny bags — featuring a mouthwatering illustration of the addictive neon red product that beckons inside — can be found in convenience stores and supermarkets around the world. But where did this delicious snack come from? What is its origin story, so to speak?
Enter Flamin’ Hot, a charming movie about a billion-dollar snack food item and the Frito-Lay janitor who claims to have invented it. Actress Eva Longoria makes her feature directorial debut with the story of Richard Montañez, who rose to fame as the spicy snack became a sensation and revolutionized the industry in the early ’90s.
Jesse Garcia stars as Montañez, and the film tells his rags-to-riches story while saluting Mexican American culinary traditions for their role in the creation of this pop culture phenomenon. After all, this wasn’t a short-lived product like New Coke that quickly flamed out. The line, which now includes Doritos and Ruffles, is still a hot seller today despite having spawned countless imitators.
Montañez’s journey as an entrepreneur of sorts began when he was a boy and started selling his mother’s homemade burritos for a quarter each, racking up a tidy profit in the process. Comic moments like that one are surrounded by a plethora of montages that were cut together by Editors Kayla Emter and Liza D. Espinas.
Below the Line recently spoke with Kayla Emter over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. Filled with excitement and passion about Flamin’ Hot, she told us about relocating from small-town America to L.A., where she ultimately found her community at AFI. She went on to credit a number of high-profile editors who took her under their wing early in her career, and she also discussed the beauty of working with female creators like Shonda Rhimes, Lorene Scafaria, and Longoria, as well as the many female heads of department she collaborated with on Flamin’ Hot, which debuts on Disney+ and Hulu on June 9.
Below the Line: There’s been so much excitement building about Flamin’ Hot and the inspirational story of Richard Montañez that not many people know about. But how did you initially get involved with this, Eva Longoria’s first directing project?
Kayla Emter: I know, I’m so lucky to be a part of this project. It was nothing too, too fancy. My agent called up and said, ‘Hey, there’s this movie about the man who invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto.’ I’d heard rumblings about it in the past, and it was always very intriguing to me. And then she said, ‘Oh, and Eva Longoria is directing it.’ And I was like, ‘Yep, I’m in. Would love a meeting, would love to be considered.’ And I was, and it was great meeting with her. We had a lot of the same things that we loved about the movie.
BTL: The scenes from Richard’s childhood in the neighborhood and at school were so beautifully shot, and I was also impressed by the black-and-white sequence when he experienced racism while buying candy at a store. What can you tell us about editing those scenes and then transitioning into the more contemporary part of his story, which all contributes to creating the compelling narrative here?
Emter: The fantasy scenes are so much fun, and I think they bring a lot of personality to the movie. I love that they were a part of the script and the choices that they made for them. But I think they’re also a great way to get to know Richard on a different level and kind of keep the tone of his story lighthearted and playful.
I enjoyed finding that balance of whimsical and reality because I think outside of the black-and-white one, you kind of aren’t sure if this is real or not. And we always loved keeping the audience unsure of what was happening, but [we] never wanted to confuse them.
So we used a lot of visual and soundscaping design for some of the other ones to help the audience feel that we’re shifting somewhere that feels different than reality, but not trying to be so overt with it in visualizing Richard’s inner voice and how he views these scenarios.
BTL: I really understood his inner voice from the very beginning. It was so well done. But tell me more about working with Eva in the editing room and describe your creative process collaborating together and how you helped her achieve her vision.
Emter: I loved working with Eva. I mean, she is incredibly smart [and] kind, and she had a very clear vision of the story she wanted to tell, and I think you can pick up on that when you listen to any interview with her. She knew exactly what this movie wanted to be, and she and our other collaborators benefited from having that kind of strong vision. And what I loved about working with her — because every director is different — but she always said she’s really good at reacting to things. So, in some cases, instead of being super hands-on, she created this environment where I could run with my ideas and instincts on how to tell the best story. And then I would present them to her. I found that approach worked really well because it allowed her to come in with fresh eyes, which is invaluable, and then, a direction on how to move forward.
Personally, I found it was a great opportunity to get to know my voice as an editor better because it required me to have more convictions on the choices I wanted to present and my reasons why. So it was kind of flexing a new muscle of confidence in the story I feel she was looking for with my own really specific point of view. I always had a few extra options [up] my sleeve because that’s the beauty of editing — there [are] always several ways to reach a goal.
BTL: Some of my favorite scenes in the film involved PepsiCo chairman/CEO Roger Enrico speaking directly to Richard, as they were so compelling as a viewer. What were some of your favorites?
Emter: I mean, there are so many. I love this movie so much, and I think it brings a lot of joy. And as a moviegoer, that’s always what I’m looking for. And like you said, it’s really inspirational and I feel that goes a long way for an audience member. I think we all need as much of that as we can [get].
Some of my favorite moments in the movie are the montages. I think there are 15 in the movie, which is a lot. One of my favorites is seeing Richard as a kid, hustling and selling burritos to his classmates. And I think you kind of get a really interesting point of view of who he is really at that young age.
I love the first few days of him at the [Frito Lay] factory when he finally gets this job and he has so much energy and passion and determination, and the voiceover is so charming and funny, and it’s just infectious to watch him.
I think a lot of why these scenes bring me joy as a viewer is also because they were really fun to put together. There are so many layers that went into those and as an editor, that’s very exciting.
With our Sound Supervisor, Katie Halliday, who’s incredible, we worked to create the best kind of “whoosh” and “swoosh” and other sound elements to bring depth to these sequences, and movement. And then we have iconic songs chosen by Vanessa Perry, our Music Supervisor who, with Eva, scored these montages. I have to give a lot of credit to our DP Federico Cantini because every shot has so much movement to it that it was never [a concern about] whether or not they would cut together. And then the performances were great.
BTL: You’ve worked recently with a number of top female directors and creators, including Shonda Rhimes and Lorene Scafaria. Was that something you consciously set out to do and have you found a difference in collaborating with a woman at the top?
Emter: It was not something I was looking for specifically, but I feel very lucky that I have worked with the women I’ve been able to work with. I think every director is different, male or female. And that’s what I love about this job is, you meet so many different types of people and you learn different skill sets on how to communicate with different personalities. If I’m trying to think about one qualifying personality trait, it’s that I find that it’s easier to communicate with women in the editing room. It feels [like] a little bit more of a collaborative space in a certain way that allows you to just kind of throw out the bad ideas a little bit more.
There was a Zoom we were having and all of the squares were women, and we kind of all just took a step back and we’re like, ‘Hey, look at us!’ Sound Supervisor, Music Supervisor, Music Editor, our Creative Executives at Searchlight, myself, the Post Supervisor, obviously Eva, and our Assistant Editor. And so it was really great to see this group of women banding together.
Communication across departments was really strong. I have to give credit to Eva as well, [as] she put together this team of strong, talented people behind the camera and in front of the camera. And we all really believed in her vision and this story, and we all wanted to do our best to make sure it could be as successful as possible — because it’s been a really important movie.
BTL: Absolutely. I think you succeeded. And I do want to flash back to your experience on Hustlers and your highly stylized editing of that Lorene Scafaria film. What are your biggest takeaways from that experience with her?
Emter: Hustlers was where I got really familiar with montages and voiceover, and I took what I learned from that movie and applied it to this one, which definitely made the process smooth because I was more familiar with those hurdles. When I started on montages in Hustlers, they were really intimidating at first because there [are] so many pieces. And I felt like you’re always up against the schedule and you feel a lot of pressure to get it right and get it right fast.
And so on this one, I decided just to give in and just take the time I needed to put these sequences together. I feel removing that pressure from myself actually made me work calmer and faster. I feel once you spend that time with your footage, you get to know it so well that when you need to shake it up or move it around, it’s much faster. I tend to really enjoy them now even though they’re challenging, but that’s, again, some of the best parts of the job.
BTL: Talk about some of your biggest influences in the business and also the role that mentorship has played for you.
Emter: I love this question — because it takes a village. Mentorship is something I really strongly believe in and hope to continue to carry with me for the remainder of my career. That’s why I loved the movie, which has so many different themes. In the film, the character of Clarence (Dennis Haysbert) seeing Richard’s passion and investing in his potential is really meaningful and a reminder that giving someone a chance can have a really big impact.
I’ve been very lucky to have some great mentors in my journey. The first one when I got to Los Angeles was Donn Cambern, who is the Editor of Easy Rider and an incredible force in the editing community. And he was one of my mentors at the American Film Institute. [The best] advice he gave me, [which] I still use to this day, is, ‘don’t bore and don’t confuse the audience.’ And it’s truly the most simple and spot-on advice. I take it with me on every project.
After AFI, I was really lucky to assist under John Axelrad and Doug Crise, who were two very welcoming and talented editors [who] offered a space for me to be creative and involved and learn the workings of a cutting room and the politics that go into it. This industry is really hard. So when we have the opportunity to lift each other up and champion those who have passion and are willing to put in the hard work, I think everybody benefits from it.
BTL: You started off in TV news in Bismarck, ND at the CBS affiliate and then went to Columbia College Chicago before landing at AFI in Los Angeles. Can you talk a bit about those early days of your career?
Emter: It’s actually crazy when I look back at how I got into this industry because North Dakota is not known for its booming film industry. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of the classic movies. We were more of a ’90s action-packed kind of movie family.
So instead of discovering editing through watching movies, which is how a lot of people come to find the craft that they’re passionate about, I actually fell in love with it when I stumbled across the very first version of iMovie, which, I think, came out in 1999. It was the first widely available editing software for consumers. And so I give a lot of credit to the technology at that time and the creativity that Apple pushed to reach me in North Dakota.
I was immediately captivated [by] the process of manipulating footage and evoking emotion. And then, shortly after, I taught myself Final Cut Pro. At my local news job, I met two reporters [who’d] gone to Columbia College in Chicago. They shared their experience at that school with me, which happened to have a very extensive editing department. That’s where I actually learned about film history and narrative story structure and iconic filmmakers, because prior to that, I had just edited for the process, not realizing that huge layer of storytelling on a narrative level. So that was a great experience.
I knew L.A. was where I needed to land and AFI is where I found my community. I think because I discovered it in my bedroom on our home computer. I just kept actively trying to grow at this one thing I think I’m good at — and it was so exciting. It keeps getting better. I think that’s what I still try to carry for myself as an editor, to keep expanding my skills and getting stronger at them to continue to grow as an editor. And then to also push the boundaries of storytelling. I always like to think outside the box or think, like, “This could be crazy… but let’s try it.”
BTL: What are your thoughts about the WGA strike? How is it affecting your work?
Emter: I am definitely in solidarity with my creative colleagues in standing up for themselves in what they deserve for all the hard work that [they] put into these movies and TV shows. I think when we [all] feel valued and appreciated, the work benefits, and I hope things resolve themselves in a positive way for the creatives and that we come out stronger on the other side.
BTL: I’d say “amen” to that, Kayla. Thank you, and congrats again on the film.
Following its red-hot premiere at SXSW, Flamin’ Hot will begin streaming on Disney+ and Hulu on June 9.