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Georgina Riedel, How The Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer

AMERICA FERRERA, LUCY GALLARDO AND ELIZABETH PEÑA IN DIRECTOR GEORGINA RIEDEL’S HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS SPENT THEIR SUMMER. COURTESY MAYA RELEASING.

Like her friends Azazel Jacobs, Gerardo Naranjo and Goran Dukic, Georgina Riedel is a distinctive new voice in American independent filmmaking. A first generation Mexican American who grew up in Arizona, Riedel studied film at the University of Arizona where she made a series of shorts. She gained her MFA at the American Film Institute, where she became friends with fellow directing students Jacobs, Naranjo and Dukic. Riedel’s graduation film, One Night It Happened (2002), a black-and-white romance about a one night stand starring Jacobs, played at festivals worldwide, and in 2005 she produced Jacobs’ second film, The GoodTimesKid.

Riedel’s debut feature, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, which is released this week, premiered at Sundance in 2005 and is based on an idea for a short she had while still at AFI. The plot revolves around three generations of the Garcia family, teenager Blanca (America Ferrera), her divorced mother Lolita (Elizabeth Peña) and her headstrong grandmother Doña Genoveva (Lucy Gallardo). Over the course of a hot Arizona summer, the three “girls” flirt with the possibility of love and sex, each both tentative yet passionate in her own way. Beautifully shot in 35mm, Riedel’s film captures the rhythms of small town life and excels particularly in the portrayal of its female leads. The film’s protagonists are complex, strong-minded and sexual, and even in the case of 70-year-old Doña Genoveva this last trait is never sensationalized, but is treated with a rare sensitivity and humour.

Filmmaker spoke to Riedel about the real-life inspiration for the film, tackling old-age sexuality, and her lack of desire to have a penis.

DIRECTOR GEORGINA RIEDEL TALKS WITH ACTRESS AMERICA FERRERA DURING THE SHOOTING OF HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS SPENT THEIR SUMMER. COURTESY MAYA RELEASING.

Filmmaker: I believe the idea for this film stemmed from a question you asked your grandmother.

Riedel: I asked my grandmother what she wanted for Christmas, and I was only half listening because I fully expected her to give her regular line, “Oh, nothing, just you being around is enough.” But then I hear her say “A car.” I thought I heard wrong, but then she said it again, “I want a car.” My grandmother is no longer with us and I kind of regret not having the foresight to ask “Why do you want a car? Where is it that you want to go?” I had all of these questions, but I was so surprised that I didn’t ask them to her. But I asked them to myself, and that night I wrote a treatment. In my mind, my grandmother got a car, she didn’t know how to drive so her gardener would teach her, a love affair would bloom. To this day, I still don’t know what she wanted with a car, but part of me felt that it must have had to do with wanting to go someplace and not wanting to be so confined to this one place she’d been at for the past 30, 40 years.

Filmmaker: What was the process of writing the script like?

Riedel: After graduating, I decided I wanted to write a feature and went to stay in Mexico for a couple of months because I really wanted to get away and focus on this. Everything came together except for the Lolita storyline. I really couldn’t relate to her character: I’ve never been married, I’ve never had children, I’ve never been divorced. [laughs] I had such a hard time to imagine what she would do or what she would say, and I have to relate to characters in order to figure out what they’re going to do. It wasn’t until I thought, “Well, you’ve never been these things, but you’ve felt lonely at times,” that I had a breakthrough with the Lolita character. As soon as I had that little click, her story came together.

Filmmaker: How difficult was it to finance this film given that it has an unconventional perspective?

Riedel: My parents are the executive producers and they’re the only people who believed in me enough to give me money to make a movie, period. My mother read the script and she’s an amazing businesswoman so if she had thought the script was crap then she would have said “Move along.” I thought, “I can shoot this for $200,000 and then we’re gonna put together the edit and somebody’s gonna come along [with finishing funds.]” Even before we shot, we had a little interest from HBO but no one ever came forward with the finishing funds so it took me a year in post because my editor and I worked during the day. I ended up getting amazing people working on the film just because they loved the project and they charged me little to nothing.

Filmmaker: The film looks like it had a much bigger budget, not least because you shot on film.

Riedel: Part of the reason I think it looks so fantastic is because my D.P., Tobi Datum, is really phenomenal. We’re so on the same wavelength. It was one of those great working experiences. I’d never prior to that worked with a D.P. who was so entrenched in the story: the camera, the angles and everything we discussed had to do with benefiting the story. It was so nice to work with a D.P. who wasn’t about making pretty shots. [But] it ended up looking beautiful.

Filmmaker: This is a rare instance of a film from the perspective of women where it’s not a chick flick nor are the women are objectified. It seems like you are giving your take on the world without tailoring it to the usual conventions.

Riedel: Directing it, I felt like “This is what I’m going to do and this is my agenda,”and I was very much doing things that were true to myself and in keeping with the way I saw the world. But, at the same time, if you were to ask me what I think about the way women are portrayed by Hollywood films in general, I could just go on a rant. I think that this film was definitely a response to that. I wasn’t politicizing the whole thing but it does anger me how women are portrayed in cinema, by the U.S. mainly. I’m a huge fan of Catherine Breillat and other than the fact that she always has her shocking endings (which she doesn’t need), she does such a good job of portraying what it is for a girl struggling with her sexuality. It’s so open and honest and I’d like to see that more here.

Filmmaker: Your title seems to allude to that essay kids are supposed to write every fall about what they did over their vacation.

Riedel: That’s totally it. I love that where you have to answer how you spent your summer vacation, and I can even remember writing in cursive writing “How I Spent My Summer.” It’s definitely a summer film from start to finish. I like how I used “Girls” rather than [just]“Garcias,” because a big question I had while writing the movie was “What turns a girl into a woman?” At what stage does it happen? Is it the clothes you wear? The high heels? Is it having sex? Is it falling in love? Is it just being confident in yourself? There’s that strange age between 20 and 24 where you’re not sure whether to describe yourself as a woman or a girl. I remember for the longest time it didn’t seem natural to say “I’m a woman.” With Garcia Girls, what I realized is that you can be a girl at any age. For me, even though the grandmother had had a child, she’d never really become a fully-fledged woman, she’d never taken control of her sexuality or fully understood it or enjoyed it, and I felt that she was very on a par with the teenager. Whether you’re 70 or 40, that thrill of the first kiss with someone new, the butterflies in the stomach and that excitement, those feelings are all the same.

Filmmaker: Have you encountered greater difficulties in the film industry because the business is so male-dominated?

Riedel: I’d like to live in a bubble and think that there isn’t any difference [between the opportunities for men and women] whatsoever and I’ve had so many wonderful experiences where being a woman didn’t matter and it was what your thoughts where, what your approach was and how you were on set. At the same time, unfortunately I’ve had some experiences where that’s not necessarily true. I went into [filmmaking] knowing it was going to be difficult and if it’s a little bit more difficult [as a woman] then maybe the journey’s going to be worth it when you’re finally able to do it on a more consistent basis. Are there times when I’ve thought “Would it be a little easier if I had a penis?” Yes. But do I want a penis? No, not at all. [laughs] I don’t have any ambitions to be a man, I’m perfectly content being a woman and I just have to work harder.

Filmmaker: Aside from giving a realistic view of the world from a female perspective, the film is also relatively unusual in the bold way that you tackle sexuality in old age.

Riedel: I remember watching Harold and Maude when I was in college and while I enjoyed the whole movie I was completely shocked when we saw Ruth [Gordon] and the young guy [Bud Cort] in bed. I was not only shocked, but kind of outraged – I couldn’t believe that they showed that. But years later when I was at AFI, I rewatched the movie and was in love with it from start to finish and was no longer outraged. I was like “Wow, there’s something beautiful there,” and [the] question in my head was why had that scene disgusted me? I know it sounds really horrible, but there was something about that scene that repulsed me and I felt bad and wanted to understand why. The whole sexuality in [my] film was a response [my feeling that] I shouldn’t have that reaction. The old people in the film are so beautiful and so sweet and I was sort of teaching myself along the way. Just because you’re extremely old [laughs] doesn’t mean you don’t have those same feelings you did when you were younger.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about your experiences at AFI? I know you were part of a great group of filmmakers there.

Riedel: I have to say, the best part for me of AFI was the friends I made. It was mainly a group of directors, Azazel Jacobs, Gerardo Naranjo and Goran Dukic, and we were all very supportive of each other. There’s that friendship there and it’s great that you’re not in film school anymore but you still have people around you that think like you and who you can bounce ideas off of and who’ve gone through similar experiences. I recently called up Goran to ask “How was your release with Wristcutters?” because I’m getting closer [to this filnger. m coming out]. I can’t speak highly enough of them and I really value our friendship. I find it really cool that although none of us has exactly broken into the big Hollywood system yet – and not all of us want to – but through sheer force of will we’ve been able to make movies, A lot of people in our year are still waiting for the call from the studio, “Here’s your $20 million budget, go ahead make your movie.” I think early on, a bunch of us had a passion to make films and that was first and foremost.

Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?

Riedel: There are movies where you’re on the plane and you’ve maybe avoided something when it came out and three years later you’re watching all of it. One of them was Tomb Raider, but Angelina Jolie’s so sexy, I didn’t feel bad about watching that. There was something with The Rock that I specifically remember. Was it The Pacifier? I was pretty blah about it. It’s funny because I just went to see Iron Man and one of the trailers was for Get Smart, which The Rock is in. When the trailer came on, some guy in the back was like “Whoooo!” I was like, “Oh my God, that guy is in love!” [laughs] It was so loud and so clear and so enthusiastic and it was for The Rock, which I thought was kinda funny.

Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst out laughing on set?

Riedel: In that scene in How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer where Elizabeth Peña and Steven Bauer are going at it in the car, I remember everybody having to hold their laughter. The first take, she fell down and we had a little mattress there but we all started busting up. We only did a couple more takes, but that was definitely excruciatingly hard. On one take, Elizabeth’s leg was caught in Steven Bauer’s pants.

Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?

Riedel: The Apartment I think would have been cool to do, Breathless would have been to cool to do, even something like Lost in Translation. One, honest to God, is [Azazel Jacobs’] The GoodTimesKid. I read that script before Aza made it and I was like, “Wow.” It’s just so freakin’ lovely.

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