Film as a “Spiritual Memory”: Writer/Director Monica Peña on Her Miami International Film Festival Premiere, Hearts of Palm
Writer/director Monica Peña obliterates the notion of sophomore slump with her second independently produced feature film, Hearts of Palm, which will have its world premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival tonight. With this movie, the Miami-based Cuban-American filmmaker has only advanced her avant-garde exploration of film narrative, which she first introduced us to with Ectotherms in 2014. Whereas her first film examined the lives of four Miami youths trapped in suburban anomie, her latest takes on a more personal subject: love turned sour.
Both films are strongly rooted in Miami. The first contains allusions to the plight of the first-generation Cuban American who may not care enough about her roots. The new film includes a set piece involving local fruit but also a visit to a Botanica, a distinctive shop that sells implements for Santeria rituals and other religions brought to Miami from the Caribbean.
Hearts of Palm is divided into two acts that explore a deteriorating relationship between a nameless young couple (Brad Lovett, who also provides the film’s evocative score, and Megan Galizia). As their union rots, they manifest a negative energy embodied by a spectral interloper (Julian Yuri Rodriguez, another Miami-based filmmaker). Peña shot the film not with a script but with a “25-page blueprint,” which included directions for scene structure, sounds, imagery, and other basic springboards that allowed the director, the lead performers and even artist/production designer Lucila Garcia de Onrubia to find the story during the filmmaking process. (All four share screenwriting credit). The narrative is as mystical as some of the film’s themes, which explore desire, insecurity, regrets and dreams and with a stream-of-consciousness quality rendered by the film’s haze of imagery and ambient sounds.
Filmmaker interviewed Peña at the Miami house where she shot the film. The walls were still decorated with some of the props Onrubia created from twigs and other detritus she gathered from the home’s garden.
Filmmaker: How long did you shoot in this house?
Monica Peña: We shot for 10 days. Interestingly, we shot during Holy Week – not on purpose. We started shooting on Palm Sunday, and that week was all the Holy Week holidays — Good Friday, Easter. There was also a blood moon lunar eclipse and Passover, so there were a lot of mystical energies during that time.
Filmmaker: How did the setting influence your narrative, if at all?
Peña: Well, we talked a lot about the movie beforehand, as far as themes we wanted to explore and points of the narrative and character and all those things, and then I worked very closely with my production designer Lucy, who is just brilliant. She does magic. She transformed the house to a space where the story could unfold. She took all those ideas that we talked about and sort of visually manifested them into this space. She really transformed the house…. She made the wall. She decorated the living room. She made the kitchen completely decay. She lived with me for three weeks before we started shooting, so we started going at the house, letting it decay, letting it rot, playing with mold, breeding fruit flies. She had a color palette in mind, so the furniture kind of evoked that sort of tropical decay we were going for. We wanted to make it feel believable as a home, but we also wanted to maintain the mystical qualities from the beginning, so not everything was so literal. Like, we would put a painting up, but the painting was sort of abstract. We would rearrange furniture so it would be a little abstract or dreamlike or mystical. We both kind of approach our work through our lifestyle. It just kind of became part of our life. It evolved pretty naturally, so it wasn’t like “wake up and grind on the house.” It was just as we were living. Like, we made some eggs for breakfast and saved the shells for the set. It evolved like that.
Filmmaker: You do amazing work with light in the movie. Tell me how you got such expressive shots in the garden and in the house.
Peña: Well, I was really lucky to work with [cinematographer] Jorge [Rubiera], who is a longtime friend. He was also the cinematographer on Ectotherms. I really had to fight for it, but I insisted that any lighting had to be natural or built into the natural environment. So, if he wanted to light a table, the light had to be somewhere in the room. It couldn’t be an external, rigged light. Everything had to be part of the story and natural to the story. I was really stubborn about that.
Filmmaker: So were there any challenges in this approach? Did it take longer to set up a scene?
Peña: No. Part of that choice was aesthetic, but part of it was because I work with my actors in a very experimental and improvisational way. I sort of give them prompts and let them kind of go with it, and I just observe and direct as it’s happening — sort of, “Lean in this direction,” or, “Go more in that direction. Let’s explore this more.” A lot of it happens on the fly. I didn’t want to spend more time setting up scenes. I didn’t want to spend time setting up lights. I didn’t want to distract from the present moment and what was happening between the actors by focusing so much energy on the technical, so Jorge worked handheld.
Filmmaker: How did you cast the leads? They have such a unique look. You don’t get tired of looking at them because you don’t see many people like that.
Peña: Yeah, they’re both very beautiful in very unique ways. I cast Megan right away. She and I had been friends for a very long time, and what I love about her is that she has this sort of sincerity, like a bravery, a willingness. I knew that she would be down for anything I asked her to do, and because I work in such an experimental way, that was very valuable to me. I knew that she would be very trusting and very open. She was fantastic to work with. Brad was originally going to do the music for the film, and then as the project developed, we sort of had the idea that he could play the male lead, so we kind of took it from there, and once they were all cast, the story evolved based on what they brought to the table. Brad has a lot of interest in various kinds of mystical and occult and New Age aesthetics. We were able to draw from that and bring it into the film, as well. It all kind of evolved together. The pieces came together and started shifting in different directions based on what everyone brings to the table.
Filmmaker: Is there a reason why you wanted to shoot in your own house as opposed to a rented location?
Peña: Part of it was just the material restraint. I also approach my work based on what’s available, so at the very early stages I had the seed of the idea that I want to tell the story about this couple, their relationship rotting, so I thought it could take place in this house. That would be logistically easy (laughs). I already live here. I could do whatever I want. It’s a contained space. I have control, so part of it came out of the practical nature of it. But then, of course, it took on its own space in the narrative. It started as a practical thing, then it became more aesthetic as the project evolved.
Filmmaker: This is a personal story for you. What does it mean for you to exorcise these feelings with cinema?
Peña: I’ve always been interested in sort of blurring the line between narrative and nonfiction, sort of revealing the artifice of cinema and revealing the constructions. So the story is very personal, but it’s also about the process of filmmaking and being very honest about that. In the movie I talk about challenges with editing and challenges with writing. There are five seconds where you see the boom mic. I’m just revealing those challenges and mistakes to take away from the artificial construction of [a film] or the pretense of flawlessness that we get in so much cinema. I’m making it more personal in that way.
Filmmaker: After the opening scene with the actors speaking that mantra of love over and over, it leaves a ghostly presence in the following scene; those lines are almost stuck in your head like an ear worm.
Peña: From the very beginning we talked about wanting the whole [film] to kind of have supernatural undertones, so we tried to approach that in each scene and kind of let that energy carry through. Someone talked about the movie as a spiritual memory, and that really resonated. One thing I played around with a lot was repetition. In the process of editing, you’ll be trying to find the right place to cut, and there are 24 frames per second. You’ll be watching, for example, someone’s hand move over and over for hours [in order] to find the right place to cut. That kind of repetition I wanted to play with…. It sort of becomes meditative or makes something familiar strange. Like if you say, “I love you” once, that’s kind of familiar to everyone, but if you say it over and over in kind of unfamiliar ways then it kind of becomes something else. It takes on a strange quality.
Filmmaker: On the other end of the spectrum you have a sequence where the actors are noisily devouring a mango, and there’s a Spanish interpretation of a Ted Hughes poem and subtitles telling a whole other story. What was your intent here? Were you trying to intentionally confuse the audience?
Peña: I don’t know that it was some kind of overt intention. The mango, that came from the idea of the core of the story, which is this decaying love. I had this image in my mind. We have a mango tree in my backyard, and every summer we get really excited to watch it bloom. Then we get this huge bounty of mangoes, and before too long, that huge bounty of mangoes is rotting on the floor, covered in fruit flies, reeking. So it was kind of that experience that something is very beautiful and lush, that you anticipate is nutritious, can so quickly become this almost horrific thing.
The film [originally] started with the poem “Love Song,” in Spanish with the English translation of the poem [in subtitles], but then I kept coming back to this idea of honesty and wanting to be more overt. There’s a line in the subtitles that goes, “Why should Ted Hughes speak for me when I can tell the story myself,” so the poem “Love Song” is sort of an analogy for the film. If you read the poem, the love starts and then it gets darker and kind of supernatural and creepy, and then it ends. That poem has the same evolution as the film, so in a way I was kind of letting it speak for me until I decided to use my own words instead. But I liked the sound of the poem, again, maybe playing to that spiritual memory. It’s almost haunting to hear it in the background still, even though the communication is something else…. That whole story underneath is again blurring that line between fiction and nonfiction. There are all these rituals in the film, but there’s also these ritual of me making the film. So those stories in that section of subtitles was kind of walking that line and bringing out those themes more explicitly.
Filmmaker: The couple at the heart of your film enter a Botanica at one point. Supposedly there was a ritual you shot but nothing wound up recorded on the hard drives. Is that for real?
Peña: That’s for real. Spooky, right (laughs)?
Filmmaker: I could have sworn I heard a beeping sound in the footage before the “scene missing” inter-title. That wasn’t the battery dying?
Peña: That’s true. I don’t know. There was obviously some sort of technical warning of some sort. There was a beeping, but, yeah, we shot the scene, we came back, and Jorge was reviewing the footage. He called me into the room and was super pale (laughs) and was like, “I don’t know what happened. I’m really sorry, but the scene is just missing. It’s just gone.” And he’s a pro. It was the only footage we lost, and it just happened to be of a moment of real magic happening. Spooky, right?
Filmmaker: It definitely works within the narrative and your style. As expressive is the lighting in the first half of your film is, the second half of the film has a different look and feel. What did you do to create that hazy effect?
Peña: Well, we started by shooting at night. That’s the big change.
Filmmaker: So it was all desaturated like that because of the low light?
Peña: During the night scenes I also wanted to use as much natural light as possible. Most of what you’re used to seeing during a [night scene in a] movie is a huge lighting rig to make it look like it’s nighttime. But I said, let’s just let it be nighttime. What does it look like when you point a camera in the dark? And so we played with candles, and we played with actual lamps in the room.
Filmmaker: So what do you hope will come of this movie?
Peña: (laughs) That’s not up to me, right? I did my job. The movie’s made. At this point it’s for other people to receive it.
Hans Morgenstern is Vice Chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle and a film critic based in Miami. Much of his writing can be found on Indie Ethos, a website co-written with his partner Ana Morgenstern, who also contributed to this interview.