“I Just Saw People Falling Out of the Sky”: Andrew Hevia on Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window
A stranger in a foreign land, with a camera and a penchant for cheap beer: Andrew Hevia’s hyperdigital documentary Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window follows the Miami-bred filmmaker as he visits Hong Kong for the Chinese edition of Art Basel. At first determined to make a traditional documentary accessible for public television audiences, Hevia’s plans are quickly thwarted once he discovers the elusive intricacies of the region. He’s a Cuban-American who can’t understand the language of his new surroundings. Rather than view that as a hindrance, he takes to meeting artists and art collectors, attending art shows, wooing potential lovers, decompressing on ferry rides and learning about Hong Kong’s history.
Like the region he finds himself in, Hevia’s film has an intentional alienating effect, thanks in no small part to the voiceover narration that dominates the film. Using a text-to-speech program that spits out a feminine-voice, second-person account of Hevia’s travels, the film’s storytelling is both studied and lively. There’s an inherent whimsical, thoughtfulness apparent in Hevia’s daily confusion, and Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window is its own kind of personal reflection played out in real time. Part travelogue, part essay film, and, in one surprising moment, part karaoke musical, Hevia’s doc is on-the-fly filmmaking that mirrors the all-encompassing attitude of its maker.
Ahead of the film’s New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest, I spoke with Hevia about his filmmaking roots, his involvement in the Miami-based Borscht Corp, finding his film in the edit and the importance of trusting your collaborators.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about your involvement in Borscht Corp, how you went co-founded it, and if you had gone to film school prior to that experience.
Hevia: I was born and raised in Miami and attended a high school called New World School of the Arts, a visual and performing arts magnet program where I was able to study visual arts. My goal was always to make films. There was a small contingent of New World students who were very interested in filmmaking, but none of us were strictly filmmakers. We were all multi-disciplinary, and that’s where I met a core group of people who would later become my Borscht collaborators.
I eventually left New World and went to Florida State, where I went to film school. It was very hands-on and very much a Hollywood style, but it was filmmaking bootcamp—at least that’s the way I’ve heard it described. I learned a very traditional way of making film. When I graduated, most of my classmates went off to New York and Los Angeles to get jobs in the industry. Instead of doing that, I took a detour to San Francisco and then back to Miami. I was really committed to doing projects there. I felt like I could be making films instead of working for people who were making films. Fellow collaborator Lucas Leyva had just left New York to return to Miami (he had also gone to New World). He and I got an apartment together and decided that we could turn the things we had done in high school into a full-time festival. That began Borscht, with the idea being that it would be a film festival run by filmmakers. We would produce the work and screen the work. It would be by Miami, about Miami and for Miami.
Filmmaker: Throughout all of this, had you thought about making your own work? What did you learn by working with other filmmakers?
Hevia: I’ve always felt that producing is also its own form of “making.” I think with Borscht, partly what happened is, because I had the most institutionalized education of the group, I ended up gravitating towards the “Oh, I can organize this. I know what a call sheet looks like, I can figure out the process procedure.” Personally, my mind works more like an engineer. I started gravitating towards process and systems. I think building the “better mouse trap” is always the goal. Collaborating allowed me to work with people whom I would never have worked for otherwise. If not for the fact that I also produce, for example, I would’ve never worked for Barry Jenkins. The opportunity to produce for Barry Jenkins was the opportunity to work with someone who is exceptionally good at his craft and I could learn from that. To work with a filmmaker like Amy Seimetz or Hannah Fidell (or some of the producers I’ve previously worked with) allowed me to push and expand what I thought was possible—how I was supposed to do it, waiting to see it, and then realizing that’s not what matters. There was certainly a point in my career where I stepped back from “making” as a creator and took on more of a producer role because it was such an education. That attitude continues to this day.
With that said, I am currently employed full-time. I work for a company called Fabula, which was founded by director Pablo Larraín, another director who every day feels like an incredible opportunity to learn from, someone who is at the top of their craft.
Filmmaker: I believe you had made a previous doc about Art Basel, which served as the starting-off point for Through the Broken Window?
Hevia: Yeah, while mapping out Borscht, I had a separate professional life where I was producing projects for public television. I’d made a documentary about an art fair in Miami called Art Basel, an international art fair of which the primary events take place in Basel, Switzerland. It’s the most prestigious, international, high-profile art fair in the world. They’d opened a satellite fair in Miami Beach when I was in high school and everyone talked about how this was going to change the city. I came back to Miami after film school and realized, “Oh my God, everything has changed.” Borscht grew out of that wellspring of creative energy, that cultural momentum, and yet the documentary I had made was a very conventional public television survey about art, where you interview artists and collectors, and they talk about what’s happening. It just felt very structured and formulaic, because that’s the kind of format that works best on public television.
When I proposed, what ultimately became Leave the Bus, was the idea that I would take each experience I had studying what had happened in Miami, and go to Hong Kong to see how different the festivals were, based on what I knew and what I could learn about Hong Kong. I assumed I would be able to tell a very similar format and structure and, frankly, I went in there with the idea that I would make conventional documentaries to satisfy the grant I received, so that I could then also get, as a bonus, the chance to live in Hong Kong.
I got there, understood what were my basic assumptions and realized the gaps in my understanding. I realized that this was going to be way harder than I thought. When I realized I couldn’t deliver the type of movie I originally thought, I figured “Well, I still have to make a thing. Let me lead it into my actual story, because it’s going to be more interesting than the movie I would otherwise be able to make with my resources and current understanding of the environment.”
Filmmaker: Who were some of your documentary influences at this point? Chris Marker, and Sans Soleil in particular, feel welcomed in Leave the Bus.
Hevia: I’m delighted to hear that you picked up on that, because there are some people that I was chasing and Sans Soleil was absolutely an influence, down to the fact that the V.O. in that movie is so extraordinary. The way Marker uses V.O., especially by having the character read the letters in the film—there’s a remove from the V.O. that adds additional reality to the moment [that I was going for with mine]. I see a movie like Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty as a really interesting example of a sort of documentary with an emotional interior journey, and how he’s able to break it up.
I’ll also say that a large part of the inspiration for this movie was that I wanted it to be the exact opposite of the movies I’d made before. I know what a traditional documentary is supposed to look like. When it comes to someone lecturing you about why art is good, I’ve seen that movie before. Can I make a documentary that is emotionally true and accurate to my experience within a place? Can I show what my authentic experience was like based on other factors? It wasn’t just about getting it factually correct.
Filmmaker: When it comes to the V.O. narration in your film, it’s not presented in the “I” voice. It’s deliberately recalling what “you” did, as if in the past tense or as if you’re taking orders from a voice off-screen. What went into crafting the writing of it?
Hevia: The idea, or challenge really, involving the V.O. was that the text-to-speech program we used didn’t speak like a human being. Having to learn how to “speak robot” and learning her cadences (and learning how to make her come across emotionally, and how to space it and time it, and present it phonetically so that she could convey what we were hoping to convey) was the biggest challenge. But she, that narrator, has been a part of the process from the very beginning.
It partly began out of necessity. I was working in a shared public space at the time and couldn’t record my own voice and ask everyone to shut up while I tried to stumble my way through the V.O. It then evolved into an externalized interior monologue. I was really interested in capturing that feeling of alienation that comes with being in an unfamiliar environment. You realize you are in your own skin, but you’re also not in your own skin and everything feels simultaneously unfamiliar and not all that different. There’s an unsettling nature to being in a place that’s not home, that was removed from everything and everyone I knew. That was something I was trying to reflect in her voice.
Filmmaker: Were you writing the V.O. material while you were staying in Hong Kong or did you need to rewatch the footage, removed from everything else, before beginning that process?
Hevia: I had been living in Hong Kong for 10 months and was basically filming from the minute I landed until the minute I left (and editing concurrently). I left Hong Kong after 10 months with an assembly edit of the movie and it consisted of…ideas. For example, I’d have a scene set in a nightclub but didn’t know what the scene really was or how it would work within the movie. I’d be experimenting with ideas without really having a solid way forward.
Carlos Rivera, my editor and producer on the movie, had been tracking the project for a long time. We’d collaborated before and had been friends for a long time. When I got back home, he insisted, “Give me the timeline and I’ll do a pass.” Through Carlos, the footage evolved [into something]. I would describe him as part-editor and part-therapist. For much of the time, he would ask, in reference to the footage, “OK, but what’s really going on in this scene? Let’s work on that V.O., because you need to make sure that we’re conveying what’s emotionally happening here.” I’d have to go into this long story about what I was really feeling in that moment, then we would edit to fit what I was looking to convey in a way that other people could perceive.
Filmmaker: So were you “finding the story in the edit”? Or were you in Hong Kong, finding the film through all the confusion involved in being in an unfamiliar place?
Hevia: It was a total combination of both. While I was in Hong Kong, there were moments—like when Misael Soto, the artist whose performance on the roof opens the film, I was not expecting that performance to take place. Sure, Misael had invited me to this event and I went to document it because it was an art event happening in Hong Kong during my period of research, but I wasn’t expecting that performance. And yet, when the performance happened, it was immediately clear that it was going to open the movie.
When I got lost in the shopping mall, I was too in the experience to think “well, this will be in the movie” but I kept recording, because I was obsessively recording the things that I was doing, thinking “maybe this will be in the movie.” My lizard brain knew to record, even if, in the moment, I was like “this is humiliating.” Only after did we figure out how to integrate that into a cohesive narrative, so that it felt like a) I show up in Hong Kong, and b) You watch me find my way. A lot of the editing and story-shaping took place in post, as most documentaries do.
Filmmaker: There are numerous thematic similarities or comparisons throughout the film, such as when you mention that out of the corner of your eye you see someone standing on the top of a building, which eerily hearkens back to the opening of the film you just described. Did those doubles or comparisons come up while you were going through the material?
Hevia: Most of that was very present while I was there, specifically the ledge-jumping you mention. While I was in Hong Kong, there were a number of really tragic stories about student suicides where they would leap from a building. There were stories about domestic workers in Hong Kong who, while attempting to clean windows on high rises, fell out of those windows. There were massive protests from domestic worker unions to look into better protection for the workers. I felt that was happening a lot while I was in Hong Kong. I don’t know whether I was clocking it because I was an outsider, but I have found that when I was living abroad in an unfamiliar place, I would pay attention to the weirdest things, the kind of things that you, as a local, wherever you are, take for granted—i.e. I haven’t read that this is normal, so what is going on here? I just saw people falling out of the sky. That was a recurring theme of the place I was in. It was important to keep that in the movie, thematically, and have it accurately represent my experience in Hong Kong. The themes we got into the movie were reflective of my time there.
Filmmaker: The film often has these momentary freeze-frames, skips that feel like a digital hiccup. What were your intentions with the edit, embracing the awkwardness of the format?
Hevia: A lot of the idea was to lean into the awkwardness. When I think about the way you’re supposed to make a movie, you’re supposed to cut the moment where you drop the camera or where you’re reframing a shot. There’s actually a moment in the film that’s one of my favorites, after I meet Hugo Montoya at the airport and film him taking the subway. Suddenly, you see I’m in the reflection of the train. In that moment, I was thinking “Oh crap, I’m in the reflection.” I tried to awkwardly shimmy, so that I was blocked by the frame of the door, and disappear a little bit. That was a moment Carlos insisted we keep in the movie because it showed the reality of the filmmaking choices I was making and the fact that I got caught in the reflection. The freeze frames were a way to continue that idea of “this moment is important but it’s also messy.” That slightly off-kilter sensibility was something we really felt was important to convey, because most of the time, there’s an acclimation period before you become acclimated to a foreign environment. You’ve got to feel uncomfortable and feel unsettled.
Filmmaker: You mentioned how Carlos served as part-editor and part-therapist. That’s obviously valuable. Given the personal nature of this film, has it been difficult getting a film like this out into the world, both personally and professionally?
Hevia: It’s been challenging being that exposed and vulnerable at the same time. This isn’t my first rodeo though. As a filmmaker and artist, you have to put yourself out there, as the work is only interesting once you feel a little exposed. The biggest challenge has not been putting myself out there. The biggest challenge has been the people I brought with me, if that makes sense—the friends of mine that show up in the movie, the woman on the swing, the people that most of the movie forlornly thinks about, the people I have to talk to like “So listen, I’m going to put you in a movie.” That’s been the biggest challenge.
Filmmaker: So having trusted collaborators can help you there, especially the ones you choose to work with again and again.
Hevia: Specifically to Leave the Bus, I felt like my environment—while incredibly supportive, creative, and clever—got too familiar and I had to leave. In going to Hong Kong, I was able to meet and interact with artists that challenged me because they had no expectation of me. I found that to be amazing. They didn’t know who I was or what kind of films I made. They just took me at my word. Carlos is a pretty good example of this. He identified the project as something he wanted to be a part of and made room for himself. Gavin Brivik, who did some of the really beautiful original music we have, saw some of the film through IFP and pulled me aside and said “I really like what you did and would like to find a way to collaborate.” The movie was a signal flare, and the people who saw it and saw something of value in it came to me.
You put the thing forward and people will self-identify. I also found this to be true with Borscht. Once we had Borscht running, people were like “Hey, this is a cool thing,” and we would bring them to Miami to try and work together. When you have to convince someone they need to be a part of the project, that’s usually a sign that they shouldn’t be a part of the project.