“I Can Afford a Month of Editing Right Now”: Diana Peralta on De Lo Mio
While most independent films are birthed out of personal necessity, a time-crunch, and readily available locations, Diana Peralta’s De Lo Mio may represent a pinnacle of can-do gumption. Shot on location in the city of Santiago in the Dominican Republic, Peralta’s debut feature uses her late grandmother’s home as its central location and its truer-than-fiction narrative—following her passing, two sisters return to their grandmother’s cozy property before it gets bulldozed and the land sold. Shot last fall but percolating in the director’s mind for years, De Lo Mio is as much about the sisters in front of the camera (performed by Sasha Merci and Darlene Demorizi) as it is the ones behind it (Peralta’s sister, Michelle, serves as one of the film’s producers).
De Lo Mio‘s storytelling is both reservedly familiar and a creation onto itself. As the two New York-based sisters return to the DR and encounter a long distant brother, Dante (Héctor Aníbal), who has been tasked with looking after their grandparents’ home, the film becomes one of sibling reconnection and parental neglect.The siblings’ father showed more admiration for his daughters than for his son. That favoritism has weighed heavily on Dante, perhaps to the point that he can barely commit to spending time with his own young son, whom he rarely sees. The film is by no means a downer. By film’s end, a triangular connection will take place: between three siblings, between two sisters, between a father and his son, between a boy and his aunts.
A few days before the film’s world premiere as the closing night film of BAMcinemaFest 2019, I spoke with Peralta about the origins of the passion project, the difficulty of knowing when to fully commit, and brainstorming new ways to film a familiar place.
Filmmaker: Given your personal connection to this story, what pushed it to fruition: your desire to tell it or the circumstances that prompted you to realize that it was now or never?
Peralta: It was a combination of the two. Over the last five or six years, I’ve had this passion and a need to tell some kind of story about the place my parents were from, where my father was from—his childhood home. I never really knew what the story would be and it shifted a billion times over the last five or six years. I then came to the realization that I should just tell my own story: the experience of myself and my family and my siblings, all in the atmosphere of the house that I’ve been going to every summer and subsequently falling in love with. My grandmother passed away a few months before we started shooting the film and her passing was the impetus I needed because I knew, “Oh shit, they’re going to sell this house. They’re going to get rid of this place really quickly.” [That’s] what inspired me to get this thing going.
It was a combination of knowing that I had a story to tell [in that specific location] and that I knew it was going to be inspired by my family and our stories. It took those real-life moments to push me in the right direction and get this thing done. It was definitely not a great circumstance to be in because you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, but you’re also dealing with the history within your family. That was a really sad, stark moment. At the same time, I’m really glad of what’s come out of it. It’s an honor. [Grief] happens to everyone. Whether you’re first generation and stuck between two places, or just dealing with the loss of a grandparent, it’s something we all have to go through.
Filmmaker: Did having a day job help or hinder getting the production off the ground? Was it difficult to get time off to shoot, given the time crunch you had in which to make it?
Peralta: I think having my day job and my career made the writing process go much smoother than I expected. I was working nine-to-ten hour days in the advertising world and then going home, trying to get the energy and passion to write something down. Getting through that was the first hard step to climb and dedicating the time to write or come up with ideas when you’re already exhausted from a full day of work is quite a hustle.
When I started realizing that my grandmother was sick and that the production elements were going to quickly [come together], I hustled beyond belief. I didn’t sleep. I stayed up as long as I could and finished the script after years of writing parts of it. It then became a balancing act of how long can I work at my day job and maintain both my work life and the life of this film? It was the most work I’ve ever done, but it came to a point where I was like, “OK, I feel safe enough and confident enough, that if I quit my job, I have enough resources in place to get this thing done,” so it was definitely touch-and-go.
I was at a job that I really enjoyed and loved working at. I was a project manager by trade, so I would do my planning every morning for my film much the same way: “If I get the funding that I need by this date, then if I get 80% there, maybe it’s a safe enough moment to quit my job and fully dedicate myself to this.” I had to go with the flow and build up the confidence to cut this safety net from my life and just go for it. It was definitely a challenge, but when you’re passionate about something, you make it work.
Filmmaker: How did you go about assembling a production team that you could rely on? Was there a desire to keep the crew deliberately small?
Peralta: I went to a really tiny film program in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University and had a tight-knit group of friends in the industry that I grew up with in college. We have supported each other this whole time. I would go to work on [my friends’ projects] and they would work with me on different videos that I was doing. We were going to support each other no matter what. My producer, Alexandra Byer, who I went to college with, has been my friend since I was 17 years old. She’s always known that I’ve been writing this piece, and she was the person pushing and supporting me through the years that it took for me to write it. When I finally showed her the script, she was stoked and jumped into it 100%. The other producer on the film is my sister, Michelle. This is, of course, her story as much as it is mine, and she fully dedicated herself to making this happen.
There were also budget reasons as to why the crew ended up being so small. We had to fly a bunch of people down to the Dominican Republic, and so the circumstances dictated a super low-budget indie. I just wanted my friends to be a part of it. Alexandra, who’s a kick-ass producer, has so many amazing connections in the industry, and she really did a great job of bringing on people she knew would be open to us going to a new country and unafraid of exploring a new place and working there.
Filmmaker: How much of your personal story did you share with the actors and how often did you find yourself encouraging them to find their own way into their roles? Did this come up in the casting process?
Peralta: My two leads, Sasha Merci and Darlene Demorizi, are not traditional film actors. I’ve followed them on Instagram for a long time. They’re these brilliant Instagram comedians who, through their sheer comedic brilliance and charisma, have built this huge social following by talking about being Dominican New York millennial girls trying to survive in New York City. There already was a huge community rallying behind them, and I’ve been following them for a long time. I thought they were sisters for the longest time. They have this amazing chemistry, but it turns out they just grew up together and were super close. I knew I wanted them to play the sisters in my film. They had a very similar path to mine. They’re first generation New Yorkers (much of their family is still back on the island, and while they’re still connected to the island, they are very much New Yorkers) and I knew that their story was very close to the characters I had written. I knew they could bring their own personal experiences to it. I knew that they could pull off the sisterly chemistry and that it wouldn’t have to be too hard to pull that out from them.
When we went back to the Dominican Republic, it was both of the actresses’ first time there in many years and one of the first themes expressed in the film is the sisters realizing that they hadn’t been there in almost a decade. Having them see the island for the first time turned out to be a totally real moment, because it was the actresses’ truth—that’s what they were experiencing in that moment too. Sasha met some of her family members for the first time on that trip and that feeling of homecoming was a reality for them. I really pushed them to be themselves and pull from what they were experiencing in the moment.
When it came to the dynamic between the brother character and the history of the family, I wanted the cast to come to that naturally. That said, every once in a while, I would drop a little bomb here and there, like, “Oh yeah, this bed that you’re lying on? That’s where my grandparents passed away. How do you feel about that?” Rhey would be blown away by those little moments. I didn’t want to reveal that too early on because I wanted to capture their natural reaction to seeing this place, “coming back for the first time,” if that makes sense.
Filmmaker: Given your familiarity with the film’s main set piece, what were some of the ways you found yourself recontextualizing your grandmother’s house when it came to blocking? In what ways did your comfortability with the space enhance your ability to take chances within it?
Peralta: I grew up every summer going to that house, and for the last five years, I’ve become obsessed and documented it quite a bit. I know the house like the back of my hand. Every shot, every movement, was something I had already dreamed of. That was interesting because I thought that as a filmmaker, the fun, really easy moments were going to be when we’re outside of the house, going to the waterfall or going to the river…those were going to be the most exciting and carefree. But when I got there, those were the most stressful moments because I didn’t have the benefit of knowing exactly what I wanted.
The house provided a little more comfort because it was familiar to me and because I had been in a lot of the situations that these girls had been in and I wanted to block it the same exact way. Remember the cleaning/dance sequence early in the film? That comes from my sister and I having grown up living in that house. When the power would go out, we’d be extremely bored. All we would do to entertain ourselves was use our Walkman and get crazy. There are little moments like that in the film that I’d already seen in my memories. I was essentially capturing moments I’d always wanted to re-create on film. A number of the moments, not all of them, but quite a few (especially with the sisters) are inspired by things that I experienced or things that I saw there. In a way, I was just recreating memories.
Filmmaker: Speaking of that delightful scene early on in which the family is listening to loud music in the house, you’re able to give the viewers characters in the foreground (the sisters) and the background (the brother). There are recurring moments like this, where you place your camera in a specific place and then get to work within the frame. What did you learn about guiding your DP and finding a way to experiment with him?
Peralta: Because the house had such an atmosphere to it, we treated those as “Let’s be as still as possible and let things unfold within the frame,” which was really fun and took a lot of planning, because I told them, “You’re going to come in here and you’re going to come in there, but make it as organic and natural as possible.” There were scenes where I wanted to get close to the emotion and see the actresses’ expressions and them exploring the space right as they’re walking through it. For those, we used more handheld-styled shots, which is something my DP, Tim Curtin, is amazing at. He’s wonderful at capturing these moments so that you feel like you’re within the perspective of the characters as you’re going through the space.
Tim would pull out some really brilliant moments. The first scene that you see in the film is Dante, the eldest brother, opening the boarded-up house for the first time in a while. At first, I had to treat it as one of those “we’re going to let the camera be still and let the action speak for itself, coming in and out of frame,” type shots, but Tim had this great idea to let the camera slowly start following Dante into [the house]. We ended up starting wide and then honing in on his emotion and his perspective as he’s opening up the house for the first time. Tim pulled out some really great ideas that way and ended up deciding what we were trying to emotionally get out of a scene, to let the camera take a step back and be a little more passive or spring us right into the emotion.
Filmmaker: And at times, the film feels very still, its compositions deliberately framed and lived in. It almost feels like there’s an emphasis on a restrained lack of camera movement. What kind of discussions did you have with your DP about crafting a specific style for the film?
Peralta: We didn’t overly plan it. I knew what scenes I wanted to be still—the dance scene was one I had always imagined that way. There were a few of those that I already knew from the beginning I wanted a certain way. Then Tim and I planned out each scene, asking what we were trying to communicate and what the most important thing in each specific scene was. Is it more important to see the space they’re living in or is it more important to see how they’re feeling and what they’re going through?
You develop a language depending on what the characters are feeling and what the purpose of the scene is. We would then decide “Let’s walk with them and see how they’re feeling when they’re going through this thing,” or “Let’s hold and take in the space and let things play out.” Then there were moments where we totally improvised. While being in the house gave us a lot of control, once we were out in the city or out in the country, we had to throw the planning out the window and just get what we could get and make sure it’s beautiful and that we got the performances we needed. I think the house afforded us the quiet and space to plan and organize, but once you get thrown into a waterfall scene that’s a two-hour drive into the country, you have to go with your gut and trust that you know what you’re doing and that you have the vision to capture what you need.
>Filmmaker: The film is also heavily reliant on natural light. It feels humid at all times. Was that something you wished to accentuate from the start?<
Peralta: Absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Caribbean, but it possesses an atmosphere that was so important for me to capture, the heat and the humidity that you mentioned and the unique color palette. It’s hard for people who haven’t been there to see. I definitely wanted to maintain the atmosphere of this place and we were lucky because the house was built in a way that really leans into natural light. My grandfather built this house in the 1940s and natural light and nature were super important to him. Even though the house was in the middle of the city, you’d never tell due to the amount of nature surrounding it.As you saw in the dance scene that’s set inside the house, my grandfather built this big gate wall so that you’re pretty much outside at the same time and all of the elements are coming into the house. You feel like you’re not confined within a tiny house space. The way he built it allowed for really dramatic sections of light to come in. There were also really cavernous dark areas of the house, which was super fun to play with, i.e. “OK, at this point, the character feels this way, so let’s put him in the dark study, so we can really hone in on what he’s feeling and what he’s thinking about.”For the more joyous, family-related moments, we wanted to go “full daylight” and do it in this beautiful dining room space that has this beautiful light coming in. Because the house has such a dynamic atmosphere, it gave us so much to play with.
Filmmaker: What were some of the things you discovered, in the edit for example, that helped you make the film such a cohesive vision?
Peralta: This was my first time doing something this big or doing a feature at all. It was definitely a learning process for me to realize that just because you have things in a certain order in the script, it doesn’t mean that that’s what’s going to be how it turns out in the end. In post, I was like, “you know what? Screw all of this, let’s just piece this thing together the way it makes the most sense.” We first did a straightforward edit in order, just to see what it looked like.It didn’t feel as dynamic as I’d wanted it to. My editor, Max Bowens, and I decided, “Let’s scrap everything and go into our favorite moments and instead edit these little vignettes of moments that we loved. At some point, we know it will fit together in a certain way.”
The order of the events (and the way we get introduced to the house) was something we definitely created in post. It was written differently, but what you write and what happens is rarely the same thing. Often times (or in the way we edited) we realized that we should craft the narrative a little differently. Let’s have the characters be introduced to the space in a different way than was written. It was learning to let go of all of the planning and all of the writing that we had done before and to just lean into what really works best when you see it.
Filmmaker: Did you have a certain timeline, or a festival strategy in mind, that you were pushing to have the film completed by? What was your timeline to get the film out into the world?
Peralta: Because of the circumstances of the house being put up for sale, we rushed to shoot the film this past October, which isn’t a super slick, standard time to shoot. I know a lot of filmmakers try to shoot for Sundance deadlines and we totally couldn’t make that work. But we were like, “We have to go now and we can’t wait.” We had to deal with the timing that we had. Editing wise, it was really different due to funding. We had only funded enough to shoot the film but we hadn’t raised enough for post. I was like, “OK, I can afford a month of editing right now, so let’s just see how far we can get,” then it came to “great, I can afford another month now, so let’s see how far we get” and we played it under those circumstances and it worked out.
My editor and I had this really great flow, getting to the point where we were able to work really quickly and react really quickly to things and make quick decisions. We were able to do it within two months, which I know is possible for some filmmakers and for others it can take a year. We felt the need to do it as fast as we could in the short time that we had due to our budget. We ended up finishing the film and getting it accepted to a really beautiful place that happened to be perfectly timed for us to submit. It was the first festival that we submitted to. It was a dream.
I’m a New Yorker, this is my hometown, and my actresses are from the Bronx, and we would have loved to do some kind of premiere in New York where our families are. Honestly though, I didn’t expect it. I still had the mindset that this was a tiny movie that wasn’t going to go anywhere because….well, all of that’s just nonsense. At the time, I was like, “Who’s going to care about my little Dominican movie? This isn’t the thing that people are really interested in.”And yet, that’s not what I’m seeing now. We’ve gotten such a great response from people and the timing worked out perfectly for BAM. Getting accepted was incredible and totally unexpected. Now what we’re doing is just applying to everything else that we’re eligible for or that we think would be a good fit for the film. I’m really happy it turned out this way, because having a New York premiere with our family in Brooklyn just feels like a great place to reveal this whole thing.
Filmmaker: And they added a second screening, right?
Peralta: Yeah, the first sold out in like three hours, which is insane. I was not planning nor prepared for that and was like, “Oh no! I didn’t buy tickets for my grandparents or any of my cousins!” I’m really happy that they added a second screening so that the Peralta gang can make it in.