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MLK JR WAY: An Interview with the Directors

February 27, 2012

Life is better with a soundtrack. That’s pretty much our mantra. And after watching MLK JR WAY, the hyper-local squatter flick that’s been making the viewing rounds, we can say life is better with a soundtrack you made yourself. Electronic tracks from Oakland artists Moon Roof, Jay Casio, RnB Millionaires and Pony Loco add nostalgia and endearment to otherwise typical shots of partying and bumming around, making the bare-bones film a commemoration to a youth scene that might be drastically different (or not) in ten to twenty years.  We decided to ask its creators, Eliseo Cabrera Iribar and Kara Cohen, a few questions and find out more about the music in the film- now available for download here.

BAB: What was the inspiration for the film?
Eliseo: Me and my friend Erik [Stinson], we made a film together, Sorry I Like to Party and we wanted to keep making movies. Initially we just wanted to show how certain people lived in this part of Oakland. It’s a really small sub-culture. And our friends are really funny so it’s like, we decided to make a comedy. Let’s make a feature length this time.  Then after we started to actually make it serious, we wanted to show a different side of the other half. How poor people live but not in a sad way.

BAB: Who is the target audience for this film?
Eliseo: It’s for anybody who is interested in anthropology.  I wanted to do a historical fiction movie. And in a way, it’s similar to the French writers from the 1900’s like Flaubert where it posits that this is what’s going on at this point right now with these people. That’s what we wanted.  But mostly, it probably appeals to young people. We’ve shown it to old people. I was impressed that they enjoyed it and got it. They got it more than some others. So I guess like younger people and people who are into history.

BAB: How much of the film is fact and how much is fiction?
Kara: It’s so hard to quantify. Every moment in the film contains aspects of fact and aspects of fiction. Some characters are fictional, most play themselves. The settings are all real places and real events in Oakland. Many of the conversations are real conversations but some may not have happened if it weren’t for us filming. Essentially, take reality, add a few fictional characters, add some fictional events and motivations, and you get what we got, a hybrid.
Eliseo: Me and Erik were really into mumblecore. And you know, watching those films is good because you see a lot of authentic conversations and also you have the sense that you could do a movie like that. So we did the same thing with Sorry I Like to Party and gave very little direction. We just said “This is the premise of the scene. Go. This is what you need to accomplish. Go.” And then certain parts where we did have to mold the storyline, we told them what they had to do but it’s all their dialogue.  We didn’t tell them what to say but the scenes are set up.  It’s prompted.

BAB: So is that what inspired the blend that you have of fiction and reality? We’ve been struck by the fact that it’s not unlike reality TV in a way, where the drama is vaguely scripted but not very, and there aren’t multiple takes.
Eliseo: The thing I would say is where a reality TV show tries to sell you that it’s real, we’re trying to sell you that it’s fake. Whereas it’s not a documentary. Everything is real but the plot. The background is real. The foreground is fake. That is the house they live in.

BAB: Eliseo, what made you decide to work with Kara on this project?
Eliseo: Essentially it was me and Erik and we did Sorry I Like to Party on a 1991 Sony H8 VHS camera that he had. And even though it looked really cool and looked very hipster-y, if we wanted to make it serious we had to use HD and none of us had an HD camera except for Kara.  And she had the tools to edit.  We didn’t have any of that. So we were just like ‘Hey do you want to be a director, also?’ And she was down.  She’s a friend of ours.

BAB: Kara what made you decide to work with Eliseo on this project?
Kara: Eliseo and Erik asked me to be the director of photography. They are good friends of mine and I was hanging out at Eliseo’s house when they were writing first version of the story. I helped them figure out the ending. After not too long as the DP, they asked me to be a director too. Probably because I am bossy.

BAB: Did you face any challenges while making MLK Jr Way?
Eliseo: One challenge was  obviously the sound. It’s not that good because we didn’t have a boom or anything. We had a really limited budget.  I was unemployed most of the time and Erik didn’t have any money and Kara didn’t have money to give away, she was a student so we didn’t really have any money to spend on any equipment other than what Kara had.

BAB: How do you feel like your limited budget shaped or hindered the film?
Kara: Because so much of the film is real life, we needed to be able to film anytime anywhere and not be intrusive about it. We only used a small DSLR that was easy to store in a backpack, whip it out at any moment and not make the actors feel like they were acting. This affected our sound and the stability of our shots. Ultimately though, we feel like the unpolished production quality adds to the authenticity of the film. It wouldn’t have been what we were aiming for had we used lights, tripods and mics. The sound was sacrificed a bit, but it was worth it. We added subtitles that allowed the viewer to really pay attention to the dialogue, which is important to us.

BAB: What was it like to be a character in your own film? What prompted that decision?
Eliseo: For Kara, it was because it was hard to get girls to be on the dates. So I threw her in that. And for my part in it, the first scene we ever did was the one at the house [Ed note: this scene sets up primary plot conflict]. And all those kids are hanging out. So it would have been a lot easier if I was in it as, kind of a quarterback of directing the scene.  To get the scene in motion.

BAB: Did making the film have any unexpected outcomes? Did you have any expectations going in?
Kara: We didn’t expect to come out with such an incredible soundtrack. We’ve never doubted the talent of our friends/actors but we were really astonished at how much the music contributed to the film.
Eliseo: I didn’t have any expectations, I just went head first. Mostly because I knew a lot of film kids through college who would take forever to make a film or they’d never do it because they didn’t get funding or some bullshit. So I just wanted to make it and then worry about it later. Jason [Canepa] did get mad about the drug scene. Of the things he’s done, that’s the thing he’s most ashamed of. And any time he shows it with his family he tells them it’s not real coke. It was also good to finally have Moon Roof out there. Because that music project they did, it got a bit buried. And they let us use it. I think a lot of people respond to that most with the movie.

BAB: The Art Faccia review made the point that there aren’t any strong female roles. Can you speak to that?
Kara: The film is very strongly from the perspective of the male characters. A lot of the females are shown through the lens of the protagonists. The two girls that the protagonists fall for, they are tough and funny. Izzy and Sarah are badasses in real life and on film. The film is a lot less about dating and gender than it seems.
Eliseo: I’ve seen romantic comedies where the main guy is a nice guy, generally. But guys do that. They talk about shit like that. That wasn’t even that vulgar as what we say in real life.  So it may seem like they’re assholes but it is what it is. It’s also like a survival thing. It’s not like they’re faking their emotions in the movie or anything. I wanted to do mostly the opposite of what I see in shitty romantic comedies where it’s like noble values. These are real people. People have flaws.  The main characters are also a product of their environment. Where they can’t afford to go to school. Even if they did, why would they work that hard to get a shitty job being a financial analyst. When they can not work as hard and have way more fun.
BAB: Is that a statement about the main characters? Or is that a statement about our generation?
Eliseo: I could use them as examples but that’s how I felt when I lived there. And I still live in Oakland. And I work with people who have really boring lives and they probably look down upon people like that for being lazy or stuff like that. And at the same time, people like Gabe [Santos] & Albert [Luera] have way more fun than those people. And you’re working for a corporation that could fire you any second and you’re still in debt from school.

BAB: Future plans in cinema? Would you make a similar film about a different cultural subset? For instance, one that you didn’t happen to be a part of.
Eliseo: If I had money or access, yes. The next film I’m doing is similar.  It has a character from this culture, which is Justin [Flores], who’s an artist. But he’s more driven than they are. He wants to be a rapper. And his best friend lives in San Francisco and she’s a bougie girl and she has that thing going on. And she’s trying to get her PhD. So I’m taking one step into a different area but still keeping one foot in familiar territory.
Kara: I am pursuing a career in advertising. Hopefully I will be creating/writing commercials and films through out my career. It isn’t cinema but it is creating stories through the same medium and I love it. I make short videos for fun all the time as well.

download the soundtrack to MLK JR WAY here, $5

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