Michael Cuenca is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and musician with several features, short films and music videos to his credit. His latest, I’ll Be Around, is the epic story of a group of thirty-something artists and musicians who are trying to make something of themselves before it’s too late. Cuenca recently spoke with ArtsBeat LA about the challenges of making a film with 50 characters for a mere $8,000.
ArtsBeat LA: What was the inspiration behind the making of I’ll Be Around?
Cuenca: You know, being part of the L.A. music scene for years, I wanted to show what it was like to be involved in music for various types of characters. Behind-the-scenes background info that certain films haven’t portrayed before. Also, I’m a big [Richard] Linklater fan, and so is Dan Rojay, my co-writer.
We wanted to do something like Slacker and Nashville, the Robert Altman movie. That was about a five-day country music festival and it followed about 30 to 40 characters. It’s not really fixed with a plot; it’s more like a kind of journey you’re going through.
We decided to do that with post-punk alternative rock; sort of a DIY independent music festival. We wanted to show how the different characters relate to each other and how everyone affects everyone else.
ArtsBeat LA: How did you manage to wrangle all those characters?
Cuenca: That was purely insane. The initial idea was to be like Slacker, where we’d start with Character One and Two, and then they would walk off, and then we’d come up with Three and Four and so forth, but as we were writing the script, we started to fall in love with the characters. We said, “You know what? It’d be cool to bring them back periodically throughout the story.”
It became this strange potpourri that can slightly be confusing, but the idea behind that was to take a person that’s coming to a pre-established music scene. They’re coming to this town for the first time. They don’t know how all the kinks are working; who’s related to who or what. That’s how that all began.
As far as rounding everybody up, in a cast that huge most of the actors are musicians, so they understood the material. It has to do with people not giving up on their dreams. It’s what they do to keep them waking up in the morning. It gives their lives a sort of meaning.
The “actor” actors also related to the film because, like their characters, they work in service industry jobs. They’re barely making their rent so they can pursue their dreams. They have to work in these jobs so that they can go out on auditions.
Trying to get everybody together and to work around everyone’s schedule to come to the set was a nightmare, as you can imagine.
ArtsBeat LA: How long was the production schedule?
Cuenca: We started writing in in the winter of 2016. We were chiseling away at the script for about eight months, and then we did a Seed&Spark crowdfunding campaign to help us get started. We did have some production companies that were interested in the movie, but they wanted to change everything about it. They didn’t like that we were drifting from character to character. They wanted us to focus on one band and their followers. I was like, “That’s Almost Famous. I like that movie, but it’s already been done.
We wanted to do something that was purposely not tying all the knots together. With the Seed&Spark campaign, we raised eight grand, which is not anything. But I’m a DIY filmmaker. I’ve been doing this for a dozen years, so I can get away with that. After that, we started casting and it took about another eight or nine months to cast the actors. We shot from the summer through the winter of 2018, because we had to work around everyone’s schedule. It wasn’t like this consecutive 30- or 40-day shoot. It was spread out.
ArtsBeat LA: And so many locations. How many were there? Dozens!
Cuenca: Yeah, if you look at the production schedule, it’s insane. There are probably as many locations as there are characters in the movie.
ArtsBeat LA: I recognized a lot of Hollywood in the interior stuff.
Cuenca: Yeah. We tried to find the most unique buildings, and the film does take place in a fictionalized L.A. called Petropolis. The reason for that is stylistically, you know, like the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s — Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club — they all took place in a fictional town called Shermer, Illinois. I love the idea of working in a fictional city, so most of my movies take place in a shared universe. Kind of like the Marvel universe! We have characters that are mentioned in other movies, and someone’s related to someone else in another flick.
That also allows us to get away with shooting — some of the venues in the movie aren’t just one venue. They’re made up of four or five different venues around Los Angeles. You have characters walking up one street and then, one block over, they’re in another part of L.A. Unless you’re from L.A. or live here now, it’s a little bit difficult to pinpoint where we shot certain things. Plus everything gets repainted all the time. Some of the backdrops we used no longer exist here.
ArtsBeat LA: In terms of dressing the sets on the interiors, did everyone throw in on that? There was a lot of stuff going on.
Cuenca: Some of it was locations that the actors already inhabited, or we did a quick set dress-up. We didn’t have a specific person in the crew to do that. We had a four- to five-person crew, since the movie was very DIY. Beforehand, we would picks spots that had a certain, you know, flavor to them. Even the Airbnb that the burglars are robbing in the movie, that was my friend’s place. She already had it. She’s like a very nostalgic person. Lots of retro figures, so it already looked like that. Blue walls, and all sorts of trinkets everywhere.
ArtsBeat LA: DP Jessica Gallant’s cinematography looks wonderful.
Cuenca: She’s awesome. She did my second feature, By the Wayside, which is a cinema verité style movie. Very hand-held camera; the camera’s swimming everywhere. She also worked on Oblivion, a punk rock web series I did between 2008 and 2011, a punk rock web series. Every episode was about a sitcom length. We had a difficult time getting it up on the internet, because at that time, streaming wasn’t a thing and people couldn’t upload something that long.
We’ve worked with each other for so long that I never have to fully explain what I’m trying to get. She’s fantastic, and when you meet her you go, “She’s perfect for this project.” She has bright-red hair that she dyes all the time, and she’s always wearing punk band T-shirts and that sort of stuff.
ArtsBeat LA: The color throughout was very intense in the film. Was that done in post?
Cuenca: Yeah. I really wanted it to pop, to have this colorful world. Initially, I wanted to focus on a dark wave death rock goth theme, and I was going to have everyone wearing mainly black, but there were so many people. Even when it comes to wardrobe, I wanted to show their personalities that you’d know just by looking at them. You could tell what kind of music they were into, so I really wanted pop-art colors.
ArtsBeat LA: Were the performances live or done to tracks?
Cuenca: Done to tracks. We had them blasting over the speakers.
ArtsBeat LA: But the people who were performing were the actual singers, right?
Cuenca: Yeah, because I wrote most of the songs for the fictional bands. I’d have the actor come in and lay down the vocal track and that’s what we’d be playing in the movie.
ArtsBeat LA: What style of filmmaking are you most comfortable with? Or do you like to spread your wings and try different things?
Cuenca: It’s all a challenge. Someone goes, “Why the hell would you try to do a movie with 50 characters that’s three hours long? Because it is a long movie, but it’s purposely done that way. We made sure that each scene plays a part. It may not be apparent the first time you watch the movie, but I’m a cinephile and I like to watch movies over and over.
By the Wayside was my second flick, and it’s a short movie — about 70 to 75 minutes long. That whole movie was done with just an outline. The actors didn’t have dialogue. Sometimes they didn’t even know what the next scene would be, so it was totally improvised. We shot about 18 hours of footage for this 70-minute feature. It’s a really fun movie, but that was a challenge.
It’s fun to keep a similar tone that you had in other movies, but pushing it, like a band does with albums.
ArtsBeat LA: What else do you have in development?
Cuenca: I’m going to be starting in mid-October Like a Dirty French Novel, a neo-noir. It’s co-written by Dan Rojay and Ashlee Elfman, who also worked on Oblivion back in the day. I guess I could describe it as a very, very noir Pulp Fiction type of thing, where we have these five films that are connected but they’re non-chronological. It’s a lot more serious than I’ll Be Around — a genre I haven’t really tackled before.
We’ve been simultaneously shooting Boys About Town. It follows two young males in their early twenties, shot in real time over the span of five years in vignettes. They’re mods, and then Motown, northern soul. They’re infatuated with music. but also with girls their age. They just got out of the high school mentality and they’re becoming full-fledged adults. But they’re going through this period where a lot of changes are going to happen. They’re played by two of the actors from I’ll Be Around. It’s a tribute to ‘60s French new wave films by Truffaut and Godard. It’s being shot in black and white. It has a really stylized look to it, with title cards breaking in.
I’ll Be Around is available on demand from Indie Rights.
Photos courtesy of Blvd Du Cinema Productions