SXSW '08 Interview: "Second Skin" Director Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza
By Erik Childress
Posted 02/21/08 04:10:32
We spoke with Director & Editor Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, Writer/Producer Victor Piñeiro Escoriaza and producer/technical supervisor Peter Brauer about the South by Southwest world premiere of Second Skin.
The “Second Skin" Pitch: Second Skin takes an intimate look at people whose lives have become transformed by virtual worlds in online games such as World of Warcraft, Everquest and Second Life. The movie focuses on a couple who met in a virtual world, an addict whose life was ruined by these games, and a group of gamers who spend most of their lives inside virtual worlds. Along the way it explores virtual economy in China, virtual identity with disabled gamers and virtual community through the lens of an enormous, long-standing guild.
How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
VICTOR: The story began in a small pub somewhere in Manhattan. I'd been teaching elementary school for four years, and switched schools a few months ago. One of my new teacher buddies slid me an unwrapped birthday present across the table. "Happy Birthday, man- I want you to join me in Naboo. I'm the mayor of the biggest city, and I want you to be my number two." I peeked at the gift- the computer game Star Wars Galaxies, an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game). Sure I'd heard Everquest mentioned here and there, but I'd never entered a virtual world up to this point. I loaded the game later that night, and my brother Juan joined me as I explored a world inside the computer, alongside thousands of other real people playing aliens. We were mesmerized. However, being a lifelong console gamers, the game lost its luster after a few months. My friend, however, was smitten. His entire life began falling apart- his marriage nearly dissolved, he almost lost his job, and the bags under his eyes became permanent fixtures. At the same time, he became a legend in his online universe, and hundreds of people depended on his decisions and leadership. Juan and I marveled at his double life, and as we explored online, we found massive online communities dedicated to virtual world identity, friendship, economy and addiction. My brother Juan and friend Peter had started a company making industrial videos, and we'd been making narrative shorts and feature-length scripts on the side. Well, here was a chance to fuse their growing skills at filming documentaries with our dreams at making a feature-length movie. I was on my way to Columbia Graduate Film School, but decided instead to tackle Second Skin.
The early work involved hunting down subjects and writing out a detailed outline of how the movie might go. We created a website and started combing through virtual world forums for likely candidates. We spent the next year and a half traveling around the world, interviewing more than a hundred people, following around three sets of subjects in particular, having all kinds of zany misadventures, and plumbing the depths of debt. The past six months we've been locked in our tiny office/apartment in the Bronx, Juan whittling our 400 hours of footage into a power-packed hour-and-a-half, Peter splitting his time between creating machinima (in-world animations) and getting our movie squared legally, and I've been either marketing the movie, or else writing, organizing and memorizing our 1,000 pages of transcriptions, helping Juan find exactly what he's looking for in each scene. We break every day or two to peek at Juan's work, and react to it.
Juan moved to Queens a few months ago, and set up shop in his basement. Last night he spent yet another 20 hour period editing non-stop, Peter made machinima on one computer and hunted down some copyright info on the other, and I honed our marketing strategy, working on a thousand little things. I then spent another sleepless night lying in bed with far too much on my mind.
Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
JUAN CARLOS: My brother Victor and I got our hands on a video camera when we were eight or so, through a friend of a friend of a friend. We made a whole bunch of movies in our backyard and around the cul-de-sac in San Antonio with our buddies. It wasn't really serious filmmaking though. Mostly we just wanted to be superheroes because we'd read a bunch of Marvel comics. Victor chose to be Hercules from the Avengers for our first picture and I was the Punisher. It didn't make a whole lot of sense, but when your villain is the barbecue you're probably not too worried about why these two would be fighting side by side. So inevitably the answer to the question was filmmaker, although my Mom was always rooting for architect... I think that was because I played with Legos way too much as a kid. But how can you deny Legos, right? They're the perfect toy.
PETER: I always wanted to be an inventor. I played Legos all the time, built remote control cars, and stuck scissors into power outlets. I was obsessed with making things and seeing how they work. Those skills I learned by making stuff in my basement have paid off ten fold. Being able to solve complex problems is the most vital skill I have. I am not an inventor, but I get to invent new things nearly everyday.
How did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
JUAN CARLOS: I don't really know what 'real start' means... but I do remember a particular film shoot that caught a couple of people's attention. It was called 'Kinematics', and I made it as a project for my physics class. It essentially was a short b&w action flick with very little plot. The main characters would shout equations back and forth at each other like, "If F=ma then this bullet would go inside your head at 3,000 meters per second you cocksucker". I remember showing it in class, and my teacher, Mr. Willard, really liking it... but he could have done without all the cussing. I got a 48/50 points because it wasn't exactly classroom friendly.
PETER: I made a history project video about Hieronymous Bosch for my 10th grade history class. I picked that painter because the images in his paintings were clearly not safe for the class room, and there was almost no information about his actual life. That meant there was basically no reading or research to be done. In the end it wasn't very good at all. I think I got a B minus.
Does some part of your life belong to the world of video games? If so, where did it begin and what game(s) have you spent the better part of your hours playing?
JUAN CARLOS: All of us are gamers. Peter is the PC gamer, and the one who really got deep into WoW. When we started the documentary Victor was still a teacher. Peter and I were trying to run a small industrial documentary company. In trying to get to know what MMO's were Peter picked up the game and started playing it. At one point I stopped being able to get a hold of him. He fell into World of Warcraft pretty hard. Suffice to say the business was having difficulty running at full speed without one of its two majors fully present. A little while passed, and Peter came out of it much the wiser from his excursion in Azeroth. Victor and I are mostly console gamers. A few of my personal faves are Plaque Attack, Contra, Tempest, Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros & Melee and The GTA's.
VICTOR: Yeah, Juan and I had the first NES on the block, back in the day. Since then we've gone broke trying to own every console possible. Recently we joined GameFly (Netflix for video games) and go through games at an alarming rate. If we're not working on the movie or hanging out with our significant others, you'll probably find us basking in the warm glow of the latest shooter.
PETER: I have over 37 played days in World of Warcraft. That is over 888 hours. I have never played any other game as much, accept for maybe the Civilization series which I still play and love. But the truth is I do not feel I have ever belonged to a video game. I own video games, it is not other other way around. If I ever felt I belonged to a computer game, I would stop playing it.
Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
VICTOR: SXSW is going to pop our film fest cherry, and we couldn't be more excited about that.
Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
JUAN CARLOS: I can tell you that I'm freaking out a lot these days. When we got into the festival I don't think any of us could have been more excited, but once that settled down we starting really letting it sit in our heads... This is the first screening we are ever going to have... ever. Which is weird. From here on out we'll have had a movie play on the big screen, but right now I've never seen a feature of mine up there... because this is the first time we've made a feature. I mean just being selected for SXSW feels like we won a gigantic prize.
During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
JUAN CARLOS: Definitely - we're in production right now! We've been thinking about which festivals we wanted to be in for awhile. Choosing the right festival is such an important piece of the puzzle. Our first choice (thank goodness we got in) was SXSW. Not just because it is one of the highest honors to be in it, but because it has an entire interactive festival. That's a huge group of gamers who (hopefully) are interested in seeing a flick about online games. There are two gigantic tech companies who make online games, BioWare and NC Soft, with headquarters in Austin. We've got all of those guys coming too! We wanted to choose a festival and a city that had a community of people who would love to see our film.
VICTOR: Not only that, Juan and I spent our childhood in San Antonio- SXSW feels like going home.
Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
VICTOR: This is probably sacrilege, but being children of the 80s, Juan and I were raised by Muppet Babies (the cartoon). That said, I've always had a soft spot for Fozzie and Gonzo.
JUAN CARLOS: To be fair we did love the Muppet movies, and watched the Muppet Caper about a hundred times as kids. Gonzo was definitely my favorite...Thinking about it now I always liked the blue characters in cartoons though because I was also a big fan of Panthro from Thundercats too.
South Park famously spoofed the World of Warcraft. Have you heard stories of people trying to imitate the strategy that Cartman & Co. utilized to build up their strengths?
JUAN CARLOS: That would be a horrible grind though... I've done a fair share of killing boars in low level areas picking bits of machinima here and there. It can get unbelievably tiresome.
PETER: If you know anything about wow, you would know killing the same boars over and over can only progress you so far. Once a enemy is more that 5 levels below you they become gray to you and do not give experience. Thus killing level 5 boars over and over will not get you higher than level 10. Imitating his strategy would get you nowhere fast.
Who would you rather go to war with? The army of hand-and-eye coordinators populated in the '80s arcade craze or the real-time strategists of Everquest and WOW?
VICTOR: I'd let the Kings of Kong form the front line, and the RTS masters order them around.
JUAN CARLOS: The top RTS guys who play C&C. Those guys are crazy.
PETER: I would take WoW guild The Syndicate any day. Once you see them paintball you know they are serious.
If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
VICTOR: Befriend everybody, especially if they're talented. It's your network of friends that will help you make your movie. 99% of the people who worked on our movie were old friends. Oh, and you better be lucky. Really, really lucky.
JUAN CARLOS: If you're going to direct/edit/own your own company you have to be a rock. In other words - eat your Wheaties in the morning. Exercise everyday. Keep a strict regiment. Things ebb and flow in terms of real life triumphs and failures. The goal isn't to win, it is to be. So it's important to always keep yourself solid. Always pursuing your dream wholeheartedly. I watched 'Friday Night Lights' through a particularly difficult editing sting, and I couldn't get those words out of my head, 'Clear minds. Full Hearts. Can't lose'. Understanding that term "you're in it for the long haul" has been the most important thing I've learned. PLUS what Vic said.
What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
JUAN CARLOS: There are a lot of people who inspire me. For documentaries... I'll go there first since I made a doc. Well who doesn't love Errol Morris right? I do too, especially Mr. Death. Specifically the scene with the cigarettes. I love the way he can layer images together to create a thematic mood. Alex Gibney's, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" actually made my jaw drop. It was an absolutely perfect documentary. Such an inventive way to keep you moving through an incredibly complex piece of subject matter. I think I watched that movie 4 times in three days, and then I would just rewind it to certain parts for weeks after that. My netflix subscription wasn't getting much use at all for about a month. Ron Fricke's "Baraka" makes my top five movies of all time. What can I say... I like pretty things especially when I can pick up a message about the din of our society somewhere in there. As far as narrative I can say that I loved 'Once Upon a time in the West' long before film school tried to beat the love of it into me. Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil' is another one of those movies that blew my head wide open. Of course Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" has a visual perfection that is simply uncanny. Both 'Willow' and (the real) 'Star Wars Trilogy' are probably tied for things I've watched most. And finally a big shout out Broken Lizard. You guys are the best. Super Troopers... Beerfest... wow. Of course I love all the classic faves too, but I figured I could name drop on Coppola or Scorcese tomorrow. Oh wait I just did... whoops.
Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
JUAN CARLOS: Nope.
VICTOR: The closest I came was the structure and pacing of 'Wordplay'. It's absolutely genius, and when we read that it was edited in eight weeks, we were in utter disbelief.
What actor would you cast as your favorite cartoon character?
VICTOR: Well, my favorite cartoon character is Milhouse from The Simpsons, and I've been compared to him more than once. That said, I'd love to travel back in time and offer the part to a ten year old Dustin Hoffman.
JUAN CARLOS: Not my favorite cartoon, but I'd tell you what I would love to do. A Charlie Brown flick with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Charlie Brown and Robert Downey Jr. as Linus. That would be fantastic.
Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
JUAN CARLOS: I would love to go on and on about future plans because we have a few that I think are going to blow people's socks off. I don't mean this in one of those "oooh look at us" types of ways, I honestly think that our creative team has been developing some things that could really turn a couple of heads. But giving it away like this would just be too easy. Anyways, if you ever catch any of us on the streets in Austin, just ask. I'm sure if you offer any of us some coffee/tea/beer you'll be in for a fun conversation. As a swap we'll probably canvas you're entire body with Second Skin paraphanelia.
PETER: I know it has been in the works forever, but I always wanted to make Ender's Game. I mean that movie seems to always be in pre-production, but it just has to get made.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
JUAN CARLOS: An architect... refer to the earlier question for an explanation. Nowadays I kind of want to learn how to cook too. I think this maybe a knee jerk reaction the the fact that I'm a horrible failure in the kitchen. It really can be the absolute simplest recipe in the world, and I'll find a way to destroy it. Even when I'm being supervised things can go awry. It's pretty embarassing. At least I have other skills.
VICTOR: Exposing myself to radioactive spiders and keeping my fingers crossed.
PETER: Boat charter captain in the Florida keys, in the vain of Captain Ron.
Who’s an actor you’d kill to work with?
JUAN CARLOS: You know, I really would like to make a film with Michael Cera in it. Something pretty awesome to me is people who are just naturally present. They don't pretend to be anything but themselves. On screen it's difficult to do a performance that feels completely life-like. It's something I've become more and more interested in as I've made this documentary. Michael Cera is one of those people that seems to get that very well. I don't know if 'kill' to work with him is right, but definitely a good maiming would be in order. I'd maim for Robert Downey Jr. too. That guy knows how to act.
VICTOR: I'd have to say David Wain, just because he's the funniest guy on the planet. And, yeah, pretty much any actor from Arrested Development.
Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
JUAN CARLOS: Hahaha, this is a great question. No I have not made it, and I couldn't tell you what it would take. I can say that whatever "it" is... better be pretty good.
VICTOR: Kurt Cobain always said that he knew he made it when Weird Al covered his song. I wish there was a parallel in the film world, but I'm not sure I'd be that thrilled if the 'Scary Movie' guys decided to parody one of our movies.
PETER: If we sell Second Skin and make back the money we put in, then I have made it.
Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
JUAN CARLOS: Well I check rottentomatoes pretty much twelve times in a given day. Even if I know there isn't anything really new I'll check just to see if some movies tomatometer is going up or down. Then I read all the little critics blurbs. If I see one that is particularly scathing I'll probably take a look at the article. So I'd say critics are pretty important. Not so much for big box office smashes. There is enough P&A for those to really pump up some decent sales, but great reviews never hurts them either. In the case of a lot of these boutique films it's a real crap shoot whether you hit big or not. We're talking about a niche audience that loves indie flicks and interesting docs, but don't have time to watch all of them. So a lot of those movies live or die by the reviews they receive since word of mouth is such a big part of why people go to the theater for independents.
What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?
JUAN CARLOS: Quite honestly I have no idea- they're both pretty good. I guess I'd have to read both and see which one spoke more to me. Flattery doesn't really do anybody that much good... other than making you feel like a million bucks. So most likely a constructive review would be better. Still though knowing that someone out there is going to pick up a DVD and enjoy your movie again, nothing beats that. Here we are working for years on this pic, and it would be nice to know that someone takes it to heart. When you do the whole 'bleed for you art' thing you always want someone to care.
You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
JUAN CARLOS: I like a ton of products. My friends sometimes get annoyed because I'll rep something really inane at the most random times, like how much I love Windex. I'll have probably used it somewhat recently to a great degree of success (because Windex is great), but most likely the conversation has nothing to do with wiping down glass... or counters... or just about any surface for that matter. Did you know they came out with a really nice multi-purpose one? You can get it at your local supermarket.
VICTOR: I'd say an Apple laptop, but there's such a stigma attached to that little logo- especially in the gamer world. I've had countless threats leveled at me when I pull out my PowerBook.
PETER: I choose World of Warcraft. Don't they realize this movie is going to help their sales?
You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
JUAN CARLOS: I like to think of it in terms of how Bonnie and Clyde got made. Here are two people who want to make this movie so bad, but they just can't seem to get anyone to sign off on it. There is a homo-erotic scene between Warren Beatty and the other guy. Studios are turning them down left and right. They have a heart to heart conversation about the scene with Arthur Penn, the director, and it was out of there in a flash. Having edited this movie for a long time criticism can go a long way in helping you understand what is needed.
What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
JUAN CARLOS: I don't know... tacky is probably the wrong word. It's definitely been a collaboration, and it has been a lot of fun. Our movie wouldn't have existed in any shape way or form if it hadn't been for a gigantic effort on all of our parts. Victor and Peter have been equal parts of the process all along, and our decisions throughout the making of this film have shaped it. To give more credit to one person or another is futile. If you just have a film, and the word is not out there, no one is going to know your movie exists. If legal issues aren't taken care of no one is going to see your flick. If you are the only head that has a voice on a project, your film will suffer from a narrowness of vision. A director only has the last word on certain aspects of a production. Albeit they are a couple of really fun ones.
PETER: Juan is clearly the director of this film. There is nothing tacky about it. We have listened to his vision throughout. And ultimately he decides what is in and what is out. I am thankful he is making those choices and not me. I trust in his vision completely. Of course he listens to my crit, but at the end of the day the choices are all his. If we shared in this responsibility we'd probably spend too much time in discussions.
In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
JUAN CARLOS: My film will change your life. You would be doing yourself a disservice by not coming to see it. In all seriousness though, if you're an avid gamer or someone who knows nothing about these virtual worlds, this movie lets you catch a glimpse of what life is like on the other side of the screen. We have some stories about people that you are not going to believe. If you do one thing in your life check out our movie. If you do two please check out one of the other indie flicks out there. They are working just as hard.
PETER: Whether you are a gamer or not you have to see this film. I can't think of another movie that better depicts the effects of technology on modern society. Though we focus on gamers, this movie is about where all of humanity is headed. On top of having great depth, Second Skin is a fast paced and exciting film. This is the film that will have all your friends talking for a long time to come.
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza's Second Skin will have its world premiere at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival on Friday, March 7, 9:00 PM at the Austin Convention Center. There will be two more screenings at the ACC on Tuesday, March 11 (7:45 PM) and Thursday, March 13 (1:45 PM). Be sure to visit their website