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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Autumn's Eyes' Directors Paola Mendoza & Gabriel Noble

by Scott Weinberg

The "Autumn's Eyes' Pitch: This is life through the eyes of a 3-year-old girl as she tries to navigate her way through a life of poverty, her teenage mother's incarceration, and foster care.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Prison, poverty, foster care seen through the eyes of a 3 year old.

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.
Gabriel Noble: This is my first trip to the SXSW fest. I have been to festivals as a groupie, an actor, and a producer, but never as my true profession- a director.

Paola Mendoza: This is my first time at SXSW , and I am happy to say my first time at any festival as a Director. I starred in and was one of the creators of On the Outs, which had a tremendous festival run last year. I went to numerous festivals all around the world but I must say my absolute favorite festival was Berlin. The films that were there were incredible, it was well organized, the parties were wonderful and more importantly the audience in Germany appreciates film more than any other audience I have ever encountered.

Least favorite part ... jet lag!

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?
PM: I wanted to work with gorillas like Diane Fossey. I still would love to do it!

GN: I wanted to be an actor like Popeye. I even at my spinach, despite the gross look and taste of it. Anything to help my chances. I just didn’t want to kiss Olivoil, his wife.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
PM: I studied theater at UCLA. I got my MFA in directing and acting at Sarah Lawrence College and I always say On the Outs was my film school. My intention was never to be work in film. I was too much of a theater snob. That was my focus and my passion, but once On the Outs presented itself I dived into it full force. On the Outs was a very unique experience as I was 100% involved in every aspect of the film, from developing the story, to casting, to editing, to distributing the film and because of the experience and the knowledge I acquired I was able to make Autumn’s Eyes. My film school was working and I know I am very lucky to have had that.

GN: I also studied theater, with an emphasis in acting, at UCLA with Paola. I went on to co-found and serve as Artistic Director of a youth arts organization and direct youth theater around the world. I began to capture these programs on a 1 chip camera because I believed they had to be captured and we didn’t have the funds to hire out. It is after editing our South African theater exchange that I fell in love with the craft of documentary making and its potential to reach a global market. I began PA’ing and DP’ing on doc shoots on the side for cash, until I realized I had to focus on either Theater of Film to really progress. On The Outs, which I served as Assistant Director, really was my first professional move toward film as a career.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
PM: Film is always made to be seen where ever that may be. Gabriel and I made this film with a dollar, some passion and belief that this story needed to be watched by the masses. Being accepted into a festival does not change that that initial goal. It only excites me more that we will have the opportunity to dialogue about the severe conditions of poverty in this country. Poverty is the US’s dirty little secret, it’s not talked about and is almost made to seem as if it really does not exists or its not as bad as it is in third world countries. But our film is a testament that poverty in America is just as REAL as it is in third world countries and worse than anyone would like to accept or imagine. The film festival circuit is wonderful for us because it is giving us the platform to expose this dire situation.

GN: I am excited to share this un-story and bring the larger epidemic of poverty in the US to audiences around the world. Getting into the festival only encourages me that people are ready to listen and ultimately move toward systemic change. But most importantly…it gives comfort to my parents, who still do not understand what I do or why I do it!

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
PM: Ms. Piggy of course!!!!!

GN: Kermit…cause he got down with Ms. Piggy- clearly the hottest girl on TV at the time.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
GN: One day after an intense day of shooting I returned to my apt on trendy Bleecker Street in downtown New York, where it apparently was declared Mardi Gras, and all the bars were packed, trading beads for beers, at 4pm. Going from the world of extreme poverty, where a family has lost electricity and food is scarce to this world of abundance and bliss was confronting. I couldn’t help but think if the American film audience was ready for this film, and if people would allow themselves to escape their world to explore another. It could ruin Mardi Gras.

PM: During the actual production of Autumn’s Eyes there was no time to think about anything except the story that was unfolding in front of us, and how the hell we were going to continue financing the production. Its always been one step at a time with this film, not getting to ahead of ourselves and staying focused with what was in front of us at the moment. Now that we are in a festival and people are contacting us about reviews, I would be lying if I said I am not thinking about reviews. But I have learned that the most important aspect of creating any kind of art is the process because that is the only thing you can truly control and have influence over weather it is good or bad. The process is the goal. And I am proud to say the process of Autumn’s Eyes could not have been better with my co-director or our AMAZING editors Gloria and Joseph LaMorte. They were a crucial aspect to making this film what it is today. Of course what I learned from the Collier family and the relationship I formed with Autumn are two things I will treasure for the rest of my life.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
As I mentioned earlier Autumn played my daughter in On the Outs and Gabriel was our Assistant Director. Once On the Outs was over we knew there was a story to be told in Jersey City (where On the Outs took place). We continued going down to the neighborhood and were looking for a story when we got word that Autumn’s mother was arrested and was facing 10 years in prison. At that moment it hit us, this was our story. We went to the Collier family’s house and talked to them about the possibility of bringing a camera into the house and following the family for sometime. They accepted us with open arms and we were with the family for year and a half after that through the good and the bad. In May 2005 we hired our editors husband and wife team Gloria and Joseph LaMorte, who informed us about 2 weeks into working with them that Gloria was pregnant. They were very surprised by the pregnancy as were we. What was great about the surprise is it forced us to be on top of our game. Everyone was VERY aware of the clock ticking, 9 months that’s all we had. Gloria had a great pregnancy and she worked all the way up until 1 week before she gave labor. We are happy to say Emile LaMorte was our 5th person in the room, he was our angel. Just this week we finished our title sequence, began our sound mix and last night I was on the phone with Gabriel discussing our contract with our sales rep. Its been a WILD ride!

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
GN: When shooting an urban documentary, never turn off the camera, always have a fake (blank) tape ready to hand over to the authorities, and tell everyone you are with MTV if they ask in the hood. The moment you stop shooting- your best moment happens. You can at least get audio!

PM: Follow your instincts. There was many times where I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing and neither did Gabe. But we let our gut guide us and in the end we have a beautiful story that I am proud to have been a part of.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
PM: There were many inspirations and influences for this film. Gabriel, Gloria, Joseph and I watched documentaries non-stop. Girlhood, Boys of Baraka, Born into Brothels, Mad Hot Ballroom, On the Ropes, Love and Diane just to name a few. My personal influence was Walter Salles. Walter lets a story unfold with all its beauty and complexity and you never feel he is manipulating you. He is simply guiding you to understand his characters in their complicated lives and their far from perfect decisions. He was my marker, he was what I was striving for.

GN: Paola and I have similar background in film and a similar aesthetic that inspired us in making Autumn’s Eyes. The films listed above guided me, as both a director and cinemaphotographer, and Walter Salles is the man. Marc Levin, Michael Skolnik, Nanette Bernstein are inspirations as well.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
PM: Danny Hoch…if you don’t know who he is, you should!

GN: George Bush..if you don’t know who he is, don’t worry about it!

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?
GN: The urban Stand By Me.

PM: My favorite play "The Maids" by Jean Genet.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
PM: Autumn’s Eyes is a documentary BUT Autumn is a star in her own right and if given the opportunity she would be bigger than Dakota Fanning. Why? Because she is the most intelligent child I have ever met.
GN: Mama Rose. I have never met such a complex character. She is brutally honest, inexcusably inappropriate, and unconditionally loving. She could only capture her innate dynamic herself.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
PM: ...working with gorillas in Rwanda. (Or an actress.)

GN: ...a white water river raft guide in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
PM: Gael Gacia Bernal or Kate Winslet.

GN: Sean Penn or Selma Hayek

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!”
PM: I haven’t made it just yet, I am only just beginning. Making it means have a dishwasher and washer and dryer in my NYC apartment.

GN: Paola, I have both of those things but they are both broken! You got to have a good handyman- then you’ve made it.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
PM: Having just distributed On the Outs, I have had this conversation non-stop. For independent films with very little advertising dollars reviews are INDESPENSABLE. They will do what 500,000 in P&A would do. If you’re a big Hollywood film, reviews mean very little.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
GN: An Airline company- I’ll do anything for some free flights.

PM: American Apparel. Responsible consumerism is a MUST!

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?
PM: Good question-answer might be a little biased though. Film is a collaborative art form but at the end of the day someone (hopefully the director) has a vision and she is the leader of the pack. So putting “a film by” seems fair to me.

GN: I think it’s fair. Many people call themselves directors until they realize how much work it is. A director is usually the only person who will make their project happen by any means necessary…and this should be celebrated with a credit.

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?
Watch this film because you will learn something.
Watch this film because you have never seen anything like this.
Watch this film because it affects you directly.
Watch this film because you will laugh, cry and scream.
Watch this film because you should.
Watch this film because you will see a part of America that you have never seen before…and your guide will be an adorable 3-year old girl, so you can’t miss.


Autumn's Eyes, a film by Paola Mendoza & Gabriel Noble, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information.

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originally posted: 02/17/06 07:12:39
last updated: 02/17/06 07:14:35
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