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South By Southwest 2014 Interview – MATEO director Aaron I. Naar

MATEO - At SxSW 2014
by Jason Whyte

“An idiosyncratic, middle-aged caucasian man from New Hampshire with the "voice of an angel" goes to great lengths to record an original album of incredible music in Havana, Cuba. Imagine R. Crumb as the lead member of Buena Vista Social Club.” Director Aaron I. Naar on MATEO which screens at the 2014 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

This will be my second time at SxSW, but my first time with a feature length film and my first as director. And I am really looking forward to attending the three screenings of my film.

Your favorite barbecue/food in the city?

Although, I have been to Austin numerous times, I have yet to single out the best BBQ in town. Once I find a place that barbecues peach cobbler,  that will most likely take the crown.

What do you love the most about showing movies in Austin and Austin in general?

Needless to say, Austin is an amazing city and a lovely break from Los Angeles for me. For movie watching, in my brief experience here, the audiences I have been surrounded by have been really enthusiastic, forgiving, and quite knowledgeable about film history and filmmaking tropes. And for MATEO specifically, an audience that is a broad intersection of Latino/a culture and audiophiles couldn’t be more perfect. I am honored that my film will be launching here.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

I have been making videos on my own ever since high school. Although I never studied filmmaking formally, it has always been a part of my life. The avenue through which I pursued filmmaking as a career path was editing. After I graduated from college, being able to edit was a much more bankable skill for me, and it still is. I really do love directing and editing, whether on my own projects or others, and I hope to be able to continue doing both.

How did this whole project come together from your perspective?

Having only directed short-form fiction and documentary work in the past, I was struggling to figure out a way to transition to feature filmmaking. When MATEO was introduced to me, I jumped at the opportunity to try and create something on my own that was as robust and effective as any project I had been seeing in a theater at the time. The film came to fruition through the hard work of my very small, talented crew, and our abilities to go above-and-beyond the typical boundaries and time commitments of our other work.

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?

When I started production, I didn’t have a budget, a crew, a storyline or a deadline. The budget remained low until the end, my friends filled in for a crew, and the storyline revealed itself only after four years of following a very elusive man. And SxSW turned out to be as positive a motivator for completion as one could hope.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

I knew that Matthew was going to be an endlessly layered subject when he brought me to his storage unit several months into production. He told me, “This is the only thing that I still have in my life since before prison.” It gave new meaning to “skeletons in a closet” for me. And more importantly, I started to understand that there was a whole lot more life to the story than I initially thought.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?

I really love the editorial process. I love that one can change the context, meaning, or scope of anything during editorial. And I like creating multiple versions of one scene that all mean different things. So, anytime I hit a roadblock during MATEO, my editor, Nicole Vaskell, and I would rip it open editorially, knowing that we could probably put it back together several different ways. With several hundred hours of footage to manage, Nicole was always the first to jump on the opportunity of trying something new. That in and of itself was plenty of motivation for me.

I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

It was a simple decision to shoot on the Canon 5D Mark II; we wanted something that looked decent in low light, had a shallow depth of field, and most importantly, was not expensive. We also needed to be able to shoot covertly for extended periods of time with little extra equipment.

Director Seth Cuddeback and I have been making movies since our time together at Vassar College. This is the first film though, where he shot and I directed. Seth really added a cinematic, kinetic energy to the film, especially to the recording segments in Cuba.  However, because of our previous experience together, Seth was able to pick-up on what I wanted fairly easily, embellish, and subsequently create a certain feel on his own.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?

I hope Mateo will singlehandedly help keep Austin weird.
After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?

I would really love to show the film in LA. It’s Matthew’s current home and the location of the majority of his fan base. The core of the film is an LA story about the lengths a character will go to fulfill his dream.
If you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

Any Cinema 4DX in the world. MATEO would be especially memorable with smell-o-vision. On a more serious note, I really would love to show it in a theater with an orchestra pit, so that the featured Cuban musicians in the film could perform the original music and soundtrack while accompanying picture.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?

Probably nothing. Or maybe I would get them involved in some sort of long con or elaborate identity theft scheme. Fortunately, my parents can’t text.
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

 I think that building a team from the beginning is so important. And not just with your friends and contemporaries, but people much more experienced than you. Specifically, for Mateo, it was only after participating in the Film Independent and IFP Documentary labs that I finally started to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2014 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 7-15. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jasonrcwhyte

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originally posted: 03/07/14 18:01:01
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