A wave of nostalgia for the tumultuous yet thrilling moments of teenage years, a pull to work with non-professional actors and that sharp reminder of the intense draw of peer pressure led to Director Kathy Mitrani’s latest project Buzzkill. Here at Directors Notes, we’ve seen how the Colombian filmmaker deftly takes experiences from her childhood and transforms them into affecting films through her exploration of femininity and over-sexualisation Rubbed In Pink (Rozada) and this latest project employs a similar garnering of lived experience. Mitrani takes the relatable situation of a young girl desperately trying to fit in with a group of teens and through her talent for authentic storytelling and immersive filming has produced an absorbing, dramatic short where the stakes for our aspiring protagonist feel all too real. A state further enhanced by the film’s alluring softly saturated 16mm images, gritty cinematography and natural camerawork which catapult us the audience back to those formative years of turmoil and uncertainty. Mitrani returns to DN to tell us how working with natural non-actors and giving them ownership of their characters re-shaped her script, building the soundtrack around one of her actor’s songs and how embracing a lack of structure opened up creative possibilities on set.
Buzzkill in an incredibly relatable encapsulation of the hedonism of teenage years, how was the story drawn from personal experience?
I don’t remember there being one singular initial spark but rather different seeds that were planted at different times that became a path I could follow and the exploration of these seeds that landed me in Buzzkill’s world. My younger cousins had visited me on set for my last film and were really excited by the whole filmmaking process. I was/am very close with them and their excitement urged me to write something that we could work on together. I thought it would be exciting to work on a film with actors I have a lived connection with. I was inspired by the history of our relationship and the challenge of working with non-actors and I thought we’d be unlocking interesting material that perhaps wouldn’t have surfaced otherwise.
I wanted to create an immersive experience, in constant motion, that felt intense and vibrant.
When I was trying to figure out what would be the best story to hold this collaboration, it was winter in NYC and I was feeling very cold and nostalgic about my summers in Miami. I was remembering how my curiosity and the wave of influence around me tended to get me in trouble very quickly and suddenly. I was thinking a lot about the little seeds of queer curiosity that existed for me at that age but were buried because of the dynamics, or lack of acceptability during that time when I grew up. Ultimately all these memories culminated in me wanting to explore teenage life again, its subtle and not so subtle intensity. By then, I started to connect the dots between my desires to work with my cousins and my own experiences. While mapping my memories and understandings of what my cousins were going through at the time, certain themes started to surface and they became the guide to building the moments that eventually together became Buzzkill.
I love all of the threads which brought you to the story, how did you then develop the plot and arrive at the final script?
When I had a draft I was happy with, I left NY and spent three months in Miami realizing this project. I knew I wanted the rest of the cast to be natural/non-actors so street casting was my main focus in pre production. I wanted the film to feel fresh yet lived in and from experience knew that non-actors were my best way of getting there. The process of looking for the right people became essential to the rewriting of the script. Working with natural actors opened the door for a lot of play on set which gave the film the right texture/layers that would have otherwise been impossible to achieve given the time constraints. The lack of structure was really exciting for me because it put us all in a place where we had to create on the fly both with camera and the actors. Although I wanted to make a film about the big themes I was uncovering, I thought it was more important to focus on creating an experience that would touch on these themes without intellectualizing them. There was a lot of magic on set because of this, we were all running off our intuition, in retrospect, more planning would have definitely been helpful but I am glad my naivety brought me where it did.
The lack of structure was really exciting for me because it put us all in a place where we had to create on the fly both with camera and the actors.
Water and heat are the main characters in Miami and I wanted the story to reflect that. So in terms of plot, the setting came first and then I designed the drama around it. In the first iteration of the script the story took place at the beach with a similar climactic moment. But as I developed the story it became important to place the characters in a private setting. I was hoping that without the open space and potential for watchful strangers the characters would be more susceptible to their feelings and less susceptible to limitations. The next iterations were focused on having them break into a private pool which made the setting a living breathing element that drove the rest of the plot.
How did the process of looking for your non-actors change the initial script and what was your process for then preparing them for their on set performances?
It made the story more contemporary and less autobiographical. Searching for the right cast required patience and observation. In this process I was picking up on how people in that age group were behaving, communicating, expressing themselves, their mannerisms, etc. All of this informed the shape of the story, how big or small the moments had to be in order to tell the story while maintaining a realistic approach.
I didn’t ask the cast to read the script, if they wanted to they could. Some did, some didn’t. In rehearsals we spent about two to three weeks hanging out, eating together, playing games, chatting. This period, without the pressures of memorizing a script or following rules, made everyone comfortable with testing their creativity.
It gave the actors ownership of their characters and gave the film a texture I would have never arrived at if I had held all the control.
By the time we got to set it was enough to arrive at each scene with an understanding of the specific dramatic beats we had to hit. The rest was open for the cast to fill in (with the exception of the last scene, which was choreographed and rehearsed). I prefer this way of working. I think it gave the actors ownership of their characters and gave the film a texture I would have never arrived at if I had held all the control.
There were cast members that were 11/12 years old and other cast members that were 18. For the underage actors everything went through their parents, we let them build the guidelines. The parents read the script first and then we had conversations about the material and logistics. These talks gave us a solid foundation and set the tone for how the shoot would run. For two of the underage actors there were specific boundaries on what the kids could and couldn’t be aware of. We designed a shooting schedule that would allow for certain moments to play completely PG and had a different version of the script for these actors. It was a collaborative process not only with the parents but also with the older cast members that were receptive and respectful of the limitations.
As Buzzkill is such a nostalgic piece for you, what were your touchpoints for setting the tone, look and feel of the film?
Grit and uncertainty. The memories I was holding onto carried that energy and I wanted the film to hold the same tone. I also wanted to create an immersive experience, in constant motion, that felt intense and vibrant. Logan, our cinematographer, and I were inspired by photographers, like Alex Webb, who captures light and color in ways that felt close to how we wanted to photograph the heat and intensity of Miami and teenagers. And I think the decision to shoot 16mm tied everything together effortlessly and beautifully, everything that felt true to the memory or feeling I was trying to capture. The music was decided with the cast. The first song we put in the film was made by one of the actors, Zach Chanlatte. We built the rest of the soundtrack around Zach’s song.
Can we get a tease of what we’ll see from you next?
I am currently in post production with another short film, Sombras Nada Mas (Nothing but Shadows) and in development with my first feature film.