Teenage years are marred with rampant hormones, previously unknown desires, experimentation and trying to find a sense of self, all of which are present in Melina Valdez’s short Weapons and Their Names. A story amalgamated from her own experiences, sometimes overwhelming emotions and testing her boundaries as a filmmaker, her short reverberates with the energy of youth whilst being weighed down by swathes of adulthood as she navigates grief and loss. Shot on 16mm film to reflect the hazy paths of our memory with lucid scenes injected with magic realism offering up those surreal feelings we all experience as teenagers Weapons and Their Names manages to delicately broach a wide range of themes all as we sit in the claustrophobia of youth. After premiering the film at Sundance and touring festivals, Weapons and Their Names premieres on the pages of DN today alongside our interview with Valdez where we get into the quiet power struggles between her characters, repeating imagery of water in the film and her zeal for building another world where she can express the tumultuous nature of those teenage years.

I saw that Weapons and Their Names was made as a proof of concept for a feature, how does this short relate to that full length narrative?

The feature is based on a personal story that happened when I was 17. My step-dad passed away, some of his valuable belongings were stolen by his own family members and my mother decided to take a road trip to Tennessee to get them back. I knew I couldn’t compact this entire journey into a short film, I also didn’t want it to only be a scene from the feature – it needed to take a life of its own. So I started thinking of other moments in my life when I was 17, things that happened to me that I could weld together with the bigger picture.

I remembered a time when I was hanging out with a good friend and she was waiting for her boyfriend to join us so that they could hook up. She gave me her phone to answer her mom in case she called while she was ‘away’. Her mom texted her, but I also saw the last message that her boyfriend sent her, he called me a slur. I remember how strange it felt and by the time they came back, I knew our friendship was over. The strangeness of that feeling set the foundation for Weapons and Their Names, then I blended in the emotions and themes from the feature: Immigrant family dealing with loss, guns acting as memorabilia, the tensions of cultural differences, magical realism to explore overwhelming emotions and a central mother-daughter connection.

Essentially, I took all of the heavy, overflowing feelings in the feature and swirled them around with another scenario in my life that felt comparable.

In Tennessee, my step-family took me to shoot guns in the woods, so I incorporated that into the short. The pulling on the leg hair, that’s a nod to the ‘othering’ comments I’ve received growing up. Coming home after a really surreal night and trying to make sure you’re real, that’s part of it as well. Essentially, I took all of the heavy, overflowing feelings in the feature and swirled them around with another scenario in my life that felt comparable.

Grief and suffering are always on the surface of the film even as we see the teenagers out doing their thing and having fun, how did you keep that so palpable throughout?

The main character, Luciana, is constantly trying to avoid confronting the vulnerability of grieving whilst her mother expresses it outwardly. This naturally creates a tension between the two of them, one pushes forward, one pulls back. The grief is heavy at home and I wanted the audience to feel that. But it was also important that, for both Luciana and the audience, there’s no escaping it.

What should be a time to unwind and let go in the woods becomes a quiet power struggle. Luciana’s best friend’s boyfriend, Bryce, is charming and cocky. He thinks he’s the one that’s going to school the girls on how to properly shoot a gun. As soon as Luciana shows her skills, which she learned from her late step-father, the idea of what a skilled gun user looks like is challenged and Bryce’s demeanor changes. Luciana’s best friend feels like she was overshadowed, Luciana is back to feeling alone. It’s only when she finds herself called into the outskirts of the woods that she is able to be alone, with her feelings, and finally let herself feel everything. Even with that release, we needed to have some type of closure with the mom which is that final scene – floating in the pool surrounded by her late husband’s clothes.

What would you say is the significance that water plays here as it’s a continued theme throughout the film with the river, rain and her mum in the pool?

The water imagery came naturally in the beginning because Florida is surrounded by water, scattered with marshes and swamps, raining constantly, tons of pools, etc. It’s just a very wet place. I think water is both comforting and frightening to me. Taking a dip at the beach is one of my favorite things, but I wouldn’t dare swim out too far. Sometimes I’ll include tiny moments in my scripts that just feel correct. It may not have a logical explanation and there may be some screenwriting books warning you against this type of writing, but I feel like these random ideas are at least the start of something bigger – the first domino falling so to speak.

I think it can be interpreted in different ways, but I wanted to mainly connect the daughter and the mother with similar magical realism energy.

That sort of gut-feeling writing led me to the water imagery. I think it can be interpreted in different ways, but I wanted to mainly connect the daughter and the mother with similar magical realism energy. Luciana is drenched by an impossible singular thunderstorm, her mother floats in the pool with her late husband’s clothes, the river might represent when things begin to grow unbearable for the two of them. When Luciana returns home and sees her mother in the pool, she’s instantly connected to her, because she also had an unbelievable experience involving water and this connection provides the empathy she’s been missing. It’s the first step to reconnecting.

How did you plan and execute the beautiful surreal scenes and the different ethereal elements woven into the fabric of this story?

With everything I’ve tried to make, I’ve always been excited by creating alternate realities. Very close to our own, but with these small details that elevate it slightly. Growing up (and now too) there’d be times when I’d feel things so strongly that it felt like it was impossible that I’d be able to keep it inside, much less talk about. It felt to me like something unbelievable and bizarre had to happen in order to convey these feelings. Not that I needed to explain it to anyone else, but it was a desire for release. With Weapons and Their Names, Luciana is so internal and holding back so much that I knew that the story needed to be infused with surreal moments, it’s a way to visually portray how she feels on the inside. Like she’s in-between worlds, almost floating by, then quickly drowning in cement. Being a teenager is already so weird, it’s another element when you bring in complicated adult feelings, I used these fantastical elements as a language for those hard-to-describe emotions.

Luciana is so internal and holding back so much that I knew that the story needed to be infused with surreal moments, it’s a way to visually portray how she feels on the inside.

The gritty and hazy aesthetic of 16mm fits the teenage, surreal dreamlike tones. How did you manage your shot list and approach to the coverage to make sure you captured everything you needed within the limited takes dictated by shooting on film?

Well, it was tough, because it was my first time working with 16mm film. Luckily my cinematographer, Robert W. Bevis. had plenty of experience and knew all of the fun little quirks we’d have to consider. Every filmmaker knows that no matter how well you think you’ve planned your shot list, there might be moments when you might have to change it on the spot. The day with all of the scenes in the woods was challenging because the weather wasn’t great and there was a time jump in the narrative that I didn’t think would work with what we had planned. Luckily, my team was full of creative people who were able to help me navigate this challenge.

My producers, AD, cinematographer and I were able to take some time to think through some ideas of how to incorporate the passing of time and we decided on that long shot of the water flowing…which was connected to the rest of the water imagery in the film and felt like a nice parallel to incorporate as they prepare to do some target practice. This collaborative and quick-on-our-feet decision ended up working really nicely, better than the original idea I had. I’ve always felt like being as prepared as possible is ideal, but leaving room to be spontaneous and feel things in the moment is incredibly important as well.

Ektachrome film was out of our budget, but we talked about trying to replicate that look by emphasizing the colors on screen as much as we could.

What references were you drawing from and what conversations were had between you and your DOP to bring the lush, vibrant cinematography to life?

My DOP and I referenced a handful of photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Alex Webb. The composition of a lot of their photographs represent that elevated reality that I was striving to communicate. We also drew ideas of the meditative and wandering tone from one of my favorite movies: Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. It was important for me to have the colorful vibrancy of Florida, the saturated greens and rich blues. Ektachrome film was out of our budget, but we talked about trying to replicate that look by emphasizing the colors on screen as much as we could. Pedro Almodóvar’s work was a big influence with this with his use of rich primary colors. We made sure to think of how color played into our wardrobe, locations and props. For example, having Luciana wear red contrasted her against the green of the woods or finding a home with colorful walls. For coloring in post-production, we had the colors subtly boosted, without it being too distracting. There was obviously a lot to think about with the different layers of cinematography, but ultimately balancing surrealness with moments of tranquility was our north star.

Premiering at Sundance must have been phenomenal.

It was completely unexpected and one of the most exciting phone calls of my life! I will say, it was incredibly overwhelming to go from making no-budget films that didn’t play in too many festivals, to premiering at one of the biggest ones in America. It was amazing, but it was also very difficult for me because I had to deal with all of the complicated feelings of knowing what this meant as a filmmaker, having more people look at my work, starting to see all of the flaws…I just felt incredibly vulnerable and out of place. I think my imposter syndrome took over! It was also way too cold and I didn’t dress properly, so that might have something to do with it. But that’s just the yin-yang of everything. Overall, it gave me the confidence to know that I’m headed in the right direction. I am so excited to share my films and having a large platform willing to showcase them is a huge privilege!

How has the making of this shaped the feature and is that something you are actively working on now?

Making Weapons and Their Names was a huge step forward for me creatively. I’m always trying to improve with this craft, I get tunnel vision with it. Every time I’m directing a new film, I learn so much and I improve immensely. It’s helped me understand more about what I need to work on and what my strengths are, it’s also helped me understand how to tell a layered story a little better. I am still developing the feature, along with a couple of smaller budget features I’m excited about.

Part of the excitement of storytelling and directing is being able to experiment and take risks. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but my biggest fear is creating something that feels unoriginal and uninspired. I took a lot of risks with Weapons and some worked out, some didn’t — but I have no regrets! I’m excited to step into the world of features — more opportunities to become a braver artist, tell stories I’d want to see on screen and work with amazing people along the way. That’s the dream!

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