This edition of GUMworks, we talk to cinematographer/director of photography and all-around visual expert Yessica Curiel-Montoya. Yessica is from Mexico, but came to NYC for a graduate degree at CUNY’s prestigious film program. She has spent over a decade making sure projects from short films to PBS documentaries look their best.
As if that wasn’t enough, she also directs. Her short film Quiet Space screened this year at the most prestigious film festival of them all, Cannes. We caught up with Yessica by phone recently when she was – where else? – on set. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
GUM Studios: Can you start out by telling us about yourself and what you do?
Yessica Curiel-Montoya: My name is Yessica. I was born and raised in Mexico. I went to school there, worked for a few years, and then moved to New York to get a Master’s degree and continue my career. I’ve always focused more on the cinematography/lighting/camera aspect of filmmaking. I’ve been doing it for close to a decade now, and I’ve done all types of things – commercials, independent fiction, documentary, whatever comes my way.
GS: What were some of the differences between studying film in Mexico and in the U.S.?
YCM: There were very clear differences to me, but I’m not sure they have to do with the country. I used to think it was the country, but then I realized it was maybe the programs that I went through.
When I got my BFA, it was very strict. It felt like boot camp. Professors were always telling us we were worthless and we needed to work harder. We were doing everything wrong, we needed to get better, we shouldn’t sleep and we shouldn’t eat, all this stuff. When I came to the U.S., everything was super-nice. Whenever we showed an exercise in class, everybody was clapping, and I was definitely not used to that. Professors would make the nicest comments, no matter how terrible your exercise was. The levels of criticism were very different.
GS: When did you first realize that you wanted to concentrate on the cinematography and camera side of things?
YCM: When I was a teenager, I was really into photography. I knew when I was 14 that I wanted to be a photographer. But I also wanted to be a psychologist, so that was weird.
I was really into music videos when I was in high school, and at one point it dawned on me that I could do that. It was like photography, but it was moving photography. I didn’t think until high school that it was a thing you could do for a living. So I decided to go to film school.
In film school, it was clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to be a DP. For a while, I flirted with the idea of being a director, but I’ve never really loved it, so I never pursued it. But cinematography was really clear to me, even though I didn’t know what it was, exactly. I knew what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t know the name of it at first.
GS: Is there a difference in the way you approach shooting a fiction film versus a documentary? When you’re shooting a documentary, the audience has to read it as more “real” than a fiction film, but I was never really sure of what that meant in terms of photography.
YCM: Definitely. I feel like now, things are going in the opposite direction. You have a lot more fiction films where the director or the producer tells you they want to do hand-held, they want to have dirty camera work because they want it to feel real. And in documentary, at least the last few documentaries that I’ve worked on, everything has been on a tripod, very static, very beautiful, very planned-out because they were trying to make it as clean and as beautiful as fiction, which I think is sort of funny.
But there’s a different approach to fiction and documentary. With documentary, you make a plan beforehand, you make a script of what you want to get. But once you are shooting, you have to be prepared to move around and capture whatever it is that you want to capture. Most things that you’re recording cannot be repeated. So you’ve got to make sure that you’re rolling when you need to be rolling, and that you cut when you need to cut.
With fiction, you have more leeway. You plan a lot more, and you have a lot more control, even though there are all sorts of crises on set. But you can sometimes be more creative or plan your aesthetic a bit more when you’re shooting fiction. That’s probably the main difference.
GS: Do you think that you have a visual style or particular aesthetic that runs shows up when you work on something, no matter what the project is?
YCM: I don’t know. I don’t think so. Probably somebody else could tell you that. But not that I’m aware. There are definitely constants. You have preferences and you have things that you like. But I don’t think I’m aware of any of them.
Well, I am aware of a thing I try to do with reflections and mirrors. But probably in the last three or four projects that I’ve shot, I didn’t have the opportunity to do that.
GS: What is it about mirrors and reflections that you like?
YCM: You’re getting the character and their reflection, or the character and a reflection of someone else. I feel like it brings an intimacy to the scene, because it’s almost like the camera disappears, to me. I don’t know if it really works like that for audiences. But I feel like, for a second, it feels more organic. You’re getting reflections and you’re seeing the person’s character, but for a second there’s no camera. It might help you forget that you’re watching something that was shot by a bunch of people.
GS: Speaking of mirrors and reflections, you have the vignette ‘Public Service’ that’s a fictional take on a graffiti writer. For that short film, you had to find ways to shoot an actor without shooting his face all at once. How did you manage that without repeating yourself?
YCM: I thought about that project a lot, actually. I had planned two or three ways in which I was going to cover his face when I shot a wider angle. When I was actually shooting it, there were new ways that I figured out as I was doing it.
With that film, I didn’t want him to be faceless. In the film, nobody knew who he was. Everybody was talking about him and making these assumptions about him. You don’t really see his face until the end, when there’s that little reveal about him actually not being a bad person.
He’s been perceived as a bad person, a criminal who’s tagging the subway. And then someone’s like, maybe he has a good point. In the end, you only see half of his face. So, trying not to sound too pretentious, that’s the point where you see very clearly a side of him that you hadn’t seen before, but you’re still not seeing all of him.
GS: Your film Quiet Space went to Cannes this year. What was that like?
YCM: That was unexpected and awesome. I’d been sending that film to so many film festivals. I spent over a thousand dollars sending it different places, and I just kept getting rejection after rejection after rejection. I was totally ready for a rejection from that one too. When I got the acceptance letter, I was like, “What, what? Are you sure?” [Laughs]
But it was really cool. I didn’t even allow myself to dream of that, because I never planned on being on a director – those were not really my goals. They became my goals after I directed, obviously. But it was unexpected and it was also kind of a whirlwind. I found out in March or April about it, and the festival was in May. It was crazy.
GS: What has it meant to you career-wise to have had a film screen at Cannes?
YCM: It was a validation. But also professionally, a lot of people were like, “Wait, hold on, you went to Cannes with your film?” I got a few gigs, including teaching a workshop back home.
I felt like a lot of people acknowledged, “Okay, so you’re kind of serious about this.” They realized I’m not just a kid who wants to make movies. My parents have always been very supportive, but they always thought that making films was kind of impossible. Even as I was making films and making money by working on films, they were still like, “Are you ever going to do something that’s real?” When Cannes happened, my parents and my entire family were like, “Oh, okay.” It helped me to get validated with people whose validation maybe I wasn’t exactly looking for. But now I have that. Now they believe in me.
GS: I saw a video of you talking about a film you were planning about racial tensions between blacks and Mexicans in Harlem, where you live. Why did you want to explore that in film?
YCM: I really wanted to touch on that because having grown up in Mexico, I was not familiar with the type of racism that is rampant in the U.S. Not to say that there’s no racism in Mexico – there is. It’s just very, very different. We discriminate, it’s just in a very different way.
When I moved here, people were talking about race all the time. When I signed up for school, they asked me to self-identify. I was like, “Self-identify? What is that?” Those things from the get-go were very fascinating to me.
Living in Harlem, I got to experience it first-hand. Because I can be sort of white-passing, sometimes if I talked to black people, they would not realize that I was Mexican, and they would talk shit about Mexicans. I was like, “Guys, I’m actually Mexican.” They would say, “No, but you’re different. You were born here.” And I’m like, “No, I was born and raised in Mexico.”
Then, talking to Mexicans who knew I was Mexican, sometimes they would talk shit about black people. And I’m like, “What they fuck are you talking about? You’re saying they’re criminals? What do you think white people think of you? They think the same.” I always thought it was funny they were so focused on fighting each other and talking shit to each other. I’m like, maybe this is not the best idea. So I just thought that was interesting.
The idea that project came from an opportunity I got when I was at Cannes. They were offering people with films in my category €5,000 to make a film, but you had to compete for it. You had to pitch, and then you had to do a vote with your Facebook friends – which I didn’t know about when I first signed up. I ended up pitching for the film, and you had to get people to vote and it was very complicated. So I didn’t get the money, and because I didn’t have money, I didn’t go on with the project.
GS: One last thing, because I know you’re on set as we speak. When you’re working on a project, what can a studio space provide to make your job easier?
YCM: Well, definitely a good space with good rates. It also helps if they are ready for you – I’ve been to studios where you can’t even plug in the lights you need.
It’s helpful if the studio is equipped with the technical stuff that I need. Also, if it can be modified easily, that’s also convenient. It helps if it’s accessible. Something that can really simplify your job is just having access for a car – if you can unload directly into an elevator or something, that can be really, really helpful.
Interview by Shawn Setaro