Currently making the festival rounds is The Empty Space from Texas writer/director Andrew Jara. The film is centered around a young woman (Valerie Alene) who is trying to put her life back together after an act of violence ends in tragedy, and she must find a way to deal with her grief before she can ultimately move forward.
Daily Dead recently caught up with Jara to talk about The Empty Space, and he discussed how the film began as part of his own personal journey of dealing with anxiety and depression and how it helped him evolve as a filmmaker. Jara also chatted about the challenges he faced while making the microbudget project, putting together his cast and more.
And since we can’t share The Empty Space with you here (due to its ongoing festival run), we’ve gone ahead and posted Jara’s most recent short film - Wellness Check - at the end of his interview, which we hope you enjoy!
Can you start off by discussing where the inspiration behind the story of The Empty Space came from and why it felt right to turn it into a film project?
Andrew Jara: The inspiration for The Empty Space was my own dealings with mental illness. I started to get really bad anxiety and depression seemingly out of nowhere. Living with depression and anxiety was such a new experience for me and I didn’t know what to make of it because there were some days where I felt normal. It wasn’t until I started to see a doctor and a therapist that I learned that I was living with anxiety and depression, and once I started to work with it, and was able to kind of get out from under it, I wanted to use my art to do something personal. Something that I felt might be able to help people.
So I just started writing and not thinking of the budget or any obstacles but just focusing on the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to really capture the paranoia and the fear of mental illness but also how we can look normal on the outside while battling inside. I really tried to focus on that aspect and make Aimee into a character that had both good days and bad days. I also had made a microbudget movie about zombies that I liked but it was just a cool story. I didn’t feel like it had any of my personality and I didn’t want to make movies like that. I really sat down and decided whether I wanted to pursue filmmaking at all anymore. And I realized unless I was making something personal and something real at least to me then I didn’t want to and with The Empty Space, I wanted to really tell something close to me and that I felt needed to get out.
The film touches on two timely issues: grief and gun violence. Were you conscientious of that going into The Empty Space and what were you hoping to say about these issues with this film?
Andrew Jara: Yes, I think I was very conscientious about both those things. With the gun violence, I wanted the gun violence to feel very real and very serious. I didn’t want you to bypass the gun, I wanted it to feel lethal so that’s why I focused on it and why the shots are so cemented in Aimee’s head. Having a gun pulled on you freezes time and I really wanted to try and capture that. The idea that this thing we see so often in films and TV suddenly has so much weight to it when it’s pointed at you is what I wanted to project with that moment and why she keeps returning to it.
It led me to grief and depression. This was done very intentionally because when you’re dealing with grief and situational anxiety this is a very big thing. Your brain gets stuck on a memory or a moment or even a feeling and you keep returning to that despite your best efforts. So I wanted to show her being trapped there, like she’s very much in the same spot, and how we let that dictate so many things.
And again, I wanted to really tackle the mental health aspect head on. That’s one of the reasons that Brian was a priest. I wanted to show that people turn to different things: groups, religion, getting out, etc. There is a deleted montage where Aimee tries even more things like yoga, a guru and running to try and help before ending up at the group. And for me, it was a mix of all these things that helped with my anxiety and I wanted to show that you gotta try stuff.
I also wanted to be very aware of how we ended it. I didn’t want to show Aimee being “healed” because that’s not how mental illness works. She ends the film by saying “I’m going to be okay,” because that’s how the battle with mental illness is. Sometimes you spend your whole day fighting it and sometimes it’s just at the back of your mind but the fight is never over.
Can you talk about putting together your cast for the film, and what made Valerie the perfect person to take on the role of Aimee since the film really revolves mainly around her performance?
Andrew Jara: Well, most of the crew were people I had worked with one way or another. Dion Lewis (Brad) and Pablo Media (Jamie) were two actors that I’ve worked with on most of my stuff. It’s so fun finding places to put them. I wanted every role to be kind of juicy like the Coen brothers. With everyone in the group, I wanted to show the type of people that suffer from mental illness, which is everyone. I wanted to show them having different personalities and coming from different walks of life to show that it really does affect everyone. I also wanted a pretty diverse cast, and since El Paso is a pretty diverse town and I wanted to show that, too.
Joe Sinclitico was someone who I had worked with before. While we were prepping The Empty Space, which was for about 4 or 5 years, I was worried I wouldn’t know how to direct anymore so I made a little film called Borderland over a week. Joe is a comedian that I liked and we had talked a little about acting. Joe was willing to come down and give it a shot and we ended up getting along really well, especially on that shoot. It was shot over a week from sundown to sun up and most of the actors were just family members, because it was more of a fun shoot to see if I could still do it. We ended up getting it distributed and it’s available worldwide, which I’m very proud of. So I knew it was something that Joe could pull off.
Rachel, who plays Mel, is actually Joe’s fiance. He recommended her to audition for Rachel and at first I was hesitant because you know how it goes with a recommendation from a friend. What if you don’t like her? But with her audition, she blew it out of the park. Her questions and willingness to jump into the role was really refreshing and even on set, her upbeat attitude was so great. You want people like that on your sets, especially for indie films.
As for Valerie, I knew that the movie literally rested on Aimee’s shoulders. If you didn’t buy her, then you wouldn’t buy anything. So it was tough. We auditioned so many people from all over the country but it was hard to find someone that could capture that feeling that even when she’s joking or laughing there is still a sadness hidden behind her. I just happened to be following Valerie on Twitter and she mentioned acting, so I asked her to audition because at the time, I was literally asking everyone. She had just gotten out of school and was looking to join the job market so she was up to audition and see what would happen. She auditioned and it was great. So I flew her down to El Paso and had her do some screen tests with other actors and work on some scenes and just go over the part. She seemed to get the idea of it and more importantly she was willing to work on the part until we hit the mark.
With these films, I’m paying as much as I can but it’s not as much as they deserve so it really does have to come down to passion. And Valerie was willing to put the work in. She would watch movies to get the idea of the tone and character. We would work on the scenes almost daily to just make sure when she came down here we were just tweaking instead of having to create from scratch. When you see the finished film, you see that work. She embodies Aimee and makes her much more real than I had written down. The movie is as much hers as it is mine.
What were some of the challenges you faced while making The Empty Space?
Andrew Jara: As I mentioned, there were about 4 or 5 years between writing the script to actually filming and the biggest challenge was money. I was lucky enough to move back in with my parents, which allowed me to pretty much save my entire paycheck to go into the movie. I started working at a news station which helped me to work on my photography and editing skills, especially under a deadline. And while it was good that I was able to move back, it did offer a lot of challenges. I’m forever grateful to my parents, but as a single guy living at home, there were sacrifices.
Once we had the budget and the cast, it was just the normal movie on a microbudget problems. We filmed it over about 24 days and stayed in a house and I had to figure out the schedules of everyone. Valerie was on break but Joe, Rachel, Dion and everyone else had a regular job that we had to work around. Joe and Rachel live in Los Angeles, so it required a lot of skill to not only work them in, but also get stuff done on time. Luckily, with my crew and family and friends, we were able to pull it off. Stephanie Strahan, George Cervantes and David Wheeler were basically my main crew and they were able to make sure things ran smoothly. They were also picking up the slack and just making sure we were ready to go as soon as the actors were. The actual production, while tough, wasn't as bad as it could have been and it was all thanks to them.
Any news on where fans might be able to check out The Empty Space in the future?
Andrew Jara: Well, we’re still in festivals right now. We won “Best of the Fest” at the Sacramento Horror Film Festival and then got into the American Horrors Film Festival at the same time. That was exciting because with COVID-19, it’s been hard. Festivals are being forced to limit how many features they can show and what they can show so things have slowed down and we’re getting really positive feedback. But that makes it hurt worse then we still aren’t selected. I appreciate that a lot of festivals have personally reached out to tell me that while they couldn’t show the film they were still very impressed with it. I do appreciate that but it also makes it hard to know that we have a good movie, we still aren’t being shown because of one reason or another. We’re hoping that now that the pandemic is over, we can get into a few more festivals and get some distributors’ attention. We might just release it independently this year because I do think the film can stand on its own and will find an audience, but right now honestly it’s just wait and see.
And do you have any plans for more features down the line?
Andrew Jara: I’m always writing features, or at least working on them in my head. I have two I’m working currently - one is about a boxer and his con artist cousin as they navigate underground fighting on the border, and the other is a story about working in the modern news cycle. I also wrote a midnight movie about migrants being hunted in response to how Trump and the MAGA crowd treated immigrants and my own dealings with the rise in racism especially towards Latinos. I’m not sure what I want to do with that one, but it was cathartic.
Also, right now I’m planning on focusing on building up my name and getting shorts out there. It was my plan as soon as we finished The Empty Space to write and make shorts but the pandemic struck again. So i’m getting back to that. While we were quarantined, we did a little short called Wellness Check that takes place during the pandemic and is found footage. I asked the actors to film themselves to stay as safe as possible. It was a lot of fun and I ended up submitting that to a handful of festivals and we got in every one. We even won “Most Original Concept” at Oregon Scream week. That was so awesome to be recognized for both my works at the same time so I want to do some more of those.
I’ve been friends with this photographer Kelsea Mcculloch for awhile now and finally convinced her to be my cinematographer and that will be fun. For the longest time, I didn’t think I could write shorts because I wasn’t sure I could do a story in such a limited space so I shied away from them. But now I see it as a challenge and it’s proving to be a lot of fun, especially because we can get them out there right away or show them off. The possibilities are endless!
I think overall The Empty Space taught me that I always want to say something with my art. I think before I just wanted to tell good stories but now I’ve learned I want to say something with my art - especially more Latino stories and stories that say something about the world or the culture we have. So it makes me happy that The Empty Space is being enjoyed by people because it really is me out there on the screen. And the fact that people are connecting to it, I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
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[Above artwork credit: Vanessa McKee]