October 24, 2020

Alex Miranda Cruz and Noel Miranda seek transformative “cinema dignité” — Tone Madison

Tone Madison: You initially seemed a bit reticent to reveal details, but after going through the character arc and trajectory, I’m realizing this is an incredibly deep film.

Alex Miranda Cruz: It’s been so fun to explore these characters with our writing team, [which] is incredibly diverse. It was me, Greg Hatton (who’s our African-American cinematographer), and two women: my wife Noel Miranda, and one of our actors, Arielle Harmon (who’s also helping with production). There was also Emily Murphy, but she also had to step out due to a family situation. At one point, we had three women and two men in the writers room. Between the five of us, we were really able to create a simple, but deep story with a lot of subtext. […]  We really wanted to authentically depict the language of the Black and white communities [as well as] the emotions.

Tone Madison: Just a bit of a note I had from your promotional video: it looked like you had shot some scenes or at least some footage around 200 Block of State Street during the Black Lives Matter protests in June. Is that going to factor into the film?

Alex Miranda Cruz: Yeah, it’s interesting you ask that. I have been filming during the effects of COVID, and then I was filming the protests as well. Matthew [Charles Bogart], our lead actor, actually, was at many of the protests on the front lines. He was maced and tear-gassed in real life. So, he’s been there watching and observing the whole thing. That is depicted a lot in the film—a combination of archival footage from others and people we know, as well as footage I’ve acquired with my crew. That’s why this film blurs the line between documentary and narrative.

Some additional Wisconsin shooting locations include Middleton and Fitchburg, Cross Plains (Indian Lake), Mt. Horeb (Military Ridge), and Dane (near Waunakee).

Tone Madison: What are some specific cinematic influences that you’ve harnessed for this feature? Maybe some of them come from other mediums, as your own resumé may attest to. I’m curious to know more about the proposed length of the film and a little bit more about its style.

Alex Miranda Cruz: We’re anticipating possibly around an hour and a half. It could actually be more; there is a lot of [aforementioned] footage I’ve acquired. […] I would say our visual inspirations come from Gordon Parks’ photography. We invested in vintage lenses to make the film. Although we’re filming on a high-end camera, we’re filming with Leica lenses made by Walter Mandler, one of their top engineers at the time. These lenses range from 1974 to 1976, and we managed to source a kit that’s in pristine condition from Australia. It gives a unique look that feels a bit like Gordon Parks.

Another inspiration would be If Beale Street Could Talk, from two years ago, and Moonlight (2016), [both] by Barry Jenkins. Also, the works of Terrence Malick, specifically The Tree Of Life (2010) and The New World (2005). So, there’s a strong presence of one’s environment. And we [heavily feature] the city and nature dynamic through both characters. There’s [also] a film called I Am Cuba (1964), [directed] by Mikhail Kalatozov, and Sergey Urusevsky [cinematographer]. Have you seen that?

Tone Madison: Yes, it screened at the UW-Cinematheque a couple years ago.

Alex Miranda Cruz: Oh, wonderful. So, as you know, that film is poetic in its cinematography and the language. We’re also doing very similar styles.

Tone Madison: I’m a big fan of Malick’s The New World. I think that’s underrated in his canon. The Tree Of Life and Days Of Heaven (1978) get a lot of attention, but The New World is amazing. 

Alex Miranda Cruz: You just gave me goosebumps. That’s exactly how I feel, too. I have it here in my collection. I had to rewatch it over and over again.

Tone Madison: I’d like to return to something Noel mentioned at the beginning about your coining or pioneering this term of “cinema dignité,” which is kind of a clever play on cinema vérité (or reality). It seems like a natural extension of vérité, because the intention is to be more culturally inclusive and representative of America in general. In particular, there’s an overrepresentation of straight white male experiences in the film industry, especially in comedy and romantic comedies, I guess, even though Trace The Line is far removed from that. Could you talk about how you are implementing cinema dignité in the cast and crew for Trace The Line?

Alex Miranda Cruz: Grant, I just wanted to say you hit it right on the head with cinema dignité. [Laughs] At one point, I was saying it was [derived] from [and inspired by] the 1960s movement. One thing that Noel and I have articulated is—a lot of the reasons why the narratives aren’t pushing the needle or innovating is because they’re being made by one demographic and one gender, mostly, in Hollywood. They keep perpetuating the same stories. With my experience as a professional actor, and going to film school, and then to creative development, I recognized that later in life. This is one of the main reasons people keep getting cast-typed, and why they keep relying on savior tropes. They do it blatantly. To me, it’s so obvious. And it’s because they don’t have Black and brown writers. Or directors or cinematographers who are diverse. I mean, it wasn’t until Arrival (2016) when we saw the first African-American cinematographer be nominated for an Academy Award [Bradford Young]. And he didn’t win.

Noel and I were tired of seeing diverse communities pushed out or not being taken seriously. The dehumanization of people, and not just for people of color. Lack of women. It wasn’t until 2019 that Ann Sarnoff became the first CEO of one of the top studios [Warner Bros.] The first woman in 100 years [since 1923]. That just happened last summer. That’s how bad it is. And so the way we’re implementing cinema dignité—we need to create a methodology, a framework to change the way we produce stories. We don’t want to rely on the way Hollywood does it. It’s led to stereotypes and to a term in psychology called “symbolic annihilation” where entire peoples are not even represented in film. Or if they are represented, it’s in stereotypes. That was my experience. For 15 years, as a professional actor, I was cast-typed as a delinquent or gang member. I just know there’s so much more to the story. So, what Bravebird has done is create opportunities to have more diversity built from top-to-bottom and bottom-up. When you look at our team, we’re incredibly diverse. […] For this project, we’re [have] more than 50% women crew members. We also have over 60% diversity. Our production designer and his team are First Nation; they’re Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe. Our cinematographer is African-American, and our writing team is super diverse: Black, white, Asian, Latinx, Native. […] It’s that diversity of the team that is making our storytelling so rich, because those perspectives are behind the camera and in the writing and editing rooms.

Noel Miranda: To distill cinema dignité concisely, it’s this idea that the way you make a story matters. Our focus on who tells the story makes a big difference. The pillars of cinema dignité are ethics, or why are we telling the story. Making sure we’re inclusive. If we’re representing anyone or any culture on-screen, that culture needs to be heavily involved in the creative process. The goal of the story itself is to empower communities, and it’s done at that same quality that a studio would. But the process is completely different, and the intention is different. That really distinguishes what we do.

Alex Miranda Cruz: I don’t understand why Peter Farrelly could do Green Book [2019 Best Picture winner]. It was told well, and looks beautiful, but they [also] have these stupid scenes that make me cringe. Are you telling me that Don Shirley didn’t know how to eat chicken, for real? That’s literally a scene in the movie. Viggo Mortinssen’s character [“Tony Lip”]’s teaching Mahershala Ali’s character [Shirley] how to be a Black man. That has to stop. It’s so Hollywood.

Tone Madison: Actually, coincidentally, my following question is about the Academy’s new standards for representation and inclusion. And, at the end of this question, I was going to reference Green Book in jest. [Laughs] So, you’re reading my mind.

Alex Miranda Cruz: [Laughs] That’s hilarious. I have nothing against Peter Farrelly. I think if a Black director did the film, it would be a different story, and there would be a shift in focus. And that’s what we’re trying to do with Bravebird—empower diverse communities to tell their stories. We’re taking a whole bunch of people who no one thought could make a movie, and they’re the ones doing it. And it’s happening in Madison and not in Hollywood. Right here in our backyard with no money. We’re doing it, because we know we can, and know we can do better. I have nothing against film schools, but what I’m saying is that with Bravebird, we’re really trying to connect with our communities. This is a real community-engaging endeavor. Unfortunately, even with all the technological developments that have lowered the cost of filmmaking, [the entry level into film is] still incredibly high. The way the system works is someone refers you to USC, because they went to USC or their family did. They just throw in a word, and you get in. Then you get in on the set and start making your way up, because you know someone. But how does Matthew Charles [Bogart], who grew up in a small Wisconsin town, get there with no connections to the film industry? Who can afford to go to USC? It’s a lot more than UW-Madison. Then, there’s film equipment. Noel and I have put everything into building our own equipment. We’ve invested [over] $10,000 in just the camera. It’s just ridiculous sometimes. And so we want to create a bridge of authentic storytelling, helping diverse communities be involved in the filmmaking process and to tell these stories right.

Noel Miranda: When it comes to the Oscars’ diversity criteria, I think it’s an interesting time. It’s clear that Hollywood hasn’t changed, and hasn’t changed for awhile. I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. We would hope this would happen organically, because having diversity at the table ultimately makes for a better story and more engaging experience for the audience. But it hasn’t happened organically in that industry for a lot of different reasons. This is a first step, and it remains to be seen how effective it will be.

Tone Madison: That’s true. They don’t go into effect until 2024, and the films only have to meet two of the four criteria or categories to be eligible. So, it’s not like it’s incredibly strict or draconian measures or anything like that. 

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