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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Let's Just Make It Happen: An Exclusive Interview With Filmmaker & Actress Valentina Isis ("Fear Thy Neighbor")

"For some, 2012 was the end of the world," Columbian born actress Valentina Isis says.  "For me, it was the beginning of my metamorphosis."

She's an award winning filmmaker and she's only 25.  Her films are forged in hard work and integrity, and while she's college educated, she's a permanent student of Do It Yourself Academy.

Working everything from music videos to commercials to highly personal films laced with mysticism, she's every bit as mysterious as her latest film, "Fear Thy Neighbor", which she released with writer/director Josh Goodman this year under her own Quixotica Films banner.

"I want to be genuine and authentic to my word," she says.  "Sometimes being picky is good."

Valentina was kind enough to sit down and discuss "Fear Thy Neighbor" and so much more a few months ago, and there's no better time than now that this film is hitting the festival circuit to share it with all of you.  Enjoy!

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FCSFR: Talk to me about Quixotica Films and how it began.

VALENTINA ISIS:  I met Christopher during college when I was working as a nude model for artists at his animation school.  Once I graduated, I tried the actor life for some time.  I got a restaurant job, once in a while got some castings where they type-cast you while under an agent that knows a quarter of your talents -- you know, the usual.  I bought equipment and left to Colombia to film, grow, and sink my roots deeper into the earth.

Columbia has a very big diversity in their ecosystem, so there's a lot more to see and it's so fruitful and full of life, but here (in Florida) it's a lot more organized and it's a lot more calmer.  You can actually progress . . . unfortunately my country has a lot of growing up to do, I guess.

FCSFR: I've done very little traveling, but I've been to a few different states.

VI: Oh you should totally go and travel internationally.  It really does expand your world.  I did it almost purposefully, to sort of wake myself up.  I'd been so sheltered here for so long, I wanted to feel a little bit of hardship.  I isolated myself and stayed in a farm, just in nature, creating, that's when I did my first short film.  It was a great experience.  But then after a year, I was like, "OK, I'm a citizen of the United States.  I don't have to be here."  (laughs)

FCSFR: The film you're talking about though, that's the twenty minute --

VI: The twenty seven minute short film, my first -- that was so -- I don't know what I was thinking.  (laughs) I went crazy.  I did this sci-fi, this girl, she's like a humanoid that comes from another planet to this new Earth, and there's no population and she has to be the one who brings the population into the world.  So she's been traveling through outer space for a very long time, and the male entity that was waiting there for her, he has tried to find ways to find technology to keep him alive to wait for her to get there, because it's light years away.  So when she finally gets there, he's just a floating head.  (laughs)

FCSFR: And this is "Kisanti No. 11", right?

VI: Right.  I did the script, I produced it, I directed, I acted, I did the art direction, all the costumes were hand made, practically, by me and the other partner I was doing it with.  He was the one who was doing the camera and music -- the sound of the movie.  I did the editing.  It took pretty much the entire year I was there, because I was tackling something I wasn't even trained for, to tell you the truth.  I'd studied acting, and touched and dabbled in film, but it was a big, ambitious project for me, for sure.

FCSFR: This was a great way for you to learn the ropes, too.  Sort of a trial by fire.

VI: Exactly, yeah.  And the person I was doing the film with, his name was Harry.  He'd worked with a huge TV network in Columbia for ten years.  He practically coached me, he pretty much said, 'Let's do this, just the two of us'.  And I just watched and learned.

FCSFR: And that was your first Quixotica film, right?

VI: Yes, that was the first thing that I did.  And then I started expanding.  After a year and five more productions under my belt I felt ready come back home and that's when I got in contact with Christopher again.  He told me about the Action Film Festival and that's when I met Josh [Goodman, director].  We finished with four nominations and an award for best actress at the Action Film Festival.

FCFSR: How much input did you have on the script to "Fear Thy Neighbor"?  Josh mentioned that you helped him with it.

VI: During the developing process of the script, I helped mainly with the characterization.  I wanted the characters to feel real even if they’re crazy.  I also helped in the order of the sequence of events of the story to create a good emotional arc in the story.

FCSFR: What attracted you to Josh's script?  What makes you interested in reading a script to begin with?

VI: Well, to tell you the truth, I never read the script before I decided to do it.  We had just finished doing the Action Film Festival and I didn’t want to lose the momentum and the creative flow in the group, so I asked who had a script.  Josh mentioned a script that he wrote in high school.  I felt it was the perfect moment to finish what he started -- with a little help from his friends.  Josh pitched the story and we polished it and made it happen.  I always love when everyone in the crew has its time to shine and this was Josh’s time.

FCSFR: Your character, who doesn't even get a name in the finished film, is a really complicated woman, and your performance matches her note for note.  Tell me about what you did to get ready to play this role.  Did you find it challenging to get into her headspace?

VI: I was very excited to play this role since my favorite roles are strong, taboo breaking, complex women with a little bit of sexiness and mysticism.  I worked with a psychologist to understand her behaviors, motives, dreams, fears and perception.

My process consists of highly analytical research.  I call it "creating the mind of the character": his perception, intelligence and sense of logic.  After I take all this information in, I throw it into the fires of creativity which can only be accessed by movement, improvisation,  imagination, visualization, speech and recreating the environment of the character.  This step is called “the will within.”  The heart of the character comes when the will and mind are united.  Last but not least, the spirit comes from constructing an astrological natal chart for the character.  The challenge that this role brought sparked my curiosity for her until I learned to sympathize and love her.

FCSFR: Do you see yourself as an actress primarily or do you see yourself equally as important behind the camera?  What interests you about both areas of filmmaking?

VI: I see myself primarily as an actor, but I do feel equally as important behind the camera.

FCSFR: "Fear Thy Neighbor" is a pretty challenging role, and a fairly dark film as a whole.  Is there anywhere you wouldn't want to go thematically?  Can a film be too bleak, or too dark, for your tastes?

VI: The only genres I wouldn’t do would be gore, snuff and pornography.  I feel that sometimes those films can spread more pain than love.  Now, don’t get me wrong -- I love risky, taboo breaking, fearless, limit pushing characters.  As long as the script brings a transformation from the suffering and a rebirth of a new self within the character, I will participate in the film no matter how far the character goes.  Films that use pain just for the sake of shocking their audience is not my cup of tea.

FCSFR: What excites you as a filmmaker?  Are you particular to a certain genre or do you want to pursue a wide range of cinematic endeavors?

VI: What excites me as a filmmaker is the power to become a catalyst in humanity’s evolution.  A movie exposes a wide range of emotions, thoughts, and experiences.  It transcends time, race, language, worlds and even galaxies.  Imagination has no limits.  I will pursue a wide range of cinematic endeavors throughout my career.  As an artist, your education never ends and every creative opportunity, no matter how foreign it might be to your present self, is a perfect time to expand your horizon to unknown territories where you can face all your demons.  I thrive in being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

FCSFR: What's next for Quixotica Films?  

VI: Right now, I have a lot of things this year I haven't actually released.  Like I have four things that are in post-production right now so I haven't released those yet.  But every year you get better, and you expand a little bit more, and I guess it's just a matter of getting a lot of experience and doing it constantly.

FCSFR: Speaking of which, one of the big things I've noticed is you've been so prolific in such a short time.  You've mentioned the four productions, and you have so many more coming.  So maybe you could talk a little bit about the bane of all filmmakers, money -- how you manage to make that work.  And I'd love to see the rest of your work -- I loved "Fear Thy Neighbor", I thought it was amazing, but I'm assuming that the rest of your work is of similar production value.  How are you managing to produce such high quality stuff on the cheap, and so many?

VI: I mean, you know, I feel like when I started doing filmmaking and dabbling in all the little aspects, I love doing it all.  I'm a very versatile girl, a Jack of All Trades.  If you have all these traits, the more work you get.  So I started doing all these things, and I realized what was my biggest talent was bringing people together.  And that's my biggest quality that I have so . . .

I saved money and bought some equipment for myself.  And I realized it's not about doing it by yourself, it's about exercising your muscles of leadership because in filmmaking, you're managing huge amounts of people sometimes, and it's a very social oriented job.

So I started focusing more on trying to bring people together who love what they do and who are good at what they do and are willing to go the extra mile who, even if we have nothing in our pockets, you know, it's like we have our equipment, we have our minds and our talents and the resources around us -- let's just make it happen.  I've always sort of been that way, and the people I work with, I motivate them to be like that.  We don't need anything.

I have a [Canon] 5D Mark III, and most of the work I've produced has been with that camera, and the high quality work, I guess that comes more with the post-production, you know, playing with the color correction.

I also work as an actor in high productions, commercials and things like that, and one thing I see is when you get into those high budget productions, there's a little thing that gets lost along the way which is you're not making it your own, sometimes.  You're just making a commercial about a beer.  It's irrelevant to the things you actually believe in, or the things that come creatively inside of you.

That's been the quality that makes my work special.  I bring in people who are totally willing to be inspired, and they're always there to do it.  "Fear Thy Neighbor" came from doing a action film festival, before that.  I already felt the energy going with them, and I didn't want it to dissipate.  I already wanted to jump into something else.  That's when Josh [Goodman] said he had a script from high school, and I said, "OK, let's do it."  And just keep going.

FCSFR: So let's say that I bring you a script.  You read the script, and there's some demanding stuff in there, production wise.  Does that intimidate you, or would you start looking for ways to make it work anyway?

VI: I'm a very warrior like person when it comes to anything creative.  I tackle that head on.  I tackle it, and I try really hard to make it work even if we don't have the money, or find someone who has the thing that we need.  A lot of resources are there for us to use.  If I'm touched by a story and I feel like the world needs to be touched by it as well, I will try my best to bring it out.

You feel like when you have more money you can make it more legit and more awesome, but I feel like if you're putting love into it, everything you're putting into it you're doing with love and intention, it shines through the film.

FCSFR: In "Fear Thy Neighbor", Josh had sent me some information on the synopsis of the story, I had no expectations on the film itself, but I sat and watched it and I assumed the story was going one direction and they just went a completely different way.  I don't want to spoil too much, but when you're playing a role like this one, it's got to be fun to just play with audience's preconceptions.

VI: Well, I guess to tell you the truth when I tackle a character I try to just really go into its world and not so much . . . I see how audiences would feel that way, but when I was doing my character, I was just going at it like what is her world?  How will she act, how will she be?  I don't feel like I was trying to deceive the audience, I never really felt like, "Oh, look, now the audience will be surprised".

FCSFR: When you were actually performing, how much faith did you have in your performance and the direction?  With that final shot, I loved what you did, in the final shot where you just whispered the final lines and the angle that Josh hit, it was just brilliant.  When you're actually in a shoot like that, how convinced are you that you nailed it?

VI: I guess the only time you feel like you nailed it is if you feel good.  You prepare, and you do your best, but at the end of the day you're just trying to have fun.  You're playing.  Actors used to be called players, they're the ones who play the situation, and it only feels right when you feel like you're channeling something, when it takes you over.  It feels like an entity possesses me, or a complex part of myself -- I get into that creative part of myself and if it feels nice and it feels good, then I know I'm doing it right.

Because every time you get on stage, there is something vulnerable about that situation, but the audience wants you to do good.  They don't want you to do a bad job.  But if I'm enjoying it, and loving what I'm doing, I'm uninhibited.  I'm soaking into it, I love being intimate, that's when you know you nailed it.  Josh, he has full trust on me when it comes to the acting.  I went to school for acting, Josh went to school for film and he's great on the technical side.  He sees it, he likes it and he knows it's going well.

FCSFR: And finally, our final question: if you could rewind to before you began Quixotica Films and give that younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

VI: Love yourself, value your work, enjoy every present moment of the journey to your dreams and when you live by your authentic soul signature only then you will make all your dreams come true.

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Much thanks go out to Valentina for her time and extremely thoughtful answers to my questions.  It's amazing how fast an hour can fly by!

If you haven't had the chance, check out my review of "Fear Thy Neighbor" here and read the exclusive interview with writer/director Josh Goodman by clicking here!  And do NOT forget to "like" the film on Facebook, because it's one you don't want to miss -- I even declared it an HONORABLE MENTION of Forest City Short Film Review's Must See Short Films of 2015!  

Check out the trailer below!






Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!