As Latinx Heritage Month comes to a close, we want to highlight the importance of uplifting the rising talent in our community.
We talked to Zaira Armendáriz, whose short film, Under My Skin has already won in three categories at the Independent Shorts Awards: Gold: Best Student Female Director, Bronze: Best Thriller Short; Honorable Mention: Best Original Story.
A recent graduate of La Sierra University, Zaira chatted with us about her film, virtual premieres and more!
Synopsis: A returning college student who deals with mental health issues and lacks social skills meets Lisa in his music class. His seemingly innocent crush spirals into an obsession.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Q: Tell me more about your film and your inspirations for it?
A: It started with the song I Got You Under My Skin by Frank Sinatra. I had a scene in my head, which was towards the end of the film — the murder scene. I had that thought in between my high school and freshman year of college, so it was about 5 years ago when I thought of it. I waited my four years of getting more experience through my undergrad and then I finally began to write the script. When it came time to buy the rights, it would be difficult to renew the license every year, so then it was “Ok I’m going to have to create my own music.” When I was casting for the film, I posted on Backstage and I posted the script that way actors could read it. The composer of the film, Jose Manuel, read the script and messaged me and said “I want to work on this. ” It ended up being much more than expected! We have an amazing original score and an amazing new song that’s all inspired by Frank Sinatra. I was really lucky to do all the production and pre-production right before the pandemic hit. Timing wise we got really lucky! The day everything went online, I was able to knock out the last scene and praise God, it was just super close!
Q: What was the production process like for you from beginning to end?
A: I started writing the script last year in October. For the first few months, up till December, I was writing the script. During winter break, December to February, I was doing pre-production, logistics and castings. We had over 200 submissions, so my brother and I went through every single submission and went through all the different actors so that took a couple of weeks to do. Then figuring out the locations. Most of it was filmed at my school so that made it a little bit easier. It was also figuring out the whole classic cars part and contacting people I knew that hosted car shows. Thankfully they were on board and super excited, so that was all up until the beginning of February. Production took six weeks total to film. We filmed every weekend, back to back and 12 hours at least each day. It was really exciting and a lot of hard work! Then the quarantine hit, I had to take a break. Thankfully someone from my school was able to edit. During that time, I worked with the composer and I would show him rough cuts and he would start composing the music. Color correction, my cinematographer did that for me as well, which was really appreciated. I was the last person to make sure everything was perfect and that alone took three weeks up to the premiere.
Q: What was the writing process like? How many drafts did you have? Did you have major structural changes?
A: Because I had the murder scene in my head, I had to go backwards with the story. I had to think what the motivation would be for killing her. So it was like OK, maybe there was a love interest there, what else could I add deeper to his character? So I started looking into and playing with the idea of mental health. So to write Matthew’s main character I had to do a lot of research , watch a lot of interviews, read articles on different mental health disorders, to see the quirks and tendencies people have to see what works best for this type of character. Drafts wise, easily six different drafts. I took a big amount of time between each one to edit it to get the full complete script.
Q: You directed, produced and wrote this film. In the future are these things that you want to pursue simultaneously or is there something specific that you want to go towards?
A; Originally when I got into film school, directing was the only thing I wanted to focus on. Then I took screenwriting classes and fell in love with that. So I thought, ok I’m just going to work on those two. But then, I had to produce this film by myself and I ended up really loving producing, figuring out logistics. It’s stressful doing all three at the same time but moving forward I want to focus on all three, but mostly directing. Now I feel it’d really beneficial to have all three experiences because I know all the work that goes into it.
Q: What was your experience virtual premiering the film through Zoom?
A: Ideally I wanted to do a drive-in premiere because the movie has 50’s elements, but because of COVID I couldn’t find any drive-ins that would allow it, especially within the Los Angeles counties. The next best thing was an online premiere. I really enjoyed the whole process. The silver lining was that I could have everybody that wanted to part of it, be able to tune it. The composer of the film is from Spain, the graphic designer of the poster is from Argentina. I had someone from India tuning in and from all over the nation. The process going into this was finding out where to stream it. Vimeo does all the streaming and I’ve always posted all my films on Vimeo so I just used that. I wanted to do a Q&A portion to be interactive so I figured Zoom would be the best way to do that. When it came to doing the stream, I was a little stressed out, because it’s all technical, anything could lag or cut out but luckily I had a great team to help me throughout the entire process. It seemed like everyone who tuned in enjoyed being able to be together while separate. I think this is the new normal. I would 100% do it again, without a doubt!
Q: You mentioned you worked with your brother on this. What was it like working with him?
A: I was really excited because I knew from a really young age I wanted to do film. Him going into college, he decided he wanted to be a screenwriter, but for video games. So I was ok, at some point it would be really nice to collaborate with my brother. He had heard me talking about this idea for a few years now, so I said “Hey can you please read this script and let me know what you think?” Now he’s at a place where he is more interested in that and he was giving me a lot of feedback. Casting the character was one of the highlights of working on this with him — working back and forth and having that partnership and both giving our feedback on who would best fit the roles. My brother and I are super close, so it just meant a lot to me. Him and I are on the same wavelength. Working with him was more complementary to me. 100% I will be working with him again in the future.
Q: How does your heritage play into the things you write?
A: I was born in Mexico, but I basically grew up in Southern California. My father taught me to not be limited by your race or gender — to be proud of being a Latina woman. None of my projects have been heritage focused but I bring that sense of pride into all of my projects. I’m the director and the writer. I’m in charge of the project, I have a whole team supporting me and I’m going to show them that I might be small, but I’m just as strong and powerful and creative and smart as anyone else within my peer group. I’m not defined, I’m not put into a little box.
Q: What issues interest you the most to write about?
A: I would really love to film a documentary of PSA on rape culture, because that is something I am very passionate about. I would love to really touch on women representation in the film industry. I would enjoy being part of something to help break stereotypes. I’m open to everything and anything.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I applied to graduate school at USC, I’m waiting to see if I get accepted. I’m focused on film festivals, figuring distribution . I’m trying to figure out what makes sense in the long term. This month I’ll be filming for a health app for Boyle Heights, which is more of a Hispanic based community so it’ll be more promotional with doctors and all that.
Guillermo Del Toro :“I’ve always been intrigued by his perspective and the way he has a twist on things.
Quentin Tarantino : “I’m really inspired how he writes his characters”