We first viewed Please Hold at the 2021 Palm Springs Shortfest and immediately knew how special this short is. Written KD Dávila and Levin Meneske, Please Hold follows Mateo, a twenty-something Latino man who lives in an alternative reality version of Los Angeles. In this universe, the police have automated most interactions and a police drone falsely arrests Mateo. Stuck in jail with no way to contact any real person, Mateo has to use all of the resources around him to try to get out. This short film is a satire on how the prison system aims to dehumanize people and create situations that feel impossible to get out of.
The short is nominated for an 2022 Academy Award in the Live Action Short category and we had the chance to interview director and writer KD Dávila on all things Please Hold!
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you came up with the idea for this short, and where did that all begin?
KD: I guess a cause that I am dedicated to is prison reform and justice reform. I feel like I follow the really depressing parts of the internet that talk about injustice all the time. There was this weird pattern of stories I kept seeing of people who had been mistakenly arrested. And, you know, by the time they were exonerated, their lives were ruined. Even if you’re just held there for two weeks, that’s long enough to lose your job, which has the domino effect of, you know, losing everything else. So, you know, I think that it came partly from just those stories and hearing them all the time. Then it’s funny, my husband and I were in a car on the way to my mom’s house. He’s my co-writer, Levin Menekse, and we were just talking about what will it look like, 25 years from now, when automation has started to be implemented more widely. Imagine that feeling that we all get when you’re on (the) customer service hotline with Spirit Airlines. Imagine that, but it’s the entire justice system. So it kind of from there, we were like, we should make that into a movie. So we did. So that was cool. That’s kind of where the movie came from, is real life plus depressing conversations.
Q: Why did you choose Sci Fi to explore these themes?
KD: I think that sci fi and fantasy and dark comedy are all really great tools to talk about subjects that are otherwise, potentially uncomfortable to talk about. You allow people a little bit of distance from that surface, that subject. So I mean, you know, we could have made a movie in the modern day. I think that the prison system that we have isn’t that different than the one that in the film. I think that, you know, the separation allows us to talk about the issues that exist now. For example, the issue that prisoners are forced to purchase, essentially phone calls, video phone calls, that costs so much money, zooming with their families essentially, costs like $15 a minute or something crazy like that in some places. We’re exploiting these people who are extremely vulnerable. Getting them into huge amounts of debt, being imprisoned, puts you in debt, because the prisons are not meant to. Like the baseline free prison is like, not really. It maybe kind of keeps you alive, but it’s really not enough. It’s a way to talk about the prison system as it is, but adding that sci-fi layer definitely helps make it more entertaining, so you’re not going to just turn it off and be like this is depressing.
Q;One of the first images that we see in the short is this wall and there’s like this kind of Robo- Human mural on it. How did you kind of get to this imagery? And why did you decide to kind of start things off with that?
KD: We thought it was important to show the world building before he gets into the prison, just that this is the world that he’s in already. The mural art was done by an actual muralist whose name is Alé, and she’s from Mexico. I think that street art often tells a story about the world that you live in. The frustration of that art is like, this is a world where robots are taking people’s jobs away, you can even see it with the drones that are delivering things. This is a frustration that exists in the world. It’s something that Mateo, the protagonist, it’s kind of just normal to him. He doesn’t really pay attention to it, it’s just the background of his life. And then it hits him in the face, when he gets put in the prison. That was what we really wanted to set up in the beginning, like we are in the future. This is something that we’re going to be talking about.
Those prison video scenes sequences were really fun, but frustrating to watch at the same time. Can you talk a little bit more about the process of creating them and kind of finding that perfect balance?
In the movie, he’s stuck in a cell. We wanted the screen in the cell to be the other character. There’s a bunch of different videos. He’s forced to watch that Handmade commercial over and over and over again. It’s basically a way to talk about prison labor. He’s in jail, not prison so he’s not necessarily being forced to do it, because he’s in jail but it’s like, we’re helping you, by allowing you to make garments for incredibly small amounts of money. The idea of handmade goods being essentially kind of luxury novelty items at this point, just because everything would be machine made. So it’s like, oh, it’s handmade, you know. But, it’s that dehumanization of when the only thing that you have to keep you company is this screen. There’s this thing that your problem is that you lack money and resources, and you just have this commercial playing over and over and over again. And it’s like the only thing you can do. All the law commercials were really fun to do. Tthey’re short, but fun fact, my dad plays Guillermo Lima. He’s an actual lawyer. So it’s just kind of funny, because it’s been like, what are you gonna put in one of your movies? I was like, Well, now’s your time!
You mentioned you wrote this alongside your husband. So what was that writing process for you to like? Did it change a lot? Or was it kind of basically the same throughout?
I think that we write about half the time together now. Which is nice. We both feel very lucky that we’re very compatible writing styles. My strengths, fill his weaknesses, and his strengths fill mine, you know. I think that the process of writing together is pretty smooth. Usually we beat out the entire story together. And then, like, it’s funny, like, for one of the like, we we essentially wrote, like the entire thing out, like, kind of like in prose form, and then we started filling it in and I remember he was like, he was like, I’ll do a draft. And then you do a draft and like, we kind of pass it back and forth. But the thing that’s funny is like when he does a draft, he’s like, you write this section because you know how to make this funny. He’s like, you know, and like, Oh, he’s like, he’s good at like the really like, like, heart fills like emotional, like the things that make you really sad. I really like to do the bureaucratic hell Kafka-esque comedy stuff. So, so yeah, it was really great working together.
The film has been to many festivals in the past year. Was there anything about the audience reactions that kind of surprised you?
Yeah, so I mean, unfortunately, because of COVID, there weren’t that many that got to be in person. But one of the ones that was really cool was Fantastic Fest. They had a virtual screening, where there was a live chat that was going on at the same time. I feel like that’s a rare thing to be able to experience as a filmmaker. Usually you can hear people’s reactions, like you hear them laugh, or you hear them gasp or something. But having a live chat going on, you really got to hear people’s internal monologue they were watching. So it was really cool to hear. Just to hear people be like, Oh shit!, you know. I mean, people felt really on edge throughout the whole thing. It’s funny, because I think that by the time that it got to be seen by other people, Levin and I, and the editor, and everybody, we were all pretty desensitized to the thriller elements. We were hoping that they worked, but we forgot, I think, how tense the movie can be at points. To see how those were really working was really, really, satisfying. Just to hear people be like, you know, the part when he (Mateo) accidentally says yes in front of Scale-y, what we call the little justice scale character, when he says yes, I mean people were like, Oh no! People were freaking out. It was great. There’s no feeling like that, hearing people react to something that you made and empathize.
The protagonist (Mateo) gets out of the prison and his life is completely upside down. Was finding that exact moment of like, realization for him internally difficult for you to kind of find while writing, or was it something that kind of just flowed naturally?
In the script, it was actually originally text messages that he would read, we were gonna see a bunch of things on screen. We realized when we shot it, we’ll probably have text on screen, and then we’ll have voices say them as well. But then we took them off the screen, our editor was like, I have an idea. We really like our editor Brian Paison is a friend of ours. It’s funny because he’s actually a comedy writer and he was really instrumental, I think, to just getting the tone of this movie. Especially the ending, because it’s balancing these tones of like, it’s funny, but also this moment really needed to land. Brian had an idea of, why don’t we just start having these overlapping voicemails? We’re like, oh, like, that sounds really cool. It worked. I think it worked better than anything that we had written. We really leaned into it and I think it just underscores life has kept going on. We had always had that in the script, this idea that life had gone on, and then it just hits him in the face. But, that kind of chorus of voices combined with the music at the end, and him walking out, you’re like, he’s walking back out to this, the unknown of what his life now is. I mean, if you don’t check your email for two days, you have all these emails pile up, imagine if you’re gone for weeks. That’s what he has to deal with as he goes back out. It’s this weird moment. Because yeah, there’s that scene where he walks out of the cell, and he walks down the hallway, and he’s like, so happy. And then it’s sort of like, his happiness is still weirdly there. He has this still sense of relief and joy as he walks outside. It’s sort of like he obviously is going to have to deal with this, but balancing that like, oh, no, my life’s over with!. I’m also relieved, it was telling a lot of things through one shot. And, you know, I think it worked.
As a director, what kind of was what was your favorite moment to film? Was the moment the same as a writer ?
I have several I guess. Obviously, one of my favorite moments was I got to direct my dad, which was fun. Just being able to tak direction very well, you know, he thought he did a good job! Anyway, so, that was fun. The scene that I thought was really cool from a emotional climax perspective, since we did it near the end, was the scene where he’s being asked to make the plea deal. And it’s, you know, it’s it. That’s kind of the end of the whole ending sequence. It has a drone, it had a lot of camera movement. We got to see the frustration that Mateo has been building up. And Eric, you know, I feel like Eric really brought it. He really brought it to those scenes, the unhinged nature of when you’ve been stuck in isolation for so long. It was really just cool to see that scene come together. There were so many things that I loved. I mean, working with an animator was really cool. And like my friend, Greg Carver voiced Scaley. We were like, he kind of seems like he’d be like a Clippy from Microsoft Word, this voice. We’re like you can do it! There were so many things about it that were fun. I mean, I feel like I could just keep talking about it!