Director Rudy Riverón Sánchez, a Leeds-based filmmaker, is currently on the festival circuit with his feature film debut Is That You?. We got the chance to talk to him as the film is having its UK premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival this week. Rudy, who was born in Cuba, filmed Is That You? in his home country back in 2016 and it recently won an award for ‘Best First Feature Film’ for the first psychological horror to be made in the country.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers…
I’m Rudy Riverón Sánchez, the writer and director of ‘Is That You?’, the first psychological horror film to be made in Cuba. I’m originally from Cuba but I’ve lived in the UK for more than 15 years.
You wrote and directed Is That You?, can you tell us what inspired this story?
I took part in a screenwriting workshop for which I had to write a 20 minute screenplay, a scary story for children. The workshop led me to rediscover my interest in the horror genre. I then started to develop an idea for a horror feature film, one aimed at an adult audience, what was to become ‘Is that you?’. I wanted to tell the story of a young girl in conflict with her family but I wanted to ensure that my film was going to be distinctive. I decided to set the story in Cuba and use elements of psychological horror, a subgenre of horror which had not been explored before in Cuba. Having decided to set the film in Cuba, I started to think back to my life in Cuba in order to build the characters. Lili and her family are focused on surviving. They are isolated and caught deep into their own struggles. Lili’s father controls his family and forces his values upon them. This is where the horror element plays the most significant role, real fear in Cuba, mirroring the Cuban way of life.
What was it like filming in Cuba? Did the death of Castro affect the films production at all?
Our producer Emma Berkofsky brought the cameras from the UK, 14 suitcases with two mini Arri Alexas, lenses, and accessories, because the cost of this kit is too high in Cuba. Thanks to Reymel, our line producer and main contact in Cuba, we had the full support of RTV Comercial, the production services company that we were working with in Cuba, and the Cuban government. This helped to make sure everything went smoothly. Everyone we dealt with were really kind and helpful and all the cast and crew worked really hard. The only surprise was that we had to wrap up warm for the night shoots because the temperature in the countryside dropped to 2 degrees some nights. When Castro died, initially we were told by the local authorities that we had to stop filming, which would have been a disaster for the film. But luckily, because we had the right paperwork, we only lost half a day of shooting and after that we were allowed to carry on. However, the country had nine days of mourning and pretty much came to a standstill and so, until those days passed, the production team and myself couldn’t feel completely confident that things would go according to plan.
What did you find the most enjoyable about writing and filming Is That You??
What I enjoyed most when I was writing was the feeling of power that comes with creating a new world, with new characters, and while that’s challenging it’s also really satisfying. Once I got to Cuba, I really enjoyed the rehearsals because that was the first time I saw the characters coming alive, after they had just been on the page and in my mind for so long. Once we started filming, I felt a great sense of satisfaction after finishing each scene because I knew I was achieving the realisation of my vision.
Lili is a distant yet intriguing character, was it difficult finding the right actress for the role?
It took some time to make the decision. Gabriela Ramos, the actress that plays Lili, was recommended to me by the film’s cinematographer, Raúl Pérez Ureta, as he’d previously worked with her on ‘Últimos días en La Habana’. I then mentioned her to our casting director Libia Batista who also thought Gabriela would be great for the role of Lili. When I met Gabriela, I thought maybe we can try because she looked like I had imagined Lili looking. I wasn’t sure at the very beginning if she could do it because she didn’t have the experience, and the character demands a lot. So we did a rehearsal. Our producer Emma was like, “Rudy, are you sure?” I felt a lot of pressure to get it right, because Lili is the protagonist and so critical for the success of the film. It was only during the second week of rehearsals, after focusing on certain scenes, that I felt sure that Gabriela and I together could achieve what the film needed.
Congratulations on recently winning the Anna Mondelli Award for the ‘Best First Feature Film’ at the TOHorror Film Festival in Turin. Is That You? has been accepted into several film festivals across Europe, how do you get the most out of them?
At each festival, we’ve done as much as we can to promote the film and so that helps you to have a bigger turn out for the screening. I think doing Q&As is also a good thing to do, so that the audience don’t just get to see your film but they get to hear about the director’s inspiration and the experience of making the film. I also make the most of the opportunity to meet other filmmakers, to see their films, and build up my network.
Do you have advice for anyone who may be starting out in the film industry, or want to get into the business?
First of all, don’t give up, no matter what. Be thick skinned. Be patient. Keep working and learning. But at the same time be selective about the projects you get involved with and the people you work with. Learn how to quickly spot mediocrity. Be yourself and believe in yourself.
Do you have any future projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?
I’m currently developing a psychological drama with the working title ‘Carlitos’. I’m looking forward to being able to return to focusing on this after this period of festivals. I’m also having conversations about a psychological thriller that would be a film adaptation of a novel.
We like to end our interviews with the all-important question – does pineapple belong on pizza?