Since Gerry Maravilla is a filmmaker, I’ll open with a movie trailer refrain:
In a world that sacrifices truth for the saccharine, from the city that brought you Tim Burton, comes a filmmaker whose aim is honesty and vulnerable emotionality through art.
Maravilla has worked on TV Shows such as No Ordinary Family (‘canceled after one season,’ he’ll say, self-chidingly) and assisted a number of friends on their own projects. He now works to help other aspiring filmmakers bring their visions to being by guiding them as the Head of Crowdfunding for Seed & Spark.
Maravilla has produced a number of his own original shorts, and is at work on his first feature length film, The Halloween Club. I sat down with him for lunch to talk about his work with others as well as his own art:
OI: Your work has continued as an Indie Director and now you’re helping other people with their work, not just from an artistic standpoint but from a marketability standpoint, am I correct?
GM: Yeah, it’s less about the genre they’re working in or my personal taste, and more trying to help them reach the right audience that is going to connect with their work, then being able to raise funds successfully. A lot of that has to do with best marketing practices.
OI: So there’s an artistic engagement at the outset, then translating that into marketing?
GM: It’s really about clarity for artists. Myself included, I think you start to lose sight of a larger project and it can be helpful to have an outside perspective of ‘what is this about?’ ‘Why should people care?’
OI: What are the hook points that’ll catch an audience?
GM: Yeah. Not so much just marketing, what are the hook points for you? Then finding where there’s overlap between that for you and what’s the hook for the audience? That’s the sweet spot, because then you feel great about promoting your work and you also feel good that you’re not misleading people or focusing on something as ‘oh, this is what a marketing person told me.’ No, this is what’s true to what you want to say. Then you’re able to find other people with whom that resonates.
OI: You’ve produced your own indie work for years, but you also have an industry background having worked on shows like No Ordinary Family–
GM: Canceled after one season.
OI: What a season it was! It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you also worked on that?
GM: For season 6. I was the Office PA on the season that had ‘the implication’ episode.
OI: I’m interested to hear what you learned from those experiences before we dive into everything else.
GM: It’s a mixture of positive things and some discouraging things. It was really beneficial to see how a larger scale, professional production comes together. What each department is, what each role really does, and not only what it is as a title but what it looks like in practice.
Also understanding when leadership makes a specific decision, what are the ripple effects down the chain? Because I was at the bottom of the food chain as an Office PA, I was able to see what the repercussions of creative decisions are financially. Sometimes as Office PA you get to photograph confidential documents and things like that and you get to see cost numbers. So it’s: ‘that decision cost that much? Okay!’
It’s Always Sunny is a very budgetarily conscious show, but I started to see how difficult it would be to really create the kind of work that I want to make in that system. Also it demystified what it means to be a director in any of these senses. Where do these people come from? Not really finding anybody whose story I could connect with or relate to- they all seemed to be from backgrounds that were very different. I’m not discounting the work they had done, but they had a lot of different opportunities that I couldn’t lock into.
OI: Your early shorts: you’d use whatever camera and friends you had, and just go. Nowadays you’re approaching your projects with much more planning and pragmatism.
GM: I think something that doesn’t get talked about is class and the access to resources and capital. Filmmaking can be expensive, and there are cheaper ways to do it but often when I’ve been on these panels with people I hear them talking about ‘oh, we threw things together, and we still had six figures.’
That doesn’t speak true to my experience. Then there’s a really cold hard truth about the technology being cheaper, and now the expectations are higher for how something should look and sound even at cheaper budgetary levels.
It starts to feel like this imbalance is happening where people might have been more forgiving of technological shortcomings or lack of polish earlier on because technology was so much more expensive. It still is, to a certain degree. What I feel like I’ve taken away from that is you can make something cheaper look like it’s more expensive, but it takes a lot of calculation, planning, and precision in order to really sell it.
So if I want to stand shoulder to shoulder and have an opportunity at connecting with the right audience to get into strong enough festivals, there’s an expectation of caliber that my work needs to reach.
I feel like I had faith that I can make something happen for nothing but is that something going to move me to a place where I can work with a larger palate in some capacities? Or even just get the kind of exposure to people being able to view my work in a larger way.
OI: You see better returns in a way for putting that time and effort in at the calculation and planning?
GM: Yeah. A film like Cross (2017) is something that was engineered to be one of the more calculated, precise projects that I’ve ever done. I definitely feel like I can still watch that film and feel extremely proud of it. Now it’s been a few years so there are things that I would change, or stuff that I wish I had done differently, but when I look at that, I say ‘that looks and feels like a movie to me.’
If people have criticisms of it, it’s much more to do with the story and the actual elements that I care about- characters and story- and not, ‘oh, this looks like something you made with your friends.’ It’s the difference between wearing a t-shirt and shorts to wearing a suit to something and being engaged as a professional versus as a kid.
OI: The boy grew up.
OI: That’s a good dovetail into the question from Evan James Clark: “what are you true to?’ It goes beyond things like just art, writing, music-whatever. There’s that splinter. There’s that scar that is the one thing you are true to. Why? What is your ‘why’ that is going to hold out through all the other things in your life?”
GM: I think my ‘why’ is the ability that movies have had to share moments of private vulnerability. There are so many reasons the world tells us not to show those things, or why it’s bad to do that, or inappropriate. It’s something I’ve always felt like being able to get from movies is their acknowledging that these moments happen and being able to share them with another person.
That could be a wide range of different scars you have internally. Whether it’s love lost, a very common one, or maybe it’s relationships with family members, or not getting the thing you wanted. Huge letdowns and even moments of joy and exuberance, but often we don’t experience those moments with full acknowledgement or we don’t get to share them with the people who are closest to us.
I would hope that if anything, I want to be able to look at the things that have influenced me and be able to hone in on ‘what are the moments of vulnerability that I’ve had in private that I haven’t been able to share, or didn’t feel like I could share? How can I communicate those to other people?’
If anything I feel like the benefit of art has always been to feel comfort and to make you feel less alone- to provide connection to other people. You may have had this experience by yourself, I may have had this experience by myself, but we can watch this together and we can share this catharsis and find renewed connection. That’s really what I hope to achieve.
OI: Do you feel like you were sharing and revealing scars through some of that earlier work?
GM: Yes, in my earlier work I don’t think I was ready to be as vulnerable as I wanted to be, so I put in layers of distance I thought I needed. With each project I feel like I’ve shown more and more of myself and each one has gotten stronger because of that. I think that also comes from being more honest about what those vulnerabilities are. The more that I can open up and be aware of those things, the stronger I’ll be in creating real moments in a movie that’ll communicate those things.
OI: That seems especially true with Desert (2017), your most recent short.
GM: Yeah, I think that’s definitely the rawest and most vulnerable of everything, and it was definitely an uncomfortable experience to make that, to be honest. Upon reflection, I can look at Cross and say ‘this was about me trying to be a director-’ but not really knowing how to do it, and maybe following different paths, or falling for charlatans or people who make empty promises, and making compromises morally because it seems like that’s what you’re supposed to do in that world in order to succeed. It’s still a huge level of detachment, I don’t box. I think we both agree I’d get my ass kicked in a fight like that.
But with Desert, there were no real layers of detachment from what the situation was. While I didn’t tell the actors that, because I didn’t think that would be wise to do, I felt that inside. It felt like exposing a raw nerve. I feel like I’ve really taken what I felt worked in that project and what I felt my shortcomings were and I’ve really tried to bake in a level of honesty in the vulnerability that I have.
It’s honestly why this feature script [The Halloween Club] has taken so much longer to do. I was just coming out of the experience of Desert, trying to write this new thing and earlier drafts just felt like too detached. It wasn’t working. The more I’ve put my real fears and real flaws into it I feel like it’s gotten stronger.
OI: Donna (2010) felt much more detached from you than Desert. Do you feel like you can point to specific conception points for your more recent work like Solstice (2018) and The Halloween Club?
GM: Solstice came from a nightmare. After doing something so calculated and big as Cross, and then doing something so intimate and raw as Desert, Solstice was a return to that spirit of ‘I just want to make something with friends.’ It’s directly connected to am actual nightmare I had, so feeling like I could draw upon my unconscious mind and expose it for all its vulnerabilities in that sense, to create something.
I felt like even though the movie, by some accounts, is more experimental in form people get it when they watch it in a way that even a film like Vision some people are like ‘I don’t know what this is about.’
It felt like another exercise of exploring another part of my brain and trying to get whatever I’m trying to say from that part of me to connect with someone. I feel like it succeeded in that. It was a good testing ground for me because I’d never really done anything in that genre.
OI: You’ve always had a very real and gritty tone, but that’s given way now to a darker, horror slant.
GM: The first draft of that script was written in parallel to the 2016 election. It’s been slow, but I couldn’t find anything more horrific to me internally than what was happening. There’s the obvious elephant in the room, but even on a global scale. I remember being at a cocktail party for work the night that Brexit happened. I was feeling this really sinister undertone to something that was supposed to be happy.
I was feeling that something out there isn’t right in the world. Trying to really calibrate my own internal sense of ‘what is not right there?’ and ‘can I communicate this feeling in my gut in a much more useful way that maybe people would resonate and connect with?’
After the election there’s a big chunk of time where I wasn’t doing anything creative because I couldn’t really understand it. It felt like there’s a sinister underpinning of stuff that’s bubbling up, and now it’s bubbled up. No one knows quite how to make sense of it. Everyone seemed wrong in their diagnoses. I needed to spend that time to understand it if this art is going to be anything more than just reactionary.
OI: You mentioned Solstice coming out of a dream, are you aware that’s how Speed II came into being?
OI: The guy behind Speed II had a dream about a boat crashing into a pier, and made Speed II just to fulfill that.
GM: Well, that’s why Solstice was very cheap. My personal belief is always the more self indulgent your work is, the cheaper it should be. There’s nothing more self indulgent than telling somebody your dream. No one really cares. So when I said, ‘I’m gonna make a movie from this dream!’ It has to cost nothing.
OI: I’d argue a lot of art ends up being more brilliant when there’s a border on the canvas. Do you think it’s helped you to have to say, ‘how can I do this tightly and more efficiently?’
GM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really easy to burn through money making something. If you’re paying people, every hour and every minute someone’s there is a cost. In something that’s reconstructing reality and in a form reminds me of playing make believe, you can go in a lot of different directions and play forever. That can really balloon.
I do have a bit of discomfort with things costing a lot of money. It probably comes from my background, but it’s weird to me. I feel like what I have to do is come with a level of preparation that equals the amount of money being spent, and sometimes even more than that. Even if people are working for free, I shouldn’t just have people dick around, they’re giving up their time. I should have a clear plan to execute what I want. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve learned to do that can help you really prep and know what you’re doing before you set foot on the set.
OI: Back to the election, it’s interesting that in your horror you’re dealing with shadowy groups behind the scenes in Solstice and The Halloween Club, but in both cases there is no supernatural aspect, it’s all humans.
GM: I’m more scared by stuff happening in the real world than I am by the supernatural. This is going to be a really weird pull, but the movie I was most terrified by as a child was Jesus Christ Superstar. It was because they took these two dimensional characters like Judas and the Pharisees and made them into people.
Seeing the same people who were cheering for Christ on Palm Sunday are cheering for his crucifixion on Good Friday. Whether or not you believe in tenets of the faith, that’s a very true nature of humanity. We can build something up and then we can absolutely destroy it. I felt like it created this sense of terror that if people could love someone who is built up as the son of God and then immediately turn their back on him, what chance does anybody else have?
That’s a flaw in our systems. That still terrifies me. As different nationalist movements and other ideologies start to build up that still speaks to that deep fear in me. That’s why I think I’ve tried to shift because the scariest people to me in Jesus Christ Superstar are in real life now: the real people who are choosing to dehumanize other individuals.
OI: Your earlier work was more personal dramas, so what adjustments are you learning to make story wise and pacing wise for horror?
GM: I think if I look at horror movies I gravitate towards that are my favorites they tend to build a foundation around real human emotion, and they show real consequences in a way that other films will write off in order to provide a happier ending that don’t take into consideration what the real consequences of something traumatic or influential happening would be.
I love The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing, to rattle off a few. I feel like with The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby that there are supernatural horrific things, but The Shining is really about a person who’s unhappy as a writer, unhappy with his family, unhappy with his station in life, and those weaknesses are all baked into who he is and the supernatural just preys upon that and exaggerates it. Even if there wasn’t an escalation of the violence to the point where he tries to kill his wife and son, they would still bear the marks of the trauma of being there because he’s not a nice person to them to begin with.
Rosemary’s Baby has the same thing: her husband sells her out to a satanist cult, but that’s him trying to advance his career as an actor and not really caring for his wife’s well being. So, if anything I feel like horror you can sometimes be more honest with what the real consequences of your actions are going to be. Sometimes I feel like in other traditional narrative films and genres we let people off the hook for the happy ending. That doesn’t mean that everything’s dark and cynical, I just feel that we should have a more honest conversation about what things look like when something negative happens to you instead of trying to wish that away and be okay regardless.
OI: You inadvertently just completely justified Jesus Christ Superstar as a horror movie with that explanation.
GM: Good, good. That makes four year old Gerry feel better about screaming in terror.
OI: Last thing before we go: what should I ask my next interviewee?
GM: It’ll be a simple question. I went to someone once for advice and they told me not to ask people for advice because they’re only talking to themselves when they were your age. The more important thing is to say what you want and ask a person for tips to help you reach what you want. So I feel like asking an artist: ‘what do you want for your art and for your career?’ in a specific way is something we’re not used to being asked. I’ve learned that from crowdfunding and teaching these workshops. I would love to hear someone answer that: “what do you want from your career as an artist, and what do you want from your art overall?”
Gerry Maravilla is an independent filmmaker and head of crowdfunding for Seed & Spark. You can follow him on Twitter & Instagram – @gerrymaravilla; and check his website gerrymaravilla.com for updates on work and projects.