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This week’s Pass the Remote chats with the talented filmmaker behind one of the best East Bay films we’ve ever seen, “Blindspotting.” He’s seeing his latest ambitious project hit Bay Area theaters this weekend. We’ll be back next week to highlight key finds in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival program.
In one of last decade’s best opening sequences, filmmaker Carlos López Estrada captured the beating heart and aching soul of the city of Oakland. “Blindspotting,” his 2018 directorial debut, put Estrada and that East Bay city strategically onto the pop culture map.
Now, the 32-year-old Mexico City native turns his focus to a region he knows much better — his home, Los Angeles. Whereas the terrific “Blindspotting” concentrated on raising the voices of two characters (portrayed by East Bay best buds and co-screenwriters Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs), Estrada this time tackles something more challenging, stitching cohesively together 27 perspectives from Los Angeles young-adult poets.
What could have been a high-concept debacle gets turned into the robust and invigorating “Summertime,” opening Friday in select theaters. It’s a summer standout, a film that has so much to say, and tells it with fiery passion and raw energy.
Estrada, who most recently saw the animated gem he co-directed — “Raya and the Last Dragon” — bow on Disney+, is fast proving to be a master at tapping into a region and its people and addressing their concerns, their troubles and their inner power. So what’s his recipe for being so accurate and insightful?
“I don’t want to pretend that I have some kind of formula because I don’t,” he said during a Zoom interview. “But I feel like in every place, even though I’ve lived in L.A. for a really long time and I definitely consider it home, I feel like the key to any time you’re welcomed into a community or an environment that isn’t your own [is] to acknowledge that first and be very aware of that decision and to be also open to hearing and learning and allowing those people who belong to communities to become your guides.”
With “Blindspotting” that meant really listening to Casal and Diggs. For “Summertime,” he turned to the poets.
“Even though ‘Blindspotting’ and ‘Summertime’ have elements of fiction, they’re really rooted in real stories and in real people, real circumstances and real communities,” he said. “So I feel like allowing those communities to shape both movies was really key in making sure that we capture the truth within them.”
In “Summertime,” the truth spoken gets expressed with clarity and depth, covering topics that range from homophobia, mental health and homelessness to body image, the service industry and even snobby restaurant staff. The characters are equally diverse — aspiring musicians, a couple in therapy, a graffiti tagger, a burger joint worker fed up with obnoxious working conditions and customers. And if that’s not enough to entice you, there’s even a killer dance number that involves grocery carts.
Estrada hit upon making “Summertime” after attending a spoken-word performance in L.A. that featured the work of 25 high school students. The ensuing film, which was workshopped, written and shot over the course of a four-month summer break, was a daunting challenge for all involved.
“It was almost impossible for so many reasons,” Estrada said. “This was a group of poets who were obviously very brilliant but had never written or acted in a movie before.”
Everyone learned to accept that it was going to be less than perfect, even rough around the edges, and that was OK, he said.
“That’s really where the truth is going to come from,” Estrada said. “It’s just meant to be a window into (their) lives. And I do think you see the movie and get to really feel these people existing in a city, and that was a goal.”
Another intention was to lift up diverse voices frequently not heard from in Hollywood productions.
“I think what’s most special about the movie is that it shows a city through the eyes of people who don’t normally get highlighted or get as much attention as the narrative we’ve been seeing about (L.A.) for so, so long,” he said. “The fact that we were able to sort of give control and authorship to this community of young diverse artists from throughout the city and really just allow them to tell us what they wanted to share about their experiences, there is really something special about that.”
The biggest hurdle to overcome wasn’t the tight schedule: It was getting the film actually into theaters.
“Summertime” made its splashy debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, but because of the pandemic and shuttered cinemas, it took a while to get it into theaters. During the interim, it proved to be a hit on the virtual film festival circuit.
“I was really hoping we would be able to release it last year and was so anxious that we couldn’t,” Estrada said. “But honestly, I think that’s gonna come at the right time, and I’m so happy that people will be able to see it in theaters.”
The experience making “Summertime” left a lasting impression on Estrada, and it’s influencing, even fueling, his future projects.
“I think that it would be impossible for me to move [on] from this experience not fully changed,” he said. “I have been able to start close, meaningful relationships with all of them and that is really the best-case scenario for a filmmaker — where you really get to collaborate with artists you really respect and affect you positively.”
Seeing the poets get more recognition makes him especially happy.
“I think all of them have such bright futures ahead, and I hope ‘Summertime’ becomes one small step in their long, fruitful creative journeys.”
* Director Carlos López Estrada and poet Tyris Winter will appear at the 4 p.m. Saturday screening of “Summertime” at Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, and also at the 7 p.m. Saturday screening at Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco.