New Zealand transplant Richard Levien, a longstanding fixture of the San Francisco indie film community, has until recently been known primarily as an editor. That changed forever during this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival when Levien’s directorial debut Immersion won the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Short. Shortly thereafter, Levien was named as the first recipient of a $35,000 award from the first SFFS/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant for the script development of what will be his first narrative feature, La Migra. Both projects focus on the tribulations of immigrant children trying to live normal lives in the United States in the face of stigmatization, xenophobia and an often-vindictive legal code.
Levien might not seem like the most obvious candidate to direct a film about a fifth grader’s struggle with the lack of bilingual education in his San Francisco classroom. A sometime rock musician with a PhD in theoretical physics, Levien made the transition to filmmaking after taking a course in digital video at UC Berkeley’s School of Extension. When his wife, a teacher in a Mission elementary school, told him the story of an immigrant student struggling with language comprehension in an overcrowded classroom, Levien was inspired to make a film about how the political battles of immigration affect one student’s educational opportunities. Immersion, which features a cast of local elementary school students, premiered at Slamdance and screened at the SFIFF52. Levien spoke to SF360.org on the eve of his triumph at this year’s International about embarking on his first project as a director.
SF360.org: What brought you to the US from New Zealand?
Richard Levien: Physics. But about halfway through my PhD at Princeton I realized that theoretical physics wasn’t for me—I found it kind of lonely. I would do algebra in my room all day, and see my adviser once every two weeks. And I was working on theories that would be testable in maybe 20 years, which was too much delayed gratification for me.
SF360.org: How did you make the transition to film editing?
Levien: After physics I wanted to play rock music—I sang and played drums and guitar. To get a visa to stay in the U.S., I learned computer programming and moved to the Bay Area. I had been drifting for a while when I took a class from UC Berkeley Extension called Introduction to Digital Video. It was the most fun I’d ever had. I was hooked. The classes at Film Arts Foundation comprised my film education. Editing seemed like the easiest way for me to actually earn some money in the film industry since it played to both my computer and sound recording background. At first I didn’t think I would like editing that much—it was just a way in, so to speak. I thought editing would be ninety percent technical or mechanical, and ten percent creative. It turned out that it was the other way around, so I grew to really love it.
SF360.org: Immersion tells the story of an industrious boy who has just immigrated to California from Mexico. He doesn’t speak English, but he’s good at math and he’s determined to pass a math placement exam. How did you become interested in the subject of language immersion?
Levien: The idea for Immersion came from a story my wife and coproducer Zareen told me. She’s an elementary school teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary in San Francisco. Before she became a teacher, she volunteered one morning a week in a classroom in the South Bay. A boy arrived halfway through the year from Mexico—he was 10 years old and couldn’t speak any English at all. He would get one or two hours a day of basic English instruction, but no instruction in his native language. And then he would be back in pre-Algebra. Zareen did her Master’s degree in Education at Berkeley and started looking more deeply into these issues and telling me about it. And I became interested in it as well. Prop 227—the English for the Children Initiative—gives kids like this one year to get up to grade level with an hour a day of English instruction. All the academic research says that it takes five to seven years to develop academic English proficiency. So this law essentially guarantees that a large percentage of these kids are going to fail. That got me kind of angry I guess. But I was still curious about this one boy. So I started writing a story to imagine what his backstory might have been.
SF360.org: The young actor who plays Moises gave an impressive performance. How did you cast that role?
Levien: The casting process was quite interesting. We were looking for kids from immigrant families, especially ones that might have arrived fairly recently. We used casting Web sites to find our adult actors, but we knew that we might not reach Latino immigrant kids that way. I located the 12 schools in the Bay Area with the highest Latino enrollment and visited each to talk to kids about filmmaking. I encouraged them to write stories based on their own lives and to make simple films. I also urged them to come audition for our film. We spoke to about a thousand kids in the classroom and then a hundred of them came out to audition. The whole process took several months. We ended up finding Luis Bautista in the fifth grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary, which is where my wife was teaching. I had a good feeling about Luis right away: His look was perfect and his backstory was the most similar to the main character. He had only been in the U.S. for a couple years when we started filming. His English was very good, but he was still struggling a bit. I knew that he could relate to this character. I was rooting for him, but I hadn’t seen the range of stuff I knew he would need for the part. So I had some extra rehearsals where I tried to get that out of him. But it worked out very well. He’s a gifted, natural actor.
SF360.org: Did you enjoy working with child actors?
Levien: You know what they say: Don’t work with children or animals. There were animals in an earlier draft of the script—I was glad when they got written out. But working with children turned out to be wonderful. Especially with untrained children, because I was an untrained director and we were able to discover things together. For example, at the end of the first day, we were shooting the final scene where Moises is looking out the window at his brother. We did the first take and Luis had a flicker of a smile on his face. That wasn’t at all how I had imagined for the scene to play. I thought, I’m the director, I should direct. I reminded Luis that it had been a really bad day for the character he was playing. I asked, ‘Do you really think he’d be smiling at the end of a day like this?’ And he said, ‘No, I guess not.’ So we did another six takes with him not smiling at all. And you can guess which one was the best take—by far, it was that first one. I realized, This guy understands his character so much better than I do. He’s done this thing that has added so much irony and brought layers of depth that I had never envisaged to that final shot. I thought, Thank god this is happening on the first day. From then on, any time anything improvisational came up, I just let him go with it. I figured out that my main job was to get out of his way and let him do what he wanted to do.
SF360.org: Could you tell me about the music featured in the film?
Levien: Yeah, it’s by Los Tigres del Norte. It’s a local band made good. I think they are the most popular Latin band in America; they’re huge in the Latino community. I did the thing you are absolutely not supposed to do as an independent filmmaker, which was to use the song as a scratch track on the film and then fall in love with it. When it came time to finish the film, I couldn’t let go of that piece of music. We eventually did get the track, though it took a couple of months. The reason I wanted to use them is because their songs are about the immigrant experience and they often have a political message. The band even has a foundation to educate people about Latino culture.
SF360.org: What were your aesthetic influences for the look and feel of the film?
Levien: I worked with Frazer Bradshaw, who I think is an amazing local cinematographer. The way we wanted to shoot this film and the way he likes to shoot is with very minimal lighting. I also wanted to shoot handheld for the entire movie, just to give a little life to each shot. I wanted it to seem as immediate and real as possible. We had a reference movie—we were both at Sundance last year and saw an extraordinary movie by Lance Hammer called Ballast, which won the directing and cinematography prizes there. The film had naturalistic lighting and gently handheld camerawork. We both loved that movie. I told Frazier, ‘That is our reference.’ He said, ‘Okay, now I know what you want.’
SF360.org: Why did you choose to make a fiction film instead of a documentary?
Levien: I deliberately wanted to make a fiction film because I think that they often have an easier time drawing the audience in. The main goal of the movie is to reach people who might not know about the immigrant experience or who have never faced learning a new language, to draw them into the visceral experience that Moises is going through.
SF360.org: Have you shown the film to the kids who were in it?
Levien: We took our two main child stars, Luis Bautista and Gerardo Acevedo, to the world premiere was at Slamdance. We kidnapped them from their parents and took them to Park City, so they had the experience of being real movie stars for that week. They were both also at the screening at the International. When we screened it for the rest of the kids—we had a cast and crew screening at the school where we shot the movie—it was really cool seeing the reactions of their families. It’s been a magical, emotional experience to create something and have other people share in it.
Our ultimate goal for Immersion is to get it out into the schools. Since it’s only 14 minutes long, it works as a conversation starter. It doesn’t really answer any questions, but it certainly asks a lot of them. We’ll eventually create lesson plans for elementary schools, high schools and colleges. At the International, we did a Schools at the Festival screening with Speaking In Tongues, another locally made film which broaches a very similar topic. It’s about four kids going through bilingual education programs in San Francisco. In a way, Immersion is a fictional film that shows a problem, while Speaking In Tongues is a documentary that looks at some of the possible solutions that we are exploring in San Francisco.
In June, we are going to go to the Media That Matters film festival. They take 12 shorts and show them online year round. They also work with a lot of grassroots activist groups throughout the country. They are going to help us build lesson plans and study guides.
SF360.org: How did you go about incorporating special effects into the film? When Luis looks at his page and the letters scramble in the air, for example.
Levien: I had the idea for letters floating off the page early in the writing process, but I did not have much of an idea of how to pull it off. It ended up being a rather laborious task in After Effects. Essentially I was cutting the letters up one by one and making them float off the page. Even though it only comprises about ten seconds in the movie, it took me about a week to do that. We also applied a sound effect to the teacher’s voice, when Moises listens to the teacher, to give an idea of how disorienting the English language is for him. I initially had no idea how to achieve this. Alex Wilmer at Berkeley Sound Artists did the sound mix. We discussed how we could create a sound effect that would convey that Moises doesn’t understand what the teacher is saying. We talked about using various filters to distort the teacher’s voice or add echo to it. But that ended up sounding as if he had a hearing problem, rather than that he could not comprehend English. Alex came up with the idea of editing the teacher’s syllables and swapping them around. So we retain all of what she says, but the order of the syllables is changed. You recognize parts of words, but you still don’t understand what she is saying. For me, when someone speaks Spanish too fast, that’s exactly what it sounds like. I understand individual words, but I don’t comprehend the sentence.
SF360.org: You were awarded a major SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant to develop a feature film that also addresses the immigrant experience in the US. How are you framing this project?
Levien: The working title is La Migra. It’s about an 11-year-old girl who comes home from school to find that immigration police have taken her mom. Sadly, this is something that is happening all around us. I knew that raids were happening across the country, but I had no idea how many of them were happening right here in San Francisco. Even at Cesar Chavez Elementary, where my wife works, kids have had their parents taken. Malin Alegria, a former teacher there, is a novelist who writes about the teenage Latina experience. She described this short story idea to me that I have just explained to you. I said, ‘That sounds like an amazing idea. Please let me know when you have written the story.’ When we finished Immersion, I called her up and asked, ‘Is the story done?’ She said, ‘No. When do you need it by?’ She is an amazing writer and is very prolific, so she pumped out 30 pages in a couple of days. This ended up being the first act of the film. She is currently writing a series of short stories from the perspective of different characters in the film, and I am adapting them into the screenplay. Feature films often take years to pull together in terms of writing the screenplay and obtaining funding, but this issue has a lot of immediacy. We’re hoping to get it into production as soon as possible.
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