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An interview with Filmmaker Miguel Coyula 
Written by: on February 9th, 2006

Miguel Coyula is best known for his Heretic Films release Red Cockroaches and will be known for his future release of Edmundo Desnoes’ Memories of Overdevelopment.  Miguel’s films are defined by both its a visceral texture of alienation and high-production values on extremely low budgets.  The feature-length film Red Cockroaches is regarded highly by audiences and reviewers alike winning numerous awards.  Miguel’s high concept shorts are thought provoking and visually stunning.  Today, he continues production on Memories of Overdevelopment without fail. His heart and determination are sure to see him through. 

Ron Cotton (RC): You’ve produced many short films over the years. Do any of your shorts in the past best represent your directing style that shouldn’t go unwatched?

Miguel Coyula (MC): I’ve been experimenting with different styles and genres in many of the shorts (even animation, musical and martial arts) I do think that I’m finding my real tone in Red Cockroaches. But even that is an exercise, from a narrative standpoint is not that complex, if I would explain what’s going on, you’d have a regular thriller that progresses in a quite lineal (chronologically speaking) way: (SPOILERS) Man meets girl, girl turns up to be long lost sister, they have intercourse, she gets mad at him, reveals that she was abused as little,  leaves, he wanders alone in guilt, she comes back pregnant and start living together, mom suddenly finds out, a Greek tragedy, and they run away to the unknown… Open ending. Quite a simple story from a narrative structural standpoint. The rest is how you deconstruct it, create layers, and hide the answers.

For example I think that the narrative of my very first short film Piramide is great. Despite the technical shortcomings I wouldn’t hesitate to call it my favorite piece of work to date. I was a teenager and had all these ideas and dreams still uncorrupted by film school. Unfortunately many of those shorts can’t be released in the US because I don’t have the rights to the music.

RC: Valvula De Luz (Light Valve) is a quite majestic black and white short on your Red Cockroaches DVD release that bears mentioning. How did you create the credits with that Fritz Lang Metropolis style?

MC: I edited the film analog so and I could only use the computer (a 486 at the time) to generate some animations for only 5 shots. I didn’t even had a video card so I could only capture stills. The credits were done with 3D Studio 4 (the MS DOS version) I animated them by stretching the vortexes of the letters.

RC: Light Valve has an amazing and breathtaking location. Where was that location filmed?

MC: That’s a gigantic ruined down building by the sea in Havana. About 20 years ago the tide rose and the building was evacuated before the ocean came in. It’s quite damaged now and abandoned. I love that place, you can’t build sets like that.

RC: Was the long tracking shot of the mouse ball rolling along the floor difficult to shoot in Light Valve?

MC: That was done with a little car toy I had built when I was little, It was useful as a dolly for that some shots, although it was very hard to control and still shaky.

RC: I’ve noticed that Red Cockroaches took a long festival tour from 2003 to 2005. Was Red Cockroaches ever presented as a theatrical release before being distributed on DVD? If so, which locations?

MC: Heretic Films had a theatrical Premiere in San Francisco. And it has played in several theaters in Cuba. Once in a while they still program it.

RC: Before the famed “Ketchup Scene” you did many close-ups of Adam and Talia eating. This was visually strong and telling. Did something inspire you or was this simply an “oral fixation” shot?

MC: Food and sex… Yes basically the idea was to fore shadow the sex through the food.  The fries being “lubricated” with ketchup before being inserted inside the mouth, the lips sucking from the straw, etc…

RC: What made filming the “Ketchup Scene” in Red Cockroaches so difficult between actor Adam Plotch and actress Talia Rubel? It’s rumored that there was a rift and a bitter hatred between the two.

MC: I wouldn’t say hatred but they definitely didn’t get alone at the beginning, yet for some reason after the intensity of the ketchup scene they bonded. Shooting that scene was quite draining as was the whole film because it meant not having a life for a whole year, every weekend devoted to this. I would edit a rough cut of one scene once in a while so they would see a sample of the finished product in order to keep them going. The ketchup scene was truly grueling for the amount of shots and takes, also it was done late at night over three days when we’d had to wake up early the next morning to go to school or work. It was also in the middle of August so the heat was unbearable.

RC: Although I’ve never seen the short The Plastic Fork, I’ve felt that actor Adam Plotch from Red Cockroaches is a kind of physical representation of you. Is this a fair assessment?

MC: That’s funny, we actually don’t look alike, also his character in the Plastic Fork is completely different than in Red Cockroaches. But I like that he’s an outsider, he’s offbeat looking as most of the actors I choose.

RC: Actress Talia Rubel’s performance was strong and unique from any other actress I’ve seen to date. Did you harness that performance out of her or did she create those nuances from her understanding of the character?

MC: Since I saw her at the audition I said, that is the girl, they say casting is 80% of the performance. And she was both seductive and mysterious from what she did there.

RC: Will we be seeing Jeff Pucillo again in any future projects?

MC: Jeff will appear both in my new film, Memories of Overdevelopment and Blue Road and he’s also working in some other projects right now. He’s a great person to work with and will try doing so in any as many projects as possible.

RC: Incest is a touchy subject tackled in Red Cockroaches. Do
you feel that you’ve approached it in the right light? Was your message
received by the audience or was Red Cockroaches a film just to be
MC: I come from a school that presents the fact and let the audience draw their own conclusions. What I find interesting in this case is that when the incest is consummated, they both know they are brother and sister, and despite the violence she obviously led him to do it. Usually incest in movies is depicted on a rural environment where the father/brother abuses the daughter/sister. What people expect from a movie about incest is a realistic story, and here several genres a blend: Noir, science fiction, and surrealism. Throughout the film there are many references to DNA21. later you also see on a newspaper that their father used to be a scientist for DNA21, and also TV ads, read: DNA21: The chance to be born again. A question ensues with this possibility: is incest with a relatives clone realistically incest? I want a film most of all to be a sensorial experience, the mystery must be kept alive to haunt you, even after the film ends.

Red Cockroaches uses a wide assortment of color gels. How did your love of intense color gels begin?

MC: Since the very beginning when I did my first short on VHS. I had an infrared light that I used in many scenes; I was fascinated about how expressive they could be since I grew up watching a lot of Japanese animation. I use color to generate atmosphere sometimes answering to an impulse, for example in Red Cockroaches I though the underground locations should be green-ish (the garage, Nick’s lab, the club) Somehow that evokes a dirty feel to me, an exaggerated underworld of neon. Adam’s room had to be blue-ish, to emphasize his isolation. While the mother’s house is more de-saturated, the grays prevail, like the beach.

RC: What equipment on your set do you substitute for real “film grade” tools?

MC: Outdoors I create dolly shots from a car, while indoors I resort to fix camera, pans, or tilts, and sometimes a small “crane effect” that I achieve while leveling the height of the tripod. But there is also a lot of work that goes into post production, adding elements that where not there or removing some undesirable ones, which you might not have control over while you are shooting on no budget.

RC: After viewing Red Cockroaches, Some compare your treatment and craft akin to David Lynch and his later films.

MC: That’s a great compliment, I like Mulholland Drive a lot. He’s a master of strange atmospheres. My style is a hybrid of many different filmmakers and genres.

RC: Edmundo Desnoes’ Memories of Underdevelopment was a crowning achievement of Cuban Filmmaking in the 60s receiving worldwide distribution. I understand that your directing its sequel Memorias del Desarrollo (Memories of Overdevelopment). How do you go about securing the rights to this classic?

MC: After seeing RC at the New York Premiere, Edmundo gave me the rights for his new novel, follow up to the original, and that was it, I started shooting.

RC: What steps are being made to achieve the vision of Memories of Overdevelopment?

MC: It’s an open structure, a fresh narrative made of small episodes, the film works on accumulation, much like memory itself, when you remember a particular moment of an episode in your life, and that thought can be interrupted by another memory.

RC: Will Memories of Overdevelopment feel seamless to its predecessor or will Memories of Overdevelopment have a different feel to it?

MC: The misé-en-scene is much more stylized; the original had a documentary feel to it. But I’m not so much concerned with realism. As a matter of fact realism can often detract from mood. For every Cuban filmmaker this has been a fantasy. There is  a lot of pressure for classic status of the original from what some people expect, but I’m definitely doing things my own way.

RC: The theme of alienation reoccurs in your other films. Does this make Memories of Overdevelopment a perfect fit for your directing style?

MC: I must say yes. It recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, who is one of my favorite directors. And I can really identify with the conflict of the main character: Not belonging to society in general, no matter which are the politics. The novel is bitter and that’s something you don’t see very often in this age of political correctness. I’m really excited to be doing this.

RC: Do you have any scenes in Memories of Overdevelopment that are similar to scenes in Memories of Underdevelopment?

MC: There are a couple of homage’s here and there, but not really. The film will feel different overall.

RC: What kind of advice would you give screenwriters who wish to adapt novels to the screen?

MC: Remove as much dialogue as possible, and translate as many words as possible in one image. That’s the key.

RC: Red Cockroaches is part of a trilogy. What should we expect from Blue Road? Do you already have plans for Oceans?

MC: Red Cockroaches is the first, Blue Road the second and Ocean the last. There is a character about to be born at the end of Red Cockroaches that will be the protagonist of Ocean. All the screenplays are written, but Ocean is really complex from a storytelling point of view. I want to do Blue Road first and see if I find funding. But nevertheless, I know will finish the trilogy regardless, even if it takes me 20 years.

RC: Blue Road is slated to be 1.85:1 widescreen while Red Cockroaches was full-frame. What made you decide use different aspect ratios for your trilogy? Will Oceans also be in widescreen?

MC: When I started shooting Red Cockroaches widescreen TVs were not very common or that affordable, so I thought that since the film was mostly going to be viewed on full screen TVs, it wouldn’t make much sense to do a widescreen. Now of course that is changing, and I love to frame shots in a panoramic format.

RC: Should we expect production of Oceans after Blue Road or do you have more plans for other future projects?

MC: Sure that’s the plan. And I also have some other ideas written down but I want to finish the Trilogy first, and who knows, maybe later It wont be a trilogy anymore, but a Quadrology or even more, I’m falling in love with the world depicted there.

RC: Will Blue Road or Oceans have themes of incest or should we expect something vastly different from the two?

MC: They all take place in the same universe: There is acid rains, and DNA21, both things become much more prominent. There is also incest, and other taboos but on a larger scale, and more concentrated on how society deals with these outsiders, and in the case of Blue Road, how a group of outsiders, anarchists, decide to deal with society in violent ways to exorcise moral prejudices, from religion to the smallest things in life.  The idea of Anarchy always fascinated me. I think anarchists are frustrated idealists, gone wrong. They are very interesting subjects. In Blue Road, people have that been cloned by DNA21, feel superior than “normal” people, and they take a crusade against them.

RC: In other interviews, you mentioned that you’ve never made a cent from your films, do you believe that Memories of Overdevelopment or Blue Road will be theatrical releases or mark the beginning of your success?

MC: Well Memories of Overdevelopment is a real art house movie, frankly I don’t think it will make too much money. About Blue Road, I can’t really say. I know that eventually all these films will find an underground audience, the right people would respond to an uncompromised vision, for me that the biggest success I can achieve. And for me Heretic Films has done that by making available to the public.

RC: During the production of Red Cockroaches a fiasco ensued. Police roughed and handcuffed you and your crew. Because of this, are you expecting to get permits for Blue Road or Memories of Overdevelopment?

MC: No, I’m still trying to avoid that. It’s not just the permits, but also the insurance and that can eat up all your budget. In Red Cockroaches it was entirely my fault, I had just arrived to the US and didn’t know the mechanics very well. But now I’m much more careful when filming in public places.

RC: With every subsequent film you direct, as your craft improves, do you ever have regrets of your prior films having “missing” or “removed” scenes that you would have incorporated if you had the skills before?

MC: Yes there is always stuff that you would have liked to add or remove, to your older films. But unlike other filmmaker I always go back to watch my first films, to get inspired. I really think that film school “squares” your creativity in a way. It teaches you to think “inside the box” and kills you inner impulses, your intuition. No matter how liberal the school might be. That’s why going back to my pre-film  school shorts is always refreshing for me.

RC: Making movies hasn’t been about financial gain as much as Miguel Coyula’s artistic presentation. Do you think that money could corrupt your vision and any future films made? Do you feel other directors have fallen into this trap?

MC: I don’t think they’ve fallen in the track. There are two kinds of directors: The one that adds talent and creativity to any project or screenplay that is presented to him/her. And the one that has a voice and basically keeps doing the same film over and over, with new ramifications each time, as tree that grows steadily. The first one can succumb to Hollywood more easily, because that person won’t care about the story as much as their craft in bringing any story to life. For example I know that there are film I would never do, because I can’t feel the scripts, they don’t affect me in any way.

RC:“You can’t buy talent with technology” is a statement made on your website. Do you think it’s better for the artist to strive to tell his message any tangible way or do you think technology should supplement his message?

MC: If you have the technology/budget fine, but I see a lot of people that say they wont shoot if it’s not on 35mm or HD or because they don’t have a full crew, and they spend 10 years without making a movie. I think you can make a good movie with a VHS camera. But you do need to know the technology to achieve maximum impact, you just can’t become a slave of the latests innovations and learn to do more with less.

RC: Who do you feel are your contemporaries?

MC: That’s an interesting question; most of the filmmakers that talk to me are from the past. Tarkovsky, Bergman, Antonioni. Their views on the world are missing by many contemporaries. On a complete different level and I really admire Robert Rodriguez because of the setup he has created for himself. Even if his films are just pure entertainment, I think he represents a good example of someone that has adopted Digital Technology really well, and people should strive to achieve a similar structure even at a lower level. I feel I have things in common with different aspects of several filmmakers, and that conforms my eclectic style and working methods.

RC: What kind of advice would you give directors who don’t know their voice therefore produce nothing?

MC: Digital technology has been good to make the means available to the masses, but being a filmmaker or an actor is a phase for a lot of young people. I think if you really have a voice you will go out of your way, like a madman, a fanatic, and make your movie, and not all of the advise against it could stop you. I can only talk from my experience: It becomes an obsession, of having no choice but to simply do it. And this feeling has to come naturally. If you hesitate or wait too long, maybe this is not what you should be doing. In my case the most difficult step is to make the first move, shoot the first scene, after that nothing can stop you until you finish, even if it takes years.

RC: Is there anything we should expect in the future or anything that we might have missed?

MC: One amusing thing in Red Cockroaches: The Ketchup scene was edited at the rhythm of the song “The End” by The Doors. If you sync the first shot when Adam grabs the packet of ketchup with the lyric “Come on baby take a chance with us…” You’ll have a complete different experience.

This interview transcript was reprinted by permission from murderedrum.com.

Production Photos copyrighted Miguel Coyula.  All Rights Reserved.

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