John Merizalde is a filmmaker based out of Los Angeles, California. Since a young age, he’s been working in commercials, music videos, and narrative filmmaking. His most recent short, Incel, was just screened at SXSW 2019.
When did you first start writing and directing?
I first started out making flash animations when I was 11. A couple years later, after I convinced my parents to get a mini DV camera, I transitioned to making shorts in the backyard. I was a gigantic Lord of the Rings nerd, and when the extended editions came out, they had these super comprehensive behind the scenes included. That was a huge revelation for me, as that was my first exposure to really seeing how movies are made. It just looked really fun. Unsurprisingly, those DVD’s seem to have had an influence on a lot of young filmmakers. But honestly, filmmaking never felt like a conscious decision. I just always knew instinctively that I wanted to do it. But the more you find out about the industry, the more it shapes your path within it. For example, when I was 19, it never crossed my mind to make a commercial or a music video. But you find out quickly that you don’t just jump into making movies, unless you’re extremely privileged. You’ve gotta find a way to sustain things first. So I climbed up the old fashioned way, starting as a PA and eventually working every job on set. That was my film school.
What project allowed you to evolve the most as an artist?
Most recently, Incel. Until age 21-22, I was only making narrative stuff. I was in a filmmaking collective making a bunch of short films. Some of them got attention online, but I really needed money so it was around that time that I decided to go into music videos and commercials. I got sucked away into that world. For the next 5 years I didn’t make a short film for myself, it was always stuff for clients, making docs, music videos, etc.
Those were incredible experiences, but there’s nothing like making your own narrative film. It’s so hard. You don’t have anything to fall back on. With music videos, there’s a formula to it that you figure out, and you have these parameters with the song to help you. Narrative is scary. You’re on your own. It forces you to really challenge yourself. It forces you to actually say something with your wor
Was there anything that wanted you to break that mold?
Definitely. I turned 27, and I had an existential crisis. Right after the election, it felt like things slowed down a lot. A lot less work seemed to be going around, which meant I was bidding less, sitting around more. I hit June and I hadn’t done a project all year, so I started rethinking my whole life. Why did I get into this? What do I want to do? I wanna make films, and I’m not going in that direction. I need to make a film. I also realized I was starting to get pigeonholed as a doc director, and that wasn’t where I wanted to go. So I knew whatever film I was going to make was stylistically going to be the opposite of all the floaty, handheld doc work I had done.
How did you meet BIGNATTYDADDY and delve into the world of steroids?
I was always interested in weird subcultures, especially steroid and other drug cultures. I personally haven’t experimented with them, but I know a lot about them. One night, I saw this kid starting to go viral, and we were filming with him a week later. When we got in touch with him, VICE and a couple others had gone after him, but he turned them down and for some reason let us do it. I think he knew you could easily make it a sideshow piece, but I didn’t want to approach it that way. I tried to come at it from a place of empathy and not judgement. The budget was minuscule - all fronted by my editor Chad Sarahina. We rented a camera, drove across the country, and filmed it in one day. Somehow BBC picked it up. What these experiences have taught me is that the small personal projects you do for yourself can do far more for your career than big client, big budget projects.
What made you make “Incel”? Were you delving into another internet subculture like with steroids?
I’ve always been super plugged into internet garbage and all that stuff. I’m way too online. So these subcultures were never that foreign to me. The first part of the idea started a few years ago, like around 2014. There was a mass shooting, and I remember the element that really stuck out was that the guy had all these public vlogs leading up to it. I felt like that was going to be more and more common in the future as everyone films and documents everything. Aside from that, there just seems to have been a drastic increase in online echo chambers. Everything feels like it’s gotten more hostile. There was a lot I wanted to say about modern alienation and online radicalization, and this particular subculture seemed like a good vessel to explore it.
What would you say to someone who is having the same troubles as the main character?
I think a big problem with the internet is how easy it is to get sucked into a bubble. You can get into a negative feedback loop without even realizing it. What’s encouraging is you get these stories of people like incels, or in other hate groups, that can get pulled out of it. Socializing with people in real life is one of the most important things, and I think one of the worst things you can do with any sort of mental health issue is isolate yourself and go online, especially places online that validate your beliefs, whether rational or not. It’s such a broad thing to say seek help, but there are organizations and groups out there now that deal with these specific issues. I think the best thing to do is just get offline. When the short came out, it was on a ton of incel forums. There was a lot of hate, but there was also a lot of understanding. There was a surprising amount of people who could tell this wasn’t made to inflame them and a few people were even like, “This is eerily similar to me.”
As a director, how do you approach a scene from script to screen?
With the opening scene in Incel I knew exactly how I wanted to shoot it when I wrote it, which helped. Sometimes there’s a level of improvisation, especially with docs. But with this one, we were short on money and time, so we had to come in really prepared. If you’re going to do a long unbroken take, you’ve got to make sure you rehearse. But before that, the most important thing was locking in an excellent actor. I didn’t need a name, but I needed somebody that had undeniable talent. I had a producer friend in Canada that recommended Theodore, who had just won a rising star award at TIFF. I sent him the script and he was down, so I cast him immediately. No audition. Seeing his performance in Never Steady, Never Still was convincing enough. Then we cast Meredith, and two days before we shot, we sat down and did the scene maybe 5 times. You don’t want to over rehearse it, because you might kill what’s there. You want to leave it a little open. I think on set we did 7 takes, and we went with the 7th one. That one’s the most radically different of them all too. It’s not until you see it on camera that you really get the scene. The other takes were good, but they kind of felt like they were on rails, not exactly there. For the last one, we just did everything at half speed, and it clicked.
What do you think was the biggest visual challenge for you as a director?
That opening shot in Incel was a tough one. We had some takes where the performance was great, but the dolly pushes in too early, sometimes too late. There were multiple timings we had to get right. Other than that, the first time I shot on film was probably one of the most stressful experiences. Just because you’re not really sure what you’re going to get back. It’s a total mystery. In general, commercials are the most pressure visually, just because they’re giving you a lot of money, so it’s got to look good. I was really stoked visually with the most recent commercial we shot. We wanted to shoot on 16mm, but there were too many logistical drawbacks. We snuck around that by putting 16mm lenses on the Alexa. You lose some of the resolution, but it gives you some nice grain and 16mm bokeh. After we shot, we printed the digital image to film, and then we scanned that back to a digital format. We fooled a lot of people, because it looks like real 16mm. We’re not the first to do it, but it’s a cool trick.
Any advice for upcoming filmmakers?
When you’re young you’ll hear something, but then ten years later you’ll hear the exact same thing, and interpret it in a completely different way. The best advice is repeated constantly because it’s true, but that’s not satisfying for a lot of people. When I first visited LA at 20, I met a director at an A-list production company. I asked all the basic stuff: How do I get signed? How do I get to where you are? His advice was just to shoot stuff, build a body of work, and show what your voice is. That’s not what I wanted to hear though. You hope that there’s maybe some kind of simple trick or shortcut.
However, over the years, I’ve realized that the people who make it are the people who are driven to make stuff no matter what: budget or no budget, client or no client. If you’re sitting around, grab a 5D, go shoot a little doc. Be able to self-motivate, no one’s going to tell you what to do. Being a part of collectives and groups are helpful because you’re going to push each other. When you’re alone, you don’t have that, so you have to generate it. I’ve read just about every film book, but the biggest lessons I’ve learned all come from being on set. You’re always gonna be hit with unexpected problems, and the only way you truly learn is through experience.
Any upcoming work or screenings you want us to know about?
I’m working on developing Incel into a feature. All my energy is focused on that right now, and hopefully I won’t get too distracted with other projects!