By Kenneth Reynolds
A Cuban American filmmaker from Miami, Andrew Hevia’s producing credits include the three-time Academy Award-winning film MOONLIGHT and the Spanish language film CENIZAS from Ecuadorian director Juan Sebastian Jacome. Now based in Los Angeles, and running the North American office of Fabula, the production company founded by Juan de Dios and Pablo Larraín, Andrew discusses championing Miami-centric cinema and how to create outside of the two coastal film hubs.
How did you get into film?
I was interested in movies as a kid and started making them with a borrowed video camera when I was quite young. Later, I went to Florida State University’s Film School in Tallahassee. Film school was the first time where I started thinking outside of the immediate film and started really falling in love with the process. After film school, instead of going to Los Angeles or New York where all of my classmates went, I honestly couldn’t understand what I was going to bring to those cities, I took an internship at a place called McSweeney’s, which is an independent publishing house in San Francisco founded by writer Dave Eggers, who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. They had just launched a Wholphin, which was a DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films. This was early 2007.
I very much remember my subscription to Wholphin.
I loved the truly bizarre and sometimes aggressively uncommercial approach they took to the work because it somehow made every issue feel like a discovery.
Meanwhile, there were some fellow FSU film alums in town making a micro budget feature. It was MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, Barry Jenkins’ first feature. One of my very good friends from film school, Cherie Saulter, was a producer on that movie and I was acquainted with the other FSU alums: Barry, James Laxton, Nat Sanders, and Justin Barber. They were learning as they went, which I found really inspiring, that you didn’t have to know all the answers before you started working.
They only had $12 and a couple of living rooms and were proving that you could make great work out of nothing. Film school was fantastic for what it was, but it only teaches you 14 through 30 of a 90-step process. They were learning as they went, which I found really inspiring, that you didn’t have to know it all before you did it. You can just do it and take one step at a time.
I’m pretty sure that’s when I learned that Barry was from Miami. There was something about that that I found both inspiring and infuriating. And I lobbied him persistently to make a movie in Miami. My thinking was that if he made a film in Miami, then I could help and be a part of that. And I thought he could make a great one.
I loved San Francisco, but it wasn’t home. My internship ended and instead of moving to Los Angeles or New York, I moved back home to Miami thinking I could be a filmmaker there.
In Miami, there were just a handful of us. It was easy to find a small community of people who had made the same dubious decision to stay in Miami. Then, the Great Recession hit and suddenly everybody’s broke, there was a writer’s strike out in LA and everyone’s out of work and it occurred to me that, ‘Hell, I could be out of work in Miami just as well as I can be in New York.’ I ended up working part-time as an editor at a public television station. In the middle of all this, my friend, Cherie Saulter was setting up her first micro-budget feature as a director, NO MATTER WHAT, and asked me to be her editor.
That film premiered at SXSW. It was great to go there, and I loved working on the movie but being there as an editor didn’t fit right. Editing wasn’t the thing for me.
Why is that?
In my experience as an editor, I was too far downstream to have any real influence. I was getting really restless and I’m sure it made me a frustrating editor to work with because I was always outside my lane. ‘Well, why didn’t you do this? You shouldn’t have done that. You could have done this instead.’ I realized that if I was going to spend my time cleaning up what I perceived as ‘mistakes,’ I wanted them to be my mistakes.
This led to me producing, first at the TV station then short films, documentaries and corporate work. I was really focused on telling Miami stories and building community through art.
In a roundabout way, that work led to a conversation with Tarell Alvin McCraney, and he ended up sharing a play he’d written about growing up in Liberty City called IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE. It was an incredible window into a world and community that I knew very little about, despite growing up a just a few miles away. And that hooked me.
Meanwhile, I’d successfully gotten Barry to come make a film in Miami – it was a short called CHLOROPHYL, which led to a conversation about Tarell’s play. That project ultimately became MOONLIGHT. The experience of making that movie and everything that came after took me from the swamps of Florida onto a whole new level of filmmaking.
How did you navigate moving at this new pace?
If I’m being totally honest, it wasn’t easy.
But immediately after production wrapped, I moved to Hong Kong on a grant that allowed me to make a documentary called LEAVE THE BUS THROUGH THE BROKEN WINDOW. I was a one man band that year on the far side of the world. It was such a unique and different experience. A totally different ride. And then, not quite a year later, MOONLIGHT played Telluride and the reviews started to come out. I flew back to the US in time for our New York Film Festival premiere, which is when I got back on the ride. It was like boarding a rocket to the moon. And I did my best to hold on.
I’d been working for a while but it felt like overnight, I no longer had to validate myself. We won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. I’m at the Independent Spirit Awards and we win six of them. It’s incredible. It was an insane period where every step just kept getting faster and bigger and suddenly the little movie that we made in Miami is in Oscars conversations.
The problem in talking about this abundance and then saying it was incredibly stressful feels, especially in this moment of the pandemic, it feels tone-deaf. I also found it hard to celebrate because I was aware that these were big moments and big things were happening.
There’s a big difference in being talked about being nominated and then actually being nominated. And a big difference between being nominated and actually winning. It felt like going to the moon.
Could you describe your feelings at this point? Not just on your career, but how you were personally managing all of this success?
It was tough to shake the idea that I was supposed to somehow know what to do with this increased visibility. So I tried as much as possible to redirect that visibility into my other projects, and just buried the uncertainty in new work, new relationships and new projects.
At times, I felt like a fish who spent his whole life living under water who was then hooked and violently introduced into a new world, while simultaneously trying to act like I’d been here before.
So now you’re in Los Angeles. After championing one city for so long, how do you go about navigating your career outside the comforts and familiarity of Miami?
The year after the Oscars was marked by constant travel. I went from project to project and place to place. I didn’t properly move to Los Angeles until two years ago. But the truth is, after MOONLIGHT, I felt like I had accomplished what I set out to do in Miami, so I was actively looking for opportunities outside of that comfort zone.
Every new city and new project became an opportunity to expand my network and I tried to remain open to every possibility. Which incidentally, is how I ended up in LA.
I got the opportunity to meet with the director Pablo Larraín and his brother and producing partner Juan de Dios who have a company called Fabula, based in Santiago, Chile. They produced Sebastian Lelio’s A FANTASTIC WOMAN, which won the Oscar for best foreign film.
They had decided to open an office in Los Angeles and they invited me to join in the adventure.
When I first reached out to you about this interview, you felt that you weren’t appropriate for Dear Producer because you were now in a different position. Do you still see yourself as an independent producer?
I wouldn’t use the word “independent” because Fabula is an Oscar-winning production company. I’m currently running the Los Angeles office of an international production company. I’m an executive and a producer, but I’m salaried, I have health insurance. I’m no longer speculating.
For me independent producing was going project to project. It was a freelance lifestyle in a competitive, high stakes field with precarious financials. I’m not going project to project anymore and I don’t have the same hurdles. I have different hurdles, but I don’t have those same hurdles.
I had a couple of projects that I tried to push through while making money anyway I could. It was a constant hustle. As long as I made enough to sustain myself and nothing more, I could stay in the game.
Now my energy is different, as is the volume of work. I don’t have to split my focus so I can focus on longer projects. My time horizon has changed, and my little subsistence farm has grown into an agricultural farm. I have new responsibilities and a stronger support system in place. It’s no longer about getting one or two projects set up, now it’s about 10 or 20 projects, an order of magnitude bigger.
Do you feel like the term independent producing is viewed or defined differently by the general industry vs. those actually working under that title?
I remember going to see Ted Hope and Christine Vachon talk in like 2007 or 2009. Ted Hope had just come out with his book, Hope for Film, and they were talking and he said, back when he was coming up in the 90s, distributors were so hungry for content that if you could prove you could deliver a movie for $5 million, they’d give you $5 million to go make it. It was a gold rush and many filmmakers got their start that way. That’s how they got in the door. We weren’t in that universe pre-COVID, and we certainly aren’t there post-COVID. It’s a very tough time to be on your own out there.
And yes, I do think there’s a different understanding of the term ‘independent producer’ in the general industry versus those actually working under it. ‘Indie film’ is different from an ‘independently financed theatrical motion picture.’ And I think that difference comes down to community and ethos.
What used to be an independent producer, that job doesn’t exist anymore, and is being reformed before our very eyes. My advice is, I don’t know man, get out. [laughter] That’s way too dark for the newsletter.
Independent producing only works for people who are already rich or have some other scenario, whether it be a supportive partner who happens to work in investment banking, or I don’t know. [laughter] How do you survive when the budgets are getting increasingly smaller and the fees don’t support the five years of work that it takes to get a film made?
I didn’t want to spend the whole interview talking about the pandemic, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on. How are you navigating this time personally? How are you seeing the transition out of this time happening from your perspective?
Well, personally I’m very fortunate in this period to have a job I can do remotely. A lot of that is in place simply because we’re an international company. I’ve been working remotely with the team back in Chile for two years now. Half my work is international filmmakers who are always on Zoom or Google meets. A lot of my job is completely unchanged. In terms of how things are adjusting, it’s more or less the same.
I’m very lucky to be at that end of the business now, because if I were still fully independent making money only when my projects go into production, it would be a much harder space. I do not envy the producers who are in that predicament.
Do I think the medium changes? Do I think independent film and the way we think of independent film is not long for this world? Perhaps. Do I think we should explore other models of regional distribution in a new way? Yes. Do I think New York and LA should have a stranglehold on how independent films open when they’re successful? No.
Maybe one thing that can come out of all this is a new way of doing things. In Miami, there’s a community focused organization called Oolite Arts, which supports local visual artists. Two years ago, I helped them launch a micro-budget film residency for Miami filmmakers with a $50,000 grant. Residents have two years to complete their films and that’s meant to be an all-in budget, not seed funding.
What we’ve built with Oolite Arts is a system where filmmakers can produce a certain type of project. Then, once those films are made, we work with regional cinemas to distribute those films locally. The goal is community through art.
It’s an attempt to re-invent a system and provide opportunities for local filmmakers to connect with their own communities. Oolite wanted to create more stories in Miami with Miami filmmakers. Maybe it’s possible to create a better system, one that favors the little guy and is sustainable on a local or regional level? That’s the dream.
I love that dream. I want to live in that dream.
Andrew Hevia is a Cuban American filmmaker from Miami, Florida. His producing credits include the three-time Academy Award-winning film MOONLIGHT and the Spanish language film CENIZAS from Ecuadorian director Juan Sebastian Jacome. Hevia’s latest directing project was a documentary feature, LEAVE THE BUS THROUGH THE BROKEN WINDOW, which was called “the most original and fascinating documentary” of the year by Film Threat.
A graduate of the Florida State University Film School and Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, Hevia was a 2015 Fulbright Fellow to Hong Kong, a 2017 IFP Labs Fellow, and a 2018 Producing Fellow at Berlinale Talents. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he runs the North American office of Fabula, the Academy Award-winning production company founded by Juan de Dios and Pablo Larraín.