Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, February 2007. New Filmmaker Ruben Obregon on La Primavera: Texan Filmmaker Utilizes His Experiences in the Navy to Create an Award-Winning Short by Jake Lovelldown. Pages 28 – 32.
When you enter the Navy at 17, you are certainly going to be greatly influenced by the events and places that you visit. In his formative years, this is exactly what happened to Ruben Obregon. As a first generation Mexican American, born in San Antonio, Texas, Ruben had the opportunity as a sailor to visit countries that he had only dreamed of. These influences stayed with him so intensely, that, years later, as a filmmaker, his writing led him to recreate those obviously haunting memories. Set in a Portuguese port, La Primavera is about the joy and sadness of requited love between a young American sailor, and a beautiful local girl. Sadly, it is a love that must come to an end.
After leaving the Navy, Ruben Obregon started his film studies at UT Austin, and completed them with an MFA in film production from UCLA. It was at UCLA that Ruben started planning his thesis short. Ruben recalls, “The story comes from my time in the Navy, of my friend’s experiences, and what I saw, and what I read.” In La Primavera, we are visitors to the last meeting between the sailor (Miguel Caballero) and his lover (Marisol Centeno) in an almost ethereal Portuguese town. As the film opens, we see children running Lovelldown a cobbled stone street lined on either side by balconies full of flowers. Thus the rich atmosphere and style of the film are set. The sparing use of the Spanish guitar music (composer Jeff Toyne) adds to the pivotal moments in the scene. I wondered if Ruben had a lot if input into the music, or did the composer come to him with the score after viewing the short? “When I was writing the script, I knew the music would be a vital component to the narrative. So much so, I think I just about drove the composer crazy when we were working on it. In the end, it was an extremely satisfying and rewarding collaboration. I’m really proud of that.”
As the sailor’s departure draws closer, the young lovers try to make their last afternoon together as memorable as possible, with numerous interruptions! The gentle humor, in this short, makes these final moments so much more poignant. A grandma, eavesdropping on the lovers on the balcony across the street, yells across to the sailor to, “hurry up and kiss her, I can’t wait all day!”
As the lovers dance to an old gramophone, no words are needed. The director focuses the camera intensely on the feet of the two young lovers as they dance in total harmony with each other. I asked Ruben how he had come up with the concept of the two lovers being involved in such a romantic dance scene. “It stems from their failure to connect verbally or physically. The idea is that this strong desire for intimacy manifests itself in a dance between them.”
How difficult was it to film the two actors’ feet in perfect motion together? “The hardest part was getting the actors
to not be perfectly in sync starting off, then gradually dancing in harmony. Also, the cinematographer, Hilda Mercado, really understood what I was looking for in terms of camera movement and pacing.”
La Primavera was filmed in the small town of Guanajuato in Mexico. “When I was writing it, I thought of Portugal
and Lisbon. I liked the feel of the narrow walkways of the city, and the sound of that music.” However, budget constraints ($30,000) made it impossible to shoot in Lisbon! Ruben had to look to other South American cities.
Ruben chose the old silver town of Guanajuato as it wonderfully created the flavor of an old colony. The colors and cobbled alleyways of Guanajuato certainly gives the film a European flavor! I wondered how Ruben had chosen the
town. “I actually read about it in a travel guide first. The description evoked images of the old Spanish colonial architecture and layout I’d experienced in the Mediterranean.
I found some images on the internet and then went to scout it. From the moment I arrived, I knew I wanted to shoot there. There’s a quaint way of Spanish life in that town that isn’t found in the states anymore. It was the perfect location and tonal setting for the film, the characters and the crew to soak up.”
Ruben was very specific about the locations he used. “We literally walked from doorstep to doorstep, asking people
if we could see their homes. The people in that town were extremely generous. The interior location in the short was found two days before we were set to begin shooting.
Midway through the shoot, we almost lost the location because of a family squabble!
It worked out in the end. Even though the building was in disrepair, you could still see the beauty in it.” There is definitely a certain style to the film as seen by the crisp whiteness of the sailor’s uniform and the ingénue’s pink dress. Against the exotic colors of the town, La Primavera is very visually rich, and pleasing to the eye. Ruben agrees, “The old Spanish colonial architecture and the rich colors in the costumes play a large role in creating certain time and place. Also, the beauty of the film is meant to tonally juxtapose the melancholic nature of the narrative… the sweet to the bitter so to speak.”
Ruben recalls that it was, in fact, very difficult to cast the female lead. Ruben had very specific requirements. Unable to cast the part in California, Ruben finally found a well-known casting director in Mexico City, who loved his script and who suggested Marisol Centeno. Marisol is a 19-year-old veteran of Spanish TV shows (La Pícara Soñadora and Agujetas De Color De Rosa.) Ruben finally found what he was looking for: someone who was actually 19 and who had that “unbridled enthusiasm of a 19-year-old…that ‘ je ne sais quoi’ in her eyes.”
Ruben shot the 19-minute short in 35 mm on location in two weeks. He filmed on 35 mm on an Arriflex BL-4 with Primo lenses. There were lots of issues with filming in Mexico. “Most problems were with the customs,” remembers Ruben. “There were problems with shipping stuff, and tariffs I had to pay! In the end, I had rented a lot of film and lighting equipment from Mexico City, and unfortunately, that meant we had to deal with very old equipment! We lost about a third of our footage to light flicker from an un-calibrated generator. That was a real big problem because we just didn’t have the financial resources to go back and re-shoot. This also got us going down the digital intermediate route – in order to try and remove whatever flicker we could from the selected shots used. We ended up recording sound on a DAT recorder and for the most part that was really pristine. We actually ended up using quite a bit of wild sound recorded on location in the final mix.”
When the shoot was finally complete, Ruben had shot 30 rolls of Kodak SO85 film stock.
It took about a year and a half to edit and do post on a Final Cut Pro HD system. Ruben had actually maxed out his units at UCLA, and wasn’t allowed to enroll for post anymore. In the end, he had to stop working on the film, and get a job to pay the bills, and raise money to finish it.
His hard work paid off. La Primavera went on to win the UCLA Festival Directors Spotlight award, and the Hampton International Film Festival (Best Graduate Student Film). It recently showcased at the 2006 IFP market, in New York. Ruben is currently working on the feature script of La Primavera.
Ruben proudly comments, “The film really is the little engine that could. There were crew, casting, location, weather, financial, footage, and post issues that threatened to undermine it – but they all seemed to have a remedy just when it looked most dire. It is a testament to the talents of everyone involved, from pre-production through production and into post production, that it not only was finished, but that it’s been so well received.”
View trailer from Ruben Obregon’s La Primavera at the StudentFilmmakers.com Filmmakers Showcase:
Jake Lovell is a freelance writer based in Houston. With a background in theater arts and science, her articles offer a unique perspective on her subjects. She can be contacted at www.jacquelinelovell.biz.