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[Fantastic Fest '22] An interview with Juan Felipe Zuleta about 'Unidentified Objects', perspective, and escapism

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[Fantastic Fest ’22] An interview with Juan Felipe Zuleta about ‘Unidentified Objects’, perspective, and escapism

Talking about a cosmic road trip movie that remains down to earth.

Unidentified Objects takes the standard road trip movie adds an out of this world premise and tells a grounded story. It sounds like the recipe for a muddled story, but director Juan Felipe Zuleta puts together a film that deals with themes and characters audiences can relate with. Zuleta spoke with AIPT about the importance of casting, his love or road trip movies, and being authentic.

AIPT: What was the inspiration behind the story?

Juan: Two things. I think from early on, I knew I wanted to tell or explore a character who was a little person as a lead, because their experience was something that I found fascinating in how they there’s been massive progress in cinema when it comes to representation, but very little progress when it comes to little people representation. Really Peter Dinklage is the only little person out there who’s playing complex three dimensional characters, but there’s no one else. 

So, I just said, from that perspective, it’s fascinating. Also from watching a few little people actors in cinema, I know there’s a wide pool of incredibly talented actors. And two, it was a script that I think came from the universe to us, Leland and myself, once COVID hit. I think that was because a lot of people were going through a lot of depression, loneliness, a lot of things that were happening at the peak of COVID. I was in New York city alone in my apartment for months, locked down.

A lot of these elements together, thematically, for me. I’m an immigrant from Colombia, so a lot of these things together just allowed me to make an exploration on identity through this character. And that’s how it came to be and there’s a sense of escapism. We wanted to literally leave our houses and go out there and discover the world. So, a lot of it, I think you have to put it into the context of the world and how the pandemic influenced and changed the world and in so many ways. The story was there, in our heads, our notes and stuff, but that was the catalyst that pushed it forward.

AIPT: You mentioned escapism. The premise is really fantastic, but at its core, it’s a road trip movie. What do you think it is about trip movies that appeal to audiences?

Juan: I think, one, the sense of the unknown. Two, the sense of adventure, of going places that you don’t know where you’re going. There’s always going to be something at the next stop, something’s going to happen. So, that allows you to stay on the road.

And also, I think the road trip films are, for the most part, a great exploration of character and growth, they are literally and metaphorically, a journey in itself. So I think it’s a very clean structure for character development and for character pieces, especially when you have few characters.

In our particular case, for many reasons, a road trip movie was a perfect genre. One, because we love road trip movies, Y tu mamá también and Little Miss Sunshine are amongst my favorite movies ever. So, I tonally stole from those two, but also just the fact that we were a small movie, we couldn’t have a big cast. There’s so much in it, crossing borders, our characters live in limited spaces so they don’t belong anywhere. So just traveling through the road, it’s just a metaphor for all of that.

AIPT: The plot is out of this world, but the story is grounded. How important was it for you to have authenticity?

unidentified objects

Juan: Massively important. That, for me, is everything. I think, no matter where you go with a plot, I need to care. The stories I care about have to have a soul, have to have characters that are emotionally charged and truth and honest characters, who are going through something in their lives and that when you hear them and when you see them, you can connect to them at an emotional level.

For me, that’s one of the most important things in cinema, and the movies that accomplish that are amongst my favorite. If you watch a movie like Arrival, for example, which is very different from Unidentified Objects, but it’s a movie that is very grounded in reality, very emotional. About this mother having these visions and in some ways also dealing with grief and dealing with her own problems. But it still has a grounded quality to it, as opposed to Mars Attack, which is completely different, very out there, science fiction comedy, more of that school of character first.

AIPT: You mentioned with road trip movies, there’s development and there’s some of that to this movie, but would it be fair to say that this is really Peter’s story?

Juan: Yes. I would absolutely say it is, in some ways. That being said Sarah plays a pivotal role, but we’re definitely seeing the world through his eyes. And in fact, some people have brought this up to me and we did talk about this, but in some ways you could say Winona… I’m not saying that’s what it is, but you could say, Winona’s almost a vision of Peter.

It’s almost like it’s coming with his pill dreams. It’s coming with his identity. It’s almost this thing that he’s creating, this mirage that he’s seeing in the desert that is keeping him alive or keeping him going forward. But obviously that’s not what it is, but that’s what she represents as well. So, definitely. And most of the perspective in the story suits.

AIPT: Were you worried that audiences would have trouble accepting Peter? He’s very abrasive at times. Were you worried that he might turn off some audiences?

Juan: I was aware he turns off some audiences and that’s how the world is. Nobody’s going to like everyone. I think people who can relate with him and people who can understand him or stick with him enough, past the 30 minutes, they can understand this pain and understand where he’s coming from. And everybody has felt pain at some point in their lives, and grief at some point in their lives.

So once you pass that, once you pass the first layer, which is the confrontational protective layer that some humans, and everybody at some point has, which is like, you don’t want people to talk to you or you don’t want people to invade you and you don’t want people to get in your space and you’re abrasive with them. Once you pass that, you can see through that and see the humanity. And that, at the end of the day, that conflict was very important to me. So I understand the risk of making a character that is unlikable, but I also think that’s important.

AIPT: The chemistry between Sarah and Matthew was really good. Did that come about naturally or did you really have to work at it?

[Fantastic Fest '22] An interview with Juan Felipe Zuleta about 'Unidentified Objects', perspective, and escapism

Juan: So casting is everything for a director. Any director who’s ever made a movie is going to tell you that. Casting is the most important element in any film. So for me, I was incredibly precious of that process, as precious as anybody can be. I was taking all the care in the world to make sure I found two characters who are going to play well together.

I spoke with [Sarah] and I needed to make sure that we were in the same wavelength and that they could be in the same wavelength. Once I knew that both characters could coexist in the same universe and be compelling, and that happened very quickly early in the process.

I knew they were going to work. Once that happened, from that point on, it was building our common ground, our language and how we were going to communicate about the characters. It was building trust to make sure that they could go where they needed to go and knew they were in a safe space to do so. Because I directed this movie when I had turned 26 years old. So an actress like Sarah Hay, d she’s a Golden Globe nominee, and she’s never worked in a small indie before.

In order to be vulnerable and to truly open herself for something like this, there has to be trust. Same with Matthew, and with every actor in our cast. So, my job was very much of building that through line, building that space, building that confidence in the entire team and making everybody know that we were making something singular and something that was important. 

Unidentified Objects is screening at Fantastic Fest

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