It’s only February, but Daniel Garcia and Rania Attieh have already had the kind of incredible year every independent filmmaker dreams of. The duo premiered their sci-fi drama “H.” at the Sundance Film Festival last month and are also nominated for a 2015 Film Independent Spirit Award in the “Someone to Watch” category.
A native San Antonian, Garcia graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1997 and went to the University of Texas at San Antonio where he earned his degree in philosophy. It’s at UTSA where he met Attieh in a drawing class. She had moved to San Antonio from Lebanon.
After making a handful of short films together in Texas, Garcia and Attieh attended graduate school in New York City — Garcia at New York University and Attieh at City College. Both graduated with their degrees in film. Their first feature, 2010’s “Ok, Enough, Goodbye” is a coming-of-age film set in Attieh’s hometown of Tripoli. The project put them in the spotlight in 2011 by Filmmaker Magazine, which named them one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”
Garcia and Attieh followed “Goodbye” with two films last year, “H.” and “Recommended by Enrique.” In “H.,” peculiar things begin to happen in the lives of two women when an alleged meteor hits their town of Troy, New York. In “Enrique,” a pair of strange narratives play out in Del Rio, Texas when an aspiring actress and a mysterious Mexican man show up in the border town — one to star in a low-budget horror movie, the other to meet someone for an undisclosed reason.
During an interview with me this week, Garcia and Attieh talked about how Enrique is loosely based on an experience they had when they were first trying to break into the industry, and why making original films is critical to them both.
See if Garcia and Attieh win the Spirit Award (and the $25,000 grant that goes along with it) when the award show airs live Saturday, February 21 at 4 p.m. on IFC. Also, make sure to check out “Recommended by Enrique,” which is screening at CineFestival on Wednesday, February 25 at 8 p.m. at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
What inspired the narrative for “Recommended by Enrique?”
Daniel Garcia: It was inspired by an experience we had working on a film in Del Rio. Neither of us had worked on a feature film before. I got a phone call from a friend of a friend who said there was a film happening in Del Rio and asked if we wanted to go and help on it. So, we did. It’s a long story, but what ended up happening was the filmmaker was a con man. He was a guy saying he was affiliated with these major studios, and he ended up conning all these people in Del Rio out of something like $100,000. It was an interesting and bizarre experience that I really think helped us move forward and shaped who we are as filmmakers.
So, you decided to go back to the scene of the crime and shoot the film there to make it more authentic?
Rania Attieh: We thought it would be great if we could go back and re-create the scenes where it actually happened. When we got there, we talked to the Chamber of Commerce about what we wanted to do. A lot of the locals really embrace the film and helped us out by giving us locations.
DG: I’ve been going to Del Rio since I was a kid to visit family. Half of my family lives there. I think we always had some idea in the back of our minds that we would go back and film something inspired by those events. When we found the time to actually do it, we jumped at the opportunity.
The film is such an original story. It feels like you made every attempt not to create something we’ve seen before.
DG: Yeah, I think we are always trying to make something fresh and original even if it’s just for ourselves. We try to surprise ourselves before we try to surprise other people. I always try to make a conscious effort not to be cliché or make choices that others have made before.
How do you think “Enrique” is different thematically to other Latino films?
DG: When it comes to Latin American culture in modern films, the stories seem to all be the same. They all deal with cliché topics like immigration, border crossing, race relations, poverty, drugs and crime. That wasn’t my experience growing up. The time Rania spent in Texas before we moved to New York wasn’t her experience either. It wouldn’t be truthful if we started writing stories like that.
RA: I think Latinos identify with a story like Enrique more because they recognize the culture.
Do you consider “Enrique” a “Latino film?”
DG: I still think it is very much a Latino film, but the perspective we’re coming from isn’t stereotypical or a pop-culture version. That is definitely something we wanted to avoid.
The two storylines in “Enrique” really never intersect. Was that the plan when you first started working on the story?
RA: The main thing we wanted to do was create a new experience for people. In other stories, everybody is waiting for these two people to meet. We didn’t want to make that film. From the very beginning we wanted to make a film about two people who have two completely different experiences.
Are you influenced by any other independent directors or writers right now? I felt a little Shane Carruth in there, but you tell me.
DG: I think our influences are very wide ranging. I wouldn’t be able to name screenwriters off the top my head. I think we’re just looking for something that’s unique and bizarrely entertaining. Even between Rania and me, we have different tastes even though they overlap on a lot of things.
It sounds like you don’t like the comparison.
DG: I mean, it’s nice to have people think that our films remind them of other directors, but I don’t necessarily think we want to be a version of previous filmmakers.
You found your lead actress for “Enrique,” Sarah Swinwood, on YouTube. Do you consider it a good resource as filmmakers?
RA: We’re big fans of YouTube. If you dig deep into it, you can find a lot of different subcultures and characters. People really put themselves out there. Sarah has a YouTube channel where she does these acting drills. We were fascinated by her for a while. Her role as the actress in Enrique fit her so well. Our latest film H. is also based on this subculture we found on YouTube of these women who take care of plastic dolls. All the research for the film was done on YouTube because it’s the only place we can get access to these women. What they say and what they think and what they want you to know about them.
With the three feature films you’ve made so far, do you think you’ve found your voice? Do you know what kind of filmmakers you are yet?
DG: I think we know, maybe, where were headed. We like to change from project to project. Our next film could be widely different from our previous films. We have three feature films now and the third one is as different from the second one as the second one is from the first one. In the future and throughout our careers, we would like to have a body of work that people look at and don’t necessarily know it’s by the same filmmakers.