NewFest: ‘What It Was’ Director Daniel Armando on representation and truth in LGBT films

In Daniel Armando’s multilayered feature film debut, Adina, a successful Latina actress, returns to New York in the aftermath of her sister’s death and her marriage’s collapse. Unable to face her mother, she finds herself in a fog, drifting through the days. Memories dissolve into the present as she tumbles through a series of intense, complex connections with a sexy, butch body artist, a young college student, and a former girlfriend. With confident directing, assured performances, and intuitive editing and cinematography, What It Was masterfully conveys the emotional textures of Adina’s waking dream of a life. The film screens as part of NewFest 2014, and Armando answers a few questions about his latest work.

What It Was  
Daniel Armando | USA | 85 min.

Responses by Daniel Armando:

On making his first feature film...

I approached my executive producer Dane Joseph about developing and directing a feature. We had worked on a short film—Boys Like You—previously and I really enjoyed the process of putting it together and seeing it come to life. After the short film, I really wanted to do something bigger. He encouraged and pushed me to write as much as I could and to make it personal. Even though I decided to write What It Was from the perspective of a woman, she shares a lot of my background in terms of Latin culture, religion, and family. For me, throwing in those personal elements with the exploration of sexuality and identity, which I have always been interested in, seemed like something I felt could visually be told in a tragically beautiful way.

On being true to oneself...

Proclaiming you are queer is proclaiming your truth, and the truth isn't always sunshine and lollipops. With most of the characters in the film, the process of figuring out what your "truth" is can be a very lonely experience, especially when religion, family, and culture come into play. Those are some of the themes prevalent in the LGBT community. For our main character Adina, her struggle to find herself sexually leads her to different identities. For certain individuals in the community, proclaiming who you are can either save you or destroy you.

On effective time management...

A challenge in making What It Was was time, as is always the case. We shot What It Was in the span of 12 days, with each being full 15-hour days. My incredibly talented cinematographer Ryan Balas is used to working fast and pushing for more creative ways to light and shoot a scene, so for me the challenge was to create a world for the actors and crew to play in and continuously move around without stopping. Communication is key and the more I was clear on what I wanted, the faster we could get it done. 

Also, time is money. My producer and I were able to come up with a decent budget that was manageable and easy for us to raise on our own without having to resort to crowdfunding. For us, it's cheaper to produce character-driven stories as opposed to car chases and explosions.

On voicing the underrepresented...

While writing and conceiving What It Was, I stumbled upon Céline Sciamma's Tomboy. The themes in that film were similar to the themes I was putting into What It Was. It's a very quiet film that follows its main character and explores the world they live in. I enjoy films that wander throughout space and have characters that are simply living. I would say that I am first and foremost a lover of films and appreciate different genres of film. Right now I especially enjoy developing stories that feature LGBT people of color. A lot of my favorite films don't feature characters like this, and I feel I have a responsibility as an artist of color to tell everyday stories from a perspective rarely seen.

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