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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Rafael Monserrate ("Peel" Director/Producer) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Peel
, directed and produced by Rafael Monserrate, is a delightful surprise of a film. An offbeat coming of age tale told with an insightful eye and a collection of terrific performances. Emile Hirsch plays the title character, a young man exposed to a larger world when his mother passes away. When Peel was just a very young boy, his father had left the family and taken Peel’s two brothers with him. Shielded from the world, Peel’s childlike innocence is unprepared for the realities of the world, but Peel is undeterred. He wants to search for his brothers, who he has not seen in more than 20 years, and to understand why they left, and he stayed.

Peel’s journey to understand what happened and to find his family is an endearing one. Humorous, dramatically enriched, and engagingly offbeat, Peel manages to explore who he is through the world that interacts with him, avoiding mockery and melodrama on its way to something sweet but earned and real. Superb independent filmmaking that comes highly recommended.

Working with an intriguing story and a very strong cast, Monserrate, who has spent time as an actor and, more heavily, as a producer on documentary and reality-style television series such as Alone, Naked and Afraid, and Ivory Wars, hones his directorial craft to build an intimate world for Peel and those who become a part of his story. It’s a delightful film, patiently and carefully told, and never a false note.

Home Theater Forum had the pleasure of speaking with Monserrate about the film, finding the right tonal balance, securing the best cast, and more.

Peel is available from all major digital retailers to rent and own.

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HTF: I want to ask first how you came to come across the script for Peel and did you know right away that this was something that you wanted to get behind the camera again to bring to life?

Rafael Monserrate: Neil, it's a great question. It was about, geez, four years back now - I was searching for a story about families, brothers, specifically. I was looking to tell a story about sort of where we find our connection, where we find our tribe to family, whether it's blood or not. But specifically, I was looking to brothers, and hopefully for something about brothers who had been estranged or who had re-found each other. I cast a wide net in all different kinds of websites and all different kinds of sources where writers submit material. And believe it or not, I first came across Peel on Craigslist [laughter], a submission from Lee Karaim, the writer. And as soon as I read the piece, two things really spoke to me. One was the power of Peel's innocence and his ability to heal people through his purity. And the other thing that struck me is once I got to the scene with Sam, the drug-addicted brother and the one who was really struggling with what had happened with the family and had sort of run away, that scene was so powerful to me that I knew, "Okay. Here's the heart of the film, and, yes, I want to tell this story."

HTF: I loved the movie, by the way. It’s exactly the kind of movie that I don't see very much of, which is, obviously, very independent. I'm sure you shot on much less money than you wanted to, but it doesn't really come across in what I'm seeing. It's very handsomely shot, very handsomely produced, but I'm sure you put absolutely 110% of all the money on the screen. But it was a story about family and expanded family. And I like that you said by blood or not because for whatever reason, the character of Peel managed to get people in his orbit that who may be a bit rough around the edges, but at their heart, they're decent people. And in any family, you want to have people who are decent people who will look out for you, who recognize or respect or appreciate or enjoy the unique and quirky things that make you ‘you.’ And he seemed to do that. And while he searched for the blood relatives, and they seemed to have abandoned or they seem to, at first, to reject that make him ‘him,’ the ultimate story was about coming together as a family, blood and not by blood. So, it was very impressive that way.

Rafael Monserrate: Neil, that's beautifully expressed, and I think spot on for what the sort of themes and the intent of the story fully is. Beautifully said and thank you for seeing that in the film.

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HTF: Well, I think a lot of that comes to life in part the way you shot it. Of course, from the script, but in large part because you picked such a superb cast. And I'm talking the entire cast. There wasn't anybody in there that didn't feel like they weren't living the life of a character that they were on screen to perform. But I wanted to start with Emile Hirsch because I thought he was a sublime choice for Peel. He has that sort of rare, perpetual youthfulness. He never seems to age [laughter]. And he imbues innocence. Another thing I liked about his performance as Peel was that, he’s a Momma's boy, even though he says he's not, and a child that shielded could very easily have been the butt of the jokes for the film. But he never was, and you never felt like making fun of him, and you never felt like fun was being made of him. Is that something that was carefully balanced in the performance that you elicited from Emile? And I guess that's really a question about finding the right calibration. How did you find the right Peel?

“…the power in Emile's ability to connect the humanity through his eyes. In everything I'd ever seen him in, I'm always drawn in by what we see inside of him through his eyes. And I knew that was incredibly important for Peel”

Rafael Monserrate: Well, interesting. Great question. I think starting with Emile, when we met in our first meeting, I was interested in Emile because, Emile, as you've expressed, has a very youthful quality, but also the power in Emile's ability to connect the humanity through his eyes. In everything I'd ever seen him in, I'm always drawn in by what we see inside of him through his eyes. And I knew that was incredibly important for Peel because the approach was going to be one of sort of finding Peel and his authenticity and his purity through the stillness, and allowing the story and the characters around him to unfold and find each other, which is part of the theme of the story. So, one of the things Emile loved about Peel immediately is that he couldn't quite put his finger on who Peel was and what it was that was driving him. It wasn't something that hit him immediately. But he loved that because he felt that in Peel's innocent discovery, as the actor, Emile, he could sort of embody that discovery and find it. And we talked about allowing that to happen. To your point, very tight shooting schedule and not a lot of money, so we had to have a lot of conversations about who Peel was and how to find him and how to trust and allow that our instincts collectively would unfold authentically and would really sort of represent Peel in the way we were looking to.

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HTF: And how did you go about finding the rest of the cast? Was that a relatively easy process once you'd found the right Peel?

“It's a very delicate balance between the comedic parts of the film and the dramatic parts of the film. It can go many directions. It could be broad. It could be too much.”

Rafael Monserrate: In terms of the cast, we had through our casting directors-- and we really had a lot of discussion on what we were looking for. And I think in talking with the cast, and especially with Amy Brenneman, Garrett Clayton, Jack Kesy, and everyone involved, like Troy Hall, who I've known for years and is a wonderful actor, the thing we were after was authenticity, sort of an organic approach. And you said it straight away that the approach for the actors and me was to not push anything. It's a very delicate balance between the comedic parts of the film and the dramatic parts of the film. It can go many directions. It could be broad. It could be too much. It could be a little heavy handed as long as we found that authenticity within the moments and the breath of the film and the cadence of the film and the emotional life of the film. So, we found that authenticity in the humor of the film. We thought we could capture that. And all the actors were on board with that. When we had meetings in casting, what they all expressed was they connected to the fact that at one point or another, they had themselves, as we all have, felt like they didn't belong, like a misfit, like they were a little different at some points in their lives. And they liked that this film dealt with that honestly. That allowed, ultimately, people to be seen for who they were. I started as an actor and studied many years in New York, and I think what the actors would express is because I understood the craft and their language, there was a lot of trust between us and a lot of understanding of what an actor goes through, what they need, and what the process is.

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HTF: I love that you said that every one of us have sort of sought our place, or felt lost, in our worlds. I think that concept really came alive for me in the film when Chuck's character (played by Jacob Vargas) sends the $800 in rent money to Peel and that he'd found his calling. It was never verbally expressed that Chuck’s out there looking for his calling, but the fact that you touched on that in the film really resonates that everyone's sort of shuffling into their place in the world because they're out of sorts until they find that. And the brothers are included, clearly the drug-addicted brother. I love that really came through largely from Chuck’s action. And I have to say the balance between drama and comedy is very, very tough to do. But I feel like you nailed it, particularly when Chuck character, who speaks Spanish through the entire film with subtitles has one moment where he speaks in English, and you translate that into Spanish subtitles. I laughed out loud. I thought that was a great choice [laughter].

Rafael Monserrate: [laughter] Thank you, Neil.

HTF: Peel is a quirky film, it's got quirky elements, and it's got an unusual cadence. It's sort of a life-evolving-down-an-unusual-but-slow-river feel to it. Was that something that you were particularly cognizant of when you were framing it? Was that on the page, or was that something that you really nailed down in the shooting and then, the editing process?

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Rafael Monserrate: It's a great question and incredibly insightful in terms of the process. When I first got the script, it was a little broader. It was a little big. It was a little more comedic in a certain different kind of approach, maybe sort of in a Judd Apatow type of approach, which is great but not what I was seeing in this film. This approach was more akin to, let's say, an Alexander Payne or a P.T. Anderson influence a little. But the process in terms of its slow burn, I, and many of the artists involved in this film, including the editor, sort of saw the world as a slow burn in terms of being present to what shows up. And we were very cognizant of allowing that to be.

“…the scene where Peel breaks down after his mother passes away and bangs his head against the carpet…we spoke about the scene a little bit, blocked it a little bit, and then what occurred was magic with Emile. We just let the camera just go. We just let it roll. We just let it live. And Emile, brilliantly, did take after take without any cuts, and he allowed himself to find that moment until he was truly connected and released”

So, the Director of Photography (DP), the wonderful Michael Lloyd, and I, we designed the film visually based on the very thing you just expressed, on an anamorphic lens that can capture the world around Peel with a wide lens, but also the intimacy of what he was experiencing of the world around him and the other characters. But allowing those things to unfold behind the camera. I'll give you an example, the scene where Peel breaks down after his mother passes away and bangs his head against the carpet, that scene was the first day of shooting. We spoke about the scene a little bit, blocked it a little bit, and then what occurred was magic with Emile. We just let the camera just go. We just let it roll. We just let it live. And Emile, brilliantly, did take after take without any cuts, and he allowed himself to find that moment until he was truly connected and released. And we let the breath of that moment just play. And it was the first day, and we were all very moved. That was a very specific example of our approach. Again, was it 17, 18 days we had to shoot, so very tight. But we had to trust if we could allow it, then we would find it. We wouldn't rush too much, even though we didn't have much time at all [laughter].

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HTF: One of the other things that I most enjoyed about Peel or that most connected with me was the potency of the conversations that you let play. They felt very natural. For example, when Peel first contacts the first of his brothers and you kept the camera on Peel-- because it's about Peel. We don't cut to the brother. We don't cut to the wife picking up the phone. We focus on Peel, and it unfolds in not the way that you're perhaps hoping because it's not that kind of film. Was that all on the page? Was there scene improvisation? Did you allow much of that? Talk about the organic nature of the words, not just the performance but the words that we hear in scenes like that one.

Rafael Monserrate: Oh, that's beautiful. Some of it was on the page that Lee had discovered. And a lot of it was organically discovered, again, with Michael Lloyd the DP and with the actors. What we decided to do was organically to let the camera be dictated by the moments discovered through the characters' journey, specifically Peel. Being Peel's POV (point of view), we always wanted to stay with him and only go to a character where that other character's journey or influence or reaction to Peel would be organically connected to our reaction to Peel or our experience of Peel. So, to answer your question, we very organically and very specifically wanted to stay with Peel as much as we could and his perspective and allow those moments, again, to be discovered very, very organically. We didn't want to force anything, and I personally didn't want to over-direct a moment or overproduce a particular approach to a scene. We would rehearse. We would find it. We would have many conversations about what the essence or sort of the core value of a scene or a moment was and how it informed the story and Peel's journey, specifically, and then we would sort of navigate through that. Everything was that center of Peel's journey and the two themes, which was the power of innocence to heal and finding your tribe, again, no matter blood or not.

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HTF: Let me wrap up with one last question here, and it's about the aesthetic. You filmed it in Alabama I think I saw in the credits. I live in North Carolina. I don't know if you know North Carolina.

Rafael Monserrate: I do know North Carolina. I love North Carolina.

HTF: Yeah. It's a terrific state most of the time [laughter]. But there is something about filming in the South. Alabama looked like portions of North Carolina and portions of South Carolina, and I think part of the aesthetic that some of those poorer southern state areas provide is a timelessness, a you-could-be-any-era almost. And a lot of that was supported by the more muted tones that you took with the color grading in the film as well. I don't know if you've seen David Gordon Green's excellent George Washington, a film he directed, gosh, 20 or so years or ago now…

Rafael Monserrate: Oh, really? No. I have to see it because I'm a fan. I'm a fan of David Gordon Green.

HTF: The reason I bring that up is because it was filmed one city over from where I live, about 15 minutes away. He filmed most of it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And the aesthetic, it's not exactly the same, obviously, but there was an evocation of the George Washington aesthetic. And it was, again, poorer areas of town. No, Peel starts out in the suburbs, a little nicer than a lot of what we saw in George Washington, but the muted tones and your filming locations, was there a desire to not pinpoint this down to a year or a decade necessarily?

Rafael Monserrate: Yes. Absolutely. And yes, there was. We struggled with how to do that. This wasn't necessarily to be pinned down only because Peel's magic, his ability to sort of transcend certain things and how he lives in the moment, is a timeless thing. And it was a timeless concept for us through character and through the story. And we didn't want to pinpoint it down. The only one line that does it, which was sort of needed, was the Google line by Garrett Clayton's character, Chad, "Have you ever used Google?" And so that sort of gives you a timeframe. But it was through the aesthetic, and in Alabama there is a feeling of timelessness. As you know better than I would - and the DP's from the South as well, Michael Lloyd - the lighting in Alabama is different. The natural light and how it hits that lens is different. It's got its own sort of very, very unique special quality. So yes, the muted tones sort of Alabama, it's interesting. The landscape there can be expansive, and it can be very intimate. And that was, again, right for what we were trying to do thematically. And the muted tones were part of that timeless approach, for sure.

HTF: I walked away from the film thinking, "Outside of one or two references, I don't know that I know for sure when this was set." And I love that because it means that exists in an ageless or a timeless moment. One quick final question. What is next for you?

“There's a story I'm passionate about out of Norfolk prison. It's actually a period piece in the 1940s and '50s about a progressive warden who had implemented a series of rehabilitative programs for prisoners and saw prisoners and inmates at the time as individuals who came from unfortunate circumstances, who needed to be given an opportunity to get back into society with possibilities and hope.”

Rafael Monserrate: Thank you. Great question. There's a story I'm passionate about out of Norfolk prison. It's actually a period piece in the 1940s and '50s about a progressive warden who had implemented a series of rehabilitative programs for prisoners and saw prisoners and inmates at the time as individuals who came from unfortunate circumstances, who needed to be given an opportunity to get back into society with possibilities and hope. And he implemented a progressive system against all sort of political adversaries at the time, and it was ahead of its time, including a debate team that went on to beat all the Ivy League schools in the day. It's a very powerful story, and that's what we're in development now with.

HTF: Oh, that's terrific. Well, Rafael, thanks so much for speaking with us today. It was a distinct pleasure, and all the very best with Peel. I can't wait for more people to discover it.

Rafael Monserrate: Neil, thank you so much, and thank you so much for your insight. It was wonderful, truly.
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