Zaira Armendáriz was born in Mexico City but grew up in Southern California. She just received her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production with an emphasis in Directing and Screenwriting. Her next goals for her career to obtain her Masters and begin working on feature length films. She is most well known for her Thesis Film Under My Skin which has already won six awards to date, two of them being Best Student Female Director.
We had the chance of interviewing her for the November Edition 2020
[MIS] When did you start thinking about going into the craft of filmmaking?
[Zaira] Since at least the age of nine, I knew telling stories through film is what I wanted to pursue as a career. Growing up, my father and I would go to the theater every week, sometimes twice, and that really made an impact on me and made me aware of the beautiful complex craft of filmmaking.
I used to make little videos in elementary school and after seeing how much fun and fulfillment I got out of completing those videos, I knew this is what I needed to do and I haven’t looked back since.
[MIS] What are the elements that you consider are responsible for a “great” film? And which film inspired you the most?
[Zaira] You know you experienced a “great” film when you can feel the passion in it. When each department pours their soul into a project because they believe in the story, it really shows on screen. Filmmaking is a team effort. There must be unity and respect among creatives and a film’s success can be transmitted through that. When I was younger, I used to love watching the original horror films of the 40’s. I loved the creativity of these monsters and how they executed them on screen, and that began my intrigue of working on horror and thriller films.
[MIS] You recently wrote and directed the short film “Under My Skin”, from where did you get inspired?
[Zaira] This is one of my favorite questions I get asked about creating “Under My Skin”! This film was all originally inspired by a Frank Sinatra song called “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. While listening to this song, it dawned on me that the tone of the song is very upbeat and jazzy but the lyrics could be interpreted in a dark way. When Cole Porter originally wrote this song, he changed the meaning of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from being irritated to going crazy about a woman. In my own twisted little way, I wanted to push that concept even further. For the past 5 years before completing the film, I envisioned having this song play during the climatic scene in my film. Due to copyrights issues, it wasn’t financially feasible to buy the rights, so instead the talented composer of this film, J.M. Quintana Camara, and I decided to create an original song and score instead.
[MIS] What was it that you wanted to say with this specific story?
[Zaira] I knew I wanted to open up discussions on mental health when creating this story. As the main character Matthew (played by Matthew Brady) deals with mental health, and is navigating how to be “normal” while still being himself, I wanted to touch on the real struggles that mental health disorders can have on people. I wrote Matthew to be a relatable college student because there are so many young adults who on a daily basis are in need of help. While this film is a thriller and has exaggerated themes, I hope it allows for more of an honest discussion on Mental Health and how dark and severe it can be. For the premiere of the film, I also brought on a licensed psychiatrist to discuss this theme and the realities of it.
[MIS] How was the writing process like for “Under My Skin”?
[Zaira] Writing this script was a completely different journey from my other projects. I originally only had the very end of the film written up to be based on the Frank Sinatra song, but I was challenged by my wonderful professor to make it a story and not a scene. I knew I didn’t want to sacrifice anything about the ending so I had to write completely backwards. As I was getting into character bios and writing Matthew’s character, I first needed to figure out his motivation, his background and history, and the defining moment of what drives him to the edge. Writing this script was such a great experience and loved every moment of creating this story!
[MIS] What were the obstacles you faced during the shooting?
[Zaira] The very last day of shooting this film was literally the night before California instituted the stay at home orders and began quarantining. While seeing the trend of quarantines taking place in different countries while in production of the film, I knew I had to plan accordingly in case we would be in the same situation. This caused some rescheduling and creative problem solving to ensure we would finish production of this 40 minute film in six weeks. I can honestly say I would not have been able to be here today having this interview if it wasn’t for my fantastic cast and crew. Everyone did their absolute best and worked incredibly hard to make sure we had all the shots we needed before the pandemic really hit us.
[MIS] What is your preferred Scene and why?
[Zaira] While it’s a very short scene, I really loved filming the concert hall dream sequence when Matthew takes Lisa (played by Christina Tinde) to see the live jazz trio playing. The colors of the room really give the feel of the mood I wanted to portray and having the jazz trio playing a track from the original score of the film gave the scene life. I also loved filming all of the day dream scenes in the film because it really allows the audience to get a glimpse inside Matthew’s head vs reality.
[MIS] What did you enjoy most while directing “Under My Skin”?
[Zaira] What really gives me joy when directing films is being able to collaborate with so many talented creators. Filmmaking allows you the opportunity to work with others and create new professional relationships. Being able to direct my cast was one of the more fulfilling aspects of this film.
They all took ownership of their role and brought their character to life. I take pride that I provide a space on my sets where my cast can feel comfortable to provide input and ideas while executing a scene when I see fit. I allow them to make their role as much as their own as possible and see their talent radiate on screen!
[MIS] The Ending was a well-done twist! Was there a different ending?
[Zaira] That scene was the most difficult to execute when filming! When we shot the ending it was written to be more of a direct twist, but once we looked at the footage that we were able to get, it made more sense to cut it the way we did. I actually really enjoy the ending much more now because it leaves the twist a bit ambiguous and the audience is left to decide if it’s reality or not.
[MIS] How was the casting done, and did you have any prior experience with the actors and actresses chosen?
[Zaira] I used the casting website Backstage for the first time and I really enjoyed that experience. I posted my project, included my script so actors could get a sense of the film and within 24 hours we had already over hundred submissions. My brother (casting director) and I went through every single portfolio for a few weeks and eventually held our auditions via FaceTime or Skype with the actors we believed fit the roles best. It was my first time working with all the actors (two who are SAG-AFTRA) who played bigger roles in the film, butI certainly know it won’t be the last.
[MIS] Do you have any story to tellus that happened during the shooting of “Under My Skin” ?
[Zaira] Some of my favorite on set memories of this film happen to all take place when we filmed the library scenes. During the encounter of Michael (played by Edward Hoke) and Matthew, we had less than thirty minutes to get what we needed before security kicked us out. This scene is one of the more intense ones and demonstrates Matthew’s inner dialogue/fantasy with Michael. With each new take we did, Matthew Brady brought on more intensity when attacking Michael. During the last take, Matthew’s delivery was so much louder and aggressive that security was finally fed up with us and made us leave! It was all worth it though because that take is what we ended up using in the film!
[MIS] What is the best advice you’d share with new filmmakers?
[Zaira] Prepare and Complete. Any “filmmaker” can start new projects, but only the dedicated and talented ones finish them. Enjoy the pre-production process, get involved and plan out every nitty, gritty detail of your story. You will thank yourself later when you realize how much of your preparing and planning saved you headaches and mistakes when in production. As my professors have told me, which now I take to heart: “One of the most difficult things indie filmmakers can do is complete a film.” If you are fully committed and finish your story from beginning to end, that is something to be proud of.
[MIS] Any final thoughts at theend of this interview?
[Zaira] It has been very exciting for my cast, crew and I to see the recognition this film has already received to date. We all worked incredibly hard to bring this story to life and I look forward to seeing what else is in store for this film. It has also been really badass and an honor to be able to represent minority female filmmakers as well, especially as this film is a thriller and that genre is mostly tackled by men.