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Michael Cuenca: “Film is a gateway into other dimensions”

Film is a gateway into other dimensions… other worlds… other cultures. I’m a big foreign film fan. As far as I can remember. You can time hop to feudal Japan by visiting a Kurosawa or Mizoguchi flick. You open up your experiences and get out of your box a little. I mean, the whole world […]

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Film is a gateway into other dimensions… other worlds… other cultures. I’m a big foreign film fan. As far as I can remember. You can time hop to feudal Japan by visiting a Kurosawa or Mizoguchi flick. You open up your experiences and get out of your box a little. I mean, the whole world isn’t just cheeseburgers and corn dogs, you know? Have some pad thai, have a samosa, eat some arroz con pollo! We, as human beings, all can be neurotic, all have fears, all have fallen in love or have our share of disappointments, it’s not just segregated to one color of skin or race or sexual orientation. It’s important to diversify to educate and blur the lines… this illusion that’s been created around us.


As a part of our interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Cuenca, a Cuban-American, self-taught, award-winning writer and director. He shoots and produces many of his projects on micro-budgets in Los Angeles, CA. He is now working on the vignette series THE BOYS ABOUT TOWN and the neo-noir anthology movie LIKE A DIRTY FRENCH NOVEL.

When not making movies, Cuenca releases music under his “dark-alternative” projects SOME DAGGERS WEAR RED and occasionally DIGNITARY.

Cuenca’s growing body of work centers around the theme of personal identity with a doze of slapstick absurdity. His biggest influence are the Kuyavians, who invented cheese sometime around 5000BC.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up as the youngest out of my siblings, as a total after-thought — my brothers were getting hitched around the time I was born. My parents didn’t speak any English and they had already raised my brothers, so I was propped in front of a television and learned to pick things up that way (my kindergarten and 1st grade classes were designed for non-English speaking kids). Cartoons and movies were total escapism for me. And I wasn’t much of a sports fan. My eldest, full-blooded brother, seeing this — who was this fanatical baseball card collector, also collected comic books — took me to my first comic book convention, this small gathering at a mall, and from then on I become obsessed with storytelling.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

The ability to move someone with a story: be it making them laugh, making them feel frightened, transfixed, in suspense, it’s pretty amazing. And film is the ultimate media to manipulate those senses. It’s like the next step up from being a magician.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I have a slew of those… but I don’t know if there’s a top-tier one. Although this one was fun — we were shooting scenes for the 4th episode of “Oblivion”, which was my total DIY punk rock web series that I was making with friends. Back in 2010. We were shooting somewhere in the Valley, out on the streets, this is actually the first time I had met my good friend and long-time collaborator Joey Halter (he played the lead in my first flick: Jerry Powell). We need to find this indoor location to shoot, right? And I didn’t have any money. It’s a total rag-tag production. But up the street there’s this restaurant called Vitello’s. And it’s the restaurant Robert Blake had gone to with his wife before she was murdered. I thought that would be a cool spot to shoot at. The crew (aka my friends) are all gathered around this lady in a nearby parking lot that says that she can totally get us in there to shoot, “No problem.” I near the lady and then someone turns to me and goes, “You recognize her?” And I’m squinting, looking at her and I go, “Uhhh…” She looks rather familiar. And then it hits me and I go, “Jerry’s mom!” And it’s Liz Sheridan! She played Jerry Seinfeld’s mom on Seinfeld. And she goes, “Well most people recognize me from ‘Alf’!” She ends up asking me to hop in her car and is gonna drive me to Vitello’s so we can talk to the owners. And then she tells me all these stories about James Dean and how she had been dating him before his fatal crash and had written a book about the whole thing. I’m sitting in her car, listening to her stories, and it was incredibly surreal.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started I was a pretty bad director. I’d be like, “Can you give me that angry, but happy?” “Can you slow the delivery down, but pick up the pace?” Awful! I’m not into self-help books, but this one actually gave me some clarity — in the first episode of Oblivion I’m sitting on a couch, reading through this book I’m referring to and it’s called “Directing Actors”.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve been working on a feature called THE BOYS ABOUT TOWN. We started shooting it in 2018, right before I started working on my last flick I’LL BE AROUND. It’s about the friendship between these two music (and sex) obsessed early twenty-year olds that are

total polar opposites. And I’m showing them age in real-time via vignettes, and how their friendship dissolves during that time period. We’ve even had to throw in quarantine into the mix. It’s sort of my Godard and Truffaut, French New Wave tribute. It’s very fun and self-aware.

I’m currently in pre-pro on a sort of anthology movie. Or my idea of an anthology movie, since I’m not a big fan of those. It’s these neo-noir (and weird) short films that are connected to form a feature. That’s called LIKE A DIRTY FRENCH NOVEL, and it’s an idea I’ve had for over twenty-years.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Film is a gateway into other dimensions… other worlds… other cultures. I’m a big foreign film fan. As far as I can remember. You can time hop to feudal Japan by visiting a Kurosawa or Mizoguchi flick. You open up your experiences and get out of your box a little. I mean, the whole world isn’t just cheeseburgers and corn dogs, you know? Have some pad thai, have a samosa, eat some arroz con pollo! We, as human beings, all can be neurotic, all have fears, all have fallen in love or have our share of disappointments, it’s not just segregated to one color of skin or race or sexual orientation. It’s important to diversify to educate and blur the lines… this illusion that’s been created around us.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

If it makes you happy, keep doing what you do. As an indie (and unknown) filmmaker, it’s a lot of work for very little reward. So just make sure that you’re finding the best type of satisfaction that you can within the restrictions that you have. In my case? Not having a real budget…

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

That’s a tough one ’cause most of them have parted from this world: Joe Strummer, a younger Dylan. But probably Jim Jarmusch or Richard Linklater. Actually, number one would be Jack Nicholson.

How can our readers follow you online?

I have a tumbler I occasionally write on: www.mikecuenca.tumblr.com, but I’m active daily on Letterboxd, publishing publicly my personal film diary (https://letterboxd.com/mikecuenca) and I’m active on Instagram: www.instagram.com/mikecuenca_

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!


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