University of Miami School of Communication alumni The Meza Brothers, a.k.a. Andres Meza-Valdes, B.S.C. ’09, and Diego Meza-Valdes, B.S.C. ’09, are headed to the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to showcase Boniato, their 23-minute short horror film featuring migrant workers on a boniato (sweet potato) farm who cross borders into a supernatural world, a metaphor for the murky underground network into which many undocumented workers fall.
This is the Meza Brothers’ eighth short in the horror genre and the first they’ve co-directed with seasoned stuntman/action director Eric Mainade, who came up with the initial story concept.
Excitement was running high in December as news of Boniato’s selection by Sundance—launched by Hollywood legend Robert Redford and held annually in January in Park City, Utah—rippled through Miami’s indie film community.
“All I kept yelling was ‘No! No!,” recounts Andres Meza-Valdes, 31, about the moment he heard the official news by phone from Lucas Leyva of the Borscht Corp., an open-source collaborative funded in part by the Knight Foundation to help seed interdisciplinary collaboration and regional filmmaking in Miami.
“I couldn't believe it,” Meza-Valdes said. “I was with my parents, so they got the scoop firsthand, which is cool because it was nice to share the moment with them. Then, I called my girlfriend. You know, the important people in my life who have contributed for so many years and had to put up with the craziness and stress that come with making an independent film in Miami!”
His co-director and younger brother, Diego, 30, admits he “cried, for real” upon receiving the news. “It’s the coolest thing to happen to our career so far.”
Boniato is one of just eight short films selected for screening from January 22 to 29 in the Midnight Shorts category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. A total of 72 short films will be screened, selected from 8,712 short film submissions; 123 feature-length films were selected from 12,793 submissions.
Boniato (directed by Andres Meza-Valdes, Diego Meza-Valdes, Eric Mainade): An illegal migrant worker decides it’s time to move on from picking crops and find a better job. Little does she know, insidious supernatural forces have a different plan for her. Some borders aren't meant to be crossed.
The siblings had to wait a few weeks for the official announcement. “It was a bit of torture,” said Andres. “We even thought at any minute one of our friends was going to reveal it was all a big prank. When it became public, it felt like a sigh of relief. We called everyone: the actors (Carmela Zumbado, Felix Cortes, Alex Garay), our DP, ADs, PAs, friends, extended family, haters on the Internet. I even wrote to one of my heroes, [director/producer] Michael Bay. He doesn't know who I am, but I wanted to tell everyone who inspired and/or helped me out.”
The Boniato project—singled out for awards last year at the Diabolique International Film Festival, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Fright Night Horror Weekend, and Freakshow Film Festival—benefitted from having an experienced producer, fellow alumnus Cory Czajkowski, B.S.C. ’07, on the team. “Cory is a special dude,” said Andres. “On top of being producer, he works on the sound, and with horror/action this is so important.”
In addition, two UM Frost School of Music jazz alumni, Adam Robl, ’07, and Shawn Sutta, B.M. ’09, composed the music tracks for the film. “These guys are just A-plus talent,” said Andres. “They really helped make the whole movie feel ‘big’ and delivered a production value we could only dream of achieving.”
For those squeamish about watching horror films, Diego suggests the genre is innate in fairy tales. “Our culture has always been fascinated with dipping our toes in fear. So when people say they aren’t fans of horror, I always ask if they’ve seen Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.”
Diego explains that when shooting Boniato, the team was striving to create a plot that is more similar to the European or Asian style, where tension builds more gradually than in typical American horror flicks. “We wanted to create an entertaining horror roller coaster, using socially relevant content, driven by fantasy.” To add to the film’s intrigue, there is purposely very little dialogue during the first five minutes; then all of the dialogue is in Spanish, with English subtitles.
“We like to call it ‘theater in front of the lens,’ ” said Diego. “For Boniato, Eric Mainade brought in his amazing stunt team to perform acrobatic action, high-flying choreography, and horror sequences—but he was also making sure to give the characters true motivations, and making them feel grounded. That way, the audience cares about what they’re watching.”
Mainade came up with the original script concept while driving to a movie shoot on the small ranch he and a fellow stuntman lease amid the massive commercial fields in southwest Miami-Dade County.
“Day after day, I witness all sorts of surreal moments out in the fields—from barefoot Haitians working in horrid conditions, to little kids working all day in the elements. Every character in this movie was inspired by the countless faces in these very fields,” he said.
The Miami-based Borscht Corp. hooked him up with The Meza Brothers, and the three fleshed out the script, with a production estimate of $14,000. Borscht Corp. provided some initial financing and a few production aides, and introduced them to cinematographer Antal El Hungaro.
“Beyond that,” Mainade says, “it was a family affair, with my wife, Kristina, as the production manager; Diego’s wife, Veronica, in charge of wardrobe; as well as numerous other friends and family doing whatever needed to be done.”
After Sundance, the team plans to adapt Boniato into a feature.
As a youngster, Andres was drawn to exploring the horror genre. Diego was quick to join in his brother’s pursuit. “I’m the classic little brother who tailed after my big brother,” Diego says. “My brother and I have been directing films together for so long, it’s almost as if each of us has evolved into the counterpart of the other. He was always including me in his love, so as a brother I am forever grateful for that.”
Andres describes his younger brother as relentless, honest, and giving. “Diego is an editing machine,” Andres said. “He looks at film in a radically different way than me, and I love that. He puts the film together in his head when on set.”
Reflecting on how the School of Communication prepared them for a career in motion pictures, Andres is effusive. “Oh my God—in so many ways. Ed Talavera, Christina Lane, Jeffery Stern, Tom Musca—these professors changed our lives.”
Diego has continued his connection to the University and works as a videographer in University Communications.
This is not their first award-winning work, but it is their first time at Sundance.
“We were not expecting this at all,” said Andres. “Horror isn't the most respected of genres and after making eight shorts we've sort of made peace with the fact that a lot of mainstream outlets just aren't interested in these types of films. On the other hand, the genre also has it's own ecosystem and community that we love being a part of.”