Spotlight Interview: Alfredo Rodriguez-Allen

Alfredo Rodriguez-Allen: Director

Freelance Filmmaker, Los Angeles CA

WFU Class of 2012

Major: Film, Cinema, Video Studies

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Alfredo Rodriguez-Allen came to Wake Forest to play for its legendary Men’s Soccer team. During undergrad he dove headfirst into another passion of his, film. Now a freelance director in Los Angeles, Alfredo walks us through his path since Wake including the realities of working in the entertainment world and invaluable lessons he’s pick up along his journey thus far.

DeacLink: How are things right now for you in the film industry?

Alfredo Rodriguez-Allen: They’re going very well! I’m on the grind of getting my own work off the ground as a director so it’s exciting. Fortunately, I’m a freelancer so I can take jobs when I need them and work on my personal projects the rest of the time. It’s a lifestyle that suits me because it allows me to go to the beat of my own drum.

DL: What’s your path been like from Winston-Salem to LA?

ARA: At the end of my junior year I knew I wanted to get into film, no question about it. Senior year I began reaching out to virtually anybody and everybody online. I used Craigslist and contacted every single posting for jobs that could guide me to directing movies or commercials in Los Angeles. Finally, a woman, Elda Bravo, replied to me after my relentless bugging, and confirmed that I could work as a PA (production assistant) for her once I graduated. I drove out to LA after graduating and was fortunate enough to crash in a spare room for a couple of months while I got my bearings in the city. My role as a PA for Elda included all sorts of odd tasks, but that’s par for the course in the entertainment racket. During this time I was constantly on the lookout for other side gigs, and was able to be a 2nd AD (assistant director) on a low budget movie, which then led me to a job as a script reader. From there, the person I read scripts for ended up hiring me as a full-time assistant at his talent management agency. I didn’t want to work on the business side, but it was massively helpful to work under him and learn the nuances of that branch of the entertainment industry. Luckily, now I’m making a living off of my own work as a freelancer, but that’s after six years of working for others whilst gaining my footing and stability in the city and in the business.

On my off time, I did a short film and a short documentary of my own. Even though I can’t stand watching the short film these days, it got into the Short Film Corner of the Cannes Film Festival. It was a pivotal moment for me and provided unbelievable exposure. I was surrounded by some of the masters I had idolized since gaining an interest in film, and although I was a part of this prestigious film festival, I realized I had a very long way to go. The experience woke me up to the realities of what it takes to be a great filmmaker and it motivated me to work even harder to pursue this crazy dream of mine! I hit the ground running after that point.

Off the back of the festival, I committed to watching 20 new movies a month, to be a true student of cinema. With streaming services these days, there’s no excuse to not watch movies all the time. I didn’t go to film school, so essentially I am working on a self-taught film education. Learning everything from theory to trade on my own has been essential to my progress toward my objective...and I still have a ways to go. If you ever think you know everything about movies, find an interview with Martin Scorsese and he’ll humble you.

Going back to the timeline; after completing those two projects, I needed to make some dough and wait for the right opportunity to continue my path towards directing. I took a job at a talent agency where I worked for Robert Arakelian, who represents “below the line” talent such as cinematographers, production designers, editors, etc. He was constantly sharing knowledge with me about his clients’ craft and the business behind it. The key to his success is that he cares about the work and that’s why he’s the best in the business. He was and is a true mentor. He added to my business education, which is crucial because you need to know how to sell yourself, your movies, and who to get to champion your work.

Robert then got me the opportunity to serve as understudy to director Fredrik Bond. As far as directing goes, the three primary categories are: film, TV, and commercials, and Fredrik is a living legend in the commercial world. I worked alongside him for three years, which was hands down the best education I could receive in this field. I traveled the world, collaborated with crews from five different continents, was connected to and worked with Oscar winners, and was learning at every turn about all aspects of filmmaking… the entire process from start to finish. I was essentially executing all of these facets myself and that was a massive learning opportunity. It was exhausting and definitely took a toll on me, but the experience set me up to go at it alone. Since April 2018, I’ve been making a living as a freelancer; directing and writing treatments as well as designing them. I’m writing my own narrative scripts and hopefully will be able to realize one of them in the near future.

DL: Congratulations on reaching this point! What is it like working freelance?

ARA: It’s fantastic. As I mentioned, I like working intensely on a job for a few days and then spending time on my own material when I’m not booked. At the moment, most of the jobs I’m getting are as a treatment writer and designer, which is a great way to keep my creative juices pumping. Getting to write and/or design for directors like Fredrik Bond, Martin De Thurah, Rupert Sanders, Harmony Korine and others is amazing. For someone like one of them to call me up and pick my brain by asking, “Hey - what do you know about Brutalist architecture in mid-60s Liverpool?” keeps me on my toes. I’m constantly teaching myself new information from all disciplines of subject matter. Through this I’m able to learn about the different creative processes. If any of these directors’ techniques speak to me, I take them and put them in my toolbox to mesh with my own. After all, as a director, I want and need to find a distinctive voice and style that I can call my own, and in this day and age, it will inevitably be influenced by those that I’ve been hired to work with. It’s great when I’m asked my opinion by these directors because I can confidently express my approach, and at times, I can also flat out disagree with their stance. The ultimate goal is to implement my unique style on my own projects with autonomy but that takes time, and I’m building toward this point little by little, slowly but surely.

DL: Let’s rewind to the Cannes experience. It’s a huge deal to get picked up by the world’s most prestigious film festival! Talk about the application process and the experience of attending.

ARA: To be clear, there are different levels of competition at Cannes. So saying I got into the festival and that’s it, would be misleading. My short film was featured in the student category (despite no longer being a student, technically!). But the application is as simple as uploading your work onto their site and they review it. If they dig what you made, you get invited… and I did. I’m not sure what the odds are but I do feel luck had a role in my selection. I’ve always been a lucky person.

DL: They do say luck is when chance meets opportunity! Either way, well done. So how does treatment writing work? This is your primary task for freelance, right?

ARA: Yes - treatment writing is hard work but it comes naturally to me… it’s so much fun! As a random and generic example, let’s say a massive company like Coca-Cola wants to make a Christmas commercial featuring snowmen. Every company has an ad agency which represents them and creates their campaigns, so Coca-Cola will call their agency describing the sort of campaign they have in mind. From there, the agency will write a deck presenting Coca-Cola with specifics; for example, the snowmen going around the world handing out the drink to everyone. Once Coca-Cola approves the concept, the agency takes their deck to three or four directors asking how they’d do it. If the director engages, they take a call to go over the agency’s deck in detail then turn to the person writing the treatment (that’s where I come in) to break down everything in their vision, from casting to cinematography and music, etc. It’s then my job to synthesize all these aspects into visuals and text, creating a treatment. This has to reflect the director’s voice and vision accurately and can either secure or lose the gig for the director. The treatment goes to the agency who select the most suitable version, and if selected, we proceed in executing the project. Fortunately, I have a good track record from writing treatments, and if you secure one job, another one usually comes from referral down the line. I personally love writing these little stories and doing the research for whatever the project requires - the fact that I get paid for it is super exciting as well!

These cats are some of the best in the business so being able to work for and learn from them is a privilege. It’s also a lot of fun because each director is so different. Fredrik has an eye for humor and fun storytelling that is second to none. Harmony’s approach focuses mainly on underbelly cultures and he has a masterful ability to make people who may be totally different feel relatable. Rupert approaches filmmaking more from the artistic side. He’s an art school grad whose medium is film. He’s an incredibly visual director, and his work is stunning. Martin’s work, meanwhile, is breathtaking, and his versatility and taste are impeccable. It also helps that they’re all really nice and cool dudes.

I love writing treatments because it allows me to continuously learn about each person’s creative process and letting it filter into mine, hoping that it develops into something original.

DL: What would you say impacted you most while studying at Wake? Did you feel prepared for the LA film industry upon graduation?

ARA: I picked up lots, purely from the variety of courses that a liberal arts education offers but also, I was fortunate to study under incredible professors such as Clay Hassler and Peter Brunette. Clay was the sort of teacher who encouraged us to just go out in the world, shoot, and then figure it out. In his course (‘Advanced Media Production’) he emphasized how there was no perfect piece of work, and you can’t be a perfectionist to the point that you hold off on doing something for fear of it not being 100 percent perfect. He didn’t care if 99% of your project was trash. He’d focus on the positive 1% and push you to keep improving. We learned basic shooting and editing skills in this class… not as much theoretical knowledge but the actual know-how and hands-on aspects of film. The theoretical aspects and all that jazz came from Peter Brunette’s classes. He was an absolute wizard when it came to theory. The films we watched in his classes blew my mind.

My process has remained similar to what Clay’s class taught - ‘throw lots at the wall and see what sticks’. I overwrite and over-research, because I believe it’s better to have more than less, and then I sift through the findings and pick out what is best and most relevant for the story, as opposed to finding the bare minimum and trying to make it work from there. People can always tell when your work is contrived.

At Wake, I engaged in a variety of disciplines. I jumped from subject to subject because so many different topics spoke to me, and I used to be insecure about the fact that I couldn’t simply focus my energy on a specific major like most other students. I’d go to the library and see peers with ten books on the same subject. Meanwhile, I had ten books on ten different subjects. Looking back now, I can see how my exploration of different fields only made me a more creative and well-rounded person. Like any other college student, I was immature, ignorant and still figuring life out, so I definitely benefited from my diverse course selection that allowed me to learn about so many topics. I can go back to my notes on Greek and Roman Comedy, or Spanish Poetry, to Economics, to Dance, to Urban Development, to Gender Studies etc., and find something that applies to a job that I may be hired for. What a younger me felt was foolish turned out to be exactly the way I should’ve been learning; gathering information about a lot of different topics that genuinely interested me. I loved that about my Wake education! Also, I have to give a shout out to the ZSR because the film library that they had and hopefully still have is phenomenal. My roommate, Sam Redmond, and I would check out movies all the time, and watching them helped me acquire a wealth of cinematic knowledge outside of class.

In another vein, my stint at Wake was also interesting because I was one of very few Latinos. Since I’ve graduated I’m sure the student body has further diversified, but during my time as an undergraduate, I was able to really embrace my individuality and identity as a Guatemalan and an American, taking pride in both.

As for being prepared for the film industry upon graduation, I’d have to say yes because I’m here now and things are fortunately going well.

DL: What resources would be useful for Wake to offer students aspiring to careers as a director? Did you feel prepared for pursuing this path upon graduation?

ARA: Wake isn’t a film school like NYU Tisch or USC. I knew I wanted to do film but I got recruited to play soccer at Wake which ultimately dictated my final choice of colleges. Although I came in with soccer as a priority, I realized during undergrad that it wasn’t going to be my future. Film took the prime spot from then on, and I dove headfirst into preparing myself before leaving Wake.

I took classes with Peter Brunette, who was a fantastic film critic. When it came to theory and knowledge of film he was unreal. Sadly, he passed away during my junior year, but learning from him was truly inspiring. Luckily, I took classes with Mary Dalton and she was another great teacher on the theoretical side. Above all though, I still think Clay’s teaching impacted me the most, even down to little stuff that helps you get your foot in the door like knowing what a gaffer does, or what to reach for when someone asks for the apple box on set. The hands-on and terminology aspects are crucial when starting out.

Anyway, I can’t fault the University for not having a better production course, because that’s not the kind of school you sign up for if you go to Wake. I learned a lot about film at Wake mainly from my determination to do so. And that’s a life lesson in itself; if you generally want to be successful, then you have to be the person who watched the movie for homework, and then watched three other films to understand that one movie better, and then watched the movie with the director’s commentary after that. Wake certainly does give you the tools, but what you do with those tools is more important than anything!

In the future I would of course love to see Wake bring in new resources like a physical production class, or even offer pop-up style workshops across the year where alumni working in film come back and teach little units. Those could be immensely beneficial and encouraging for students.

DL: How do you get your freelance gigs? Word or mouth, cold calls, applying straight online, other means?

ARA: My first jobs in LA were all Craigslist jobs. I was a real pain. I’d bug people until they gave me the job because I really wanted to work! You have to be persistent at the start and throughout, reaching out to anyone and everyone, and doing a great job when given the opportunity. Eventually it’s morphed to where most of my work comes from the word of mouth circuit. If I do a good job for somebody and was enjoyable to work with, that speaks volumes and can secure further business off referrals. Also, if people straight up just like your work, they’ll call you.

DL: What mantra do you go by, or a kernel of advice you want to impart with the readers?

ARA: Be aware that there’s always someone out there who is more talented and harder working than you. That should motivate you to work incredibly hard and sharpen the tools in your specific craft. If you want to direct, study the directors that speak to you and then study who influenced them...and then study who influenced them. If you want to be a cinematographer, don’t just watch Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki’s work, go back and learn about Nestor Almendros and Sven Nykvist, as well as Robbie Muller and their predecessors… You have to be a nerd!!

Also, be patient. Patience is an absolute virtue in this field because it’s all about the small victories. It really does take time unless you’re as naturally talented as Paul Thomas Anderson or Lynne Ramsay, and we can’t all be them. Let the small accomplishments sustain you on the path of progress. If you maintain your work ethic and stay patient, you will continue to improve. That being said, never get complacent. I could make a good living for the rest of my life from writing and designing, but my goal is to direct and I will not stop until I reach it. Don’t follow the money, follow the dream. Just be truthful to the way you intuit and head where your stock is high.

Having played soccer my entire life and for the Wake Men’s Soccer team, I often see analogies from the traits, lessons, and virtues I picked up in my sporting career and try to apply them to my filmmaking path. For instance, I’ve met a lot of cats who are way more talented than I am but they eventually quit for some reason or another. Do they love it less than I do? I think so. Then again, love and passion can’t be quantified… but it’s possible that they didn’t have the determination to succeed. You see it in sports all the time: There’s always a wunderkind with all the potential in the world who ultimately develops to nothing, and then the guy who wins the World Cup who was an average talent but worked hard day in and day out, harder than anyone else to become a champion. You have to commit to learning and working as hard as you possibly can to make progress. And you need to create your own luck, even though I admit I’m pretty lucky, I do believe that the better you are, the luckier you get. That being said, I’m well aware that there is no guarantee of success.

Another big thing... Do NOT have an ego. The best way to learn is by listening and allowing yourself to be humbled. At one point I thought I knew everything about everything, and it was detrimental for my development as a director and, more importantly, as a person. I’ve realized that, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers so eloquently put it, “the more I see, the less I know.” The more I learn about specific topics, the more I realize that I know nothing about them… but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to educate myself further. Being humble enough to know that you have much to learn is the only way to truly improve, but that’s a decision you make daily and it requires hard work. On the flip side, I’m fascinated by (and have suffered from) imposter syndrome. It’s the fear of not belonging where you are, even if you’re seeing success in that realm. Even Paul McCartney admitted in a recent interview, that as recently as five years ago he was waiting for someone to just tap his shoulder and say, ‘We’ve got you figured out - you’re a fake and a phony. You don’t belong!’ Don’t let imposter syndrome keep you from pursuing your dream with fervor. You have just as much right to try as anybody. Those who talk down to you are projecting the insecurities they have themselves. I should know because I used to do it… But I’ve learned and will keep on learning.

Last thing about film… If you commit to this life make sure you love it! If you don’t, know that someone else out there loves it more than you do and their odds of succeeding are far higher than yours. That’s guaranteed. Also, don’t join the entertainment business for the glamor. Doing it for the wrong reasons, such as a desire to be famous, is a recipe for disappointment. You may have watched TV shows or movies that romanticize the business, but it’s a tough racket full of twisted people (like any other business). You may think that you’d love to be an actor or a writer or a director, but it’s possible that you’re more in love with the idea of being one of those rather than truly doing it. All of these disciplines require you to pull up your sleeves and get down to the nitty-gritty, often times with no reward. It’s a tough business, no matter what you want to do in it. But I love it.