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An Interview with Writer/Director Albert Acosta

We sat down with Writer/Director Albert Acosta to discuss his debut short film, (ha-ha), Acosta's foray into narrative cinema, and how his personal experiences have shaped his filmmaking philosophy.

Jeremy Lawrence
Jeremy Lawrence
November 3, 2022
4.5 / 5
INCLUVIE SCORE
4.5 / 5
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Albert Acosta is a filmmaker whose work spans commercials, music videos, and photography. His debut narrative film, a short entitled (ha-ha), in which a young man grapples with insecurities about his laugh, is premiering at film festivals around the country (and will be available to the public soon). We chat about the genesis of (ha-ha), juggling many hats as an independent filmmaker, the feature film that never was, telling endearing stories on shoestring budgets, how Acosta’s upbringing and personal experiences find their way into his artistic endeavors, inclusivity in film, and the future of the art form. More about (ha-ha) can be found on Letterboxd and Instagram.

Jeremy: (ha-ha) has been selected for a couple of film festivals. Congrats!

Albert: Thanks. We got into two festivals as of right now. We got into Tallgrass Film Festival and Indie Memphis Film Festival.

 

Jeremy: When I watched (ha-ha) for the first time, I watched it twice. One time to get the overall sense of it and then again to put some more thorough thoughts together. The first thing I want to talk about is how this came together, and how you met Zander [Torres] and Cesar [Coto] and how the project came to be.

Albert: Zander is really fun to work with and I think it definitely shows through this film, because he’s a funny guy, so I think he was able to embody the character pretty well. I met Zander through a buddy of mine in 2020, and we shot this really micro, two-minute short in the middle of a pandemic, when we were sort of feeling uninspired and unmotivated. We were forcing ourselves to go out there and create and I asked a buddy, “Do you know any actors?” and he sent me a small clip that Zander did.

Juan Wood II and Zander Torres

Juan Wood II (left) and Zander Torres (right) discussing laugh insecurities in (ha-ha).

I think (ha-ha) is his first short, like officially, as it is mine. But I think he had done some reel stuff. You know how actors just like shoot like, in the kitchen or something, and pretend they’re somewhere else or whatever? He had done something like that with this girl and immediately I thought, “Dude, this guy is good.”

He actually flew down from Santa Rosa, which is in Sacramento or San Francisco, Wine Country. I met him and I immediately just fell in love with him as an actor. I met Cesar through a different project that didn’t go through. I was casting through Facebook or Backstage and I ended up casting him and Zander and they ended up meeting at rehearsal for this project that never happened.

Jeremy: They met on an unfinished project that’s in a can somewhere?

Albert: Yeah, which is really interesting because they ended up meeting and their characters were best friends.

Jeremy: Acting best friends became real best friends.

Albert: Yeah, which is pretty incredible because the reason why I ended up casting Cesar was because Zander was already casted, and I was looking for a lead and Cesar fit the part. When we ended up doing a chemistry read with just him and Zander, it was so funny. I literally took myself off Zoom and just watched them just bullshit for like 20 minutes, and it was the funniest thing.

So, anyway, that film ended up going into the can—like, it’s in a grave somewhere, unfortunately. And they ended up reconnecting on (ha-ha) because Xander was there when we shot Cesar’s stuff. It had probably been like eight months or something. And then they ended up reconnecting and then that’s when they were like, “Dude, we should move to LA,” and the whole thing happened. They kind of feel like my children in a way.

Jeremy: (ha-ha) was written before you met either of them. Did you have the script ready to go and were just looking for people to fill the roles?

Albert: Basically, after becoming massively depressed over that other project that didn’t pan out, I was like, “I’ve got to do something….” You know how it is as an artist, when something doesn’t go right, it’s very easy to just succumb to that unmotivated feeling of like, you’re not good enough. So, I had a spark, an idea, and I ended up writing the first draft of (ha-ha) in 30 minutes. It was like seven pages. And then I was like, “This is actually funny.” So, then I started reworking it. I told Zander I had this idea. He read the script and he really liked it. And his audition tape was actually him laughing, which is really funny.

 

Jeremy: The movie feels like it’s setting up a long joke, and the punchline is Zander laughing at the end. Most of the film is about his insecurity about his laugh and when we finally hear it in the final seconds, it's glorious.

Albert: Another thing is Zander has these crazy teeth with his braces, so it just looks so good and funny. And then I ended up casting Juan [Wood II], who is a really cool dude. So, I had the two leads. And then the cutaway scene, which is Cesar’s part, when I was writing it, I was picturing Cesar the whole time, too. And it’s interesting because we had a long gap in filming and we ended up shooting Cesar’s stuff four months after our principal photography.

Behind the scenes of (ha-ha)

Behind the scenes of (ha-ha).

Jeremy: Was that just issues with scheduling?

Albert: We had a really big hiccup on day two of shooting. And as an independent filmmaker—as someone who is just starting out in film and suddenly wearing all the hats—this is the first project where I really tackled everything. And I booked the diner location for the wrong day. When we showed up on Sunday to shoot, the dude was like, “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be here yesterday.”

Jeremy: I think that’s one of the amazing things about movies is that most viewers will never know the work that goes on behind the camera. And it’s crazy, all the time and planning that goes into every shot. And then the final product, if it looks good, it looks effortless.

Being an independent filmmaker and then having to make those changes, I think that speaks to your ability to work on the fly and adapt.

Albert: At the end of the day, it ended up being a positive thing. But the project was a little rough, to be honest. The second day was a complete mess because when we got to the first location, which we booked in advance, we had some problems. I scouted the place. I talked to the lady who owns it. I told her everything that was going on. But when we show up she’s super apprehensive. She’s like, “Why are there so many people here? You said this was a small thing.” I’m like, “It is a small thing.” Literally, the crew was maybe eight people.

And then she ended up telling me, “Well, you have to get a permit.” And I’m like, “Dude, it’s Sunday, Film LA is closed. I told you it was a student project. We don’t have money for permits.” And one thing that was really weird was that she’s like, “Yeah, I know you people. I know that you’re not going to be quiet.” It was insane. She was being mildly racist.

Jeremy: Definitely leaning a little racist there for a minute.

Albert: She was basically like, you can’t use my house, but if you want to hang out in the backyard and figure out whatever you need to figure out, you can. But as things happen, and whatever I did right in life, we got really lucky. One of the Production Assistants got on his phone and start making calls. And his buddy had the perfect house. We ended up just pulling up to Hollywood, shot for like an hour, and the location was 1,000 times better.

The film's cast and crew filming on set

The film's cast and crew filming on location.

Jeremy: It does sound like a huge learning experience, especially as your first narrative film. Not to bring up dead ghosts, but was your other film, the one that never made it, also a narrative?

Albert: That was actually going to be a feature. And we were going to shoot it in Mexico. A lot of stuff was lined up. I had already gone to Mexico. I had scouted and figured out where we were shooting, for the most part. It was a very, very ambitious project.

Jeremy: SoCal is just a hop, skip, and a jump over the border, but a feature set in another country, that’s a big undertaking, especially coming from music videos, which is what you were working in before.

Albert: Yeah, it was music videos and commercial work. But not like major commercials. I did a lot of these really small productions for Nike. The budgets were nice, but it was very small-scale stuff. There wasn’t really any talent involved. Not a lot of moving pieces on production day, just a lot of pre-production. But I never had to really handle that stuff. I had producers doing that.

 

Jeremy: Have you always wanted to be a director? I peeped your Instagram and I saw the arc of photography to concert coverage to film. (I saw you photographed Chicano Batman, which is sick. I saw them in New York.) I’m curious about your entrance into the film world and how you’ve gone from photography to music videos to narrative cinema.

Albert: It’s been a matter of happenstance, almost. Basically, I never really cared about film. I think everybody loves going to the movies, and it’s a good time. And we all watch movies, and we love entertainment, but in terms of film, I was very out of touch with that stuff growing up. Our family was really more into video games.

We had a lot of Blockbuster nights. Most of the time, we would watch whatever my dad would rent, and he mainly watched action films and rom-coms. I was very out of touch with a lot of pop culture stuff. In 2016 I randomly felt like I wanted to buy a camera. And then I started shooting stuff every day. I fell in love with the art of photography at first. And then I had a buddy of mine who was doing concert photography. And he was like, “Dude, you have to get into this, this is really dope.”

At the time, I was making little videos. I did, like, a 45-day thing where I made a vlog every single day on my Instagram. I would shoot all day, and I would edit for four hours every night, then I would post it the next morning. I did it every day.

And I just fell in love with video more than anything. I wasn’t really into film. So, then I got into concert stuff because that homie, he would just hit me up and he’s like, “Hey, dude. I actually can’t go to this show that I’m booked for. Do you want to take my spot?” And I said, “Fuck, yeah, dude.” I started going down that rabbit hole of the concert stuff.

I was doing all the stuff for free, by the way. It was basically me trying to get my foot in the door somewhere. I would email 10 or 15 managers every night, basically saying, “I want to shoot your artist for free.” I ended up getting in the door like that and shot Chicano Batman in Los Angeles somewhere. Carlos, the guitar player, ended up DMing me a few weeks later. He’s like, “Hey, I saw the photos that you took of us. Do you want to shoot for us at Tropicalia?”

Jeremy: I went to Tropicalia the last year before the pandemic. Must have been 2019.

Albert: I shot 2018. Chicano Batman was the first artist who ever paid me. They actually brought me in and I got an all-access pass. I was in their trailer and it was nuts. It was this fucking surreal moment. And then from there, I actually got around pretty well in a very short amount of time. I think in one year, I had shot maybe 15 or 20 concerts. Tyler the Creator, I shot him twice. A$AP Rocky. Chief Keef, I shot him twice, at The Observatory in Orange County.

Because of the concert stuff, I ended up getting hired by this one rapper, and I shot my first music video. Someone else saw the video, hit me up, and I started working with them. And then the ball started rolling. And then in 2019, I got hired by an agency that works for Nike, Oakley, Converse, and all that stuff. And I ended up working with them full-time. So, I left the whole freelance space and music video stuff behind and worked at this agency until the pandemic.

There’s actually one really important thing I forgot: In 2018, I got hired randomly to work on a feature film as a Production Assistant. It was a half-a-million-dollar budget and 19 days of shooting where I was a P.A., pretty legit. And it was the most incredible experience.

Jeremy: You can really feel the energy, hustle, and grind on a big budget set, with everyone working towards a common goal when the stakes are high. It’s very singular, for sure.

Albert: It was very singular. And we had 16, 18-hour days sometimes. And I fell in love with that grind. When I saw what the producers and the directors were doing, I was like, “Damn.” Even at that time, I had directed some projects with medium-sized budgets, like $8,000 to $10,000 music videos. But the narrative stuff just looked so much more gratifying. When people shoot music videos, it’s always like, let’s try to make it look like a movie. Let’s try to tell a story about a certain thing. That’s a very common approach. But it’s very hard to accomplish that, especially when you’re working with a bunch of visions coming from different people like the manager and the artist, and then you end up just shooting a rap video around a pool with 10 girls shaking their asses.

I literally had this $10,000 budget video shoot, and they had me send them two treatments. And they were what I felt was really good in terms of a story. And then they were like, “hey, you know what? We’re just having the artists make the treatment.” So, then I think “Okay, whatever, I’m getting paid.” But then when I got the artist’s treatment, I’m like, “Really? Another one of these? Okay, fine.”

Jeremy: That makes me think of the infamous Young Thug music video for his song “Wyclef Jean.” He pitched the concept and then on the day of shooting he didn’t show up for his own music video, so the director shot everything without him up in the Hollywood Hills and included all these placeholders as a joke, alongside notes on what Young Thug wanted in the video.

Albert: Yeah, I’ve seen that. It’s super funny because that’s true. But they made it so unique because if the rapper would have been there, whether it was intentional or not, it would have looked like just another music video.

 

Jeremy: Were music videos the catalyst to inspire your jump to narratives?

Albert: That was one of them. The second one was when I met my boss at the agency. When I met him, the first piece of advice he gave me was like, “If you want to be a good director, you have to consume as many movies as possible, read as many books as possible, listen to as many different genres of music as possible.” And I really took that to heart, so I started watching a lot more movies.

And what really made me fall in love with cinema was watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 35-millimeter. It was the first movie I’ve ever seen on 35-millimeter film. Something about that movie…it was just the perfect time because it was about Hollywood and how beautiful it was. And the story was just incredible, especially with the Sharon Tate stuff.

That movie made something like a gear turn in my head. And then from there, I went fucking crazy. This has been my slowest year but since 2019, I’ve watched about 250 movies a year. I got married earlier this year, so my movie count kind of went down.

Jeremy: Congrats. Awesome.

Albert: Thank you.

Jeremy: I hope she likes movies as much as you do.

Albert: She actually kind of does. It’s great. I’ve watched a lot of older stuff. Foreign movies, I don’t watch a lot of them. But I’ve gotten pretty deep into horror. This movie called Deep Red, it’s an old Italian film. Insane f*cking movie. The sound is great. And then there’s another Dario Argento movie called Suspiria. I have my favorites of really big guys like Alfonso Cuarón. I f*cking love his work.

I guess long story short, to put everything in a capsule, I felt like I fell into film a little bit by accident because I never allowed myself to explore different types of cinema. And then when I did, I realized how deeply impactful certain cinema is. I don’t feel like I’m the same person from three or four years ago. When you fall in love with certain things, it changes your perspective.

Jeremy: I personally think it’s the ultimate art form. The best film can be all kinds of art mixed into one. It’s a multi-sensory kind of thing, even if it has its limits. It’s visuals and audio at its base, but what can be done with those two tools alone is almost infinite.

Albert: For sure.

Jeremy: And I’ve definitely had those experiences as well, where I’ve seen the right movie at the right time and been changed fundamentally.

I can think of the books and the movies that made me want to get into writing and working with movies. I think it’s very important to have those moments. I feel like people who love movies always have one or two movies that they pinpoint as crucial to their evolution.

With (ha-ha) being your first narrative film, what are the kinds of stories that you want to tell and how do you approach them? Are they reflective of your experience and your upbringing?

Albert: I think at the moment, I just write. I sort of find the same theme in a lot of my writing, accidentally, and it’s usually about growing into your own skin. Not even as just a Latino, but as a human being, you know? I always find it funny how my culture, how I grew up, or how my parents raised me does really get injected into the veins of the story.

For example, in (ha-ha), the last part is Rosa speaking to Zander’s character in Spanish, and he replies in English. And this is true of how I grew up in West Covina. All my friends were Hispanic, and the White people were the minority in high school. And I never thought about it until I branched out and I was always like, oh, I guess I’ve been, in a way, privileged to be around Latinos and Hispanics.

But go back to that part of the story, I had buddies who didn’t speak any Spanish, but their grandmas would talk to them in Spanish, and then they would talk to them in English. It happens all the time. So that’s a little tiny part of what I experienced growing up, and that’s what got injected in that story. I’m writing a few stories right now. But the one that’s in post-production is about this kid who works at a swap meet and sells fajas, waist trainers.

My mom has been selling fajas since I was 14. And swap meets are a very, very Hispanic thing. 90% of the vendors are Hispanic. And then the other percentage is mostly Korean. There’s a few Black people, but mostly Hispanic and Korean. I actually casted Cesar for the lead part.

I guess right now, I’m just taking these stories that I have sort of lived through and I’m injecting them into film because I think it’s pretty interesting.

Jeremy: Everyone’s going to tell the story a little differently. And I think there is some truth to the phrase that you have to find the way to tell a story in a way that nobody else can, and it sounds like that’s what you’re doing. You’re bringing your personal experience to these things and mixing it with your technical experience behind the camera.

It’s funny that you mentioned your experience in West Covina growing up and how it compares to Costa Mesa, because I felt kind of the same. I’m half Mexican, and my Spanish is pretty nil, but I’ve always had that cultural exposure from my mom’s side of the family. Growing up, it’s an experience I had in Costa Mesa, but I haven’t seen personally in film a ton. And so that’s why it’s great to see movies like (ha-ha), and the swap meet movie you’re working on currently, that are covering a major part of American life that I think isn’t talked about. I think that the coming-of-age genre is a big genre and it hasn’t touched the Mexican American experience quite yet.

Have you noticed the same thing and does your work reflect this? Like you mentioned, you put words to what feels natural, but because your own personal experience is the only experience you know, do you realize, “Wow, no one else has done this yet”?

The infamous diner location

The infamous diner location.

Albert: Well, yes and no. I feel like we’re at a time now where I think these stories are coming out. And it’s very independent. For example, being honest, my film isn’t going to reach that far. Like, if you’re being super honest with yourself as a filmmaker, you have to ask yourself, how far is your film going to reach?

The way I write has everything to do with who I am, and where I’ve come from, but it has nothing to do, consciously, with like: “I’m going to write a Hispanic film, you know?” Or, “I’m going to write a very Latino-centric film.” And I think that helps me because when I put myself in a box like that, it’s very hard to write.

It’s very hard to put the pressure on, like, “Okay, this is supposed to feel like it’s this type of film, you know?” It’s funny because when I first started writing, it was terrible.

And in my particular case, not only was the writing bad, probably, but I realized I was trying to write films that reflected what I thought films were supposed to be. Like, trying to be very dramatic and very generic and honestly, White, to be honest with you. Because what are we influenced by in the media? It’s mostly White. It’s very interesting because they’re like things we can’t blame in a way, obviously. But a lot of things are changing and it’s really awesome.

I went to this high school of 3,000 people, right? If 1,000 people try out for the football or soccer team, and the majority of the people trying out are Mexican, then most of the players are going to be Mexican. So, if the majority of the people in Hollywood are White, then most of the stories we hear about would be White, you know?

The majority of the films that are going to be made are going to be White. Now there’s a lot more inclusion, which is fucking awesome. There are programs or contests made exclusively for certain people. So now you’re picking out of 500 scripts instead of 10,000, which were probably going to be mainly White, anyway. Now you’re choosing maybe 1,000 scripts of mostly, or only, Latinos, or whatever race it may be.

Growing up you’re exposed to limited types of films. Then when I started writing it felt very forced to try to emulate whatever I had seen. Now it’s sort of transformed into like, “Just do what the fuck I want to do. Not only what do I like on screen, but what do I like as a person?”

And I love my culture, so it gets steeped into whatever I’m writing, especially the swap meet one. That one’s very near and dear to me because like I said my mom had been working there, and she has her own retail store now, an actual brick-and-mortar.

But she was at the swap meet for 14 years, and if it wasn’t for her, we would’ve lost our home. It was insane, you know? One of the reasons why she started working at the swap meet was because my dad’s business started declining in 2008 with the crash. She actually kicked ass.

But regardless of that fact, the swap meet culture is so hilarious and interesting, and it’s really its own character. It’s literally something I’ve never seen anywhere else. And sadly, I don’t capitalize on it in the short because it was a $300 budget and we literally stole all the shots in the swap meet so we had to be very smart. It was just a one-character film. I hope if I can get a budget where I can really shoot a swap meet movie. That’d be hilarious and it’d be fun.

Jeremy: I can see it already. Sounds very much like guerilla-style filmmaking, kind of like Jean-Luc Godard, really just carving out your own method of making films. If you’re going to make it, you’re going to make it no matter how you get the shots.

Albert: And we did it with an iPhone too, so it was very lowkey. People didn’t give a f*ck. We literally had zero people ask us what we were doing.

Jeremy: Got to love it. I think between the proliferation of iPhones and this current time period in which historically minoritized voices are having a chance to be amplified through these kinds of programs, the field has been opened up to the people that haven’t had the chance to succeed. Like you were saying earlier with the tryouts metaphor, the film industry has been inundated with mainly White voices, but now you knock all those out and suddenly you get a better chance of getting an honest story from someone who hasn’t had a chance to tell it before.

And I think there are pros and cons to streaming culture and everything, but I think with all these outlets at our fingertips, suddenly a 16-year-old could be exposed to Dario Argento, where previously it would’ve been harder for them to come across.

I think it is an exciting time for movies, and I know it’s kind of easy to be bleak about the future of cinema, and I think I’m bleak about some parts of the future of cinema, but overall, there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening. And I think you just have to keep an open mind and keep eyes on filmmakers that are doing stuff that you like.

Albert: What you said gave me chills. Especially because I love cinema so much, it’s very easy to get, not depressed, but sad about streaming culture and just where cinema is going. But I read this book, a history in Hollywood or something.

It says, “The beautiful thing about cinema is that it’s alive.” It’s almost like a living organism. And what they were saying was how it’s changed so much. And because of our age, we haven’t really been able to experience the changes, like the drastic changes. Think about the people in the 80s that had tapes or VHS and how that changed cinema. And then DVDs came along and then we were even there when Netflix started.

Things are always changing. I’m very optimistic and I’m very interested in seeing where cinema goes in the future. And I think it’s going to be a good place. I honestly don’t like the Marvel movies and shit like that, and not in a pretentious way. I just think that after Endgame, things are going downhill.

Jeremy: I’m totally with you. It seemed like they thought they were setting themselves up for generations to come. And maybe we’re finding out that’s unsustainable, and maybe for the best.

It feels very rinse and repeat to me. I do love movies, but from a critical lens there are poor uses of the form, wasted resources. And I think one of the worst uses of it is Marvel rinsing and repeating the same narratives and motivations and the world ending AGAIN and I’m like, “Okay, I’ve seen this nine times already.”

Albert: Yeah, 100%. And that could be its own conversation.

Jeremy: That’s a separate interview.

Albert: …its own separate interview. But if you just look at the use of the resources—how much money they’re putting into one Marvel movie compared to, for example, A24. Like X, right? X was a $5 million budget and it had so much depth and breadth and it’s so different, right? It’s just crazy. But anyway, I’m very optimistic about where things are going.

I mean, there’s a lot of people coming up and it is inspiring to be able to connect easier with stuff like IMDb and Letterboxd and through festivals. You can really go in and find these films that you never would’ve come across before. But I’m not really keeping tabs on anybody right now because I’m just so focused on: how the fuck am I going to get the money for my next movie?