With a penchant for stories about interpersonal relationships in a tech-driven world, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Javier Espinoza is developing a narrative style that offers commentary on the paradoxes of socialization in the digital age. His first feature length, Distortion: A Social Media Story, is an anthology of stories about young adults and social media. With the concept for a second film underway (based on his 1st written feature), he talks indie filmmaking, distribution, John Hughes, teaching and more.
WIPCO: What makes Distortion: A Social Media Story so interesting is that it’s somewhat dystopian. Yet, it isn’t science fiction. It’s about the world we live in now.
ESPINOZA: The dystopian element is something that I wanted to incorporate because it was a way for me to be really clear about the tone and the overall message of the film, which is that our society’s obsession with social media has led us into this dark and lonely place. When I first wrote it my goal was to hold a mirror up to our audience and say, “this is us.”
WIPCO: Although it has that dark undertone there seems to be an aura of hope, as well. This is state of our dependency on social media right in the present. But it doesn’t have to be our future.
I certainly think there is reason to be hopeful. My personal feelings on social media are somewhat conflicted: it’s this amazing tool for connecting us to the world and to others in it, and it could be used in countless ways to change things for the better. But we use it to take pictures of our dinner. I sense that we’re already having that collective conversation about the current way we use social media and how untenable it is, and I think the film is a testament to that.
WIPCO: Did you intend for your film to have that optimistic tone? Or do you consider it to be more open-ended?
The only thing I knew going in was that I wanted the characters to be honest and real. We explored some really heavy issues like bullying and the way social media affects our relationships, and often in life things don’t always have a happy ending. And I wanted the outcomes in the story to be true to life. In the end, they’re all cautionary tales that we can all learn from, and if they help anyone deal with something similar in their own life, hey, even better.
WIPCO: Can you give us a little synopsis of Distortion: A Social Media Story?
The film is about a group of high school students who use social media in different ways, and how their lives are affected as a result. There’s a girl who wants to be an Instagram model, there’s a couple who have a long-distance relationship through Skype and Facetime, there’s a girl whose ex posts scandalous videos of her, and other stories. They’re all interconnected so we see how social media affects them as a peer group.
WIPCO: The film is basically an anthology of stories focusing on different aspects of social media. But you also focused on other technologies, such as a MMORPG gaming. How did that fit into the overall theme of the film?
I really wanted to explore all the different ways that social technology such as Xbox Live affects our personalities and our real-world relationships. In the film, there’s a kid who is really socially awkward at school but when he is online, he’s a completely different person. He’s confident, and a leader, and assertive. I thought it would be interesting to examine those dynamics that haven’t really been seen in film.
WIPCO: Distortion focuses on the relationships of kids with social media. What do you think a similar film with adults would look like? Do you think that adults have the same issues with social media?
I can only imagine that a film about social media and adults would be darker and grittier. The thing I appreciated most about making the film was that it reminded me what it was like to be a teenager. Everything was life-and-death and so important and it was hard to see anything long-term. As adults, we’re able to make educated decisions that are partly informed by our experience, but teenagers don’t really have that. There’s no manual for social media. The problems that adults face are similar, but we handle them differently. That’s what makes social media so predatory, the fact that kids are often on their own.
WIPCO: What inspired you to make this film?
I taught film production in high schools for over 10 years. From the time I started teaching to the time I left (about a year ago), the experiences my students faced were so fascinating and I was so intrigued by the possibility of making a film based on them. I knew that it would be different and something that could potentially start a conversation, and I think every filmmaker feels that way at least on some level.
WIPCO: This was your 1st feature length film. Can you tell us a bit about the process? What were the pros and cons of directing for the first time?
The development and production of the film was fast compared to most features. We started writing in December of 2014 and started filming in April of 2015, which is crazy now that I look back on it. It was done mostly out of necessity due to the fact that we were working around the school schedules of most of our actors and because I was trying to balance a teaching job at the same time. We wrapped principal photography in June and it took us several months to get all of our pick-up shots and we did a few re-shoots. The only pro of being a first-time director is that there is so much energy when you’re bringing a story to life, and it’s when I realized I didn’t want to be doing anything else. As far as cons, everything is so new and there are endless responsibilities to balance, and you learn the importance of having a good crew. But those are things that help you on the next project.
WIPCO: You worked with a lot of new talent on this feature. How did you go about casting your actors? What was your experience like directing the cast?
Because we didn’t have a huge budget and because I didn’t have too many casting connections at the time, I cast the film with a combination of my own students and young, talented actors looking for experience. I learned a lot about bringing the best performances out of people and managing shooting days and things like logistics. But ultimately, I had a blast.
WIPCO: Has Distortion screened at film festivals yet? Do you have any plans to go the film festival route?
One of the things I learned about distribution was that film festivals have become so Hollywood thee days and not about the independent filmmaker anymore. We submitted to a few big festivals like Sundance and Telluride, but they’re the industry equivalent to buying a lottery ticket. When I was growing up I read about guys like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez who made films with almost no budget and got their big breaks at film festivals, and that just doesn’t happen anymore. We decided it would be a better investment to spend our film festival budget on social media marketing for the film.
WIPCO: What has been the reception of your film so far?
So far, very positive. We have a 4.6 out of 5 on Amazon, which is awesome. A lot of people I talk to about the film tell me that it’s very raw and honest and makes you think, which is about all I could’ve hoped for with my first film. My goal is to find it a big enough audience so it has the most impact as possible.
WIPCO: What/Who are some of your favorite films/filmmakers?
Growing up in the 80’s I loved the work of John Hughes, he had this way of capturing the teenage experience that really spoke to me. He’s remembered as a great filmmaker because he understood his audience and what made them tick and it’s something that I aspire to and want to emulate. As an adult, I’ve come to be a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s storytelling and overall style. That guy just cannot simply make a bad movie.
WIPCO: Are you currently working on any new projects?
I’m really excited about bringing the first feature that I ever wrote to life, it’s a story about the early days of internet dating, in the late 1990’s. It’s based on a lot of my experiences and I think it’s something that hasn’t been properly explored. I want to do something like You’ve Got Mail, but for a younger crowd. Something that all my writing has in common is that it’s about the way technology affects our relationships. I don’t know why, but it’s something that really fascinates me.
WIPCO: Where can we view your film?
It’s available on Amazon Video and free for members of Amazon Prime. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01KYRHJCK
For those outside the US, it’s available through Gumroad at our website, DistortionStory.com.