Dan Sickles wasn’t sure he was going to make a new film when he returned home to Ambler, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, at the end of summer 2013. He and his filmmaking partner Antonio Santini were in the midst of editing their feature debut “Mala Mala,” for which Santini had returned to his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico to start a study of the marginalized transgender community there, when Sickles’ parents Ann and Ed had passed in short order and on the eve of their professional breakthrough —“Mala Mala” would premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival the following spring — they put family ahead of career.
However, the two would intertwine when Sickles reconnected with Dina Buno, who had been a student of Ed’s in high school and continued to look to him as a mentor as an advisor for the Abington Aktion Club at the local Kiwanis International for developmentally disabled adults. Buno, whose Asbergers is among the many qualities that makes her unique, had just gotten engaged to be wed to Scott Levin, another member of the group, and knowing they had a movie star in their midst, Sickles and Santini decided that they better start rolling the camera. It was just one of the many smart choices that helped shape “Dina” into one of the funniest, most tender and compassionate films to come down the pike this year.
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, “Dina” would seem to tell a modest story in documenting the march towards matrimony for Dina and Scott, yet Sickles and Santini fashion a love story with a beating heart as big as its two unforgettable leads, whose needs are at odds with one another. While Scott simply wants affection, Dina craves physical intimacy and being more experienced in that regard than her groom-to-be, the honeymoon becomes a daunting prospect that pushes them each out of their comfort zone and requires a true show of love through compromise. As lovely to watch unfold as it is aesthetically — an arresting still portrait style with life breathed into every frame by presenting Levin and Buno front and center, as well as the brilliant pastel colors and a novel score from Michael Cera — “Dina” finds beauty in some truly unexpected places and as the crowdpleaser rolls out into theaters, Sickles and Santini spoke about how they found a movie star in their midst and developing the film’s distinct visual style.
Dan Sickles: They had just gotten engaged, probably a month or two before we really started working together. Initially, we thought about the film as something that could be about the entire group and focus on something that they were all doing together. But, as Dina is wont to do, she swallowed the focus and made the story hers. [laughs]
You keep a lot of Dina’s backstory under wraps. How did you figure out how you’d structure this?
Antonio Santini: We had done a master interview [with Dina] before we started the movie almost as research, to have Dina speak and let us know about her whole history [so we could] understand the context of her experience. But we decided that was the wrong approach and we didn’t want to rely on that device and that we would try our best to film the movie in a way where her day-to-day actions would reveal her history.
Dina is somebody who carries her history everywhere. She’s gone through a lot and she almost wears it as a badge, so as you see in the movie, when she’s talking to people at the nail salon, to her mom, they’re always revisiting the past, and it was Sofia [Subercaseaux, the editor] who just went through the footage and found the right balance of how much to reveal and what shaped her, but not give away too much so when you get to the sunset [towards the end], it’s more of a reveal.
There’s a great introduction to Dina at the dentist’s office where she’s becoming fast friends with the nurse. How did that come about as an opening scene?
Antonio Santini: That was one scene that really stands on its own. It’s not related to any direction of the plot and we wanted a scene that encapsulated what it is to be Dina – not even so much Dina personally, but as a movie character. We actually had another opening before that that started with a train coming from Philadelphia city and following the train all the way to to suburbs, but we realized, why are we telling Dina’s story in relation to the city? Dina’s story stands alone and we don’t need to specify the actual location, so that way it can feel more universal. Because that scene is inside that room, it really could be anywhere.
Dan Sickles: Yeah, and what’s awesome about it is that it’s such a perfect way to be introduced to Dina because it’s both relatable and totally unique to who she is. What I love about that scene is how you get a taste for how thoughtful she is right away. She asks the nurse what her daughter’s name is and then right away says, “Oh, I should bring her a pair of rainbow socks” because she finds out that [the nurse’s] daughter loves rainbows. And that’s a big part of who Dina is. She’s always curious about other people. She loves interacting with people and the way in which she does it, it leaves an indelible mark.
Antonio Santini: The framing… taking a deep breath because it was a process we really cared about. [laughs] It started with our first movie “Mala Mala,” about the trans experience in Puerto Rico, a community that within the island is very ignored. As we got to know that community, we really started to admire them and we just loved their style – how radiant they were – and we built a glamorized style [where] the camera was moving and all that [to reflect the community]. When it came time to do “Dina,” the environment is very different from Puerto Rico. It’s suburban Philadelphia, so we understood that it wasn’t just about replicating our style from before, but coming up with something that was true to the new space.
As we started to work with [Dina], we were also watching other films. We watched Jacques Tati movies and were inspired by the Mr. Hulot character, and Roy Andersson. What we realized was that Dina, as a person, is very reactionary to her environment. She comes alive when she’s interacting with people on the bus or interacting with her dentist and we wanted to build a style that allowed you to see them. If we followed her, say, closeup from behind, walking into the mall, you would miss the chance to see Dina in relation to the architectural style of the mall. So we had this discipline where even if we had the temptation to move the camera or move in closer, we always needed to keep it medium or wide [shots].
The colors really pop as well. Were there certain filters you were using to get those colors in the moment or did that come about in post?
Antonio Santini: We shoot very neutral so that way there’s no preset look on the footage before we go into post-production. Then we were super lucky in getting to work with John Dowdle, who was the colorist on “Carol” and also for Gus Van Sant movies. He has such an appreciation for color and such a vast knowledge about it that we actually got to go to the studio a bunch with him and, shot-by-shot, had conversations. We had so many different references. We would bring in swatches of colors for the greens and there were impressionistic paintings that we took [inspiration from] for the sky and the sea. John really helped us do that. He would freeze the frame and you’d go in and change it, like painting. It was amazing.
There’s an interesting story behind the music as well. How did Michael Cera get involved?
Dan Sickles: Michael actually came to a test screening of “Dina” – it was pretty late. We were still playing with some tracks, but the skeleton of the film was essentially pretty set and he came up to us after the screening and he was like, “I love this story. I’m interested in figuring out a way to collaborate on it. I think I could write some tunes [for it].” That’s how it started and there were lots of conversations after that and it was awesome to meet somebody on that level who had seen the film and said, “I want to be a part of this.” The music video was awesome too because we got to go back and work with people we didn’t get a chance to work with as much on the film in the music video, so it’s been a continuation of the celebration that started last January.
What have these last nine months been like, seeing Dina being treated like the movie star she is?
Dan Sickles: It’s awesome. I don’t think there have been that many spaces that have opened themselves up to Dina in this way before and for the first time, she’s walking into theaters where people lend her a certain amount of respect and appreciation that she’s not used to. It’s been really cool to be on the sidelines and watch her come into this space as authentically as she has. She loves talking about the film and it’s awesome to be running around with her. She just found out she’s going to London the other day and she had a fit. It’s like one adventure after another with her.