Around the time Esteban Arango and Erick Castrillon were trying to crack a larger story to tell as they adapted their short “Blast Beat” into a feature, they had learned of a discovery of a thin, inhabitable bubble that had formed around earth. The filmmakers both had scientists in the family and consulted with them about the feasibility of a satellite that could detect such a thing and soon were drawing up plans for a spacecraft that might actually work.
“We were like, “Man, this is mind-blowing,’” recalls Arango. “It just aligned with our goal of finding that dream for a kid that wanted to go to NASA and what means it would take to get some attention, so we modeled that journey and that experiment that he’s trying to build from that information that we found.”
It wasn’t only their main character who would shoot for the stars in “Blast Beat,” Arango and Castrillon’s exuberant drama about two brothers, Carly and Mateo, played by real-life siblings Mateo and Moises Arias, respectively, who move to America from Colombia at their parents’ behest at the turn of the 21st century. The film, actually shot across two continents, channels the energy of being swept into a completely different culture, as well as the strong resilience the brothers face as they try to segue into their new life in Atlanta where their father (Wilmer Valderrama) has been painting houses for the past few years, away from the family, with the aim of providing his sons an easier road than he had.
However noble their father’s intentions, his absence in their lives has caused friction between Carly and Mateo, who may not have that much of an age gap between them, but have different understandings of what their dad has sacrificed to make a living in America and different conceptions of what opportunity is there. While Carly spends his senior year padding an already impressive resume to apply for the Georgia Aerospace Institute, Mateo is a frustrated middleclassman who misses skateboarding with his friends in Bogota, and as Carly is encouraged to follow his dream, going so far as to sneak into a local college to audit a science course with an enthusiastic professor (Daniel Dae Kim), all Mateo can hear at school is racial epithets. But set to a soundtrack of metal and hip hop – the one thing the boys can agree on – “Blast Beat” channels their shared sense of rebellion against a world that seems so weighted against them as immigrants into a spirited and poignant story about carving out one’s personal identity amidst the pressures of competing cultural and family legacies.
Shortly after the film made plenty of noise with its premiere at Sundance, Arango, who directed the film, and co-writer Castrillon spoke about their collaboration dating back to high school, welcoming the Arias brothers into the fold with their short in 2015 and bringing a new perspective to the screen.
How did this come about?
Esteban Arango: Erick and I have known each other since our high school days and we didn’t go to the same high school, but we had friends in common in the metal scene in South Florida. Erick was a drummer and I used to play the bass and that’s how we started creating together, usually playing metal and punk. That background was part of the motivation for the starting point for this story, but also having brothers – Erick has two brothers and I have four, and we wanted to tell the story of two brothers who don’t have the best relationship, but they have to come together when the family’s at stake.
Erick Castrillion: A lot of things were also inspired by our friends, people who we grew up with in South Florida. We met their families and knew them very intimately and we saw those same things in our own families, so it was like discovering what is truthful across our experiences and having that in mind, we crafted the themes of the story.
When you’re telling the story of two brothers, do each of you take on the perspective of one of them?
Esteban Arango: Both brothers have aspect of our personalities, but we found a lot of inspiration for Carly in my own brother. He’s the metal head and very hard-headed, but very bright and very determined. And Mateo expresses a lot of our resistance to the ideal of this pristine American dream that they sell us and then when we got here, we clearly realized things are not as we expected.
Erick Castrillon: Right, it’s like they’re the opposite sides of the same coin. They compliment each other in every way and they’re different sides of our own personalities and our own brothers’. My own younger brother is an aerospace engineer, finishing his career right now, and he’s a young guy, so it’s a beautiful case of life imitating art and art imitating life. We didn’t know who inspired who to either write about satellites and NASA, but actually pursuing that as a professional field [was something we agreed on].
I had never seen this dynamic before onscreen, but the idea that they have a different relationship with their father based on one knowing him before he moved away to create a better life for the family and the younger one having far less of a connection with him as a result. Was that a foundational idea?
Esteban Arango: It was. We put so much weight of this story on the older brother and this big dream of coming to the States, going to his dream school and then eventually wanting to work at NASA [could be] a huge goal that the family rallies behind, but then [Mateo’s character] being on the receiving end of having to uproot his life and leave his friends behind and come to a place that he doesn’t necessarily agree with. It’s magical because we haven’t really seen those feelings expressed in a cinematic way, [which] we longed to see ourselves as we came to age in America.
Erick Castrillon: We also really wanted to establish Mateo’s character as the underdog that calls out things as he sees them and even though they may not be pleasant, you tend to agree with him because he’s seeing through the artifice. He’s also a lot of fun. He makes us laugh a lot, so he’s definitely the anchor for the emotions of the movie.
After first working with the Arias brothers on the short, could you incorporate more of their personalities or rapport from getting to know them better in the intervening years?
Esteban Arango: We knew that we could push them further in their own dynamic as brothers and see them in more complex situations. The short film has a very visceral energy to it, but we wanted to explore more tender moments in tthe feature and capitalize on the trust that we’ve been building with them through the years. We’ve been collaborating with Mateo on music videos and different ideas creatively, so that friendship just allowed us to mold the characters a little bit closer to their personalities and really know where they can bring in their acting prowess.
Erick Castrillon: And we [all] became like brothers. There’s this love between us from the short and I don’t think it could’ve been done if we had [a different set of actors].
Esteban just mentioned the visceral energy of it – what was it like to figure out the visual language of this?
Esteban Arango: Yeah, we didn’t want to make an average indie movie [where it’s] contemplative or have it feel still because I believe that cinema has to work at all levels. Every element has to be giving you that level of privileged access to the journey that these characters are going through and this movie is grounded in extreme metal, so we wanted to translate the sonic energy to the visual realm to create a kinetic, cinematic grammar that would externalize the character arcs and emotions scene to scene. We worked very closely with our cinematographer [Ed Wu], shotlisting every scene meticulously to create a choreography of movements between the blocking of the actors and our camera to create a rhythm that would go with the blast beats in our soundtrack, but also slow down or put you upside down in the moments where there were changing patterns of behavior or the core emotions.
Did you actually have the soundtrack while writing the script?
Erick Castrillon: We definitely scripted specific songs that we thought would go with those moments because of how they felt and what they meant to us. We ended up with only two or three of those songs because through the process, we discovered more songs from independent artists to give it that hipness, but also the aggressiveness Esteban was talking about with the metal and the hip hop and the soundtrack marries the two worlds – metal and the hip hop into one organic atmosphere.
Speaking of blending two worlds together, was it a challenge to devise a production that would be set in two countries like this?
Esteban Arango: Yeah, we shot for 21 days total – 11 days in Bogota and then 10 in Atlanta with completely different crews. We kept our heads of department like our production designer, our cinematographer and our wardrobe, but it was a frenetic pace of production for the amount of material we needed to shoot and in the style that we were shooting in, so having to adjust to different crews [in different countries] was definitely a challenge, but it proved to be possible.
Erick Castrillon: Ironically, it gave [the film] its own funk. The stark contrast of locations in the story and in the actual physical production, all those challenges actually made it feel like we were living the story, adding to the stark contrast between Colombia and Atlanta that we wanted to create.
Esteban Arango: In Atlanta, our first day was challenging because it was a completely different crew coming in, trying to keep up with our pace. There were some very emotional scenes that took our actors a little bit to get there just because of the extent of the dialogue and the specificity of the slang, but through that process of just running the scenes once, twice, channeling those frustrations out is where we were able to find those deep emotions and those conflicting arguments that created powerful moments.
What was the premiere like for you?
Esteban Arango: It was surreal. Erick and I couldn’t stop smiling. It’s been a dream of ours for over a decade to get here to Sundance and experience this unique film on this platform.
Erick Castrillon: We talked about this for so long, talking about the same thing for years and years to our friends and families. They saw us struggling in all aspects – emotionally, financially – so to be validated this way with people seeing the movie and reacting to it and our families here and supporting us, it’s an amazing feeling.
“Blast Beat” opens in theaters and on demand on May 21st.