SXSW 2021 Interview: Lissette Feliciano on Making a Winner Out of “Women is Losers”

It’s only fitting that in order to tell the story of a woman breaking barriers, Lissette Feliciano had to demolish one of her own before even contemplating how she could pull “Women is Losers” off as her debut feature. Although her lead Celina (Lorenza Izzo) faces incredible odds as a single mother living in San Francisco in the early 1970s, unable to finish high school after an unplanned pregnancy and finding both her lack of a diploma and her Latina background prevent her from the kinds of jobs she needs to put food on the table, it’s arguable they were only slightly less intimidating for the first-time writer/director who wasn’t about to compromise the scope she had in mind for the story she wanted to tell, yet was willing to creatively cut a few corners to get there.

If you’re not dazzled by the opening minutes of “Women is Losers,” heaven help you, but the writer/director pulls off a risky gambit that is unlikely to be duplicated as Celina busts through the fourth wall to inform that the film you’re about to see may not have had the budget to line the streets with period-appropriate cars or keep an Applebee’s out of the frame. While Feliciano brilliantly establishes the ground rules for what’s about to follow so as not to be bothered by historical nitpicks (though production designer Susan Alegria and costume designer Liz Baca still impress), the sensational introduction sets up something even more important as you see the women both in front of the camera and behind it take control of their narrative away from the traditional powers that be and prove themselves as forces of nature to be reckoned with.

On the surface, the tale of one woman’s humble aspirations to rise through the ranks of her local bank with the dream of eventually putting a down payment on a home for herself and her son may not sound like the foundation for a cinematic epic, but Feliciano elevates it to that scale, complete with full-blown musical numbers and shrewd interjections of historical context that outline the discriminatory practices that kept so many from the American dream that had given them such hope. With Izzo delivering a captivating performance as Celina, who is undeterred by any of the roadblocks thrown her way whether it’s from her higher-ups at the bank (Simu Liu and Liza Weil) or Mateo (Bryan Craig), the father of her child whose romantic connection is with another, “Women is Losers” has the kind of moxie that you can’t help but surrender to as it shares a hard-won sense of humor with its lead that is able to weather the inevitable tragedies that life throws her way and finds invincibility in having nothing to lose.

On the eve of the film’s premiere at SXSW, Feliciano spoke about her soaring feature debut, giving herself the license to tell such a naturally cost-prohibitive story with great gusto and how a history in music and dance informed the film’s flow, as well as finding a creative soulmate in Izzo and getting the most out of a tight schedule with a committed cast and crew.

At what point did that brilliant opening scene come to you in writing this?

I realized that I wanted to do a period piece and I wanted it to be in the Mission District of San Francisco and I wanted it to be my first film, but as you probably know, those are all things that are not going to happen probably ever. I had been told always, “Make a movie in one room,” and it got to a point where I was clearly tired of hearing that and it almost felt like people kept trying to make me play small, so I started writing this movie and I said, “I’m just going to embrace the fact that I can’t make this movie the way people have been telling me to make my first movie.” As I wrote the rest of the scenes, I started realizing there’s a lot of history here and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this and make it look like “Gangs of New York,” so I said, “All right, let me level with my audience, tell them what’s happening and see if they’ll go with me,” and so far they have, which has been wonderful.

When you create that leeway for yourself, is it difficult to decide after how far to go with it?

It was a balance, because it’s like when does style become style for style and not style because it’s part of the story? There are definitely more fourth wall breaks in the script than there are in the movie. But we really wanted to keep it grounded and the story behind-the-scenes is matching the story in the camera. When there were moments that we’re really hitting a piece of history that was really tough, or an unsaid truth, that’s when we leaned on the style, the fourth wall breaks, to keep them going along with us, and really that opening scene was giving me carte blanche to go, “Okay you’re going to see Teslas in this movie, it’s in the ‘60s, but just go with me with that.”

Beyond historical accuracy, it also seemed to allow you a freedom in terms of narrative structure – one of my favorite scenes in the film is when Celina has a big scene with the bank manager Gilbert, played by Simu Liu, and she turns around and it leads into another big dramatic moment because Mateo is standing right there. Musicality might not be the right word, but there’s definitely a rhythm that’s very exciting.

I’m glad that you picked up on that. My father’s a musician, so I grew up with music on in the house all the time and I definitely tried to put a rhythm into the movie, a beat. We have breath beats, we have crescendos, we have just pauses. Our composer Frederik Wiedmann was also really great about mirroring the story with his composition, and [in that scene] it’s almost like Gilbert walks away and there’s some hope and then there the “wah wah” where Mateo shows up. That rhythm was pretty interesting to get. They had such great chemistry — [Lorenza] and Bryan Craig as Celina and Mateo, and Bryan Craig came into this movie three days before we started shooting. He learned the script within the day and he crushed it — his first scene was that opening scene, so he hadn’t met anybody. We’d barely had a conversation. He was like, “Nope, I got this, we’re going.”

And his mom was on set with us too and she came to the story being like, “I’m so grateful that this story exists. I know women like this, part of these things are my story.” So it felt like a responsibility for all of us. For that scene in particular, I wanted to reflect that sometimes women’s spaces are invaded. We see this with Offset showing up at the [Cardi B] concert. It’s like there’s an entitlement to our spaces and that’s why I wanted that scene to happen that way, like we’re moving in one direction, but here comes the patriarchy to enter into our stories.

You’ve said you were inspired by your mother’s experience, but was your own experience trying to put this together informative?

Absolutely. I would say it’s my mother’s story and it’s mine because the way that it came about we had a conversation about what I was dealing with in the industry as I was trying to make it, and my mom taught me, “Work really hard, don’t complain. Things are going to be hard, you have to be three times as good to get half as far.” She prepared all of her kids for that, especially the girls. But when I got into the film industry, I realized, something else is happening and I don’t think it has anything to do with my work ethic. I went home defeated and told my mother, this is what’s happening to me and I was ready for her to tell me the mantra, “Don’t cry, keep working, try again, go out, pick yourself up and go out again,” but she didn’t. She really sat me down and told me about what happened to her in the ‘60s and ‘70s when she was trying to make it in her industry, which was real estate.

What was crazy was the things that she was saying in terms of being barred access to funding and people being amused by her ambition — she got called “ambitious” a lot and I got called “ambitious” a lot too, and what she was saying to me about what happened to her was verbatim what was happening to me, so there are scenes in the movie that are very much her story and there are scenes in the movie that are very much mine.

What sold you on Lorenza Izzo to play Celina?

It was love at first sight – it really was. We did an extensive search for Celina, and it took longer than I expected because we wanted to be very careful. We had an opportunity here to tell a female story and we met so many amazing people along the way and because they were Latina essentially, this was the only real thing of substance that they were able to come in for. Everybody that came in was like, “We’re so happy. Thank you for writing something like this. We never get this kind of stuff,” so it really made me sad because the women that I saw come in for the role of Celina and for Marty, they’re incredible and they shouldn’t just be relegated to [one thing]. They should be doing everything — they’re so talented, they should be doing all the things.

When I met Lorenza, we bonded over the fact that both of our mothers were single mothers who raised us with [that ethic of] “Don’t cry, keep working hard.” Our meeting was really about how we were raised and what we wanted to see change, both in our industry and in the world. We didn’t even talk about the script. It was a sisterhood bond. She was Celina immediately. We also wanted to find someone that worked for the first act of the movie where she’s in high school, but also worked for the second act and the third act where she’s maturing from a new mother to full-on business woman. I was trying to create those different phases of her life.

Was it intimidating to cover that much time with one actress?

It was great because a lot of it had to do with a minimum budget that we had, being able to place the characters in the setting. We had a great costume designer, Liz Baca — it was her first movie but she came from a vintage background and we really worked on what textures make you feel like a kid. When she’s in high school, the second we put [Lorenza] in that uniform, she became a teen again. Then later in the movie we get out of the rigid textures and we move more into more business clothing and the environment becomes a little bit more airy and a little bit more light. Lorenza was just a a chameleon through all of those different stages of the character’s life.

The scene that really took my breath away was where Celina is just watching Mateo bath their son Christian and you can see her own realization that he’s a good father and bonded to their son, but not to her, yet it’s something she can lean on in order to pursue her own goals. What was it like getting that?

That goes back to the rhythm, really. Like we have the big dance sequences, but then I was very careful and I really wanted to make sure that we left space to just exist. I’m also a dancer, so yes you go and you do your big turns and your big show-stopping numbers, but most of your dance you’re just doing the “one, two, three” and then you sit down for a second and you rest. Those rest moments are what makes a performance and what makes a piece for me.

I imagine getting both those ends of the spectrum was difficult. Was there a particularly crazy day on this?

You have no idea, man. I really wanted to shoot in the Mission District, and the way the schedule worked out, plus our budgetary constraints, we had to move every day, sometimes twice a day from locations. That means that obviously we’re really pressed for time more so than even I expected, so there were days where there were scenes that we just had to get in one shot. So there was a lot of oners in the movie that I didn’t really expect to be there, but we found a way to make it work thankfully, and I give all credit to Farhad [Ahmed Delhvi], my DP for more than four or five years now. We have a really great shorthand.

And this cast — let me tell you, they learned that dance sequence the night before. They were practicing it while we were shooting some of the talking scenes in that day. We had one night to shoot that dance and seven hours to shoot that opening scene, because we had to move locations right after that opening scene, so this was really tight. But this cast – and crew – was quick on their feet. Farhad and I are generally pretty quick on our feet, but this really extended us.

The energy comes across onscreen, if not the sweat. What’s it like having one of these features under your belt?

I’m still trying to get my bearings on it. I’m talking to you from the office that I wrote the script in and this is where I will be premiering because of the virtual world that we’re in, so it’s really full circle for me. And it feels great. I always want my movies to be for everybody and I always approach it like, if this was the only thing that could ever make, would I be happy with it? I’m really happy with this one and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have been able to put this together and the team that came together to make it happen. Like John-Michael Powell, my editor, and my team at Look at the Moon Pictures — everybody just rallied around this story because they had a version of this story in themselves. They saw themselves represented whether they were male, female, old, young. That was really important to me that this was a universal story that everybody could relate to in some way, shape or form.

“Women is Losers” will play at SXSW starting March 16th at 8 am CST.

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