This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the past year possible.
No matter what the demands of the film are, there is no role that Liz Cardenas can’t fill, so when Daniel Laabs, the director of “Jules of Light and Dark,” was looking for someone to play the crucial part of the long-estranged daughter of an oil rigger (Robert Longstreet) in his drama of two strangers who meet at a moment of convenience as they’re each trying to put their past behind them, it was obvious that his producer would be taking an on-screen role in the film.
“That’s such an amazing scene and yet it’s really just one, so it wouldn’t really take away from my producing,” said Cardenas. “Most of my friends know that I started acting before I started producing and that’s a huge passion of mine, and I get such joy out of bringing a film to life, whether it’s mine or someone else’s.”
Cardenas has quite the resume as an actress, though these days she’s often had to limit herself to cameos in films she’s producing. Yet while her on-screen presence has gotten smaller, the films — and the role she’s taken behind the scenes — have grown more prominent and she takes great delight in mentioning that after playing “the trashy neighbor in [Augustine Frizzell’s] ‘Never Goin’ Back,’ I’ve gotten lots of comments,” a follow-up of sorts to her role in David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” as the landlady Linda. Still, it’s how she’s been noticed in an entirely new way, with “Jules” recently recognized at Newfest with a Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature and “Never Goin’ Back” nominated for a John Cassavetes Award at the Spirit Awards, that has been an especially gratifying, an acknowledgement of steadily building an impressive career behind the camera that only began when she started looking at herself differently.
“I’m good at seeing how the road curves and being open to it,” says Cardenas of a skill that’s made her especially adept at producing, even though the start of the road to filmmaking was less clear. Always interested in storytelling, Cardenas set out to pursue a career in journalism, but as she gravitated more towards human interest profiles rather than serious investigative reporting, she realized those stories stories might be better served in another form. Her husband at the time had been interested in making movies and as it would turn out, the aggressiveness she picked up in putting articles together would come in handy as the two work together on a scrappy low-budget horror film in 2006. The timing was fortuitous as it was at the height of the DVD boom and the need for a distributor put Cardenas in touch with Cheryl Freeman, a home video veteran of Artisan Entertainment who was about to start up a company focused on family films. While the movies were geared towards impressionable young minds, it was Cardenas who would get the education.
“I had written a dog script just for fun because I love dog movies, and I sent it to her and she said, “This is exactly what I’m looking for,” so I started making these dog movies that I looked at as my film school,” recalls Cardenas. “It was something that I loved doing. I did them A to Z. We wrote them, [my husband] directed them, I produced them, I acted in them. They were my dogs, so I was like the dog handler, and I cast the kids and I edited [the films]. Then we had delivery dates because we were doing foreign pre-sales and I started going to some of the foreign markets with [Freeman] selling our movies and other movies in her catalog, so I really learned about deliverables and technical specs.”
Being privy to the business side informed how Cardenas started approaching the creative side of filmmaking, especially when she had ambitions of being a writer/director herself. However besides acquainting herself with the particulars of print trafficking and the fine nuances of animal performances, she was keeping an eye on other filmmakers in her home state of Texas who were increasingly making a splash at Sundance such as Lowery, Kat Candler (“Hellion”), Yen Tan (“Pit Stop”), Frizzell and Laabs. In the case of the latter two, Cardenas went on to produce their first features after they served as producers on her first short as a director, “Treading Water,” a sign of the battle-tested relationships they forged on Frizzell’s “Never Goin’ Back,” which involved mounting a second production of the entire film after an unsatisfying initial shoot, and Laabs’ “Jules,” which was reenvisioned from its first incarnation as a crime procedural set in Pittsburgh to a tender drama about connection right in the heart of the Lone Star state. On the eve of the film’s bow at the Austin Film Festival, Cardenas reflected on a year in which it all came together, as well as how great professional success arrived just as she was experiencing great personal heartache and how all of her experiences have shaped her as a filmmaker.
How’d you get into producing?
It literally started off with me working on a film in which I was an actor, a film written and directed by my ex [husband]. A horror film. I went to everything during pre-production to learn – to location scouts, to casting, and I thought, “Well, I can help with that or I can do this.” Over time, people started saying, “Well, you should get a producing credit.” That idea, being a producer, had never dawned on me. I started off as a journalist. I was a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and my degree was in Broadcast Journalism. I loved it because I love writing and meeting new people, but I always wanted to be an actress — I took some theater classes in high school, but that’s it. So while I was a journalist, I started taking acting classes, got an agent and started going on auditions. And eventually, I realized I really didn’t want to be a reporter. I loved the human-interest aspect to it, but I didn’t have that drive to be a hard-edge reporter, thriving on the controversy, so I stopped reporting and began writing screenplays instead while I was pursuing acting.
And then with that film, the horror film, I realized my skills as a reporter really translated into producing. And I enjoyed it. I’m a really proactive person, and instead of hoping that I would get cast or somebody would buy my script, I started feeling very empowered by the idea of just going out and making films, whether they were something I’d written or a friend’s.
What was it like joining forces with the team of David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks and James Johnston at Sailor Bear on “Never Goin’ Back”?
It’s been great. I was a producer on Augustine’s [Frizzell] short films and she had produced mine, and I produced the first “Never Goin’ Back” feature before Sailor Bear came onboard. We weren’t happy with it so Augustine cut it down into a short, adding some new footage, and it played festivals, premiering at SXSW. We felt really good about it, and it got a great response. We then reshot the entire feature with Sailor Bear, based off her revised script, and the film went to a whole new level. Augustine worked on the new script for about a year with Toby and me giving her notes. Ultimately, I knew this was another opportunity for me to learn from Toby and James because I had already been a co-producer on “A Ghost Story.” For that film, David came to me with an acting part first, and then they brought me on in a producing capacity. I saw that as such a huge opportunity for me, so I busted my ass to show them what I was capable of. I had already produced some short films for James and loved working with him, but this was much bigger, of course. And the experience was invaluable on both films. It was also so much fun to work with those guys, who I consider friends, and I also found it so inspiring.
How did “Jules of Light and Dark” come along?
I’m trying to balance producing, which I still do, with continuing to develop my own voice as an artist, as both a writer and director. When I did my short, “Imago,” Daniel [Laabs] helped me in ways no one else had ever helped me before, outside family, so I was like, “I will help you on your film.” I’d been a fan of Daniel’s work from the beginning. I loved his short films, and over the years he’d gotten to be a friend. When I came onboard, “Jules of Light and Dark” had already been in various stages of development and pre-production for a while. They were originally going to shoot it in Pennsylvania. Then they were regrouping thinking of filming in Texas. And Daniel was making some different creative choices for the film, as well. We worked so well together on the set of “Imago,” and that energy continued into pre-production on “Jules.” I came on board as a creative producer helping with things such as re-writes and casting, and I also assisted with logistics and providing some production services.
Has it been exciting to learn things that you can bring into the films you may be writing or directing yourself?
Definitely. Creatively, I’ve learned from all these filmmakers. And working with them, I can better see what’s necessary and what’s not – trying to really cut to the chase, make things as tight as possible, make things as compelling as possible, push yourself and not play it safe. I literally cut the beginning off of my first two short films after I shot them because it’s like, “No, we don’t need this.” And then working on these films have opened doors for me, so now I can get meetings with people who say [about my own
creative projects], “Oh, that concept sounds interesting, when you’re finished doing your rewrites, send it to me.” I would not have gotten that without producing. But I do struggle with this balance because as a producer who has worked on films that have played Sundance and been distributed by A24, I’m getting more people contacting me about their projects and I’m like, “Oooh, that sounds interesting, and you’re a filmmaker I’d love to work with.” But then there’s only so many hours in the day! Still, I look at this really as a journey — a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re talking about anything artistic, there’s always a degree of luck and timing involved. But there’s also an element of perseverance in one’s success — and success is, of course, a relative term. But I know you have to be focused if you want to be successful. However, I’m okay if it takes me longer because I’m juggling more things. Hopefully, I’ll end up being a really well-rounded artist.
There’s another film you’re currently producing, “Kids Go Free To Fun Fun Time,” that sounds wild as I understand it’s been filming in many different parts of the world. How did that come about?
That’s another project where I’ve come on later [in the process]. Over time, you start seeing a pattern developing. I think I’ve come on board some recent projects later, at pivotal moments where I can help elevate the project, reinvigorate it, or shed some new light. I really do like being encouraging and uplifting to filmmakers and bringing something unique to their projects. Ben Hicks, the writer/director, has been helming this film, for the most part, on his own for the last 10 years. This is his first feature, and he did have someone working as a producer early on, but he’s been the driving force and the person overseeing everything. He’s one of the two main actors in the film, and when he was living in Japan, he filmed in Japan. When he was living in Taiwan, he filmed there. And you actually see the characters age over the years, as well. The concept was inspired from a dream he had and his own personal experience. And then he’s incorporated even more of himself in the film by living as an ex-pat and incorporating that ex-pat life into the film. He currently lives in Germany.
Ben’s film was part of the IFP Narrative Lab in 2017, the same year “Jules” participated, and he was looking for a producer because he had half of his film left to shoot and needed help. I wasn’t looking to be a producer on something else because I was there with “Jules” and about to film “Never Goin’ Back.” But we became friends, and I really dug him as a person and vibed with his indie filmmaking attitude. Then, this year, right after Sundance, I participated in the Rotterdam Lab, where I learned about international productions and networked. It was around this time that Ben sent me and the other IFP Narrative Lab mates his script asking for feedback. I agreed, and I connected so much with the story and the concept.
When we talked about it, I got goosebumps. He also said he wanted to shoot in Spain. I’m Spanish, my dad was Spanish, he had family from Spain, and he had just passed away, two days before Sundance, actually. We were always very close, and I had also helped care for him with my younger sister, so it seemed extra special, filming there. And I was in a different place than when we first met. It happened organically, and Ben and I just felt like it was meant to be. And he found my own personal experience relating to the story and my professional experience, particularly with “A Ghost Story,” to be a perfect fit. Just like with that film, “Kids Go Free” has to have the right tone, it has to be spot on for it to resonate. So, it’s been great to take what I’ve learned and apply it to this film and utilize the contacts I’ve made to benefit the film. I feel I came to it at a pivotal time to help take the project to the next level, and I’ve made an amazing friend and collaborator in the process.
It sounds like you’ve had quite an eventful year, in both ways good and bad. Have you at least had some time to enjoy it?
I really have enjoyed this year. It’s been exhilarating, and I’m extremely motivated, creatively, in a way of feeling anything’s possible. If you combine the writing, the acting, the directing, the producing — all of that’s essentially being a storyteller. And I’m inspired by so many stories, the ones I want to tell that I’ve created and the ones I want to help tell which come from other people. I feel like I thrive in this environment of go, go, go and overcoming challenges or obstacles. But it has been a tough year personally. It’s been stressful. But maybe that’s what balances things out in life. I feel like I’ve had a lot of super highs and super lows, which has been very surreal.
It’s funny because you also constantly face rejection. Like I won’t book an acting gig or I’ll get turned down for something I applied for, and there will be several in a row like that, but then eventually another cool project pops up or I get something based on something I wrote, so you’re always balancing things. You just have to take them as they come and know that if an opportunity isn’t there, something else will be instead. You have to have the lows to appreciate the highs. You just keep going. And, yes, you can have your moments of crying, but you use that for your art! Literally, the script that I recently wrote that I’m excited about was initially inspired by my first short film involving being a caregiver [“Treading Water”], but I took it in a completely different direction, to a much darker place, when I was sitting there taking care of my dad in the last weeks of his life while I was preparing for our Sundance premiere. So you just use all this stuff in an artistic way and you learn and grow.