Summertime director Carlos López Estrada and six of his talented young actors stopped by the Kia Telluride Supper Suite in Park City, where Collider spoke with the group about their new film, which is presented in a series of interconnected spoken-word vignettes.
Estrada was joined by Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Mayor, Austin Antoine, Mila Cuda and Jason Alvarez, the latter of whom plays a scene-stealing graffiti artist.
Summertime was inspired by a spoken-word showcase featuring 25 diverse high school performers, after which Estrada proposed a collaboration to develop the performers’ work into a loose, interconnected narrative, allowing the non-actors to express themselves and their relationship to the city. Over the course of a hot summer day in Los Angeles, they express life, love, heartache, family, home, and fear through their poetry. One of them just wants to find someplace that still serves good cheeseburgers.
The film is Estrada’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut Blindspotting, and the director was in high demand around town after that, so I had to ask him why he decided to next tackle a spoken-word movie starring non-professional actors. “Because these people right here are fantastically talented. They’re creative beyond belief,” said Estrada, who wanted to share their talent with the world. He explained how the project came to be.
“Our producers and myself were invited to see a showcase featuring 27 poets, performing one poem each, rapid fire, one after another. We walked out of that event feeling so inspired, so moved, and so thrilled that there was this community of young artists sharing their stories. I wondered, ‘how can we help them?’
When Estrada started talking about a possible movie, he wondered, ‘what would a movie look like? Would it be worth it?’ Judging by the reception at Sundance, and seeing how much the movie meant to these kids, I think it’s safe to say that it was.
The film was born out of Get Lit – Words Ignite, which has an annual Classic Slam featuring students from more than 50 local schools, with the winning poet taking home $500 dollars, plus bragging rights. Winter won the grand prize, and Estrada witnessed his victory. The director quickly cast Winter and Alvarez as the last two members of the ensemble, though Winter was skeptical at first. “I was like, this is Los Angeles, do you know how many scammers there are in Los Angeles?
Alvarez said he was a normal high school student, getting into trouble, such as talking in class and not doing homework. When he competed in the Classic Slam, he was still new to poetry. “I just got up there and told my story, and was open and honest, and I got an email asking me to be in the movie. I came to the first meeting and I was like ‘damn… whoa!’
Babers, who delivers the film’s best performance, said she’s been writing poetry since she was 9 years old, and she’s been practicing spoken word since she was 15 years old. In fact, Blindspotting (and Hamilton) star Daveed Diggs was actually her first poetry teacher. “He came to my charter school and was teaching poetry. I’d been writing since I was 9, but I didn’t know it was something I could do as a career, and then Daveed Diggs came and showed me I could.”
Mayor said she joined Get Lit in high school, and even though she didn’t like poetry that much at first, the group “became a second family for me.” Cuda echoed that sentiment. She’s been writing poems and songs since kindergarten, but it was years before she had a teacher who saw something in her and put her name on a list for an Open Mic Night. “I ended up falling in love with it, and i don’t think I’m ever going to stop.
Anotine didn’t even realize he was involved in poetry when he was first starting — he figured he was just rapping. When he was given the chance to join Get Lit and coach some of the young poets, he said it was like “stepping into the poetry cult.”
Of course, the only thing better than being cast in a movie is telling everyone that you’ve been cast in a movie, and it was fun to poll the cast on the reactions of their friends and family. Cuda — who served as the film’s poetry supervisor — said her brother has been crying non-stop, staying on top of all the reviews, while Winter said his friends have been supportive, even though he tried to keep his casting quiet at first.
Babers thanked her family and her fiancé for their support, while Mayor’s mother immediately booked a plane ticket to IUtah when she found out that Summertime had been accepted into Sundance. As for Alvarez, he said his parents didn’t care that much. “They’re Hispanic parents, so they just care about college. They don’t know nothing about this.” He has no doubt made them proud on multiple fronts, as he was accepted into the Academy of the Arts just a few weeks ago, so he’ll be attending classes in the fall.
Estrada said that he’d seen Mayor perform before and was “kind of starstruck” to be working with her, and that as soon as he saw Bryce Banks and Antoine, he knew he had to make some room in his movie for their storyline about two rappers, Anewbyss and Rah, who go from sidewalk hustlers to rap legends over the course of a single day.
The director also said he couldn’t pick a favorite among the gifted young performers, but admitted that “shooting Marquesha’s scene was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I’ll never forget that day, or you losing your nail right before you were supposed to shoot.”
Babers based the poem on her own experiences. Some high school boy broke her heart when she was 15, but she didn’t write the poem until she was 17. “I started working with Get Lit [and doing well] and I’d posted something like, ‘I wish I wasn’t single and had someone to share this with,’ and that ex said, ‘you’re so beautiful, you just need to find someone who looks at you through eyes like I have.’ And I was like, ‘wait, what?’ She ended up writing the poem in her head over the course of a long bus ride, and when she performed it for her mother when she arrived home, her mom forced her to sit at the computer and write it down.
“I was in the hospital for months, depressed and beating myself up, so it was really therapeutic, because I’d never had the opportunity to share that piece or confront him in real life. It felt like therapy, like I was back in that moment. He took my voice away in that moment, and I finally had the chance to get it back.”
As for the important matter of distribution, Estrada said that “the best outcome is the one where the greatest amount of people are able to learn about these poets and the things that they have to say. I’d love for it to have some form of theatrical release, because this is an experience that you probably get a lot more out of if you see it with a group of people, if you see it within a community. People connect to different poems for different reasons. It inspires a healthy conversation, and I hope it winds up in theaters at some point, but I know a lot of us consume a lot of video on mobile, so it might be best to wind up at some kind of streaming place that allows people to see it and share it easily.”
Watch the interview above, and stay tuned to Collider for our Sundance supercut, in which dozens of artists offer their Super Bowl predictions, theories on the death of Cliff Booth’s wife in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and which categories they’d like to see added to the Oscars, as well as the TV shows they most recently binged, and the ones they’d love to guest star on. To watch Collider’s video review of Summertime, click here.
Finally, we have to thank our presenting partner, the Kia Telluride SUV, which was recently named the 2020 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year. Additional thanks to support sponsors Glenfiddich Scotch, Peroni Beer, Marbl Toronto, mou footwear, ic! Berlin sunglasses and clothing lines, Laundry by Sheli Segal and Orginal Penguin.