Mike Cuenca is not one to hold back. A self-proclaimed “no budget filmmaker”, he makes movies the DIY way; pulling together resources from every aspect of life with punk rock attitude and a passion unmatched. The Los Angeles based filmmaker takes the bits and pieces of the life around him- the music, the people, the atmosphere- and infuses them into the characters, scenes and settings of his moving pictures. Upon the completion of his movie Scenes From Oblivion, Cuenca took the colorful elements, styles, characters and ideas into episodic web television; the spin off series Oblivion. We chat with Cuenca about the many testing aspects of DIY filmmaking, the drive it takes to get it done, and what it feels like to be exiled in Oblivion.
You can catch the latest episode of the series streaming above.
Tell us a little about Scenes from Oblivion, the film in which this series spun off from.
Scenes from Oblivion is my first feature film. It’s somewhat of a drama and it’s influenced by John Cassavetes’ Shadows. The story is basically: straight-laced boy meets eccentric girl. Straight-laced boy falls for the girl but doesn’t know she’s eccentric. The girl likes the boy since she’s never received much attention. But then boy discovers girl is really a punk rocker and is appalled by it. He wants to change her to fit his idea of the perfect mate. Conflict ensues. It’s also interlaced with my Cuban-American upbringing. It was a great idea at first but it’s poorly executed. There was a lot of tension on set. I had major issues with one of the leads and some of the crew. The leads hated each other. And on camera they were doing a complete role-reversal. Lou Wright who played Tommy was the punk kid in real life, Jen Baute who played Misha was the straight-laced girl….
So the project completely unravelled and because of the conflict I had with the aforementioned lead and I wasn’t able to properly complete it. So we had to improvise with stand-ins, writing additional scenes to further the plot without her. There were reshoots after reshoots after reshoots until I just went, “F-it. I give up. But I’ll make sense of it SOME day.” Since Scenes hasn’t been released, that’s the main critique we initially received on the series: that there are too many characters and we don’t get enough time to become acquainted with them in the pilot. But now that we’re on, what, Episode 6, the same people are saying the opposite. Now they’re saying we love that there’s a million characters on this show, “It keeps things fresh, there’s not a lot of filler, and we have no idea where you’re going with the story.”
What is Oblivion and the motley cast you’ve assembled?
I’m a huge fan of those coming-of-age, large ensemble teen comedies. But specifically Dazed and Confused. I love how when you watch that movie, in its opening scenes, you’re jumping from character to character to character. And they’re all having these interesting conversations. And when the movie ends, you don’t want it to be over. You want to keep hanging out with all these folks. I’ve always wanted to watch a serialized version of that. And so that’s where Oblivion came from. The thing is, unlike Dazed, which is more of a hang-out type of movie, Oblivion is incredibly heavily plotted. The cast of Oblivion is comprised of mainly non-actors, with the exception of a handful of folks who auditioned through casting ads. Most are friends of mine… Jeff Rice (“Vince”) is one of my best friends. Kim Higgins (“Darla”) is my former girlfriend, and she and Jenn Higgins (“Louise”) are actual sisters. List goes on and on… Most of the cast are also Los Angeles-based musicians, people who are deeply-rooted in their respective music scenes. Max Jones (“Cliff”) is an actual DJ. He has his own soul night called The Velvet Lounge and also runs a Rods vs. Mockers soccer game in Downtown LA every Sunday. Brian Waters (“Cutter”) has his long-running band the Flash Express and is in the amazing Jail Weddings; Rikk Agnew who plays Ziggy’s publicist “Mud Guts” is of the ‘80s hardcore band the Adolescents and of Christian Death; Don Bolles (“Peyton Shockoe”) is of the legendary Germs.
Where is all the filming done?
All over LA. But we’ve decided that the principle setting for Oblivion, Holwenstall, is pretty much Highland Park, California. It’s one of the oldest cities in LA and one of LA’s few walking districts (everything is in walking distance and the Gold Metro Rail runs right through here). There’s the American Legion Hall music venue, there’s Mr. T’s Bowl which used to be cool. A lot of rockers hang out in HP. You’ll see a bunch of teens that are discovering underground/alternative music roaming around. My buddy Jeremy Price has a punk rock night called “Kick Out the Jams” at the Little Cave (a bat-themed bar) every Wednesday night. In the ‘50s it was also prime spot for Hot Rod enthusiasts and greasers. Hence, it’s the ideal filming location for Oblivion.
Have you created an entire season’s story arc or do you write and change up the story as the season progresses?
Oblivion, as a whole, was envisioned with a beginning, middle and end. We know where all these characters are going to end up at the end of the series. Hence, the first season’s story arc has been entirely plotted out. But the thing is…Oblivion writes itself. Season One was originally going to be 12 episodes. Well, we’re now filming episode 14 and we’re barely hitting the point in which we start confronting this season’s arcs and start tying things up. Why? Ideas flourish. Something will happen while we’re watching a particular episode in post-production where we go, hmm…what if we did this instead? It’s very much scripted. But I encourage a lot of ad-libbing on set. I tell the actors to make the dialogue their own (which is where most of the non-stop swearing comes from). So sometimes during rehearsal so-and-so will ignite some spark of genius and so we immediately jot down what they’ve said and write it into the script so they don’t forget. And then I make these actors rehearse what they’ve ad-libbed. For instance…the opening scene in Episode 4 with Cutter and Bepop. All ad-libbed. They got the basis for the scene, and just rolled with it. Brian Waters is the king of ad-libbing. And it helped matters that he was in a scene with Steve (“Bepop”) who is a contributing writer. But addressing the original question: if what we write is set in stone, or if it’s changed up as we go along… Some stuff is definitely set in stone…
There is a lot of color in the series, and the visuals are rich- how important is this cinematic quality to you as a director/writer?
Incredibly important. Oblivion to me, and you’ll notice as episodes keep airing, is pretty much a live-action comic book. So I wanted that pop-art look. Jessica Gallant (cinematographer) and I, with our budgetary restriction, have come pretty close to the look I’m going for. And then you’ll notice flashback scenes are a bit washed-out and grainy, like a stomped-on old film.
What is it about “punks, mods and rockers” that appeals to you?
Everything. And you can laugh at this…but to me punk falls into my absurdist philosophy on life. What is the point of finding meaning in anything if no meaning is to be found? Where is the logic in that? Which is where a lot of the humor in Oblivion comes from. It becomes very non-sequitur…random at one point. I mean, look at Repo Man one of Oblivion’s biggest influences. But to many, punk is all about thinking outside the box. It’s about not caring for inhibitions and insecurities. WHY should these inhibitions and insecurities become a hurtle? Don’t ask why you’re insecure about something; ask why SHOULD you be insecure? It’s about just DOING what YOU want to do…deep down inside. You hate your job, you’re tired of living a routine, and you want to travel the world, then quit and become a nomad if that’s what makes you happy. You want to play music but you don’t know how so someone tells you you can’t and you go, fuck it, I’m playing anyway.
To relate, I’ve lost a lot of friends who told me that I was insane for even considering working on Oblivion and that I couldn’t do it without a crew and untrained actors or whatever. I didn’t set out to prove them wrong, but I have. If you have the will, it can be done. Regardless of said friends thinking the show is good or not, I still did it. But another appeal is how seriously these counter-culture lifestyles are taken. Kids in the ’60s in the UK were KILLING each other because of the music styles they were into…Mods vs. Rockers…because of the way they were dressed. And the folks who don’t get this, argue that this is idiotic. But the same people also state that it’s completely reasonable when fans of opposing sports team get into fist fights in a parking lot because one of their teams lost. It’s the same shit. People are passionate about what they’re passionate about. It gives them meaning. Something to root for.
Now me? Do I believe in this conflicting music genre divergence? Hell no. I listen to everything and have been associated with people from all walks of life. And even though the punk rock community has been supportive of us, for the most part, we’ve gotten a lot of angry emails saying what the hell is this? Since when does a punker hang out with a Goth and so and so and on and on. But when I was growing up, the weirdo kids, no matter the genre of music that they were into, ALL hung out with the other weirdo kids because that’s all we had. It’s all about finding someone you can relate to. Are you going to be spoon-fed something by the radio and MTV who say, hey, listen to this because this is what we’re trying to sell and you take it and go yay I don’t like thinking for myself and like what everybody likes because it’s easy to. Or do you go, well, maybe I could go look for my own thing and make up my own mind about how I feel about music in general. You discover things on your own. And you also want to discover people like yourself. But I really want to inform the mass public about these alternate lifestyles. I don’t like things being misunderstood.
What is a Mod? Is punk a music genre, a way of life, not to be taken seriously, a pretentious form of thought, a broad term? Is it called selling-out, or is it called being smart and having a business plan? When do you give up? How long can you live this way? The series addresses all of these things and satirizes it.
There’s a rich quality to your characters too- plenty of them as well- are they inspired by real people in your life?
Not any specific person. Just types. Ziggy is that over-the-top egotistical frontman who believes he’s God’s gift to the music world. We’ve seen plenty of those. Pox is that obnoxious poseur who tries too hard to fit in. And then we break stereotypes too. It turns out Pox is pretty smart and uses a high vocabulary between cuss words. Cliff, a Mod, his best friend is Vince, a greaser. Blair is not this somber Goth girl…she’s happy and full-of life. And we’ve mentioned this before, but most of the actors in true life resemble a lot of the characters. It just happened coincidentally. It’s like most of these people were mean to play these parts. So when we write for the show, we hear the characters voices in our heads. We take some of the actors’ quirks and then incorporate them into their characters as well.
How does a “no budget filmmaker” like yourself create a textured, thoughtful and active series- what techniques, short cuts and methods have you used to help overcome any financial obstacles?
Pull in a lot of favors. That’s how we overcome financial obstacles. Yvonne Trinh gets the wardrobe form thrift stores. We ask bands who donate music to the soundtrack to give us merch (posters, T-shirts) as a form of cross-promotion. We don’t have a location locked, we go in the spot, tell them what we’re doing, and woo our way in. We compliment owners by saying, hey, if you let us use your place, you can be an extra. And they get flattered. We couldn’t afford a certain prop? Well…then let’s experiment with something else. You get very creative. As for techniques on how we get it done and come off like we have a high-budget? Well, that’s a “superhero secret”.
What are the goals for you and Oblivion in the foreseeable future?
Everyone involved wants to keep this show going. It’s addicting to work on. Incredible fun. We’re laughing, in tears, on set most of the time. Everybody gets along. We’re friends. I would love nothing more than to focus my attention 100% on the show. But we have day-jobs. I do 19 hour days. I rarely sleep. I’m writing, editing, rehearsing, scheduling, directing, promoting, etc. etc. I need to get a proper crew…right now it’s just Jessica, Steve, Gina Clyne (web guru) and whoever else volunteers on whatever set day. Jessica Gallant and the actors need to get paid. We have to work around everyone’s work schedule. A few cast members don’t live out here because they can’t afford to live in Los Angeles. You see the conflicts… And we need to keep reaching our audience. Viewers that discover Oblivion love the show. Especially teenagers. But the first message we receive is them saying that they didn’t know a show like this even existed! Now how do we keep reaching our audience? Word of mouth and the DIY promotions we’ve been doing are great but we need to market the show properly and to market it properly we need secured financing.
Will there be a physical release of the series once the season is complete?
We have a handful of interested distributors. So, yeah, there will be a season one DVD with a slew of bonus features, bloopers, interviews, that sort of stuff.
What can we expect from you and your film company after Oblivion?
I want to help produce a few film ideas some friends have. Round up their resources and cast. I’m currently developing an untitled black and white kitchen sink movie about friendships and sex and comic books told through vignettes. It’ll take me five years to do ‘cause I want the actors to age in real-time. Despite tone or genre, all of my unproduced scripts are set in the same world as Oblivion…so one or two Oblivion characters make a cameo in it. I also want to do a few interconnected videos for my band The Dignitary Loss once we get our situation worked out. But I’m going into pre-production on a noir period-piece Odium for Ardor. It’s a bit like Sunset Blvd. meets 8 ½ and Faust. And it doesn’t resemble Oblivion in any form. It’s pretty grim. I’ve talked to Gabe Hart (front man of the Jail Weddings – visit jailweddings.net) about playing the lead. Hopefully we can get rolling on that in January.
Watch episodes of Oblivion on the official Oblivion website.