Close-Up: An Interview With Late Director Alexander Mansfield Martinez

Writer-director Alexander Mansfield Martinez joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss his short film, Late.

Late is a coming-of-age drama about Maya (Nia Towle), an adolescent school girl caught in limbo as she navigates the world in possession of a secret only she knows.

Late deals with the uncertainty and stigma around unplanned pregnancy. What did you want to explore in this film?

I’d never thought about it much until one day, a close friend of mine unexpectedly got pregnant. It was a big moment that came out of the blue and suddenly got me thinking about growing up and parenthood in a way I hadn’t considered before. I was at a crossroads in my own life and I found myself asking a lot of questions. What would I do in that situation? How do even younger people deal with something like that?

That train of thoughts turned into this idea about this character Maya, caught in the confusing limbo between childhood and adulthood, trying to deal with all the responsibilities and expectations that modern life is throwing at them. There’s a lot of pressure on young people to grow up fast, girls especially, and it’s ironic that people can feel so lost and unable to open up in a world that is more connected than ever.

Pregnancy is never specifically referenced in the film. Why is this?

It’s a sensitive topic, so you think of ways to tell the story in a way that is engaging without overdramatising things. Inferring the pregnancy without explicitly showing it or talking about it felt like the right way to reflect the stigma and stifled conversation around the subject. It’s pretty obvious from early on what is happening, so it’s not meant to be a plot twist, but by withholding certain information and suggesting things off-screen, hopefully the audience lean into the story and Maya’s headspace to experience what she is going through. It’s all right there in front of you but you can’t fully see it so it’s uncertain and strange, which is how Maya feels.

This is also a big secret for Maya that nobody else knows except the audience. They are in on it, finding things out and making sense of it at the same time as her. It adds a sense of secrecy and mystery. After all, teenagers are sneaky. Maya is on the verge of becoming a young woman, but she’s still sort of a kid. She’s still at school. She still lives at home with her family. She’s sneaking around getting herself in and out of trouble, so leaving certain things unsaid was our sneaky approach to telling the story.

Nia Towle gives a magnificent performance as Maya. Can you tell us about your collaboration on this project?

The whole film rests on Nia’s performance and her ability to convey a lot of emotion in a very small, understated way. The crazy thing is she had practically no on-screen acting experience until we made the film. I directed a music video which was a disaster because of a bunch of issues with the record label, but the good thing that came out of it was that I met Nia on that project. She was just starting out, but you could tell she had something special. We went on to become friends, then when this idea came along, I wrote the script with her in mind to play the lead. The problem was that she was in drama school by then and it didn’t look like she would be able to do the film.

We auditioned more established actors for the part who gave great auditions but none of them felt right. I was prepared to ditch the whole thing, but we figured out a way to make the dates work around her classes. Once she was onboard, we talked a lot about not wanting to do something gritty or kitchen-sink. She understood right away what style of film I had in mind and we developed Maya’s character and the family dynamic together from there. A lot of the stuff we discussed found its way into the final film, so she was very much a part of that, and all the other casting choices were made based off of her character. That was tricky because you look for great actors but it’s no good if they don’t look like they belong together in a family. The illusion breaks down.

It took a long time but we found the perfect family in the end. I find it hard to believe that Eva, the little sister, played by Lucia Hamilton is not related to Nia in real life. The resemblance is uncanny.

The film is already, and rightfully, receiving plaudits on the festival circuit. What do you hope audiences take away from Late?

I never set out with a theme or message in mind, but I do hope people connect to the characters and the performances, especially Maya’s. We went for a specific tone and style in the film that hopefully offers a different angle and experience of a subject that has been talked about a lot before. I tend not to like stuff that is heavy handed or on the nose. I’d rather present a character in a situation and let the audience make up their own minds about how they feel, or how the story ends.

You have worked on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, Game Of Thrones, and many other high profile projects. What was your most important, or memorable, experience from working on those projects?

I am a big film nerd so I loved working on those projects. I blagged my way into the industry and had to learn to swim fast. It was a steep learning curve but that kind of intense high-stakes environment makes you disciplined and also calm under pressure. I used to hang out as close to the action on set as possible so I could listen in on the director, cinematographer and actors talking through ideas, blocking and all that kind of stuff. It was my version of film school. Eventually the filmmaking process is demystified and you realise that even the best of the best are figuring out their way through one scene at a time.

I have so many memories from those projects but a funny one was from the first big studio film I worked on, which was this biblical epic Exodus: Gods & Kings. I remember my first day on the film, we were shooting at Pinewood Studios. I didn’t go to the bathroom all day because I was excited and nervous and working nonstop. When I finally went to the loo later that afternoon, I ended up peeing right next to Christian Bale in full Moses hair, makeup and costume. That was my introduction to making movies.

I heard you are currently working on a psychological drama. What can you reveal about that?

It’s a kind of whacky and surreal ghost story about a reclusive painter with dementia who becomes obsessed with a video tape whilst struggling to finish a huge work of art. It’s set in an isolated house in the desert in Spain, where I’m originally from, and is basically about this dying man looking back on his life, trying to hold onto these memories that are getting away from him as he reconciles with the ghosts of his past.

What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

I always have a few ideas floating around my mind at various stages of development. Maybe too many. I’m lucky in that sense, although it does cause me some sleepless nights. I’m developing my first feature called Pleasureland. It’s a crime-drama black comedy about two estranged brothers on a pretty shit road trip across the UK who are simultaneously chasing their dreams and fleeing their nightmares. The film revolves around a lot of secrets, lies and broken promises. I can’t get the idea out of my head so that’s usually a good sign. Outside of writing and directing, I run a production company alongside producer Archie Pearch called Devisio Pictures, which was set up with a close friend and collaborator of ours, Fraser Rigg.

Our first feature is currently in development with BBC Films and will hopefully go into production sometime early next year. By now I’ve learned to be patient and take each day as it comes. There’s no use trying to plan everything out. Things always take longer than you think, and they have a funny way of falling into place when they are ready, so long as you keep putting in the work. All I know is I want to keep growing and making stuff that excites me with people I love. Whatever comes next I’ll be throwing myself into it head first.

Late is currently on the festival circuit and screens this Saturday 8th October 2022 at Everyman Cinema in Crystal Palace, London as part of Little Wing Film FestivalLittle Wing Film Festival (littlewingevents.com)

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