He broke through with “Blindspotting” before directing Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Now, Carlos Lopez Estrada directs the daring new film “Summertime,” which opens nationwide this Friday after premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
“‘Summertime’ is a movie written by 27 youth spoken-word poets from Los Angeles,” Estrada told WTOP. “It takes you across the city of Los Angeles over the course of one day. Each piece, each scene, each vignette was written and performed by a different poet. So it’s a mosaic of sorts; it’s a collection of stories and it’s a really heartfelt movie.”
The idea came about organically at a spoken-word poetry showcase through a Los Angeles nonprofit organization called Get Lit, which introduces teens to spoken word poetry “to get them excited about literature in their English classes,” Estrada said.
“I had such a deeply moving experience,” Estrada said. “‘Summertime’ is an attempt to recreate that one night where I saw these 27 poets perform their poetry back-to-back.”
He was fascinated to see the themes explored by the young voices.
“All of their stories and backgrounds are as different as can be, because the poets come from all different schools, all different districts, as diverse a bunch that you could meet, yet they all spoke about themes of identity, belonging and their definition of home, what it means to exist in the city,” Estrada said. “They all add a little piece to this mosaic.”
Estrada appreciates film mosaics, from Robert Altman’s “Nashville” to Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” and said his movie “kind of wrote itself” after he saw the showcase.
“The mosaic was presented to me rather than trying to devise one. You are seeing Los Angeles from 27 different perspectives; they have such unique characteristics, but there is this whole already existing. My job, more than anything, was trying to capture it.”
The main challenge was that most of the students were graduating high school.
“A lot of them were moving away from L.A., starting jobs and going all over the place for the next fall, which gave us a very short window of time to develop, write and shoot the movie,” Estrada said. “We did it over a summer workshop about four months long, the last month was shooting, so in three months we had to put these 27 minds together.”
Born in Mexico City in 1988, Estrada moved to Florida at age 12 before eventually coming to California to study film at Chapman University.
“Even though it’s not my actual hometown, I spend more time here than anywhere else. I’ve gotten to become a person in L.A.; I got to start working in L.A.; most of my friends and people I work with are here, so it does feel like home to me,” Estrada said.
His breakthrough film, however, was set further up the coast in Oakland. “Blindspotting” (2018) was written by Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) and his childhood friend Rafael Casal, who also starred in the film for one of the best social commentary films of the year.
The film brilliantly opened with a montage of split-screen images, juxtaposing a corporate Whole Foods on one side of the screen and a gritty bodega on the other side.
“There’s a lot of change happening in Oakland,” Estrada said. “The split screen made sense just to show that this is a movie about points of view, about ideas that are split in the middle. You get to look at both and decide what to take away from it.”
It also explored the famous optical illusion of Rubin’s Vase, where you either see a vase or two human faces, depending on your perspective. The idea is that we are all born with inherent biases, thus we must teach ourselves to see things from the opposite view.
“Based on the very particular circumstances that we come into this world, we naturally get to experience the world differently,” Estrada said. “Daveed and Rafael are the two lead characters, they live in the same city, but the fact that Daveed is a Black man and Rafael is a white man means they get to experience the city very differently.”
After the critical acclaim of “Blindspotting,” Estrada was fittingly tapped by Disney to direct the animated feature film “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021).
“I grew up watching Disney films, so being surrounded by all of these artists, technicians and storytellers — not to sound mushy — but it was a dream come true,” Estrada said. “It’s been grounding, it’s been exciting and it’s been quite the contrasting journey.”
Like Raya’s theme of “Kumandra,” “Summertime” hopes to bring folks together.
“We live in a world that needs empathy as much as possible,” Estrada said. “I feel like this is the only way to fight that Rubin’s Vase example. By allowing other people to share a little bit about their points of view, hopefully our way of seeing things broadens up a little bit and hopefully it makes things a little better around us.”