“Millions Of Pictures To Tell One Story:” Interview With EKAJ Director Cati Gonzalez
EKAJ teaches us about the turbulent lives of LGBTQ youth - we spoke with first time director & professional photographer Cati Gonzalez.
“I don’t know how to love, but I learned how to hate.” These are the first words uttered by Ekaj, as the film opens with a shot of our title character floating in a swimming pool.
I put off watching EKAJ for a few days after I received access to the screener. But it was not because I was dreading the viewing, in fact, I was pretty sure I would love the film. Maybe that is what kept me from watching it: I knew it would require my full, undivided attention. I needed to wait for a moment of peace in the midst of the chaos.
“Men are very insecure. I’ll always hate men. I even hate myself.” — Ekaj
First-time director, Cati Gonzalez, came out with her film, EKAJ, in 2015. Cati, who grew up in Barcelona, is known for her incredible photography; you can find her work, which includes celebrity portraits, in prestigious magazines from Vogue to Interview. She moved to NYC in 1990 and has lived there ever since.
Cati’s debut film, EKAJ, centers on a teenager (played by Jake Metsre) who runs away from home only to find himself under the wing of a caring, older friend, Mecca (played by Badd Idea) who is dying of AIDS. Ekaj falls in love with a painter named Johnny, who couldn’t be colder toward him.
But the film is more than a simple love story. EKAJ teaches us about the turbulent lives of LGBTQ youth, specifically those who have been kicked out of their own homes. The Gonzalez duo articulately depicts what it means to be gender-queer today, in the fast-paced landscape of NYC.
“You’re confused. You wanna smell like a boy but you wanna look like a girl.” — Mecca, to Ekaj
Since its premiere at Palm Beach International Film Festival (and its international premiere at No Gloss Film Festival in the UK) EKAJ has gained the admiration of some of the independent sphere’s top players and has played at over 35 festivals both in the US and around the world. To list just a few of the film’s credits: EKAJ won best film at the 2016 NY Downtown Urban Arts Film Festival, took home the award for best film, best new director, and best actor at the 2016 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival, and won best film and best cinematography at the 2017 Festival de Premios Latino in Marbella, Spain.
Clearly, EKAJ has been well received, by both the queer community and the film world at large. The Huffington Post called it, a “profound, educational, and almost surreal examination of life…” and I would have to agree. The casual atmosphere that follows the film is equal parts comfortable and off-putting. Life in NYC is never dry or cookie-cutter, and neither is this film. In fact, Gonzalez will often cut away to pedestrians and passers-by, giving us a wider scope on the big bad city.
Cati gave us some insight into the making of her film, and her experience moving from photographer to the director’s chair. Below is our conversation over email.
Sophia Cowley for Film Inquiry: I understand that you and your partner, Mike Gonzalez, co-produced Ekaj. What made you decide to direct on your own?
Cati Gonzalez: I wrote the script of Ekaj it was always my vision to make a film, and Mike partnered with me to get it done. I am the creative and he is the technical aspect of the production, but since it was such a small production let’s just say we all wore many hats.
Seeing as you are also a professional photographer, how did you merge these worlds of photography and film when you started working on Ekaj?
Cati Gonzalez: I think being a photographer gave me a good base since films are moving pictures, but it was a learning process nevertheless. Some of the challenges were when I had to make the scenes linger at times I would often cut the scene to fast thinking like a photographer or having to pay attention to the sound, not just the visuals; it sucks when you have a great visual sequence but the sound goes wrong. Basically as a photographer you try to tell a story with one picture, one frame, and in film you have millions of pictures to tell one story.
Did you always know your first film would have LGBTQ themes? Where did your inspiration come from?
Cati Gonzalez: Not at all! I originally wrote the script with two straight Puerto Rican guys but when I met Gio, one of the supporting actors who is related to my partner, and then soon after the lead actor Jake, I changed it to gay Puerto Ricans. I worked in Fashion Photography in NYC for 20 years and almost everybody is gay in the business, so for me it was not unnatural to switch it at all, it was the world I knew.
To tell you the truth, when I wrote the script nobody was talking about the gay issues as they are now, so I didn’t think of it politically, but from a humane angle. My main focus was the story of two guys who are underdogs, drifters, discarded by life, inspired by the film Midnight Cowboy.
What message or messages did you keep in mind while writing this film? Who was the audience you had in mind?
Cati Gonzalez: I guess I don’t think of messages when I write, I am more motivated or inspired by feelings. I tell a little story, a fraction of life not guided by an audience, after I write, then it might belong to a certain audience, that is the surprise discovery after the fact.
I still don’t know the audience for EKAJ, sometimes is a portion of the LGBT community, college kids, prostitutes, an old guy from Alabama… I don’t think EKAJ is just for a gay audience, let’s just say. If a gay person has never been a runaway, living in the streets or struggled to keep an apartment (like many in NYC have) or has never had substance abuse or prostitution problems or doesn’t understand Puerto Ricans living in the Bronx they might never get our film.
One amazing thing about NYC is that we have a melting pot and we don’t tent to generally think “that’s because he is black” or “that’s because she is gay” as much as people belonging to a certain lifestyle like she is a Club Kid or Wall Street, Fashionista, etc…
How did you get the film funded? Did you reach out to any LGBTQ organizations or film collectives?
Cati Gonzalez: We did a Kickstarter and then an investor came along during the campaign. I really didn’t reach out to LGBTQ Organizations. I learned afterwards that you should reach out. Live and learn.
I heard you just signed with a distributor. Congratulations! What was that process like?
Cati Gonzalez: The process was scary, since we were warned by other filmmakers that most distributors take the film and you never see any money. I don’t know how that is acceptable but I heard that’s the movie business.
We ended up going with Indie Rights because they offer a transparent deal that worked for us that’s different than a typical distributor. But, there is definitely a need for a new breed of distribution companies that serves indie filmmakers with honesty and fairness. After all, the Filmmaker does all the work, puts all of his/her money upfront, executes the Film, delivers it with insurances, all neatly packaged with all the Festival awards included.
Can you give us any insight into your next feature film?
Cati Gonzalez: I just finished writing a Feature Script that I love but I’m not sure that I am going to want to direct this one, so I don’t know what comes next. I’ve also written a short script as well. I have a few ideas in my head and I haven’t picked one as the main yet.
Does EKAJ strike a chord with you? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
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