Buses packed full of Whittier College students ventured to downtown Los Angeles to watch Whittier College’s coming-of-age film Carlos Through the Tall Grass, which kicked off the prestigious Downtown LA Film Festival on Sept. 14. The film was created from the hard work of over twenty students and alumni of the College, along with professors Patti McCarthy and Jennifer Holmes.
Chosen to open the 13th Annual DTLA Film Festival, which began on September 14 and ended September 18. Before, Carlos Through The Tall Grass, a short film by Whittier College alumnus Francis Maxwell screened for the audience. Both films exemplify the DTLA Film Festival’s mission of lending “a counterweight to the white maleness that dominated the commercial Hollywood film industry”. Highlighting just this, Francis Maxwell’s short film, Post No Bills sets the tone for the film festival by bringing to light the economic and social inequalities that individuals face in a world that fosters a divide between ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor.’ Post No Bills tells the moving story of “[a] late-night encounter in a Brooklyn penthouse apartment during a blackout [that] leads to a profound connection between the young handyman and a cleaner.” Their paths cross to illustrate the power of forming meaningful connections on the basis of shared trauma and life experiences. Despite being short in length, this film offers an in-depth look on economic disparity while showcasing the positive impact of mutual understanding. Skillfully shot and composed, Post No Bills possesses a heart-wrenching plot-line with deep underlying messages. And you can read more about Maxwell and his short film in the article “Lights, Cameras, No Bills!: Discussion with Francis Maxwell”.
Alongside Post No Bills, Carlos Through the Tall Grass fits perfectly in the mission statement of this festival. This is a film that mirrors the feelings of uncertainty many first-generation Latino students deal with when leaving their family and loved ones to pursue a higher education. Offering profound commentary on what it means to leave home as a first-generation student, the film balances the heavy subject matter through comedic relatability. The film showcases the beauty, hard work and love that was put into this film by members of the Whittier College community and creates a story that feels close to home.
Whittier College Theater and Film professor Patti McCarthy, the producer of Carlos Through the Tall Grass, describes the 99-minute film as “a heartwarming story about a Latino high school kid, Carlos, who faces a dilemma familiar to Latino, first-gen students who carry the guilt of leaving their friends and family behind. Carlos is a…story about realizing you can’t get anywhere new if you stick to the same familiar roads—sometimes your dreams are just out of sight, waiting for you, beyond the tall grass.”
McCarthy also stresses on the importance of bringing a film into the world that focuses on a Latino protagonist, and the fact that it was made primarily by a cast and crew of Hispanic and Latinx filmmakers. “Carlos positively represents these communities, rather than use stereotypes that fuel the white imaginary—a rarity in Hollywood,” she says.
McCarthy reveals, “[a]s soon as I read the script, I knew I wanted to produce it… it was also an award-winning Black List script (other Black List scripts include Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, to name a few).” According to the Black List website, “[s]ince 2005, each December, the Black List releases its annual list, a survey of the most liked unproduced screenplays of that year. The annual lists are aggregated using votes from film executives working in the film industry.” She knew right away that this was a great opportunity for Whittier College film and theater students to get practical experience making a professional indie feature film.
Jennifer Holmes, professor of Theater and Communication Arts, as well as co-producer and casting director of Carlos Through the Tall Grass shares, “I was drawn to this film for three reasons: the story, the wonderful hands-on film-making experience for our students, and the fact that Whittier, California is the featured location in the film. The struggle that Carlos experiences is an important issue that is not often discussed. High schools prepare students for college, yet it is difficult to actually prepare students for the emotional experience of leaving home.” Because the whole film was filmed in Whittier, they had the opportunities to form connections with the Whittier community, such as city officials and local businesspeople.
The way the film took its shape and form was quite serendipitous because nothing was set in stone. McCarthy met the writer and director, Rick Dominguez, at the end of Spring semester in 2019 while he was in search of an audition space at the Shannon Center. Out of curiosity, McCarthy read the film script and told Dominguez she would love to produce it that summer. Before the start of filming in July, there was a six-week period of pre-production that consisted of hiring a cast and crew; securing film locations; renting equipment; creating a schedule; finding costumes; getting permissions; and everything else in-between that it takes to make a film. While production was over after sixteen days of shooting, the Covid-19 pandemic prevented the film from being completed until May 2022.
McCarthy has never worked as hard on a film project like she did that summer, or asked a crew and cast to do so much under the pressure of time. Nevertheless, she enjoys being a producer, which is a job that entails being present from beginning to end. Some of the producer’s responsibilities include working with the writer to create the final script; creating the budget and schedule; and being involved in all the hiring; casting; and creative choices across all departments. Because a film is essentially separated into parts while filming, and put back together during the editing process, the producer and director “hold all the pieces together” throughout the creation process. Bringing a vision and idea to life on screen is what excites McCarthy the most as producer.
While the filmmaking process was an adventure full of challenges, McCarthy was constantly impressed by the professionalism and talent of the cast and crew. Unforeseen circumstances such as a location falling through at the last minute; actors getting sick or needing to schedule around a sudden conflict; or a piece of equipment not showing up! It required the team “to become part magicians and part creative problem-solvers”—especially because they were short on time and money.
With grace and determination, students helped overcome these challenges while simultaneously networking; forming connections with professionals in their respective field; practicing problem-solving under stress; taking initiative; and gaining a strong sense of agency. Several students who worked on the film currently hold jobs in the industry. Over the past few years, while in post-production (editing, sound design, etc.) other students and alumni helped create the website, promotional posters, social media campaigns, visual effects, and color corrections.
McCarthy emphasizes, “Not many College or University filmmakers get the chance to work on a feature before leaving school. And none, that I am aware of, have ever been given the chance to do so during summer on a film produced by their college professor. I couldn’t be more proud of all their efforts, or more pleased with the look of the finished product.”
One of the main messages McCarthy hopes the audience takes away from the film is to understand that it is perfectly fine to take a chance and follow one’s dreams at any point during one’s lifetime. She adds, “[t]he tall grass in Carlos is a metaphor. It’s what we all have to go through (conquer our fears, mostly) in order to find happiness, fulfillment or at the very least, get on with the next chapter in our lives. This is a universal experience that everyone can relate to. We all have fears, but it’s our love of family and friends that get us through—and no matter where we go, or what we do in our lives, it’s this love that we carry that fuels our success and makes our life worth living. I also hope after watching Carlos that other indie filmmakers, like our students, will be inspired to go out and make their own film and not feel limited by a lack of budget, star power, or studio support. Better to chase a dream, than live without one!”
The film won a Remi Award at the WorldFest-Houston, which is “the oldest independent film festival in the world.” McCarthy adds, “[our] students have been able to make a feature, walk away from the production with an imdb.com credit, gain real-life filmmaking and acting experience, work beside industry professionals, and enjoy the fruits of their labor by seeing their work screen at the World Premiere at Dances With Films, and now, at the Downtown LA Film Festival as the Opening Night film…”
Both Post No Bills and Carlos Through The Tall Grass are impactful films that set the stage (and a high bar) for those to follow in the festival. They are a stepping stone for change as they shed light on topics that warrant discussion and give recognition to individuals who often go ignored within the world of film. Post No Bills and Carlos Through the Tall Grass are testament to the promise of the newly established Film Major at Whittier College, as they depict the far-reaching audiences and positive impact that films produced by members of Whittier College are able to have.
PHOTO COURTESY OF RILEY WHITE