Maintaining the will-power and strength to not lose hope, even during their seemingly most desperate and vulnerable times, is a powerful ability that not everyone possesses. But Latina filmmaker Lissette Feliciano is proving that through hard work and determination, minorities and females are extremely capable of realizing their dreams, even when society tells them that they’re not.
Feliciano made her feature film writing, directorial and executive producing debuts with the socially important new drama, ‘Women Is Losers,’ after working on several short and made-for-television films. The movie’s protagonist, Celina, who’s played by fellow executive producer, Lorenza Izzo, relentlessly fights to proclaim her independence by overcoming systemic issues of racism and misogyny in the 1960s and ’70s in America.
‘Women Is Losers’ is inspired by real women’s lives and the Janis Joplin song of the same name. The feature, which features a personal story from Feliciano, played in the Narrative Film Competition during last month’s SXSW.
Set in 1960’s San Francisco, ‘Women Is Losers’ follows bright and talented Catholic school girl Celina Guerrera, who survives a difficult home life by following the rules. That all changes when an indiscretion in her relationship with her boyfriend, Mateo (Bryan Craig), creates a series of devastating consequences. As Celina faces the compounded obstacles of being young and alone, she sets out to rise above the oppression of poverty and invest in a future that sets new precedents for the time.
Feliciano, Izzo and Craig generously took the time during SXSW last this month to talk about writing, directing, producing and starring in ‘Women Is Losers’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker, actress and actor discussed that they wanted to create a story set several decades ago with characters who fight for their rights and haven’t been predominately featured in lead roles in the era before in other movies. They also discussed their gratitude that the drama played during the festival’s virtual edition this year, as it allowed people around the country to see such an important politically and socially-driven story on screen.
ShockYa (SY): Lissette, you wrote the script for the new film, ‘Women Is Losers.’ What was your inspiration in penning the screenplay, and what was your scribing style while you crafted the story?
Lissette Feliciano (LF): I really wanted to create a story that we really haven’t seen before with characters we haven’t seen much of in a time period that we’ve seen a lot of in other films. When I see films from the ’60s and ’70s, it almost feels as though people of color weren’t around; it was like we didn’t exist.
I thought that was very damaging, so I wanted to create a world where we experience what it was like for us back then. Also, the parallels of what Lorenza and Bryan’s characters were going through in the ’60s and ’70s were pretty much verbatim of what they could be going through now in 2021.
We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a lot of progress to make. The laws have changed, but the enforcement of those laws haven’t really changed.
I have to say that this cast, especially Lorenza and Bryan, jumped into this right away. They went into it in such a wonderful and beautiful way. Bryan’s first day on set was the opening scene, and he jumped into the story three days before that. He was off book in two days, and I was shocked! But it was wonderful.
Then Lorenza came in and really created the fourth wall breaks. I tried to give her space of what she wanted to say as Lorenza in those fourth wall breaks. It takes a lot of bravery to do that, and to sign onto a story like this, especially after they did huge things. She had just done a (Quentin) Tarantino movie (‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’), and he had just come off of an an Eva Longoria show (the summer 2019 ABC mystery drama series, ‘Grand Hotel’). So for them to say, ‘Okay, now I’m going to go into this smaller world and tell such an important story like this,’ meant a lot to me as a writer-director.
SY: Speaking of directing the movie, why did you decide to also helm the feature? How did working on the script influence your directorial style?
LF: I have to say that I had an amazing cast and crew. The crew in San Francisco was so willing to deal with some out-of-the-blue challenges, which obviously comes with the kind of story we were trying to make. Everyone was really positive.
Directing the film was really about finding the tone and rhythm that we were trying to create. The movie is like a dance, as it has these big moments, and then had rest moments. But the rest moments were almost as hard to get as the big moments because we were constantly going. (Feliciano laughs.)
But being able to direct it was such a wonderful experience. It was a collaboration between Lorenza and I and Bryan and I. Everyone had their own version of the story that they brought to the set.
Honestly, I was spoiled for choice; I didn’t know what to pick because they all had so many amazing ideas, and really took ownership. No one came into this as a job; they all came in with ownership of their characters and stories and the world. It was really guerilla filmmaking, and the actors really played, and it was wonderful.
SY: Bryan and Lorenza, you play Mateo and Celina in ‘Women Is Losers.’ What was it about your characters, as well as the overall screenplay, that convinced you to take on your roles?
Bryan Craig (BC): It happened really quickly. I was coming off shooting ‘Grand Hotel,’ and I was really looking to do a film that had a lot of heart and was based on a true story.
This script came across my manager’s desk and I read it, and it was exactly what I wanted to do at that time. I wanted to do something that felt real. I really took an interest in the story and its message, and it was very important to me.
The character was appealing in many ways. I’ve never played a father before, and this character’s a father. He also sends a very good message to a lot of young men in the world about what they think they have and need to be. All of it made sense, and I was excited to do it.
There wasn’t a lot of time (to prepare); I think I had three days before I flew out and stared filming. But I’m very happy I did it, and I enjoyed playing the character.
Lorenza Izzo (LI): I totally agree with Bryan! The script was intense and important, and there’s no way to convey that without a cast with those same qualities. Bryan was right; we just jumped into playing these roles.
I keep talking about how the script is so meta. On a day-to-day basis, we’re trying to achieve what we’re trying to convey in the story’s message.
Just understanding the obstacles to bring this all up while also honoring Lissette’s story and her difficulties while making this project was important. She struggled to find financing, as people said, ‘Oh, you’re just starting out, and you need this and out.’ This was such a let me show you what we can do, and educate you with what we’ve been educated with along the way, kind of project. That was so important, and I was drawn to that aspect after I read the script.
SY: What was your experience like of working together as the performers and writer-director-executive producer, particularly in building the characters’ motivations and relationships?
BC: Lissette’s incredible. She has a very maternal approach to her directing-at least she did with me. I really enjoyed working with her, and I think she has a lot of unique ideas and ways of working. So I had a great working with her.
I also had a great working relationship with Lorenza. She’s an incredibly talented and versatile actor, and she was very kind. We both had to jump into this without a lot of prep. We jived together not only in the way we worked, but also as people. Luckily everything worked out. I’m really proud of what we did. I’m so lucky that I was able to work with people like her, and Lissette made the job a lot easier.
LI: Lissette and I met at the very beginning. She came to me with the script, and we developed a really beautiful relationship that was parallel to the growth that I did as an actor with, and that Celina did in, the script. We found the sisterhood and trusted each other, and we needed that trust in order for this to make sense.
There was a very vulnerable relationship that happened on set between us, as an actor and director. We both entrusted so much in each other, and we need to have a safe space in order to do that. We also had room to play and to be sad, scared and angry.
There was a day where I was shooting a really awful scene with my character’s best friend. I hit a door so hard that I hurt myself and walked off set. I’ve never done anything so dramatic in my life! I was like, this is really getting to me. We were able to have a really nice conversation about that afterward.
I hadn’t worked with a woman director on a movie as intense as this one in awhile. But it was truly magical, and certainly special when you get to collaborate with your peers and someone you admire and work so well with.
That was certainly the case with this film. It was so special to both of us, as it paralleled the feeling that we felt that a lot of doors were closed on us before we could even show our work. There was a lot of understanding of that, and us wanting to show the world what we could do.
Everyday on set we asked, ‘How do we get this day?,’ and it was all about us getting it. I love when that happens, as I think there’s a certain magic that you get from shoots like this that you don’t get from others. You’re so ambitious and believe in something to your core with this type of film; there’s not a gram in my body that doesn’t believe in this project, and I want to share this story with the world. So it was a very special experience.
SY: Why was it important for you all to show the pain and truth about American society’s inability to overcome systemic issues of racism and misogyny in the drama?
LI: Well, we wanted to tell the story so that girls growing up can feel as though there’s representation and messages of female-empowerment out there, and not just one type of character. Growing up, I saw a lack of people who not only looked like me, but also had different backgrounds and stories overall. This is a story of hope, which is important to share with the world.
LF: Lorenza, who also served as one of the executive producers, touched on hope, which is what this story is really about. There are challenges and things we have to deal with, but you also have to feel like there’s hope in your heart and that you can still prosper.
One of the messages and themes in the film is that there is positivity in life, even in the really dark challenges and issues we deal with in the story. There are these get up and cheer moments, but there are also these really tough moments. I wanted the film to be honest. Lorenza touched on representation, and we wanted to include honest representation.
I feel like with this story, you really don’t know where things are going to go, which is how life is, especially if you’re a female or a person of color. You’re dealing with things as you go, and I wanted that to come across. Lorenza really embraced the story, and wanted to make sure that it came across as honestly as possible in the story’s time period and the restraints that we had during the production.
I also think it’s important to show intersectionality of people of color. It feels like things are segregated; there are shows with Latin characters, Asian characters and African American characters, but it seems like we’ve all been surviving together for a long time, and we occupy similar spaces. Our journeys are different, but they’re also similar. So it was really important to me to explore what happens when all of these types of people interact.
I’m so grateful that Lorenza and Bryan really jumped in to create this story. It’s their story, too; it’s not something we made up.
LI: Yes, it’s a true story that’s fueled by tears, blood and sweat.
SY: Following up on you both also serving as executive producers on ‘Women Is Losers,’ why did you both decide to also produce the feature? How did you balance your directorial and acting duties with your producing duties?
LI: Like we mentioned earlier, we wanted to feel as though we’re on par with everyone else, in a collaboration sense. Being able to collaborate with someone who sees me as a worthy colleague, and vice versa, is just so important. Like I said, that made it a very creative and freeing space for us, and producing together seemed seamless to me.
LF: Working together as producers was a necessary collaboration. There are so many times I come into these spaces and am the only woman or Latina. That’s hard, so sometimes you need another person like you to be there so that you can ask them, ‘Does this reflect us, and does it feel right to you?’ So having that balance was incredible, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
SY: ‘Women Is Losers’ (played) in the Narrative Film Competition during (last month’s) SXSW. What does it mean to you all that the film (screened) during the festival?
LF: The virtual experience has been fantastic. It’s cool that this story is going to come out virtually because it is for everybody. We want more people to be able to see it. Going to film festivals is really cost prohibitive, so we’re able to reach our target audience by screening the film virtually.
LI: I 100 percent agree. This is is my first time at SXSW, and I know that it’s a virtual one, but I’m really excited, honored and happy, and can’t really believe that it’s happening. The virtual aspect makes it feel a little bit easier to navigate, but I also really wish that I was in Austin.
LF: We’re just so grateful for the festival.
LI: We really are! It’s giving us a platform to talk about this subject. It’s so nice to be able to bring the attention to a project we’re so passionate about and feel is so important-that’s rare, so we’re very thankful.