Finding genuine connections in a divided world as they try to adapt to new life circumstances can be an equally harrowing and fulfilling experience for many people. That’s certainly the case for the two protagonists of the new award-winning buddy road trip movie, ‘Unidentified Objects.’ The sci-fi comedy-drama is a bracingly original, character-driven story features a platonic love story between its main characters, Peter and Winona, as they fight together to find their place in the ever-changing world after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Juan Felipe Zuleta made his feature film writing, directorial and producing debuts on ‘Unidentified Objects.’ He also contributed to the story featured in the movie, which was was penned by Leland Frankel.
After world premiering at Inside Out, the feature won awards this summer at the Frameline and Outfest LBGTQ+ film festivals. ‘Unidentified Objects’ then went on to have its Texas premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin last month.
‘Unidentified Objects’ follows a curmudgeonly gay little person, Peter (Matthew August Jeffers), and his free-spirited neighbor, Winona (Sarah Hay), as they hit the road in search of an alien abduction on a trip that will alter their relationship —and their sense of reality — forever. Along the way, their friendship will be tested by shroom-addled survivalists, overzealous cosplayers and the painful realization that humans possibly may be alone in the universe.
Zuleta generously took the time during last month’s Fantastic Fest to talk about helming and producing ‘Unidentified Objects’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he was driven to cast Jeffers as Peter because the filmmaker was surprised to realize that in modern society, little people have very little representation in movies. He also mentioned that he was excited to share ‘Unidentified Objects’ during in-person screenings at Fantastic Fest.
The conversation began with Zuleta explaining what the process was like of contributing to ‘Unidentified Objects’ story, and collaborating with Frankel on creating the script. “Leland Frankel, the main writer, and myself have been collaborators since 2015. We’ve been working together in developing screenplays, and we’re co-authors on everything we do. He’s a very terrific playwright and screenwriter, so he does most of the legwork when it comes to writing the actual screenplays,” he said.
“I always give them a pass and rewrite, but when it comes to the treatment, idea and structure, we write that together,” the filmmaker added.
“For this particular movie, we had an idea of what ‘Unidentified Objects’ was going to be from notes that we had. We knew we wanted to tell a story about a little person because we’re both cinema studies junkies and love movies,” Zuleta divulged.
“For me personally, it was very surprising to realize in today’s day and age, little people have very little representation in cinema. In many, when they are portrayed, they’re portrayed as sidekicks,” the scribe pointed out. He also noted that “Nowadays, (Emmy Award-winning ‘Game of Thrones’ star) Peter Dinklage is the only little person who’s consistently getting lead roles in major projects.
“So we had that in the back of our heads. But then when the COVID pandemic hit, Leland and I found ourselves to be unemployed with a lot of things happening. I was locked up in my New York City apartment, and by a miracle, we were able to express what we were feeling through a lot of calls,” Zuleta shared.
“So we were then able to start developing the idea for this script, and really flush it out. A lot of what we were feeling was getting poured into the script,” the filmmaker added. “The first draft of the script was written really fast, in just a month.
“Then the first thing I did after that was reach out to all the little people across the U.S., as well as the UK and Australia, and have conversations with them. We did a really big outreach and started interviewing and auditioning little people. We also started sending scripts to people and getting feedback,” Zuleta shared.
“Very early on, we found Matthew, our lead actor. He then became part of the producing team. In many ways, we gave us permission to tell and say certain things. He’d say things like, ‘You have to say the word midget here because that’s how the world is,'” the writer divulged.
“It became an incredibly collaborative process. Every actor and filmmaker who joined became an important part of the film, from our editor to our composer. We all started to understand what we wanted tell and a level of authenticity, as well as the way we wanted to tell it,” Zuleta revealed.
“We began to explore what the word alien means, and what it also means to be an unidentified object. At its core, the movie is an exploration of identity,” the filmmaker added.
Zuleta then delved into the fact that he made his feature film directorial debut on the project, and explained what his approach to helming the comedy-drama throughout the production was like. “It was one of the most rewarding, while also being one of the hardest, experiences that I’ve gone through in my life. ‘Unidentified Objects’ is an ultra low budget movie with very little resources,” he revealed.
“It was also the first movie to be greenlit by SAG-AFTRA on the East Coast during COVID. So when we started production, very few productions were in development,” the filmmaker also shared.
“So I was able to laser focus my whole self into it. So my biggest take-away from making this movie was finding the right people, who were as passionate about the project, and telling the story, as me, and understood what we wanted to tell. We were also looking for people who could add value and use their imaginations,” Zuleta emphasized.
“For example, finding the two leads was my biggest goal. I needed to find two people who had good chemistry and knew we were making something special. That was a really tough job as a director, considering that I don’t have any directing credits when it comes to bigger projects,” the director admitted.
“We didn’t have a specialized casting director; we only had ourselves and our friends helping us. But I think the fact that we were taking the project so seriously allowed us to bring the right people in,” Zuleta added.
“The experiences I had before on short films is the same process of making a feature. During pre-production, production and post-production, it’s all about understanding the language of what you want to tell and why you’re telling it,” the filmmaker admitted.
“I was also surrounded by people who wanted to make this feature great. That was the best, and I have to give credit to my entire crew and cast,” Zuleta added.
Once Jeffers and Hay were cast as the leads in ‘Unidentified Obects,’ the helmer cherished the time he had with them to build their characters’ personalities and relationship. “We rehearsed a lot, but my rehearsal process isn’t like we just read through the scenes, and I told them how they should do things. The rehearsal process for me is a process where you build absolute trust with the actors. You really try to be vulnerable with them and build a common ground,” he shared.
“We developed a dialogue in which we could understand why and how we wanted to tell the story. So with each of them, I had improvisational exercises on a few things, including the diner scene, which, for me, is one of the most important scenes in the film. Peter has a monologue about how he’s a circle within a circle within a circle,” Zuleta revealed.
“I also had three-four hour Zoom calls with Matthew every day for two weeks before filming. We also did a few in-person meetings before (production started), which was pretty intense,” the filmmaker divulged. “That was the same with Sarah; we were in constant communication.
“It came down to, how do you develop a relationship and trust with an actor? That trust is fundamental, because if an actor trusts you (as a filmmaker), they’re going to go above and beyond because there’s no room to fail,” Zuleta admitted. “Matthew and I developed a dialogue in which we talked about the character and his ark.”
Like the director previously mentioned, ‘Unidentified Objects’ was the first film to be greenlit by SAG-AFTRA on the East Coast during COVID. With the movie featuring a buddy road trip storyline, he shared what the experience was like of finding and shooting in the locations that are featured in the comedy-drama.
“It was so hard, but we got super lucky. We shot 95% of the movie in Maine, and we were planning where we were going to film there around the COVID peaks. We shot in Augusta, which is a town in the middle of Maine that didn’t have any COVID cases in a 60-mile radius,” Zuleta divulged.
“So we knew from a production standpoint that if we went there and found all of our locations in that area, there were very low chances that we were going to get COVID,” the filmmaker added.
“But along with that, we had to follow SAG protocols. We had to have COVID tests three times a week for everyone. But the principal actors or a crew member who was working in the first circle, which was usually the DP (Director of Photography), myself as the director and the first AD (Assistant Director), who were the people who weren’t wearing masks on set, had to get tested almost every day,” Zuleta explained.
“So everyday was hectic. We were waiting for the results to see if anyone had COVID. But no one got COVID during the production of ‘Unidentified Objects,’ which is a miracle because soon after, we saw these massive movies like ‘Mission: Impossible’ getting shut down for months because of COVID cases,” the helmer pointed out.
“We spent a lot of money on COVID tests and safety, as they were much more expensive in 2020 and early 2021 than they are today, but that was our priority, and it should always be the priority. Obviously, it was worth it,” Zuleta emphasized. “We had a very solid production team that was taking those protocols seriously.”
The filmmaker then delved into what his experience was like of serving as one of the producers on ‘Unidentified Objects,’ including balancing his producing and directorial duties on the set. “It was very nerve-racking, to be honest, especially at first. I was one of the main producers in charge of finding the funds for the movie,” he admitted
“I decided to start production on the film without all of the money. We had enough to get through production plus loans and credit cards filled up,” the producer shared. “But I was committed to getting it made.
“There was a day on set when the line producer, who’s in charge of the budget, came up to me and told me we were over budget by a lot of money. Getting that information, and then having to go and direct an actor, is not an easy task for anyone to take on,” Zuleta admitted.
“But I just gave my whole heart and gave all my faith into the craftsmanship of the movie, and knew we were going to get through, and eventually we did,” the filmmaker continued.
“When we finished production, I edited a couple of scenes and shared them with the other producers and investors, and we were able to cover the gap and finish financing the film without a problem,” Zuleta added.
“It was tough. Since we’re a small film, I was in charge of most of the post-production work flow. I was the post-production supervisor in many ways, so it was good that I had my film school experience, and also produced and budgeted short films,” the producer shared.
“I also had a strong team of producers to back me up, including Masha Leonov and Juan Sebastian Jaimes, who have commercial experience and are really good with numbers and were able to keep everything organized. So we complemented each other in those ways,” Zuleta added.
With the filmmaking team being faced with several obstacles throughout the feature’s production, the director was happy to share ‘Unidentified Objects’ during in-person screenings at Fantastic Fest in Austin last month. “I’m incredibly excited about Fantastic Fest. I think it’s the perfect film festival for this film,” heshared.
“At the end of the day, genre movies have an understanding of the unknown, as well as characters who are misfits and don’t necessarily fit the status quo. That’s what I cared about putting into ‘Unidentified Objects;’ to me, it’s a film about outsiders and misfits,” Zuleta noted.
“We use all of this narrative language, include science-fiction, fantasy, dark humor and drama to tell something that people at Fantastic Fest are going to appreciate. I believe they have the same imagination that I have and appreciating those elements, as well as the seeds of ambiguity that we plant throughout the story. I think the audience at the festival is going to appreciate that, so I’m super excited about playing the movie there,” the helmer concluded.