We had the good fortune of connecting with Carlo Tonda and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Carlo, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk was not a part of my vocabulary until fairly recently. Besides the mundane day-to-day gambles, like trying to talk to a cute girl or going to a house party, all consistent with my way of bullying myself out of extreme introversion; I hadn’t taken any major leaps. My first dip, or rather full-on dive, into risk taking was when I packed my bags and left everyone I knew behind. I left Guatemala at the age of 19 to study aerospace engineering in the US. A bet that introduced me to a lot of wonderful people and ideas but proved to be unfulfilling professionally. I quickly realized that rocket science is not as cool as it sounds, and that being good at something, doesn’t mean you enjoy it. There was so much riding on my shoulders. People and institutions put money and resources to have me there. I felt guilty for occupying a spot that someone else would cherish more, and at the same time, I had no idea which place to take if I were to leave it. I found refuge in movies and realized what a large impact they had in my upbringing. For a recused person, they offer a safe window into the world around us. I never held a camera before and had no idea what it took to make a movie. But a one in a lifetime hunch told me that I should pursue film. I had to make a choice between a financially stable future in engineering, or an unreliable one in the arts. Like the opening song in La La Land warns: “could be brave or just insane, we’ll have to see”.
I leveraged my position and transferred to a school in Los Angeles. Naturally, they wouldn’t take me in the film program. I was no one and had made nothing. In a fashion fitting of their school’s mascot, I Trojan horsed them. The engineering department was happy to admit me and provide some financial aid. However, as soon as I secured those two things, I transferred to the cinema school. Needless to say, my parents and school officials weren’t big fans of this maneuver. Nevertheless, I was happy with my decision. For the next year, I dedicated all my efforts to “catch up”. Some of my classmates were brilliant storytellers already and I had no time to waste. Filmmaking became my everything. Even if it meant that I had to work many hours a week to keep up with the expensive tuition and sacrifice social interactions for the sake of time, I knew it was worth to pursue this passion. However, the increasing workload and cost of living presented me with a harsh reality and another tough choice.
I couldn’t afford the university I was attending in LA anymore. Dropping out wasn’t an option given my visa depended on staying a student. There was no other way, I had to transfer again. My options narrowed down to a prestigious school in Georgia or a film-oriented trade school in LA. Everybody, even my closest confidants, advised me to go Georgia. It was clearly the better option. The college was big, respected and, unlike the LA one, gave me a generous scholarship. Therefore, guarantying that I wouldn’t have to work a single day during my undergrad. The only problem: it was 2,430 miles away from the girl I was madly in love with. Once again, I was presented with the choice of following the safe path or risking it all. Stability for at least four years, if not more, or bet it all to stay in California with someone who I just started dating. I chose the latter. Looking back at it, I think I made the right decision because of two reasons.
Number one: My new school was a better fit for me. In my view, most film programs are the same. What makes or breaks your time in school is your peers. I used to call it “The Island of The Broken Toys” because it was filled with rejects from other film schools, great artist with terrible high school grades and people who, for some reason or another, found themselves in the first film school that would take them. My colleagues and I were far from being the most talented or knowledgeable students. But we had something more important in common: An urgency and hunger to make it. It wasn’t optional to succeed for us. The people and things we risked and left behind made us work harder and harder every day. We didn’t have Hollywood contacts or big budgets, but we stretched every dollar and knocked on every door. By the time I graduated, I made more films and, probably, created more and better opportunities for myself than if I had stayed in the other school.
Number two: I learned that your loved ones are the most important thing in life. In this business, it’s easy to neglect your personal relationships in lieu of your career goals. In my opinion, there is no set or movie that’s worth a good friend, relative or partner. It didn’t work out between her and me. Our story didn’t have a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination. But I never had to wonder what would have happened if I stayed. I could have spent my whole life questioning if I let the love of my life, if there’s such a thing, go because of my personal ambition. Always choose the path you’ll regret the least. You might get your heart broken but, you’ll never spend long nights in bed wishing to turn back time. Love is a huge risk and the larger the wager, the bigger the cost. Risks carry losses but the greatest loss is to never risk anything at all.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
As artists we are always evolving and reinventing ourselves. In the past few years, I’ve written and directed dozens of projects that allowed me to experiment with different elements of style, tone and genre. But my favorite ones, and coincidentally the most successful, share a common approach, which consists of unapologetically committing to the sensibilities of the piece. Authenticity is hard to achieve but immediately detectable. As an artist, I crave to be understood and communicate the way I feel to the masses, and as an audience member, I need for someone to bravely put the most vulnerable parts of their life out there. It’s incredibly hard to open up and be vulnerable to complete strangers. There is always the risk of being judged and associated with the content of the things you create. But it’s those embarrassing, passionate, regretful or tragic moments in your life that make for great art. Such was the case with my latest film, Cata.
Cata is adapted from a poem I wrote four years ago. To say it’s based on my own experience is an understatement. The text is a literalization of the dream-like day I spent with a lovely girl, who I later went on to emotionally hurt. I shelved the poem out of shame and cowardness. I said to myself that it was for the best of my personal life to leave that story untold. In reality, I was scared to face my irreversible mistakes, their consequences and the judgement from others about my despicable behavior. I wish I could stand here and claim to be brave enough to resurface this poem on my own. But the truth is that a reencounter with her was the event that made me rescue the project.
It was an unexpected reunion. I walked the aisles of my local grocery store with a shaggy beard and mismatched clothes, looking for any sweet things to distract me from the pain I was feeling. I was going through a heart break, not too different from the one I caused her. And then, right between the peas and ketchup, I saw her. She walked right pass me, probably not paying attention or not recognizing me. I was about to run away in sheer panic, but I didn’t. I decided I wasn’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past. I walked over, tapped her on the shoulder and we talked. I apologized for the way I treated her, and she said she had forgiven me a long time ago. We said goodbye politely, and I went back home… where I proceeded to puke my insides out of pure anxiety. I had finally released the guilt that had been eating at me for so long and gotten closure. Or so I thought. I kept feeling responsible for the emotional hardship I had caused. A late apology at a Ralphs was not enough to amend my mistakes. So, I dug up the poem and spent the next few months making a short film out of it. My twisted way of asking for forgiveness.
The strange thing about this film is its reception. I made it for myself, almost as an apology or form of self-therapy. I still get emotional when I see the ending, even though I’ve seen dozens of cuts hundreds of times. It’s one of the cheapest projects I’ve directed, with the least amount of crew and shot during quarantine. And yet, it’s been my most well received film and the greatest conduit for future opportunities.
Cata proved two lessons that I’ve learned over the years both as a director and a crew member. First, always make from the heart. It’s easier said than done. I wish it was simple to craft stories without exposing your deepest and darkest secrets and insecurities. But so far, I haven’t found another way. And second, always bet on you and your friends. No one wants to stay a Production Assistant forever, and for as much as people want to think otherwise, you have to pave your own path. I’ve met so many remarkable people who have great scripts or ideas stashed in a drawer waiting for a call from Netflix and one million dollars to fall on their lap. Forget all the miracle Hollywood stories you’ve heard, that doesn’t happen. Always choose your project over a stranger’s, even if the difference in scale is massive. I promise you, if you put all your resources together, find people like you and make from the heart, success will follow. The pride of creating something that touches you and the ones around you tops any movie credit.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
LA has something for everybody. But if I had to plan one perfect day, I’d start off with a visit to The Last Bookstore and a nice cup of coffee. Followed by lunch in my neighborhood of Koreatown in a restaurant like Ham Ji Park, Hangari Kalguksu or Gol Tong Chicken. For dessert, I’d get an ice cream from Somi Somi and head to one of my favorite movie theaters with my friends. Something like the Los Feliz 3, The Vista, Hollywood Arclight, new Beverly, Egyptian theater, Aero or Alamo Draft House in DTLA. After watching a great film with plenty of snacks, we would head to the beach in Santa Monica, where we would chill on the sand, play some air hockey on the pier’s arcade and watch the sun go down. Finally, move over to Dockweiler Beach and light a bonfire. We would enjoy some good company with enough food and drinks to last us all night. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I have so many people to thank for me being here: My family in Guate for always bringing a smile to my face, friends who encouraged me to follow my dreams, film collaborators for including and trusting me with their projects, the crew and cast who have selflessly worked on my sets and clients who gave me a gig that allowed me to stick around in the US. I’d like to think that I keep a part of every one of you with me. All those pieces combined make the person I am today. Most important of all, I’m grateful to my parents.
Growing up there was quite a lot of violence, crime and uncertainty around me. It was almost usual for someone in our circle to get mugged, kidnapped or worse. Even while working full-time jobs, my parents always made sure to shield my sisters and I from the horrors of the world, and focus on the beauty of the places and people that fill my country. My mom has an unbreakable moral compass and instilled in us what it meant to be a good and kind person. While my dad always kept a fun and joking attitude even in the darkest of situations. They valued education above all else and provided us with great opportunities in whatever field we wanted. I signed up to every kind of activity you could imagine. As a teenager I went to culinary school and got an associate’s degree in car mechanics. I tried every sport imaginable and sucked at every single one. They weren’t too convinced about me switching my career to filmmaking. But I’m sure they were relieved to see that for once I stopped changing my mind. Even though my mom has no idea what a cinematographer does, and my dad still kids himself about me coming back to work in the sawmill with him, I know all of my achievements in this field are thanks to them.
Helena Cortazar Davide Picci Carlo Tonda