MS: I think Robert describes beautifully, the complexities, not only of living in Miami, but just living in a capitalist society. How do you [hold] this promise, this dream, without harming others? Is it possible?
We were interested in reflecting our fathers, and our uncles, and our patriarchs, and all the things that they have to juggle to make their experiences in the United States make sense. How to be a kind human being, but also a provider; a loving father and husband, but also a destroyer. We’re interested in making sure that we [see] someone living the life that he was told he has to live. ‘If you put your head down and you work hard, you will succeed and you will get the big house and you will retire.’ And I think we’re interested in Mountains being the slow unraveling of that idea and the slow awakening of a middle-aged man finally looking up from his work and seeing the realities in front of him.
DLC: That touches on something that I found particularly striking about the film: its framing of time. We have these scenes spent with Xavier, Esperance and their son, and they move at this slow and intimate pace, [as if] pushing us to soak up the nuances of their dynamic. Yet you also have the very rapid clip of gentrification happening: houses being demolished in one fell swoop, and fights between fellow workers that quickly escalate along racial lines. How did you and your editor Jonathan [Cuartas] establish the film’s rhythm?
MS: When we were developing the film, Robert and I were always saying that this was a Caribbean film and not an American indie. Obviously we both grew up on American indies and have so much love for [those films], but we wanted to make sure that the tempo of the film fit what Miami feels like, which is slow and hot and sticky, so you could savor the things that make Miami beautiful.
When it came to the demolition, we were very much interested in taking Xavier out of this warmth and putting him into sites that were loud and jarring and, I guess, escalating in violence.
RC: Similarly to what I was talking about when I was describing Xavier’s character, I think that depending on where you live and what context you’re in, you can experience Miami at a lot of different pulses. And I think that the pulse of Xavier’s and Esperance’s and Junior’s home is much slower than the constant destruction and rebuilding of the city.
I think that Jonathan, similarly to how you would create…what’s that term in music? Polyrhythm! Similarly to how you would craft a song like that, Jonathan was able to really weave both of these pulses together. And that’s how we experience the film: as something that’s both quickening and fighting against itself. [Xavier] is almost like a man out of time because he’s having to live in these two timelines: the very quick timeline of the work, and then the more grounded timeline of his family and the love and his life. And I think that’s a testament to Jonathan. He’s a writer/director himself, and I think has such a good eye and ear for pace and tone.
DLC: I want to keep talking about the role of Miami in the film, because the city is its own character in the film. You shot on location in Little Haiti, and I feel like the more I re-watch the film, the more I find a lot of comfort in this very crowded, hominess of the couple’s house, which I feel like a lot of immigrant kids can relate to: the crowded nightstand, all of these little projects started in one part of the house, before moving on to the next one.
To go back to your point about working in the neighborhood and not wanting to contribute to harm, could you walk me through some of your priorities when you were shooting and scouting locations and how you navigated that as filmmakers?
MS: There was no other place that we were going to shoot. We wanted to shoot in Little Haiti; we’ve always wanted [the film] to serve as an archive of the neighborhood and capture spaces that by the time of the film’s release, may not even be there anymore.
We also were very conscious about our footprint. There were several opportunities where we could have scaled up the film and we consciously chose not to because I don’t think we wanted to contribute to the invasiveness that a lot of developers [bring] on a daily basis just with their presences. We wanted to be a part of the neighborhood, to talk to our neighbors, to make sure they were involved with the film as much as possible so in a way, just by their involvement, [they could] contribute to the story as well.
We’re just focused on the truth as we know it, [which] I don’t think that we’ve been able to see captured cinematically yet. I think that involved being very particular about the locations that we chose to shoot at, and about the production design, which Helen [Peña] was at the helm of, making sure that you understood what the Caribbean home felt like; how it could be both homey and warm and inviting, but also maybe claustrophobic to Xavier and not reflective of what his life is supposed to look like. He was starting to resent the home that he and his wife built. And looking for a new home is a way to prove that he’s going the right direction, that he’s fulfilling his promise, not only to his family, but to himself and how life was supposed to be in America.