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The Meaning of Magic: Carlos López Estrada and Kelly Marie Tran on Summertime

The energy of potential crackles in the L.A. air throughout “Summertime,” Carlos López Estrada’s kaleidoscopic spoken-word showcase for 27 slam poets based in the city. 

A distinctly modern movie musical that favors raw-nerve poetry over elaborate song-and-dance numbers (though it has those too), “Summertime,” which opens this week, flows from character to character to form a loosely interconnected series of vignettes. Through this structure, indebted to Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” each young Angeleno is afforded an opportunity to articulate their aspirations and anxieties on screen. 

Often performed in spoken-word verse, these sequences engage forcefully with reality while rising above it. Tyris Winter’s quest for a cheeseburger starts out comedic but accrues rich, melancholic depths as the film unfolds. Paolina Acuña-González’s musings on red lipstick lead a troupe of dancers to spill out onto the street, stopping traffic in red dresses. Mila Cuda witnesses a homophobic passenger harassing a queer couple on the bus and, in a burst of magical realism no less potent for its everyday, situational nature, takes a stand. And Marquesha Babers confronts an ex-boyfriend who’d body-shamed her, registering how this abuse undercut her self-worth even as she sets about reclaiming it in electrifying fashion.

López Estrada’s previous feature, “Blindspotting,” explored Oakland through the eyes of two lifelong friends (Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal), whose inner monologues on race, police brutality, and gentrification were delivered via eruptions of heightened verse. Set across one lazy summer’s day and highlighting a wellspring of poets from marginalized backgrounds, “Summertime” trades the political heat of “Blindspotting” for a more hopeful, light-hearted portrait of L.A. and the young people who call it home. 

“It was in the most unlikely place that I found this story,” says López Estrada, speaking to alongside executive producer Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), with whom he’d connected while directing “Raya and the Last Dragon.” 

In 2019, López Estrada had attended a spoken-word showcase—part of the Get Lit program, devoted to encouraging literacy and creativity in high schoolers around L.A.—and left the two-hour event awestruck. “I felt I’d experienced one of the most important events of my life, and that instinct’s been proven to be right,” he says. “I hope ‘Summertime’ is just the first of many excuses I can find to be around these poets and be helpful to them on their journeys.” 

A standout at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where its premiere was met with spontaneous rounds of applause and finger-snaps (including from dozens of the featured poets, who’d flown out for the occasion), “Summertime” finally hits theaters this Friday and expands across July.

Kelly Marie Tran and Carlos López Estrada

“Summertime” premiered in Sundance's NEXT section for boundary-pushing and emerging filmmakers. Carlos, how did you know Good Deed Entertainment was the right partner to distribute this unique film?

CARLOS LÓPEZ ESTRADA: We met with Good Deed at Sundance, a day or two after the movie premiered, and it just became so evident immediately that they got the movie, that they connected to all the things I thought were important, that they cared about the poets and lifting their voices, that they were going to put the energy, thought, and time into it—which is most important, because it’s an unusual movie, an unusual group of people, and an unusual way we’ve gone about everything with putting the movie together. It’s really a labor of love, and we just wanted to make sure whoever our distributing partners would be would see it with those same eyes and would care for it as their own.  

They've really been so thoughtful about every step of the process. It’s a grassroots operation, and it’s an independent film in every possible way, but that feeling of being there at the premiere, feeling how tangible the excitement was from all of the cast and crew, it’s really continued up until today. All the poets have been so involved. It’s allowed us to keep this as a very intimate operation, which is how this movie needs to exist.

And Kelly, you came aboard as an executive producer of “Summertime” earlier this year. How did you first get involved?

KELLY MARIE TRAN: Carlos and I met doing “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and we had dinner after having essentially welcomed an audience back into the El Capitan Theatre. We weren’t talking about “Summertime” specifically, but we were talking about the kind of art we’re passionate about, and the types of stories we want to see in the world. I’m now at this point in my career that I never thought I’d get to, and it’s allowed me the privilege of having conversations with myself and my teams about what I want to put my voice behind. 

I don’t want to lend my voice to everything; I’m very specific about the things I want to be involved with. Carlos said, “I think you should watch this movie,” and sent me a link to “Summertime.” I watched it and fell in love: with every single person in the movie, and [with the poetry] once I was actually able to spend some time with the poets. Carlos and I also went through this insane poetry camp to learn how to write our own poetry. I feel changed, in a really good way. It’s been a magical experience.

Marquesha Babers

To address the spoken-word poetry of “Summertime” for a moment, I’d love to hear more about how your attitudes toward these poets and their forms of expression have evolved.

CLE: It would be hard for me to think of just one way that this community of artists has affected me. The impact they’ve had on me as a person and as an artist has been profound and impossibly all-encapsulating. There’s me before “Summertime” and me after “Summertime.” 

That’s simply because this group of young artists is completely dedicated to doing work that is honest and intended to uplift their communities, to establish a connection with people who need to hear these words. They’re so deliberate, thoughtful, and responsible about the work they do that I don’t know how I could move away from this experience and not approach my work in the same way. It’s forced me to think deeper about all the projects I’m working on, how I’m interacting with the work, and just how I want to live my life ... It has rewired my brain to think and understand differently. 

And for you, Kelly?

KMT: There was a time in my career when I never thought I’d actually be successful. But then you eventually get to this place where you’re in this industry that feels like it’s screaming at you with capitalism: “Do this thing! Bigger! Better! Ah!” So, to be in this place with young artists who want to figure out not only how to heal themselves through their art but also be thoughtful, intentional, aware, and active in social-justice spaces, that was really important to Carlos, and I find it so amazing as well. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

The cast of "Summertime"

As a Disney film that foregrounded the studio’s first Southeast Asian princess, “Raya” existed at this creative crossroads of magic, representation, and realism. For both of you, reuniting on “Summertime,” it strikes me that those three ideas are very much in play again with this film, in how verse lets us access the imaginations of these poets. 

CLE: Kelly and I are very different in many ways, but we have similar sensibilities in that we’re equally interested in exploring the meaning of magic. With her background and mine, we belong to underrepresented communities, and I think that has really shaped our point of view on both the world and our work. Someone was asking me recently what the common thread is in all the stories I’ve done, and I think it’s that they’re stories of empathy that attempt to welcome you into a life that isn’t your own. You can argue that all film does that, but the stories Kelly and I are most pulled by are those that let you into the life of a person you normally wouldn’t see on screen, people who’ve historically been looked over. We try to show you how important, magical, and meaningful their stories are. 

The fact that they’ve been ignored for so long doesn’t mean anything other than that we have to now look in that direction and acknowledge the magic that exists in these people. Kelly and I found out early in our conversations that we were hyper-aligned on this. And though our experiences are so different, the ultimate goal we have with our storytelling is the same. Since we started talking, all these magical things have been happening, because we’re connecting on such a profound level. We’re committed to what we’re doing in a way that’s really inspiring. I hope Kelly is just beginning to have a lot more fruitful, beautiful collaborations like this one. 

KMT: That was so beautiful. [laughs] I agree. Something Carlos touched on there is that we’re trying to highlight voices that have historically been ignored. I think the throughline through everything I want to do is that I ask myself this question: “Does this play, film, or TV show move us in the direction of what the world is supposed to be like?” Art lets us live in imagined realities, but intrinsically all of us know that there’s something really wrong with the way the world is right now. 

There’s this far-away, magical world we all want to live in, where everyone is equally represented and where we don’t have to have these conversations, because it’s intrinsically in the world. If our art can push the world in that direction, then we’re doing something right. "Summertime" is such a beautiful example of that. And these young artists, I’m incapable of describing the power they have within them. I’m really excited for the world to see, feel, laugh, and cry with them the way I have. 

Throughout your careers, what have you observed about how the internal attitudes of film studios are moving (or need to be pushed) forward in terms of representation—both major conglomerates like Disney and smaller, independent studios? 

CLE: Things have been done similarly for a very long time. Film has been around for over a century, and not until very recently did people take these issues of representation, diversity, and inclusion seriously. We’re part of a new era of storytelling, of cinema, where you simply cannot get away with willing ignorance anymore. You just can’t. Kelly and I are a part of this generation of artists and filmmakers demanded to be very thoughtful and deliberate about our work, our place in the world, and the stories we want to support. 

Whether it’s through Disney or independently, we’re in the place of radical awareness. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable existing in the world and creating art that will be seen by other people without a sense of responsibility and empathy. The conversations Kelly and I were having about “Raya” are not that dissimilar to the ones we’re having about “Summertime.” Obviously, the vehicle pushing the conversations is as different as it could be, on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what a movie can be, but we feel so lucky that both of those universes have allowed us to pursue the stories and people we feel most passionate about.

KMT: The fact that we’re even having this conversation is a good sign. There was a world not too long ago when we didn’t have words for “microaggression” and “gaslighting.” I didn’t know what these words were. We’re now in a place of heightened awareness, which is a wonderful place to be, because we know we’re going to have these conversations in one way or another. Like Carlos said, there is so much work to be done. But we also have to celebrate the successes that come along the way, the idea that we’re now aware and trying. “Summertime” is such a beautiful example of what the world could look like. As much as possible, even though I know I will flounder and make mistakes, I want to keep moving in that direction.  

“Summertime” hits theaters July 9 and expands July 16.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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