FANTASTIC FEST: Unidentified Objects (2022) and interview with director Juan Felipe Zuleta and musician Sebastian Zuleta

Peter (Matthew Jeffers) is an alien in so many worlds based on how people see both his dwarfism and sexual identity as a gay man. Therefore, he avoids nearly everyone. But his neighbor Winona (Sarah Hay, The Mortuary Collection) pushes past that and asks him for a ride to Canada to meet up with the aliens that abducted her in her teens and go back home with them. The money she offers helps.

Director Juan Felipe Zuleta and writer Leland Frankel have put together a film that defies expectations. Sure, it’s a road trip where two mismatched people come together and learn from each other, yet it’s so good as works its way to its conclusion, with strange moments out of reality as Peter meets an alien cop or how he comes to understand Winona’s sex work career.

Neither character is presented as perfect and that’s what’s perfect about this movie. And the audio atmosphere created by Zuleta’s brother Sebastian gives this a sound all its own in the same way that the film looks like nothing else. Jeffers and Hay are such a perfect match as two people who should not be. I wish I had more time to spend with their characters, which is the mark of a great movie.

I had the opportunity to speak to director andco-writer Juan Felipe Zuleta and Sebastian Zuleta, who scored the film. It really added a lot to my enjoyment of this film.

B&S About Movies: One of the things that was really striking in youyr film was that there’s a lot of ways to look at aliens, whether it’s people that are outsiders within their culture because of their bodies or their choices. Was that intentional?

Juan Felipe Zuleta: Yes, absolutely. It’s funny that you say that because Sebastian and I are from born and raised in Colombia and we both had green cards for some time that had a number that identified us as aliens. Official aliens of the United States. (laughs)

Since then, I’ve been incredibly interested in the word alien as away to categorize outsiders, misfits, people who don’t belong. People who are alien to a territory or a place and yet, there’s so many of them. Unidentified Objects is a about those aliens in the world, those on Earth and those out of Earth. It’s kind of like an exploration of that what that means.

B&S: There’s a real feeling of the other here. Some things are real or maybe not real. Like when the alien cop pulls them over, you wonder, did it happen?

Juan: That’s definitely a language that was initiated from the script. I wanted that ambiguity to reinforce the way we filmed it and also come through the music escape that my brother Sebastian created. It was the tone in general. I do feel I tend to love movies that have ambiguity and that manage to keep that tone throughout.

B&S: The music is perfect.

Sebastian Zuleta: It was all tailor made. The process was by far — I’ve worked with my brother on many, many projects since like his very first short film — and this is by far the best collaboration I’ve had with with with him. Just seeing him grow as a director, making a feature but also just the process. Since from the onset from when I got the script, I read it and I started already talking to my brother and brainstorming about sounds and where do we want to go. And then aliens!

I’ve never really worked with analog synthesizers so I just dove in and started getting a few. I was sending sounds to Juan and getting feedback during production. By the time they finished, we had a sizeable library of original sounds for the film. We had themes and ideas and figured out where they should go. This allowed my brother while he was working with the editor to place some things and have anchors throughout.

Then, I got some cuts and started writing to picture.

One of the things I enjoyed most was finding out whenever you’d use an adjective to describe music, everyone still intrerpreted it differently. Even though I’ve known my brother all my life, like how we see and hear music is different. Hwo can we fine tune and understand one anotehr better? So if he says,  I want it to be dark or emotional, what does that mean in music? What does cold mean? What chord progressions can do that?

It was fun to keep digging deeper into our relationship not only as brothers but as filmmakers.

B&S: You also have a famous song in the bar scene.

Juan: The surreal elements are inspired by David Lynch, like how he used music in Blue Velvet. I knew from the script that I wanted to use Roy Orbison, just as Lynch did in his films. “Crying” was actually the song we used on set. It’s just an emotion and yes, that’s the name of the song, but there are so many laters behind it. It was perfect for the tone we were trying to accomplish.

There are other songs that are alien-like. I wish we could have had some David Bowie in the film, but there is some Electric Light Orchestra.

B&S: Other than Lynch, who influences you?

Juan: So particularly in this film, I think Lynch obvious. A little bit of Luis Buñuel. There are a lot of movies in the road trip genre but I love Little Miss Sunshine and Y tu mamá también. They are two of my favorite movies ever, especially Y tu mamá también because it isn’t overdesigned or overedited.

To get an alien point of view or an elevated state, I decided to shoot with anamorphic lenses so then I started to stylize it a little bit more. That comes from influences like the Coen Brothers. If you look at The Big Lebowski there’s some sequences there that inspired me.

What I like about Lynch is the little messages, the dark comedy, the dry humor. The characters seem to be super self-conscious and self-aware about. their own circumstances. So it’s not always funny, but his movies seem to be more tragedies that just happen to be funny. (laughs)

Last, but not least, the ambiguity that we spoke about earlier, includingthe tone of the music there’s a lot of inspiration there from Jóhann Jóhannsson, like how you can allow the audience’s imagination to play detective and make the music part of the storytelling.

My brother went to the NASA library as well, so there are times in this movie when you are hearing what it sounds like to be in space. He processed the sounds of what it sounds like on Mars and they’re in the movie.

B&S: Have you guys ever taken a road trip together?

Juan: I was probably like seven. Our parents had a 1994 Toyota and we drove from our hometown to the Colombian coast to a city called Santa Marta which is a fourteen hour frive. It was very much Y tu mamá también. (laughs)

Sebastian: All our luggage was on the top with the surfboards. (laughs)

Juan: I want to say that my brother is a genius. He would go off in his little world and then he would email me sounds at night and I would be like like a little kid opening a gift and Christmas.

(To Sebastian) Every time you send me stuff and that was so special.

We poured our hearts into it and I hope it comes through.

Sebastian: My brother is the best brother in the world. It really is a blessing to have such a talented brother. He’s a serious filmmaker and I get to work with him. I feel lucky.

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