Filmmaker Clifton Archuleta finds room to Breathe in Pueblo
Director Clifton Archuleta with the main characters of Breathe.
After eight years in the Army, Clifton Archuleta moved back to Colorado to attend Colorado Film School and get his BFA from Regis University. His thesis piece, Broken Cycle, has earned him recognition at film festivals; he just finished making a short film called Breathe in his home town of Pueblo...without benefit of the incentives that Colorado recently authorized for filmmakers, a rebate of between 10 and 20 percent as long as they spend $1 million or more here and hire at least 50 percent of the crew from Colorado.
Westword recently talked with Archuleta about his film career -- and about whether that incentive package will encourage the film industry in this state.
Westword: What is your history in filmmaking?
Clifton Archuleta: Filmmaking for me started in school. I'm originally from Colorado, and I moved back after serving eight years in the Army to study film at the Colorado Film School in Lowry. I graduated about a year and a half ago. In the third year, I sent my thesis, Broken Cycles, to a number of film festivals. Another film called Breakaway also screened at a bunch of festivals. That was really my real push into establishing myself as a filmmaker. In school it's just such an academic setting, but going out into the real world and having the film represent yourself but then also having it help your career -- that's really when it started.
What sort of films do you produce? Do you have a specific genre?
I have types of films that I'm interested in. The type of filmmaking that I'm concerned with are films that make you think. I'm interested in social justice issues. [Broken Cycle] was about a bullied Arab teenager, and the last piece we just did is about a teenager who's a latchkey kid. She's basically raising her younger, asthmatic sister. So I look at films that are complex situations and also about youth and how they're faced with adult circumstances. We forget that we put these kids in these circumstances, because it's more common than we believe. It's not just kids in Africa (that's really generic) or a twelve-year-old war child; we have issues in our own back yard. Those tend to be dramas and very focused on realism.
How do you want your audience to react to your films?
I don't like spoon-feeding the audience. I would say they're less entertaining and more intellectual, but I try to find a balance in there.... Films that resonate with me most are films that I may not have thought about for a week, but one week later I'm thinking about it and it profoundly affects me. My interest in making films is that I can give that to someone else. I try to make it less like clobbering someone over the head. I leave that interpretation to some degree up to you, to provoke thought on whatever the subject is. Or even that as just a starting point.
I've heard you do documentaries for veterans. How did you get involved with those?
Last summer I started working with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. It started with some freelance writing I was doing for them on some internal educational projects. One of the projects I wrote did very well for them, so they brought me out to do some producing of short documentaries. I worked for a show called "The American Veteran", which airs on a number of government-related channels. They put stuff online and iTunes as well.
It's a thirty-minute show that's composed of five usually short documentaries. I initially just shot a bunch of content. I was there to try to repair content that the executive producer had just inherited. That led to producing a few pieces of my own that are still in post-production. They were freelancing a lot of stuff out, but the quality went down. When I was brought out, they were specifically trying to repair content and then produce new content but change the face of the show to a more current level. It was more news-based, so I was brought out with my storytelling background to start shifting toward a more documentary style.
What do you think the film incentive legislation does for Colorado and Colorado filmmakers?
I don't like speaking in generalizations, but I will. In a lot of the film community here, there's a lot of talk about how great this is for our community. I think that people expected it to bring business here that will then bring more jobs. I don't think that's where the significance lies. I think that is far more connected to [Colorado] being recognized as a legitimate industry, and that's the start. To be honest, we're really not competitive with anyone else. Twenty percent at a $3 million fund is nothing compared to our surrounding states.
It's one of the big pushes I've been hearing: Film in Colorado; it's beautiful. But Colorado's not a very film-friendly place. The weather conditions are completely erratic. It's a beautiful state, just not ideal.
As an immediate, I don't find there's financially any incentive for me. I hope to make a feature next summer, and then it could maybe benefit me in a more direct way. Right now for me, it's more about Colorado establishing the fact that filmmaking is a legitimate industry and the state and government recognizing that. I don't necessarily feel that it's going to have an immediate impact financially on the industry. Three million dollars is not a lot of money; it's pennies compared to what other states can provide.
I think its existence is essential to progress. It's just not big enough at this moment to find a financial significance in a way that can be clearly recognized. It's more about the act itself.
Do you think it will help bring bigger names and Hollywood films to our state?
It may help to some extent. The bigger argument is that Colorado's still an unpredictable place to film. Winters are terrible here. Summers, it storms every afternoon. It's not the most film-friendly state in terms of environment.
I think that because New Mexico has a similar look and far more incentive, even though they just cut their incentives, if I were a company, I probably wouldn't come here. On a more independent level, it will allow filmmakers perhaps to shoot because the 20 percent may cover the money they would save by not having to move to another place.
There's also a minimum budget that's far higher than what I'm spending, so it doesn't help me. When I make a feature it might help a little more, but I probably still won't reach that minimum budget.
Why did you choose to go to Pueblo to film Breathe?
I'm from Pueblo. Colorado's a beautiful state; that's why I live here. What interests me the most about our state are the people. You have all these different industries -- specifically, mining down in Pueblo -- and those industries have built cities. They've built states. They built a part of the country. Colorado Fuel and Iron in Pueblo was the largest factory still manufacturing in the western part of the United States at one point. It was a major part of U.S. history. It's now owned my some Russian companies or something.
It still functions at a different capacity -- it's more automated, and there's not as many people involved. That whole area surrounding it, called Bessemer, was this cultural melting pot. Italians were out there, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, Irish -- it was this weird place in the middle of the West. I'm very interested in how that's affected the town. If you travel to some of these smaller towns -- Trinidad, Pueblo -- they feel very different from other cities in Colorado. There's a sense of isolation there.
Bessemer is like a poor area, but the kids are playing in the streets. It's safe, there's a sense of community there. I don't see that [in Denver]. Every evening people go out on their porches and sit. You don't find that in the city.
What is the basic plot of your most recent film, Breathe?
It should be about ten minutes. It's about a teenage girl, she's sixteen in the story, and it's a super-hot summer day. She's stuck watching her sister. We don't ever see the mother or father, but in my mind, she's a single parent probably working at the plant. Her sister ends up having a minor asthma attack. They use the last of the inhalers, so she embarks on this journey to replace it.
In the opening scene she sees this skateboarder guy with his friends, and there's this connection that's never resolved. So she goes perhaps to look for him, but also to do this task. She ends up running into the boy, and you can see they like each other. There's some unresolved tension from their last encounter when she had to run inside to help her sister. So they start to open up to each other, and then her sister shows up and embarrasses her. So they leave after giving the boy her number.
Then she gets a text from her mom saying she'll be home late, and she gets frustrated because she just wants to be a kid enjoying summer. Without giving it away, there's a big blow-up, and she has to make a very difficult decision about how to handle the situation.
What's the takeaway you want people to get from this film? Is it about the latchkey-kid problem?
All my films deal with coming of age and, to some degree, acceptance. The takeaway in a specific way is that I would like people to think about this as more of a reality. We gave the sister asthma on purpose. My sister had asthma; I grew up a latchkey kid. I grew up too fast. I remember knowing things that all my friends didn't know because I had basically lived more life at that age. But I was underdeveloped in other ways.
For me, it's important that people think about the situation and how it affects youth. I'm not trying to drill a message into your head, I just want you to think about this. Perhaps you'll be compelled to get involved, whether it's a youth organization or something supporting asthma. The takeaway is more complex: to see it as a reality and relate it to your own life.
What kind of budget are you working with for your films, and how did you acquire those funds?
It varies, but with this film we raised about $6,000 through a funding site indiegogo -- it's like kickstarter. That came on the cusp of releasing my last film online after a somewhat successful film festival. That garnered some support for the next project. At this point, that's how I've been doing it.
While in school, it was a lot of self-funding. I raised a total of about $4,500 for Broken Cycle, and I won some awards that helped me pay for film festival submissions and what-not. That's it right now.
Making a short film for $5,000 is reasonable. Breathe was more expensive because we shot in Pueblo. In Denver everyone can stay here and just show up, but there we had to feed people more and get hotels and pay for fuel.
How did you assemble your actors for Breathe?
I don't usually use actors. I use untrained actors, who are then actors after the film. The majority of the cast of Broken Cycle was untrained, and all of this cast were untrained actors, except the lead from Broken Cycle played a part in this film. A couple of the kids were from Pueblo. I did casting here in Denver of trained and untrained actors. I was not finding what I wanted and what I felt the story needed, so I started casting in Pueblo.
Where do you hope to take your filmmaking in the future?
I want to make a feature here in Colorado. This film I'm hoping to get some higher-tier festival exposure. That could really posture me to make a feature next year. I could have made a feature this year at maybe $50,000 or $100,000, but I prefer to hone my craft a little bit more and also have the most support. If my film can get the right exposure, it will only help in terms of national grants and other things that are out there for filmmaking. It could put me in a better position and at least make me more known in the filmmaking community.
When I travel with my films, I meet a lot of filmmakers, and some of them I bond closely with. Those are people I may or may not collaborate with in the future who will support me.
Do you see yourself expanding your genre or style?
My genre is not tied to anything specifically other than the fact that I have things I would like to talk about. I don't see myself making genre films. I don't make films for money. When I got out of the Army I started contracting, and I was making very good money, But I was not happy, and I quit to go to school and study film, because that's what I wanted to do. For me, I do this because I can't imagine myself doing anything else.
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