Editor’s Notes: Porch Stories is currently playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more of the film, read Matthew’s review.
Matthew Blevins: This being your first foray into acting in films, how did you find the transition from musician to actor?
Jose Miguel Contreras: It was just part of the trip. It slipped into my ongoing adventure. I’m into leaving my comfort zone. I’ve been a musician for 25 years or more and the last few years have seen a big shift in my life. I’ve been more prolific, it seems like a big jump happened in my creativity and inspiration and in the midst of that I made this movie. So I didn’t know exactly what it was going to entail but it was just a wonderful process.
Matthew Blevins: I talked to Sarah Goodman about the film and it seems like she allowed the evolution of the film to occur naturally based on the people she picked to be in the film. As the score of the film became yours and Laura’s it underscored the emotional content of the film very beautifully and I think that it’s great that she allowed for that natural evolution. How did you get connected with Sarah?
Jose Miguel Contreras: Actually I just got an email. I think I might have gotten an email from a mutual friend, friend of a friend kind of a thing, like can you pass this email off kind of thing and I said yes. I was living in the country at the time being a singer songwriter, I’m also a record producer but mostly I’m a singer. So I get lots of calls. I get lots of calls from people saying “hey is it cool if I give you the number for this person”, sort of referral calls because I guess for some people it’s a big deal to call me, I don’t know. That’s the first I heard of it. Then they get ahold of me and I said “hey, I’m interested. Sounds interesting, I’ll come down and audition.” I figured that would be where it ended but I really hit it off with Sarah, we definitely hit it off. The audition was for ten minutes and I was there for like an hour plus. I hit it off with her and the producer and we ended up chatting at great length. When I left there were all these other dudes waiting in the hallway and I was like “sorry dudes…” I actually didn’t know that at the time, I only found out later. So when I got the callback to come and audition again I was really surprised and it kind of shifted the way I thought about stuff.
Matthew Blevins: Absolutely, a new phase or a new direction
Jose Miguel Contreras: It did, because I always thought, this is going to sound weird, that I was painful to look at.
Matthew Blevins: Haha, I didn’t find that at all. There was a bit of an endearing awkwardness to the character, not necessarily to yourself but the character because he’s just kind of showing up as the old boyfriend or third wheel while Laura is getting ready to start her new life and you’ve got this ulterior motive that was omnipresent in your performance.
Jose Miguel Contreras: Yeah, there was potentially more in the backstory as to whether or not, you know, did I set this meeting up. This accidental meeting, how accidental was it?
Matthew Blevins: So that was left intentionally ambiguous?
Jose Miguel Contreras: Who knows? Sarah was a great director. I really relied on her all the time and she was really there. I believed in her. If she said she liked it then it was good.
Matthew Blevins: Was this your first time working with Laura?
Jose Miguel Contreras: No actually, but it’s the first time I’ve acted with her. I’ve played music with her a couple of times before and we had briefly talked about working together on a record. I’m a big fan of hers and we’d worked together, she’d been in my studio and we’ve played together on some other people’s music. We played in a band together for a bit, Laura and I, a couple years ago. So we toured a little bit together. It’s a funny little backstory because it fits in with the movie. We have a lot of mutual friends that I’ve produced records for, so we talked about working together and then we did this movie. At first it almost threw me because I thought I was going to be working with a stranger which almost made me feel easier thinking, OK I’m going to play these scenes with a stranger rather than with a friend but it was fine.
Matthew Blevins: You guys had a natural synchronicity to your interactions, particularly when you were performing music together on screen. It was a beautiful combination. I hadn’t had much experience with mbira music but the score kind of blew my mind. It gave it a great emotional underscore where your story and Laura’s story speaks through the background through your music and illustrates the decision she must make between the conventions of typical adulthood and chasing the dream, which should be seen as the correct path for adulthood as we should all be trying to pursue our dreams.
Jose Miguel Contreras: That’s true. The score was an accident. Sarah was always like “hey, you’ve gotta do a jam in the movie” and I’m like “what are we going to play” and she says “well we’ll figure that out later” and in that moment when we were working on the backstory is when I wrote the song to the movie that we sing in the park. Because we had to do these jams we had to agree upon what we were going to play during these improvised scenes in the movie and because we were hanging out on set and all of the shoots went great, Laura and I would begin this musical conversation unintentionally. I tuned my guitar more like a kalimba to keep her kind of rhythms and so we ended up with a little bit of a repertoire that we’d goof off of and also so when she said “action!” we would know what we were playing-ish although it’s improvised. So I guess when they cut the movie they used a bunch of the B roll music to cut the music to put the movie together, and when they did that a lot of people responded to the scenes with the music, the initial cut. So then Sarah, the director, asked if we could do more recording. They wanted us to record two pieces of music that we’d already played in the movie, one was Laura’s riff that we jammed out on, and we went into the studio and recorded those two bits and I was already kind of keen on because we had this vocabulary between the kalimba and the classical guitar. So I was really keen to like, let’s record more, so I pushed for us to record and now we have a full soundtrack. The record is coming out now, in June. A really cool indie label here in Toronto that puts out some of my band’s records, but it’s not like it’s an automatic deal so I’m really excited that it happened. So that’s how we ended up with a full soundtrack, and then we recorded a new song of Laura’s which is in the movie briefly. I think it’s the one I’m listening to on her computer. And then there’s the song in the credits which is a song from our fake band that broke up. So the soundtrack is quite lovely.
Matthew Blevins: Oh OK, so I guess that brings a little context to the songs themselves and playing that old song from that fictional band represents a reconciliation perhaps? When did you first get your start in music? When did that passion start?
Jose Miguel Contreras: That’s a good question. I mean, I was always singing. When I was younger I studied cello, actually, then I started writing in grade 8 or something. Professionally I started my band, actually this year is the twenty fifth anniversary of my band. We’re playing a big show for Canada Day. My first show with my band was in ’90 and after that, when did I become a professional singer, I mean jeez, I don’t know. Definitely by ’96 I got pretty good but my first record came out before that. We did get better at one point and it’s going well.
Matthew Blevins: In Porch Stories there seemed to be this compulsion for Gabriel to reestablish the musical connection with Emma, like it was an emotional shorthand. Once you could lock into that connection you could show your true self to her again or she could see what she had left behind.
Jose Miguel Contreras: Without going into what might have happened, whether he planned that meeting or not, I think that one of the things he’s realizing is that he actually loves Emma. He’s in love with her and he wishes things had worked out differently, not just for the band but for them. His connection with her was maybe the deepest connection he’d ever had and the thing is it’s the same for Emma. Emma realizes that Gabriel was one that she actually believed in and they have a natural affinity, a natural connection. His desire to play music is probably innocent in the sense of “hey, let’s play for fun” but it’s also that he loves her and he’s not sure about her boyfriend/fiancé.
Matthew Blevins: You could tell that he wasn’t the right guy and that Gabriel could sense that and maybe that’s why he lingered a bit longer than maybe he was welcome. It worked out ambiguously as far as how things turned out between Emma and Gabriel after the credits rolled.
Jose Miguel Contreras: What do you think happened?
Matthew Blevins: I think that the final shot of Laura riding the bicycle in the sun represented a freedom from having to make that decision in the first place. It’s not about choosing the more conservative lifestyle or choosing the dream, it’s about maybe figuring out what her own identity is for herself first and then go back and explore that.
Jose Miguel Contreras: I think that’s really bang on.
Matthew Blevins: I don’t think in terms of objectively correct interpretations of film but I think that might be a decent one. Now that you’ve set out on this new direction do you think you’re going to go for more acting gigs here in the near future?
Jose Miguel Contreras: Well, you know, it’s not like I’m going auditions. If someone approached me with something I’d consider it because I had a wonderful time working on it. If someone felt I was right for a role and the timing was right I’d definitely consider it. That was a really great experience and I loved it.
Matthew Blevins: There was an endearing self-consciousness to the performance but I think that was Gabriel being in a position that one would be incredibly self-conscious about. Walking in as the third wheel and trying to sort out these complex emotions in the midst of Emma’s potential life change there in that moment.
Jose Miguel Contreras: It funny, right, because when I watch the movie I’m not being myself in the movie and Sarah gave me excellent direction. I’m glad that it worked out and I’m glad that I didn’t ruin the movie.
Matthew Blevins: I think it’s a beautiful little film and when I had my conversation with Sarah she described it as kind of a “mild verite” but even though the content and the emotional undertones are mild it still stuck with me and I gave it two viewings. I actually enjoyed it more the second time around. I think this film has some great legs and I’m glad that I get to be a part of supporting it.
Jose Miguel Contreras: Me too. You never know when you get involved in a film, there’s so many student films and indie films. I was aware that Sarah had a reputation as a respected filmmaker but I didn’t know what the cinematography was going to be like and the script kept changing. Once I started seeing the test shots I realized it’s a beautiful looking film. For a lot of the people on set it was a bit of a special event. She pulled a lot of favors together, it was the art department’s first chance to do this and the lighting person and the sound person. Everyone was coming together to make this dream of theirs come true, so I felt lucky to be part of it and the fact that Sarah was happy with my performance was a great experience.
Matthew Blevins: I think it’s fantastic when you have a director that allows for chance and the little real events to dictate the final shape of the final product. By allowing your music to become such an integral part of the film. Sarah told me that she didn’t necessarily know the characters were going to be musicians until the parts were cast and it evolved from there. For her to recognize that talent and to allow it to breathe she created something very special and it feels very natural.
Jose Miguel Contreras: It’s true. Originally my character was Jamaican and I wasn’t a musician. I’m not playing myself in the movie but it was easy to tap into.
Matthew Blevins: I’m glad that it worked out that way. It made for a powerful and lovely little film.
Jose Miguel Contreras: That’s very nice of you. I’m very pleased with the way it worked out and I’m so happy for Sarah, you know?
Matthew Blevins: Absolutely, and I wish her all the best in her future endeavors and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors. I really appreciate you taking the time to have this talk with me.
Jose Miguel Contreras: Me too, thanks for helping promote the film. Thanks a million, and maybe I’ll meet you somewhere down the road.