By Katie Chambers
The annual media industry pilgrimage to Park City, Utah has gone fully virtual as the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was impacted by the COVID-19 Omicron variant. But that hasn’t stopped New York Women in Film & Television members from making waves – 13 members played a key creative role in 11 different projects featured in Sundance this year.
Member Elaine Del Valle is enjoying her second time at Sundance as a producer of William D Caballero’s documentary short Chilly and Milly. Exploring the director’s father’s chronic health problems, as a diabetic with kidney failure, and his mother’s role as his eternal caretaker, Chilly and Milly is a combination of 3D-modeled/composited characters, with cinéma vérité scenes from an autobiographical documentary shot over 13 years ago.
Caballero noted in a Sundance Q&A that “all the characters are entirely digital – they don’t physically exist in the space. He said he’s always working to push himself creatively with all the technology available, as he tells stories that speak to his upbringing as “a Puerto Rican kid, growing up in a trailer in North Carolina.”
We sat down with producer Elaine Del Valle to discuss the making of Chilly and Milly and her virtual Sundance experience.
How did this project come to you?
I have been working with William D Caballero for a many years now. I saw one of his short films at the Atlanta Film Festival and I reached out to him via social media to tell him that I wanted to support his work in any way that I could. Together, we adapted elements of his short film into a new interstitial series, Gran’pa Knows Best. That same year I licensed it to HBO. We were the first interstitial series on the network. William and I have been working together ever since. We work as a team as well as independently on our own projects.
This story could have been told in a more “traditional” short documentary format. But it instead uses a mix of traditional footage, still photographs, and stop motion animation to bring it to life. Why did the team choose that approach?
A big part of William’s work is using small elements to make big stories. We think the work is visually fascinating. It is a work of art. It disarms the audience and allows us to tap into hearts and minds uniquely.
It’s an intensely personal, heartbreaking story exploring illness and grief within William’s own family. How do you navigate that as a producer, being respectful and supporting the filmmaker’s vision while also having potentially tough creative or practical conversations to push the project across the finish line?
When William and I got to know one another, we found an enormous amount of similarities in our backgrounds. Both of us are Puerto Rican, from New York, and of generational poverty. Both our fathers had fatal health conditions. We found our individual works dealt had similar struggles. We also both loved relaying heart wrenching stories with humor, love and in honor of those underrepresented voices.
William and I have a deep respect for one another’s opinions. We speak plainly and know that we want the best for every project. We set our egos aside for the sake of telling the clear story. We have learned to kill our darlings.
What do you hope audiences take away from Chilly and Milly?
I hope they see a strong woman, loving family, and a hopeful future generation. I hope they feel for and understand the value of a life that is not often dignified in our entertainment.
This is Sundance’s 40th anniversary short film program. I personally love watching shorts, and I know they’re always a popular part of film festivals. What about short film appeals to you specifically as an art form?
I was once advised that if I wanted to direct film and TV then I should make short films. That advice was given to me by a great director and mentor, Rashaad Ernesto Green. I have followed his advice for many years and have made enough shorts that I finally feel ready to direct a full feature.
You learn so much in this art form. It is a challenge to tell stories in the shortest amount of time possible. Every moment counts in all films and short films train our minds and work our craft. It teaches craft, production, and collaboration. I learn every single time I make a film and I learn from mistakes as much as I do victories. Whether it be holding on a shot, or getting more coverage, or turning the camera around whenever I can. All of these experiences can only be had while executing the art of filmmaking.
Furthermore, I binge shorts and attend festivals to see what the emerging filmmakers are making and what is standing out. I reach out to talented individuals whose work stands out. Whether that be a cinematographer (like Dustin Ward) or an actor, producer, or director.
Traveling to a live film festival, especially one as renowned as Sundance, in-person with your film is a very difference experience than trying to navigate it virtually. How are you making the most of the remote, virtual festival experience?
We feel so blessed that this is our second time at Sundance. We also made it in with our film Victor & Isolina in 2017. We had an amazing in-person experience then. It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Navigating the [virtual] spaceship universe Sundance created for us has been a new experience. William is making the most of it, while I am watching the films through the more traditional internet portals they created. I am a techie but also a creature of habit. I have developed a routine that keeps my productivity and development to the maximum level. I dedicate four hours every morning to writing, and get my other work and meetings done throughout the rest of my day. I also spend two to three hours every night binging films and TV series. I consider that a big part of my work…so for this Sundance experience I am using that night time to watch everything available to me.
What is next for you?
I am a WarnerMedia 150 Artist working on my directorial debut in a limited series whose first four acts will also constitute my first feature film (as a writer/director). The story is adapted from my awarded one-woman stage play and subsequent young adult novel of the same name, Brownsville Bred, based on my true coming-of-age story of one spunky Latina’s journey as she comes of age while escaping the pitfalls of her generational poverty. I filmed my first act last summer, which I am putting on the festival circuit as a pilot, while I continue to raise the additional funds needed to complete this long-term passion project.
Also, check me out as a recurring guest star in the new ABC series Queens. I was an actress long before I ever started writing and directing. I still adore the work but have learned to separate the work from my writing and directing. I don’t want my directing and writing to be seen as my way of getting on screen. I want to focus on directing when I’m directing…and create all kinds of stories that touch at the core.
Elaine Del Valle is a Brownsville, Brooklyn bred Puerto Rican filmmaker, actor, casting director, and producer. As a director, Del Valle’s second short film, Me 3.769, was licensed by HBO. Her subsequent film, Princess Cut, was featured by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Director’s showcase and won the HBO Latinx short film award. Princess Cut is currently airing on the HBOmax platform.
Learn more about Elaine Del Valle on her website at www.elainedelvalledirector.com.