Why he’s on our radar: Sanchez’s debut feature film “FOUR” is based on the play of the same name by the playwright Christopher Shinn. The film stars Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”) as a middle-aged man, Joe, married to a woman who goes on a date with a young man he met on the internet (Emory Cohen (“Smash”)). Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) explores her feelings for a local boy, Dexter (E.J. Bonilla). When the film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the film’s four stars won the festival’s acting award as an ensemble. It is a captivating film in which Sanchez allows the film’s endearing characters to explore themselves and each other without overwhelming with directorial flourishes.
What’s next: “Four” makes its New York debut this Friday at NewFest as the festvival’s opening night film. Sanchez has a plan to play at a few more festivals through the fall and into the beginning of next year, and he’s working on solidifying a distribution plan. He’s starting work on his own feature-length screenplay, set in south Texas, inspired by his growing up near the border.
How did you find this story?
I actually had seen a few of Christopher Shinn’s other plays, and I was impressed by his style and his voice. I was a fan, really, and I, in the process of doing that, became friends with him. We’re a similar age and share interests. That was around the time I was graduating film school at Columbia. I read the play and thought it would make a good movie, and we worked on it from there.
And how did you know this should be a film and that you should direct it?
It was kind of a long process. It was an idea that I thought would be good for me as a director. I could lend myself to it. The material really fit. It was a lot of back and forth. I’m a first time filmmaker. He saw some of my short films and liked them. He thought it would be an interesting project. This was like six years ago. It went through many fits and starts before it came into fruition. He’s a big fan of movies in general and has always been interested in filmic adapatations of his work. It seemed to be a good fit for both of us.
The roles in this film are intense and the film has a lot of dialogue. The film could be made or broken in the acting. How did you go about casting?
The casting process for this film in particular was the key to it’s working. Because ti’s such a character driven piece, because the roles are meaty and provocaitve. You have to start with actors that are capable of pulling it off — actors that have a lot of openness about their process and their ability. I’ve been a fan of doing the work as a director in the casting process. If it’s going to be a real thing, a lot of that is in the questions that you ask the actors in the casting. You’ve got to have a relationship with the actors outside of the film, it has to feel very palpable. I always felt you can’t really shape a performance, it has to come from the actors and their process – the best thing i can hope for is that i do my work. I create a safe space for them to do what they need to do to keep it real, to be a bounce board for the craft that they’re doing on the set.
How did you get to know them in a quick audition process?
You don’t see what you’re going to get out of an actor if you’re just reading from a page. There has to be a spontaneity in their character. There are heavy scenes in this movie. I had to be asking them personal questions about their lives, who they were as people. Is this person really capable of doing what you need them to do; are they capable of seeing this character and what they need to make it real. That’s a process that i learned doing short films. You have to be able to suss out, to make sure they can go the extra mile in order to make the performance really palpable.
How did you go about adapting a stageplay for the screen?
It was a challenge. It’s a talky movie. We shot a lot of dialogue, and we shaped and constructed as we went along. It was better to have more than less when we went into the editing room. It was set in Hartford, CT — we tried to shoot it in Hartford — for financial reasons we really couldn’t shoot in that direction. We shot it in LI and Brooklyn. I’s set in a “general American space” it wasn’t something we thought of originally but it allows people to relate to what is going on in their life. A lot of the spaces we used were real locations. It was important for us to be able to create a visual of this town that they live in.
You’ve played at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Frameline, San Francisco’s hugely popular LGBT Film Festival. How have people been reacting? Anything surprise you?
I get a sense that people really relate to it and it seems to be a familiar story for a lot of people. It was great to screen at LAFF and Frameline so close togeter. They were really different audiences, and they got into a wide array of the story. People reacted really positively to it. They asked a lot of questions about these characters that don’t seem manipulative or condescending. They want to engage more with the film. That’s what you hope for when you make a film. I’ve been really pleased with it.