Not many directors can say they got an Oscar nomination for their very first film, and certainly not for genre fare like a dystopian sci-fi comedy. For her futuristic prison satire “Please Hold,” writer and director KD Dávila proved her considerable talents not only to the Academy, but to herself. As a screenwriter, Dávila’s debut feature “Emergency” recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to warm reviews, and “Please Hold” features many of the same themes that make her work so exciting. She specializes in dark comedies with absurdist premises; both “Please Hold” and “Emergency” send young men of color on Kafka-esque journeys through the punishing maze of systemic racism.
As a Mexican-American woman beginning her rise in Hollywood, Dávila excels at mapping her own experiences onto fictional characters, avoiding the autobiographical trap into which many women creatives often get pigeonholed. Despite her early success, she’s not immune to impostor syndrome.
“The process of directing had been very mysterious to me for a long time. … I think that there was this mental hurdle of thinking of myself as a director,” the filmmaker said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “There aren’t that many short Latina directors in the world. I think women often get kind of told, ‘You’re the supporter of the project. You’re the writer. You’re the producer.’ So it was a mental hurdle for me to be like, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ It’s kind of crazy to think how long I spent not realizing I could. Once I did, it felt completely natural.”
Set to release this May from Amazon Studios, “Emergency” is an expansion of the 2018 short Dávila made with director Carey Williams. It took watching Williams on set, and his honesty about his own blind spots, to realize she didn’t need to know every little technical aspect to sit in the director’s chair.
“He admitted to me that he didn’t understand some of the stuff the camera department does,” she said. “He probably has a much better grasp of it all now, but at the time he was trying to learn more about the technical aspects of the camera side of things. It made me realize I didn’t need to know all the answers to how everything works. You just have to have really strong department heads and communicate your vision.”
She brought that scrappy can-do mentality to “Please Hold,” which she co-wrote with her partner Omer Levin Menekse. The film takes place in a single location, an entirely automated prison cell, where Mateo (Erick Lopez) is presumably awaiting trial without even knowing what the allegations against him are. Mateo is essentially the only character in the film, though a few others appear onscreen. He is arrested via drone, and can only speak to other humans through expensive video calls, which he frantically crochets baby sweaters to afford.
“I always start with a little bit of a producer’s mindset when I’m trying to generate ideas,” said Dávila. “We were trying to think of things that we could do realistically. … I think putting constraints on yourself can really help. I wanted to think of something we could do with one space.”
She had read an article about a Latino man who was arrested because he had the same name as the alleged defendant. When he finally appeared before a judge after weeks in jail, the judge realized he didn’t fit the description at all and dropped the charges. By then, he had already lost his car and his job. Unfortunately, such stories are all too common, to say nothing of the effects of the system on people who are found or considered guilty.
“That story really stuck with me,” she said. “This idea came pretty fully formed of, ‘What if we took that and combined it with the universal experience of being stuck on the phone with customer service?’ Like an automated phone tree where you’re in a Kafka-esque hell.”
She wanted to flip the script on sci-fi’s usual approach artificial intelligence. From contemporary classics like “Terminator” and “Robocop” to elevated genre fare like “Ex Machina” and “After Yang,” the primary questions about A.I. have been about how close to the human experience the technology can get. Does A.I. have feelings, and if so, how do we handle that?
“The version of artificial intelligence that interests me and scares me is the one that doesn’t think, doesn’t feel, and just follows its programming, and in many ways already exists,” Dávila said. “One of my friends works for a consulting firm that automates jobs out of existence. So the idea of a prison that’s a self-serve automated jail, where you have to put yourself in jail, you don’t see a human being. Your only real interaction is with a screen, kind of like inflight entertainment … doesn’t feel so far off from what’s here.”
Though she’s an avowed “Black Mirror” fan, she wanted the futuristic elements of “Please Hold” to feel less sleek and more plausible. From his struggle to get answers about his case to the exploitative labor practices, Mateo’s experience isn’t too far off from what’s happening in the prison industrial complex today. Though Dávila’s satirical take makes the injustice more digestible, it’s no laughing matter.
“Right now, in-person visitation at prisons is something that a lot of prisons have been trying to phase out by putting in essentially Zoom that they charge tons of money for,” she said. “And that burden goes to families. I’m Mexican-American. The Latino community is my community and our people are over-incarcerated, especially in the Los Angeles area. It was important to us that we show that it’s not just this one guy’s life that’s being ruined. It has a ripple effect throughout his entire. … His family is bearing the burden of this mistake. And that’s real.”