For Monica Sorelle, her aptly-named debut feature Mountains was a labor of love, requiring a community to rise to the challenge. And that community is a major focus of this realist drama, which centers the family of a demolition worker who is forced to confront the ongoing gentrification of his Little Haiti neighborhood and the role he plays in it. As the film made its award-winning premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Radar spoke with Sorelle about the making of Mountains and the real life inspirations behind it.
Shane Slater: Congrats on your Tribeca premiere. Tell me about the journey to get the film to this point.
Monica Sorelle: Well, it’s a very long story. I’m of Haitian descent, born in based in Miami. I went away to Orlando, Florida for undergrad for film school. And when I came back in 2014, to Miami, I noticed a change in Little Haiti, which is a neighborhood that I spent a lot of time in as a child. And it was troubling because I had known about what happened in Wynwood, which is a formerly Puerto Rican working class neighborhood. That has transformed into an arts district very rapidly and violently. And I was weary of the same thing happening to Little Haiti.
I joined a nonprofit and tried to become an organizer and I quickly learned that was not a gift of mine. So since 2014, I was trying to figure out how to utilize what I did know, which is film, to sort of combat what’s going on in Little Haiti. And then in 2018, I was actually working in Wynwood. And I was watching houses get demolished all the time. I would see a family in a house, to seeing a sticker on the door and the family gone, to seeing it completely demolished and turned into a parking lot in a matter of months. And for two years, I was seeing this on a daily basis.
An opportunity opened up in Miami from an organization called Oolite Arts, which was giving micro budget funding to filmmakers to create their first feature film. And me and my producing partner, Robert Colom were kind of joking about how we’d never do it and we would make up joke pitches to each other.
Then one day, we walked out of the office and we’re trying to get lunch and we watched a demolition worker leave a worksite and then cross the street into the suburban part of the area that’s still a Puerto Rican stronghold. And I turned to him and I was like, “Okay, micro budget idea!” I kind of was joking. Like, what if we made a film about a demolition worker that lives so close to his house that he can walk there, and is actively demolishing his old neighborhood? And Robert didn’t laugh. He looked at me like, “Okay, we’re applying.”
And so we pulled an all nighter, got the application in at the last minute. We were the last application and we were the first to be invited to take part of this opportunity. So we’ve been developing this since 2018. We wrote the script in 2019. We had planned to shoot in 2020. But as you know, that was impossible. And then, we were back in pre production in 2022. I think by this point, last year, we had just finished casting our leads and starting rehearsals, and we shot for five weeks in July and August of last year. We put a lot of ourselves into it and we’re just really proud to be able to present it to a world class festival for the first time and to get such kind and glowing reviews from everywhere.
SS: Gentrification is tied into the film’s themes surrounding home. And the home that this family lives in has such character. It’s warm and colorful compared to the home Xavier is thinking of buying. How did you approach the energy and atmosphere of that home?
MS: Yeah, thank you for noting that. My production designer’s name is Helen Peña. This is also their first feature as well. I just expressed to them that intention. I expressed to them that I really wanted a home that was a Caribbean home, and all that comes with the Caribbean home. So very warm. But also very packed, you know? [Laughs]. Like, kind of uncomfortably comfortable, essentially. And I think that they did a marvelous job with getting that across with the living space being the workspace, being the dining room, you know what I mean?
And then I think that I was interested in having a spacious, starkly white space for the new space. Because I think in my opinion, that is what a lot of immigrants, especially in Miami think is a standard of wealth. Something that kind of lacks character, something that lacks that warmth that is so innate in us. And I think that our lead Xavier was willing to compromise that because there’s a need to prove yourself in this country. To climb this ladder of upward mobility, because why else did you come here, you know? So I wanted to make sure that the space they’re looking at was devoid of any character.
I think you notice in Miami, when a space is being redeveloped, buildings lose their character. Miami is naturally a very cultural city, a very colorful city. And once you start seeing buildings being painted white, you know that something is amiss. And so I think White is a very big characteristic of Miami. redevelopment, Miami’s idea of wealth and Miami’s willingness to lose what makes it special, in order to align itself with something that makes it sellable. I think everything in Miami, unfortunately, right now is up for sale. And there’s a lack of preservation. That is really troubling.
Through production design, that was a way that I wanted to present that stark whiteness of Miami, which I think you see at the end when he ends up going to Miami Beach. Everything looks white, including the building that Daniel works at, including the car that he gets in to drive and park.
SS: There’s also a calmness to the film in general, which feels very intentional. The typical notion of Caribbean drama is very loud. Can you speak a little about the tone you were going for?
MS: Yeah, I mean I think Xavier takes up a lot of space. He’s a big man, he has a big booming voice. I think that situating him next to someone like his wife Esperance was intentional. And thinking about a woman, a Haitian woman who doesn’t need to be loud to demand respect, or to command a room. In Haiti, we call women the potomitan, which is the pillars of society. And I think that’s definitely what Esperance represents for us in the film. She’s soft, she’s gentle, but she’s firm in her beliefs. And she’s firm in her role and in grounding the family. And I think that’s an important role of Haitian women and Caribbean women in the household.
I feel like in a lot of Caribbean films, a lot of Haitian films, there’s a lot of tension between spouses. There’s a lot of tension between the husband and the wife. It’s antagonistic, they’re yelling at each other. I didn’t want that. I consider this a social realist film. And I don’t know if it’s unrealistic for there not to be conflict in that way for a Haitain family. But for me, I just did not want to portray that on screen. I wanted to see a couple that was very much in love, and very much partners. The strongest conflict is a conversation, for a couple that respects each other, and a couple that didn’t feel the need to get loud in the house with one another.
And so that was sort of a dream of mine to leave the conflict. If it’s in the house it’s between Xavier and Junior, and the other conflict is between Xavier and his life outside the home. But I wanted him and his wife to be a pillar. And I think that her being a soft character led to the house feeling warm and cared for and not loud.
SS: With the character of Junior and his interest in stand-up comedy, how did you approach the writing?Those scenes are funny, but also reveal so much about him.
MS: I did not write that. A lot of the dialogue in the film is worked through with the cast. Our script is much shorter than the runtime of the film. And that was on purpose. I couldn’t write all these words. I feel instead that making it loose will allow the actors to add character to the film. So a lot of the dialogue was not written down.
And in the casting I looked specifically for a comedian, a stand-up comedian. And thank God I found Chris Renois, who is one of the most talented comedians I’ve ever met. I’m someone who related to Junior heavily. When he showed up to the first audition, he was like, “I feel like you guys are following me, because every single aspect of this character relates to me.”
So, we talked a lot about how to reveal character through the stand-up. So it’s one of the ways you get a true understanding of his inner life. The fact that he’s a college dropout, his relationship, and his perception of how his parents look at him. I think we just gave him benchmarks and he created those jokes himself. I think the film is very humorous, but I’m not a stand-up comedian. So we left that to him, and he killed it. And I think it added a lot of beautiful texture and background to Junior’s inner life.
SS: I’m curious about the logistics of the demolition scene, especially for a small budget film. How did you pull that off?
MS: That was all my producer, Robert Colom. Thank God for him. We started shooting without those locations. And so we were scared. We thought we were gonna have to break for a couple months and fly people back in. But as a micro budget feature, we were able to get away with just explaining the film and asking for partnerships.
So the three demolition sites in the film, essentially we were guests on people’s actual demolitions, which was crazy and probably dangerous. A very minor character who plays Flacco in the film – the one that actually uses the excavator – he is an actual demolition worker who got us on to the worksite. His company was really excited to be in a film. And then the other two demolitions, the first and second demolition one was at the big house with the pool, and the other was a huge warehouse. That was just a friend of a friend of Robert and as long as we were respectful, we were able to shoot the demolition as is, and insert our characters in a way that was safe and respectful. As long as we didn’t get in their way of the demolition, we were allowed there for free.
I think it’s important to say that Mountains was very much a community effort. Things like the demolition scenes and locations, being able to get them for free was a part of that. Being able to shoot at that Comedy Club was a part of that. The non-actors that we got are members of our community, you know? Some of the in-kind services we got were because of community. So this was very much a labor of love in Miami. We had a lot of really strong support. And we’re just really happy that people understood the vision and are able to get it to where it is right now.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]