Unidentified Objects Filmmaker Juan Felipe Zuleta on His Groundbreaking Indie Hit

Jun 2, 2023

There is a vast array of LGBTQI films and TV series to experience during Pride month, and Unidentified Objects should sit high on the must-see list. Not because it features gay characters but because it explores universal themes that unite us. Director Juan Felipe Zuleta saw that and creates a winning tale about two characters we can understand and root for.

Here’s to that. So… what can possibly go wrong when an uptight dwarf and his woo-woo, alien-obsessed neighbor road trip it to Canada in an offbeat attempt to search for their place in the universe? Plenty, and that’s what makes Zuleta’s indie outing so enjoyable to watch. The man is also on board as co-screenwriter with Leland Frankel. Together they weave a compelling, often funny tale about an unlikely friendship and enduring existential angst. Juan Felipe Zuleta, who’s experienced a great run at film fests with the movie, shared more in this exclusive MovieWeb interview.

Why Unidentified Objects Had to Happen

Unidentified Objects introduces us to Peter, a misanthropic dwarf (Matthew August Jeffers) sequestered in his New York City apartment, and Winona (Sarah Hay of Flesh and Bone), who becomes Peter’s unlikely ally. Their adventure is driven by Winona’s insistence that she finds the site of an upcoming alien visitation in the Canadian wilderness.

Colorful characters pop up along the way, of course — those “extraterrestrial” highway cops were a nice touch — but ultimately, Zuleta’s film delves into the trauma people stuff down and posits the question: are we really all alone in the universe? Like, here, with ourselves on planet Earth, with billions of other people around us. Deep? Yes. But the filmmakers offer levity along the way.

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“This wasn’t the movie I wanted to make. It was a movie I needed to make,” shared Zuleta. “I’m a big sci-fi buff, but I also love stories about outsiders, and people who live in the fringe, people who don’t have a place in the world. I had done a lot of studies about little people and even little people in cinema, but especially this character, Peter, I had some sketches of who this character could be.”

What catapulted everything into existence here was the pandemic. Zuleta was working on another project that fell through. “I wasn’t employed, and in a really dark place. I couldn’t afford rent, and that’s when the story came to be,” he added. “It’s as if the Universe conspired in the craziest ways for it to come to life. So, when I say it’s not the movie I wanted — because it didn’t go through a studio system — it was me hitting people up and saying, ‘I need to make this movie, I need you to invest in it.’ I started production without having the whole budget. I just went for it. Because I needed to tell a story that would allow people to feel the way I was feeling and hopefully find a little bit of hope in the world. I say it’s a love letter for outsiders or people who don’t have a place in the world.”

A Story Audiences Haven’t Seen Before

Quiver Distribution

Zuleta knew he wanted to tell the story of a little person after realizing there was a fabulous pool of performers with dwarfism to choose from—actors who rarely are offered the chance to play deeply layered lead roles on-screen. He felt that kind of representation was important.

He found his True North in actor Matthew August Jeffers, who plays Peter, a curmudgeonly man with achondroplasia. Peter, who is also gay, is financially strapped. The only reason he agrees to go along with Winona’s seemingly wacky road trip idea is that she’ll pay him. Sarah Hay infuses Winona with plenty of spunk and angst here—the character is a free-spirited sex worker on a mission, so there’s that.

“I was very lucky that I found Matthew and Sarah.” Zuleta said. “During pre-production, Matthew and I before spoke for many, many, many hours every day, just breaking down the script, talking about the characters, and coming up with our language. We talked about our personal emotions and why we’re telling this story. It was the same with Sarah. I don’t think people normally do this kind of stuff. But there was a time before pre-production when we had to do quarantine together. I think all that [depth] shows up on screen.”

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When asked why it was important for him to create a gay character with dwarfism, like Peter, Zuleta said:

“Many reasons, but one of the reasons was that it moves me in a very personal way. My niece was born with a problem in her arm—she doesn’t have her arm—and I remember how she liked to read children’s books. Then my brother-in-law started drawing princesses with the body and arm his daughter has, with a disability. She started seeing herself identified in that princess. Traditional books didn’t have that. So, I fell in love with the importance of telling stories with characters we haven’t seen, because there’s so many people out there that we can relate to, but we don’t often see them. Including myself. I’m a South American/Colombian. I don’t necessarily see a lot of people in movies like me. Peter in this movie is something I’ve never seen in my life. And it’s a character that is broken in many different ways, and many different forms.”

“I’m a very humanist filmmaker, as you can tell from this interview,” he added. “I care about making movies that can impact and change the world and at least give us something to reflect on. But for me, the reason I fell in love with outsiders and misfits and people who are different and found collaborators like Matthew to bring those stories to life, is because it’s important for us to see stories that are different, and with people who are different. Not all stories have to have a white superhero who is like 100 percent straight with no flaws.”

Juan Felipe Zuleta’s Biggest Hope for the Film

Quiver Distribution

It’s fitting, then, that Zuleta’s influences are directors Alfonso Cuarón (Roma, Y Tu Mamá También) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet). Both filmmakers are exceptional in the cinema they create.

“Y Tu Mamá También is one of my favorite movies ever,” Zuleta said. “I still can’t believe he shot it with handheld cameras with two characters inside a car. There are no crazy visual effects. Alfonso crafted it in a very humanistic, very naturalistic way. This man changed my life. And David Lynch… listen, he’s had little people in a lot of his movies, but I don’t think they’re necessarily explored. They’re more like a freak show in some ways. But his narrative is visual, and the way he tells stories, I would say he steals a lot from Wizard of Oz—that escapism of humanity. People going to a lot of trouble, and they find a way out.”

Those influences pepper Unidentified Objects. As audiences move through it, a platonic love story emerges, one we’ve never really experienced before. Bottom line: Zuleta would love for audiences to be entertained, but there’s also another hope he has.

“I hope this movie is a movie people can find when they are alone,” he said. “When they don’t feel they belong, when they don’t feel they have a place in the world, when they feel they’ve been rejected, or beaten down, bullied or thrown outside. I hope people realize that there’s these two goofballs [on screen] are just like them. And ultimately, to realize that you can find your people. You can find your tribe, and you can be yourself.”

Unidentified Objects, from Quiver Distribution, will be released on June 2 in theaters and June 9 on VOD.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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