Storytelling, Directing and the Academy Awards A Conversation with Brian Robau (MFA/FP '17)
May 15, 2019
Brian Robau is a Cuban American award-winning director, born and raised in Miami, Florida. In 2014, Brian moved to Southern California to pursue a M.F.A. in Film Production at Chapman University. In 2016, he won the Student Academy Award for his intermediate film It’s Just a Gun. Earlier this year, he won his second Student Academy Award for Esta es tu Cuba—his thesis film is inspired by the many stories of the children from Operation Peter Pan (or Operación Pedro Pan), which includes his father’s. He is passionate about exploring the human condition through stories that have an added layer of social consciousness.
We took some time to ask Brian about his inspiration for the stories he tells through film, his directing style and experience being nominated for, and winning two Academy Awards.
The Student Academy Awards
“The best part of the experience was getting to spend the week with fellow finalists,” Brian says. What many people may not know, is that as a finalist, you are invited to spend a week being hosted by the Academy with fellow student filmmakers. The week is packed with activities that include site visits to various studios, meetings with industry insiders and a screening where you can watch your fellow filmmakers’ films. “The films were all very good. You get to watch it and understand why they made their film. It turns into an exchange of ideas and stories—the mistakes you made and what you learned. I would definitely call it a community.”
Being a winner in the Student Academy Awards opens many doors, opportunities and relationships. Brian adds that “it’s not about winning, but what opportunities come from the experience of being [a part of the Student Academy Awards].”
On Winning a Second Student Academy Award
Brian was nominated for his second Student Academy Award for Esta es tu Cuba earlier this year. His first nomination came in 2016 for his film, It’s Just a Gun.
Brian shares that “the second time around there was a strange pressure to live up to the expectations of the first film, but I really wanted the success of the film to be doing justice to the story, this community and this time in history”.
For his thesis film, Esta es tu Cuba, Brian was inspired by his father’s story as one of the 14,000 kids that fled during the Cuban revolution. During pre-production, Brian had done a substantial amount of research into Operation Peter Pan, interviewed many people and accumulated a variety of stories and experiences, but struggled to nail an angle down. This was when his writer, Daniel Klein, presented the story—the first chapter of that “innocence lost,” told through the perspective of a child in the midst of a revolution that was tearing his life and family apart.
“Choose stories that are meaningful, and that you are passionate about in some way, and don’t quit on your film until you’re satisfied with it… The process of making a film is demanding in so many ways—it demands all of you, and you can get frustrated with it.” Brian shared that at times he felt the need to walk away from the film, but because of the fact that it was “so personal, [he] wanted to come back to it and make it as good as [he] possibly could.” Caring about your film and choosing stories that are meaningful to you will help you stay committed to your work.
Advice for Filmmakers
“Cast good actors. As a director it will make your life so much easier, so spend a lot of time casting.” Brian also emphasizes the importance of choosing your crew, “you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, keep that in mind in film school.” When asked how his team came together, Brian says that it came down to the people he had worked with previously. “It happens naturally in film school, you gravitate towards certain people. It’s best when it happens organically.”
On the topic of his producer, Brian recounted that in the summer of 2016, there was an opportunity to pitch stories to producers at an event on campus. Knowing that finding a producer was an important part of the filmmaking process, Brian went to this event and ended up meeting his producer, John Sayage. “It’s so important to go to these events, and to go out and find people who you get along with, who are talented and who will work with you—those are the people you could end up working with for a long time.”
Work Hard and Acknowledge Your Team
“What made [the film] work, was the great working relationships and trust.” Brian explains that how you work with your core team will set an example that flows out and influences everyone working on the film. “If the director, producer and writer trust and respect each other, and work hard to make the film the best it could be, everyone else follows suit.”
As opposed to the image of a domineering director, Brian describes his directing style as “work[ing] really hard, and mak[ing] sure you know everyone [on the team]”—from all the production assistants to the extras. His approach has to do with making everyone feel included. “They really are an important part of the process, every single person. There are so many gears moving, and you can take for granted that a person has been working for seven days, but if it’s not for them, we couldn’t get this done, this person is just as important as me.”
“Esta es tu Cuba” Awards and Festivals
So far, Brian’s film, “Esta es tu Cuba” has won the following awards and been accepted to the following film festivals:
• 2018 Student Academy Award (Bronze) in the Domestic Dramatic Category
• 2018 Caucus Gold Circle Award 1st Place
• 2019 HBO Ibero-American Award (Miami International Film Festival)
• 2019 Student Emmy (College Television Award) – Best Drama
• 2019 WindRider @ Sundance – Best Student Film
• Miami International Film Festival
• Fargo Film Festival
• Phoenix Film Festival
• RiverRun International Film Festival
• Newport Beach Film Festival
• Julien Dubuque International Film Festival
• Rincon International Film Festival – Puerto Rico
• American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase (occurring at the same time as the Cannes Film Festival)
• SENE Film Festival
Thank you, Brian, for taking the time to speak with us!
Find out more about Brian’s second Student Awards Academy win, in our blog post: “Chapman Film Takes Home Bronze Medal at 2018 Student Academy Awards.”
The deadline for the 2019 Student Academy Awards is fast-approaching! If you plan on submitting your film, be sure to do so by June 1, 2019. Submission is free! For more information, visit the announcement on our blog.