Jesse Quinones is a writer and director from Miami, Florida who has called London home since 2000. An alumni of numerous labs and fellowships including the BBC Writers Room, the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, and the Soho Theatre Writers' Attachment Programme, Jesse completed his debut feature film, Calloused Hands inMarch 2013. A story that follows a mixed race boy growing up under an oppressive step-father, the film is loosely based on Jesse's own life experiences. Calloused Hands premiered at the Miami International Film Festival, and has since gone on to screen at over 20 festivals around the world, receiving numerous awards and accolades.
Interview by Louis Cheslaw
Calloused Hands is a deeply personal story. Do you find it easier or harder to write about subjects and issues that you've experienced in your own life?
I think there is always a little bit of me in the stories I want to tell. Perhaps not all to the extent of Calloused Hands, though - Calloused Hands is pretty much all of me! They often say your first film should be your own story, just to get it out of your system, and then once you are liberated from your story you can move on and make films. I suppose this was kind of the case for me. I needed to tell Calloused Hands. I spent 13 years developing the story. Now that I have told it, I feel I just want to tell stories. But the stories have to matter to me.
When the actors in the film knew they were telling a story based on your own life, did you feel they came to you for more advice than they might otherwise have?
Each actor had a different approach to it. Some were very keen to know the details of my own life to help them with back story. Others wanted to keep a little distance, and treat this like any other story. I don't think either approach was wrong or right, everyone has their own process and all I tried to do was create an atmosphere that was safe and inspired creativity.
When an actor like Andre Royo (The Wire, Empire) signs on to a project, does the atmosphere change at all?
Having someone like Andre come on board was definitely a big thing for us. I think it gave the project some legitimacy, to see someone who had such an established career, and who is so respected in the industry come on board - it kind of gave us that stamp of approval. In an industry that can be so risk averse, it was a big thing for us. I learnt a lot from Andre; he has become somewhat of a mentor to me. He's a great guy, one of the funniest human beings I have ever met, but what I really admire in him is that underneath the humour and the fun there is a tenacious, hard working individual. This man showed up to the film set prepared. He not only knew his own lines (and the the lines of all of the other characters), he came with ideas about his character, but also an openness to explore how we could develop it. He is a professional in every sense of the word.
"They often say your first film should be your own story, just to get it out of your system, and then once you are liberated from your story you can move on and make films."
You live in London. When and why did you come to the city?
I'm originally from Miami - I was born and raised there. I came to London in 2000, still a teen. I'd love to give some romantic story as to why I came to London, but it's not so exciting. My mother decided she wanted to relocate back to Europe at the time, and I thought why not. I didn't know much about London at the time, but I was excited for the change. I had just hung up my cleats as an aspiring baseball player and was looking forward to a change of scenery. And London and Miami, in many ways, are worlds apart. So it was refreshing.
How has living in the capital changed or influenced your filmmaking?
London has been a great influence on my work. It's a very creative city, so you are surrounded by artists, by filmmakers, and poets, and musicians, and writers, and you can't help feed off of that creative energy. I think it has impacted my work in many ways. It's also an incredibly competitive city and that can be tough sometimes, but I think also good. Because you know if you are making stuff happen in London then it has to be pretty damn good.
Finally, are you able to tell us anything about what we can look forward to next from you?
I'm developing my next feature film Cagefighter at the moment. It's set in the Midlands and it's about a fighter who begins to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks on the cusp of the biggest fight of his life. I'm developing it with Finite Films and we have some great elements in place. Andre Royo is on board to play one of the key roles, and we also have the actress Cathy Tyson on board. So I'm very excited to work with actors of this calibre. Aside from this, working on a documentary project for Channel 4, and a few other things.
To keep tabs on what Jesse's up to, go to www.jessequinones.com.