Flatbush indie filmmaking duo Michael DiBiasio and Rebecca De Ornelas released a feature-length film last week that tackles ambitious themes of depression, artistic expression, and technology — all backdropped by life in Ditmas Park.
“The Videoblogs” centers around Margaret, a young woman dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. Advised by her therapist to journal but reluctant to pick up a pen and paper, Margaret starts recording a video diary on her laptop, a hack that allows her to both listen and rebel. But when Margaret accidentally leaves her computer at a local bar, she is forced to let a 19-year-old woman into her life, and forges a relationship that challenges her isolated existence and the emotional barriers she’s drawn against the world.
“The Videoblogs” is a science-based drama, meaning the computers and screens play an integral role in the plot, said writer/director Michael DiBiasio. After watching the film and reading rave reviews on iTunes, we sat down with the artist team to chat about their craft, and what it’s like to shoot a movie on their home turf. (Check out the trailer, and continue reading for a closeup of the local filmmakers).
Rebecca De Ornelas, who plays the lead role, became an actress on a whim, after getting into NYU Tisch with no experience. “I thought acting was just imitating other people,” she said. “[For my audition] I did a piece from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and just imitated Elizabeth Taylor.”
But she’s learned that the craft is about listening, being present, and letting go, said De Ornelas. An actor has to do the work of researching the character, she said, but also has to be willing to throw it all away and go on instinct. “No individual is as self aware as the actor is aware of the character,” Rebecca said. “I start out with my first instincts with this character; what resonates with me when I first read the script. I do my work, but at the end, I’m right back at the beginning.”
At first, Rebecca had an aversion to Margaret, the character she was cast to play. But as she dug deeper, she realized that she was reacting to qualities she didn’t like in herself. “The reason that Margaret couldn’t leave her house or connect with other people is that she had a judgement about the way that she’s feeling,” she said. On screen, Margaret comes to life with Rebecca’s honest portrayal of mental health struggles, especially in the quiet close-up shots that string each scene together.
Writer and director Michael DiBiasio, a life-long fiction writer, caught the film bug in college when a mentor encouraged him to transform a short story into a film. “Classmates and instructors would compare my work to screenwriters and say how visual it was,” said DiBiasio. “Also, I’ve also always loved movies. I jumped on any excuse to make a movie for classes in High School. It was always there.” Now, Michael is a prolific screenwriter currently working on his eighth feature script.
On writing, Michael lets his first drafts run wild and then edits to craft a tight narrative. “I try to get out of the way of that and see what my brain is trying to find out rather than what it knows.” On plot, he draws inspiration from writer-director Richard Linklater. “His plots are thematic, he tells you a story by showing you things that are recognizable from your life, like a fictional documentarian. [An effective film] will both reflect and comment on reality, but subtly, so that maybe the audience doesn’t know that’s the relationship their forming with the work until they talk about it,” he said.
Michael and Rebecca, married for almost seven years, make a great team because they believe in each other’s potential and talent, and are committed to separating work and home life. “We trust each other, and we’re professional,” Rebecca said, “on our first set no one even knew we were engaged.”
Their talents are also complementary. Michael has a keen directorial eye, which aligns with Rebecca’s method of working from the inside out. “We have an understanding, he knows how I work and lets me go. And I know where the script needs to be,” she said.
The filmmaker couple also have personal experience dealing with depression, especially after quitting their jobs around 2007 to make a 42-minute featurette. “When the recession hit, we had a film that was not succeeding financially, no job, and no place to live,” Michael said. But he continued writing, which culminated in a successful short film collaboration in 2014 titled Multiverse. With a small budget and connection to the neighborhood, they filmed scenes at Castello Plan. “It was a sci-fi drama and a deeply personal story about social anxiety and agoraphobia we were dealing with at the time.”
Starting from where Multiverse left off, ‘The Videoblogs’ seeks to translate the weight of depression and social anxiety into meaningful artistic communication. “It made sense to us to advocate for empathy before trying to cross the aisle politically. If people are so hurt and angry and confused and easily set against one another these days, we’re not going to get anywhere until we realize we’re more alike than we are different. We wanted to tell a story of these things working, based on how we’ve seen it work in our lives,” Michael said.
Videoblogs was also shot on a small budget in Flatbush/Ditmas Park, where the couple has lived together since 2009. The neighborhood plays an active role — almost every scene was shot in a recognizable local haunt including Sycamore, Bar Chord, Milk & Honey, and Ditmas Park streets.
Rebecca’s neighborhood roots go deeper than the Cortelyou Road restaurant strip — she grew up on Ocean Avenue between Cortelyou and Dorchester Roads, where her parents still live.
As a kid, she wasn’t allowed to walk to Flatbush Avenue — or much farther than her own building — without an adult, but attributes some of that to having strict parents (her mother was raised in the projects, and her father in a tenement building after moving from Portugal.) “I’d ride my bike at my aunt’s house in Midwood, where I’d play stickball in the street,” she remembered.
But for Rebecca, the neighborhood represents more than a trend. Growing up, it wasn’t fancy restaurants and bars, but it was home. “It was chinese food takeout places and pizzerias. But I knew all the guys in the pizzeria. My best friend lived upstairs, and my building had a lot of families. There was always a party, but not ‘lets try this new restaurant down the street,’” she said.
As for the changes brought by gentrification, Rebecca has mixed feelings. “I love that I don’t have to leave my neighborhood on Sundays. I feel a lot safer, as a woman, to walk around. And there’s another part of me that feels a little sad for what the changes mean; building owners pushing people out because they can charge higher rents to newcomers,” she said. Her parents have been rent stabilized for 35 years, paying less than $1000 a month for a 2-bedroom apartment.
‘The Videoblogs’ stars three women that span racial and ethnic backgrounds, which Rebecca said is indicative of this neighborhood’s character. “It’s so diverse. And there’s a part of that film that speaks to, “we may not be at the same place on the outside of our lives, but really when it comes to this shit we’re all the same.”
Rebecca also hopes the film broadens awareness and dialogue around mental health. “If you find the courage to voice your feelings to another person, then you’ll find that other people feel the same way and that’s healing,” she said.
Check out the trailer here, and then buy or rent the film rent the film on iTunes or Fios for $5 — it’s just under 1.5 hours and a great watch — then write an iTunes review. With enough traction this month, there’s a chance for the film to make it onto Hulu and Netflix.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that The Videoblogs included scenes at Lea, but the business locations for this film were Sycamore, Bar Chord, and Milk & Honey.]