“The Art is Always Gonna Be There” | Filmmaker Natalie Rodriguez on How Covid has Changed Creativity

Written by Malin Evita

“Growing up, I just was obsessed with movies, TV shows,” Natalie tells me, reminiscing about her old favourites – a blend between darker flicks like Wes Craven’s Scream and your old-school Disney classics like Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi. “Being around that growing up… Watching movies, you know, religiously – getting up on Saturday watching the cartoons or going to the movies with people like my mom, my grandma, I mean that was the norm, so I definitely think that it contributed to my passion with creating and then writing and then filmmaking. That was kind of almost bound to happen.”

Filmmaker Natalie Christine Rodriguez was born and raised in a Los Angeles suburb. “My parents worked their normal 9-5 jobs; my dad was working for a little bit for the state, for the government. My mom, she is actually at the same job that she’s been working at for like, I think, twenty-six years or so,” she says. The L.A. entertainment craze wasn’t something that they were interested in as a career path, and Natalie is also pretty sure they never expected to have a child who would. 

“I think living outside of, kind of the Heart of Hollywood, where you see a lot of the tourist attractions like the Doby and Walk of Fame, I think [it] encouraged me more to pursue that industry,” she says. The allure of this city drew Natalie in, “As a kid, I just wanted to be in the area,” she adds, telling me how she always used to beg her parents to go see the Hollywood Hills. So despite being born in the same county as the infamous city, she did feel like a tourist when the distance closed. After incessant begging, visiting places like the Sunset Boulevard and El Capitan Theatre became a common trip for the Rodriguez family. “Everything was so glitz and glam to me as a kid. Everything seemed so big.”

“It’s just something I couldn’t see my life without.”

— Natalie on Filmmaking

While she at the time might have wanted nothing more than to live behind the Hollywood sign, she is also grateful she wasn’t one of the kids who was thrown into audition rooms instead of day-cares. Being able to admire and strive for it from a distance allowed a balance often lost in the entertainment world. Of course, the mythical L.A. isn’t all that it looks like either. Something which she came to see as she grew older and decided to pursue the filmmaking dream for real. “I realised, you know, L.A. is just like every other town; you have your good and bad,” she says, “I think you learn how to find your people, or like, you know when to stay out of certain areas.” In 2013, while finishing up her BA degree in Radio, Television, and Film, Natalie worked as a production assistant on the Conan show. Four years later, she founded her own production company, Extraordinary Pictures.

Extraordinary Pictures produces various things – from movies to books, web series, and social issues projects. Among those are Natalie’s own two feature films—The Extraordinary Ordinary and Howard Original—and her web series in work, Young Dario. In collaboration with Ceroase Productions, Young Dario is an animated show about a Latino boy who is experiencing life with the advice of his grandmother. The project began last summer, between a mix of jokes and spurts of inspiration, and then one day, she and co-creator Kevin Michaels sat down and began writing. With a message of support to at-risk youth and as a way of getting things moving in an indie world where many people lost their jobs over the past year, Young Dario is a beautiful passion project with a different lens than Hollywood would usually portray it through. Support the project and receive a Thank You credit by donating to their GoFundMe page here. 

The Extraordinary Ordinary is Natalie’s feature debut. Having both written, directed, and produced it, it was her creative child—and she certainly didn’t expect that she would have to release it into the world during a pandemic. Everything was following along great for a May 2020 release—that is, of course, until March 2020 came along. “I was both like, you know, so proud of releasing that film but also so, like, such a weird time too,” she says, “That first week where things started closing, I was like, alright, movies, these like big Marvel films or DC films start pushing back their release dates from May to later, I’m like, I gotta push back The Extraordinary Ordinary’s release date.”

And so she did. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a point where she considered “pushing her debut to 2021 and Howard Original to 2022, but after a producer meeting, it became clear that there wasn’t going to really be a right time, as the waves kept coming with no end in sight. It was and is a tough time. Having spent so much time working to create something like your feature debut and then reconsidering everything about presenting it after having already spent over half a year strategising and planning is not a pleasurable state. Especially while you, like the rest of the world, is experiencing everything being flipped on its head, with constant changes, anxiety, and fear that never seems to take a holt. “I was, of course, also dealing with my own mental health and relatives of mine who were getting the Covid-19,” she adds, “It is still kind of surreal.”

Over these many months, a new normal has started to form, and a level of acceptance that the world, the entertainment industry, and how we interact with others and ourselves will not return to the way it was. The past year has been one of reckoning and reflection. For many, this has especially included a new sense of recognition and care of their mental health, which are also strong themes in both of Natalie’s films. With the state of the world, she did at times grapple with whether or not this was something there would be an audience for at this time, whether it was even appropriate to release movies at all. But the two films were both met with very positive reactions and reviews. Perhaps that was because the conversation around mental health was finally open and not quite as stigmatised as it had previously been.

The Extraordinary Ordinary, an indie drama available to rent on-demand, surrounds the story of Erica (Maddison Bullock), a college freshman. She moves across the country to cope with her mental health following a traumatic event from high school. On her journey, she makes friends and life lessons with people of a certain past themselves.

Howard Original, a dramedy satire available on Amazon Prime Video, centres on a washed-up screenwriter named Howard (Kevin Michaels). He begins to question his life and the meaning of it after multiple failed relationships. To find closure from his writer’s block and painful past, he goes to a cabin. But out of the blue, his cat turns to life and takes him through his life and its many crises.

“One minute I feel like there is like those good creative days, and the next day you are like ‘ugh, I don’t wanna look at anything today,’” she says. Having been able—or forced, rather—to take a step back has changed her quite a lot as a creative. She was, for one, notoriously known as a workaholic. “I think I was embarrassed to admit this, but I think a lot of people can relate,” she laughs, “Me and my co-creator on the film, who also plays the lead in Howard Original, we had 9-5 jobs. So it was like, go to work all day, meet right after for meetings, or go film, rehearse, and, you know, getting home between ten to midnight was normal. And I loved that for a little bit, but I did have a lot of moments where I burned out.” Even when she wasn’t filming, she felt an immense pressure to “make up” for the eight hours she had spent at her day-job. “I was kind of almost, not punishing myself, but I definitely weren’t giving myself enough credit. Or saying, hey Natalie, you’re tired—go home and just watch Netflix tonight. Stop worrying. The art is always gonna be there.”

In the latest Making It: Women in Film podcast, Natalie and I had an intensively honest conversation about our mental health, The Struggling Artist, and the conception of her indie projects. Episode 47 is available now on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more about Extraordinary Pictures here and follow Natalie on Instagram @NatChristineRod and Twitter @NatChrisRod!

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and currently studies Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: malinevita.com | IG: @malinevita

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