Artist Spotlight: Writer and Director Henry Arroyo

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Henry Arroyo, director of My Friend John
Photograph by Andrew Barell

When Henry Arroyo set out to create his latest short film, he had a fairytale in mind. The writer and director is committed to furthering himself as an artist by creating compelling stories, and his latest project, My Friend John, is an imaginative journey, told through the eyes of a child. Arroyo admits that being a “child at heart,” helps him identify heavily with his young protagonist, Gio, an introverted character that escapes from the chaos of adulthood by using his imagination to transport him.

Arroyo, a film student at the Long Island University Film School, is currently working on turning the vision of My Friend John into a reality. He is working with a team of ambitious, creative individuals, including cinematographer Andrew Barell, producers Ava Gramin and Jessica Reyes, editor Samuel Gordon, art director Mabel Haugen, and script supervisor Pete Barell. The production team recently succeeded in a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for My Friend John, which Arroyo calls “the biggest project any of us has ever worked on.”

Arroyo is confident that together, the group is going to make something “beautiful and special,” and that the project could be “a launching pad for us to fly off and reach our dreams.” Cultivating Culture recently interviewed Arroyo, the film’s writer and director, about his vision, creative influences, and the challenges of making a film like My Friend John. Here is what he had to say.

Cultivating Culture: Your film, My Friend John, looks and feels like a compelling, escapist tale of imagination. How did you come up with the storyline? 

Henry Arroyo: The storyline started with the basic idea of [creating] a fairytale. The elements of fairytales have always been interesting to me, mainly because of the feelings they would give me as I read them. Sort of like a feeling that anything could happen. Like magic was a living, breathing entity that could change and manipulate itself in the world around it. Being that I wrote the script, I knew those were the feelings I really wanted to keep true in the film. It wasn’t till after that I found out what the story at its core was really about. Like a child’s imagination and creativity is something beautiful that should be grown and made really wonderful, even into their older ages. I think that message is great, but, to me, the most captivating part of the film is that feeling of wonder and mysticism it’ll give off and hopefully leave viewers with.

CC: As a writer, titles, dialogue, and syntax are probably very important to you. Did you play around with different titles for the film? Did the film inform the title, or did the title inspire the film?

HA: I had first come up with the idea as, “A kid’s imaginary friend starts to become reality.” I have a real thing with film titles. I feel as though a title should be something you can actually see on screen. Like Jaws or Shaft, you know? Those titles are something you can really see being a movie. I tried really hard thinking of the title of the film, to make it something people can actually see being in a theater, even if the film is only played on computer screens.  So I would say it’s kind of half and half. Because I had the film’s story sort of planned out, but as soon as I got the title, I knew what I was working with and where I wanted to go with the story.

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Still shot from a preview of My Friend John via Kickstarter

CC: Some of the most emotionally fraught films and stories have been told through the eyes of a child. Did you find it challenging to create a story from the perspective of a young person? Why was it important to you to tell the story in this way? 

HA: I didn’t really think about it while writing the story, it sort of just happened. I’m a child at heart, so it wasn’t too difficult to really keep the perspective in Gio, [the main character’s,] point of view. I would also take good examples from my nephew, who’s actually the child we used for the Kickstarter video believe it or not!  But I think, especially for this kind of film, or really any film that deals with magic, or a type of fantastical mysticism, it’s very necessary to tell the story from a child’s perspective. Children are much more lenient in believing things that aren’t believable. Kids also have a lot more courage than adults when it comes to the unknown. They’re ready to go explore new places and things, not knowing what they’ll see or come across. They have like a pure courage. Like in the Vonnegut book, The Sirens of Titan, with the un-neurotic courage. I feel all children have that.

CC: Do you feel that there is a stigma surrounding young filmmakers, or student filmmakers like the team behind My Friend John? If so, does this attitude sometimes deter you from producing great work, or empower you to prove your worth as an artist?

HA: I definitely think there is a stigma surrounding younger filmmakers like myself. I feel as though this industry really takes age as a defining factor in how good the work you produce is, but there have been many younger filmmakers who have made great films. I think we just need to be given the chance to prove ourselves. I love when people are surprised by how well work comes out, like if they didn’t expect it because of [an artist’s] age. I think people just need to remember that talent comes in many shapes, colors, sizes, and yes, even ages.

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The film’s production team working on the set.
Photograph by Pete Barell

CC: It seems clear that films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and E.T. have greatly inspired the creation of My Friend John. What films, directors, writers, or artists inspire you personally from a stylistic standpoint? When did you decide that you wanted to pursue directing and filmmaking yourself?

HA: Before I was into films I was heavily into literature. Some people would disagree with me, but I think literature – writing – is the highest form of art, greater even than music. The written word has so much power. I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Tolkien and Langston Hughes. I was writing way before I got to filmmaking. When I first started getting into watching films, I was heavy into Star Wars. Just the world and everything about it was amazing to me. It still is. From there I found my way to [directors] Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. I always thought it was great how these guys could switch up on serious material and make it funny. Humor really goes well with anything, and I think people actually take drama much more seriously if there is a bit of humor in it. I got to film school, and that’s where I was introduced to Akira Kurosawa. The first film I saw from him was Seven Samurai and man, that film just really made me think “Wow. I need to do this.” Kurosawa’s influence is all over my work, even if it’s at a very basic level. Discovering him made me really start investing myself into film as an art form and a study. I kept going further and further back into the past, Ingmar Bergman, Godard, Jean Cocteau, so on. I’m half African-American and half Puerto Rican, so getting into the industry, I really started searching hard for Black and Hispanic directors. I found Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Oscar Micheaux, Guillermo Del Toro, and Luis Bunuel, amongst others. Gordon Parks became a particular idol to me. These filmmakers and a lot more helped to shape my style. But I think that’s enough of the name-dropping for now, ha.

CC: What is the most gratifying component of being a filmmaker, and what has been the most fulfilling or challenging part of creating My Friend John? 

HA: Definitely finishing. And that doesn’t even have to just be with the shooting of the film itself, or even film as an art form. I think finishing a piece of work, in any medium, is the most gratifying and fulfilling component about being an artist. That feeling you get to know that you actually started and finished something, put it together with your own hands, made it real, is really a great feeling. It’s even better if what you made is good, and well received, not only by others, but by yourself. I’m a very critical person of my own work, so sometimes that’s a bit hard to achieve for myself. But when I do, man it’s a great feeling.

For more information about My Friend John, and to help further fund the vision of Henry and his team, check out the film’s Kickstarter Campaign.



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