Natalie Rodriguez is an award-winning writer, director, producer, mental health and anti-violence/trauma advocate based in Los Angeles.
In 2017, she founded her production company, Extraordinary Pictures, focusing on films, television, digital series, and social issue projects.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation, indie filmmaker Natalie talks passionately about her directorial debut The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) which features star performances from Maddison Bullock (Erica), Ana Marte (Bianca), and Alex Montalban (Alex) as the three central characters. The chemistry between the trio is as natural as it gets and they are well supported by turns from John Posey (Rob), Della Lisi Kerr (Cathy) and James Elden (Dr Mansell).
The movie sensitively and realistically handles the theme of mental health through the three central characters and Natalie’s candour is a credit to her in the following interview, as she opens up about managing her own mental health. She also discusses her determination to persevere as an independent director and writer, and gives a nod to some other films on the theme of mental health that directly influenced this movie.
More interviews with Natalie are on the way and this article will be updated with links to them all…
FF: What is your film The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) about?
NR: Yeah, Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) is a new independent feature film drama. It’s a story about recovery and wellness and how one copes with their mental health. And there’s things they’ve gone through in their past when old wounds resurface. The story follows three young adults named Erica, Alex and Bianca. They don’t know each other at the beginning of the film but, it’s through this journey, once they meet, they learn that they have, you know, similar upbringings, they have similar paths, they have similar journeys that they’re all trying to work through, both individually and as a group at the end.
FF: As your debut directorial first feature film that you also wrote and produced, what do you think you did particularly well and what may have done differently if you could do it again?
NR: That’s a good question. I think I’ve heard a lot of my other director friends say this about their first feature…it’s your baby. I mean, you’re very protective of it. But for me, a lot of it had to do with…I wish I would have had a little more time because we shot that really fast; it was, like, in 13 days, and that’s about 138 page scripts. So a lot of it was cutting certain lines out or just, like, getting rid of scenes altogether.
So, realistically, I wish I had more shoot days, I think that’s what I would have done differently. And one thing I’m most proud of: I’m actually very impressed that we shot a lot of pages, like, that fast. I mean, I think with a lot of indie features, especially first ones, I’ve heard it’s a very common issue. I think getting between like 10 – 15 pages a day and that’s what we sort of did….! Which is kind of absurd because, it’s like, oh, no, you don’t really shoot that. I think the average is like 8 – 9 pages. I’m also impressed with the characters, just how I felt like everyone was ‘on it’. I mean my cast were like one-two takers. I’m not saying we lucked out, but I think it’s just that maybe we all knew we had X amount of time to film. That’s why I think we had that in our brains when we came to set each day.
FF: How much was the theme of mental health in the film based on personal experience, the three central characters and their struggle seemed very authentic, and I’m aware that you’re a mental health advocate?
NR: I can definitely relate to each character in their own way, including Erica’s parents, Rob and Cathy who are part of a subplot storyline. But the three central characters, definitely, I can relate to. I was thinking about this before the release date; I realised that Erica, Alex and Bianca, to me they always represented the past, present and future. So, Erica, the main character’s representing this past; she’s learning how to not let her past define her. Bianca, the best friend in the film, she’s more like the present day. Bianca is very free spirited. She’s very ‘let’s live in the moment’. I always aspire to be her and I feel that, as I get older I become a little more like Bianca. And we have Alex who becomes the love interest of Erica. Alex, I always felt he was the future. He’s trying to find the fine line of how to not let his past affect him. But then he’s also trying to be a little bit of Bianca, to be more in the moment, so all three kind of represent different versions of me.
I had experience with anxiety and depression myself. I watched the movie a few weeks ago…those three characters represent, I think, different versions of recovery. And I hope a lot of viewers do take that away: seeing how three characters can have different recoveries but at the same time are also very similar.
I can’t even watch the film now. When it premiered, one of my actors who plays Janet in the film (the boss), she was like, ‘Let’s stream it! Let’s do a Zoom party! And I thought she meant like,’Oh, let’s just hop on here and talk’. And I was like, ‘Oh, no, girl! I can’t watch it!’ It’s so scary to watch. When I saw it at a film festival last year, at a world premiere, I was like, ‘I have to go outside for a minute’ because it becomes so real. I think I spent so many months so technical and so, like your focus is on all the: Is the sound okay? Does this make sense for the storyline etc. But to watch as an audience member it scared me for a minute. Like, I had to step out a few times on the screen. And then I went back in, I’m like, OK, let me kind of process… Yeah.
FF: Was it difficult to cast for the main character parts, given the nature of the performances that you knew you’d need to get from them? Was it simply a case that these three actors in particular impressed at the auditions?
NR: Yeah, so, a little cool story…Maddison Bullock plays the wonderful Erica… Me and Maddison were social media friends for about 2 – 3 years before I actually reached out to her to join a table read for The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019). And I just remember when I was wanting to make the film I was trying to understand who’s gonna be best for the role? Maddison was always posting what I thought were very beautiful portraits and new headshots of herself. And I remember I just looked at one photo of her one day and I’m like, ‘This is Erica!’, this is her. And then the next step is let me see if Maddison’s even interested. I just always had this good gut instinct with her. It was just very, like, I can’t picture anyone else in this role. I auditioned a few other people – not that they did terrible additions – but just I’m very big on intuition and instinct and I was like ‘No, Maddison is Erica!’
As for the other characters, they were either through friends or colleagues… John Posey plays the Dad, Robin, in the movie. I actually just cold emailed him one day, I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if this is your email – I saw it on, like, this website – and as I’m doing this movie, I pictured you in the Dad role. Here’s what the story is about…
We met and after our first meeting I think he texted me an hour or two later and said that sounds great. And I mean, that was like four years before you actually started filming!
Maddison’s store, they were onboard the minute I was like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna film it’. They’re like, ‘Ok, cool, when’s my shoot dates?’ They didn’t question it and I feel that’s very hard to find now, because, you know, it’s kind of common for a lot of actors…sometimes they’re too busy or sometimes they lose interest, So I think I really got lucky there, that’s what I like when it comes to directing. It’s actors that just want the role because they’re like, ‘I just have to do this!’ and then they become the character.
I felt really fortunate there with this film in particular, including Alex Montalban who plays Alex, the leading man. Bianca who’s played by Ana Marte, I met them…they actually came on about a month before we started filming and Ana and Alex were, when I met them, they just had this energy where they’re both excited. And I felt like they were a little bit dressed like their characters. I’m like, ok, they kind of look like how we would tell them for a casting call.
So Ana, Alex and I met for coffee and Alex actually had sent in an audition and I just gave the role to him and asked me, like, let’s just give the role offered to her. And we had Alex audition because the actor we had as the leading man role was attached to the film for about a year and he dropped out about a month before he started filming. So I was kind of panicked but that’s when I realised, you know, that it’s common; actors are going to drop out of projects. It’s the nature of the business.
Alex Montalban, for his audition, actually made me cry. So I was terrified when I saw his audition because he did a scene where he was giving a monologue. There’s a beautiful scene he does; he talks about his mom with Erica. I remember I gave him that scene to do because I was curious to know how he portrays it and I felt his audition – as cliche as it is to say – but I’d never understood the meaning of that monologue until Alex’s audition came in. It just felt very raw. It felt so organic. It just felt like I wasn’t watching someone reading from a script. It really felt like a fly on the wall, he was just talking to someone off camera. And I just think that’s so rare to find with a lot of talent these days.
FF: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that actually, that’s exactly how I felt watching the film for the second time. The three central characters are so – and I’ve already used the word ‘authentic’ – it almost felt like you’re watching a documentary rather than a fictional narrative film. You don’t always get that so, again, yeah, credit to you for that.
NR: They’ll be happy to hear that, thank you so much. No, they did such a beautiful job. I can’t imagine anyone else in those roles. I know with the indie film world there’s this cliche about finding your Brad Pitts, or Leonardo DiCaprios and I’m, like, I think I still would have gone with Ana and Maddison and Alex. I recently had someone say ‘Would you ever make this film if someone ever bought it?’ I was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t. I just feel it’s meant the way it is; I just feel it’d be almost cheating myself, too, I think, if I ever try to remake it. I just feel the actors did such a beautiful job. I thought that’d be hard to get that from anyone else. My instinct says ‘no, this is the film’.
FF: I really liked the line from Erica’s therapist: ‘Failure is when you simply stop; not giving something a shot or a second chance.’ I wonder if that underpins your approach to succeeding as a filmmaker?
NR: I think so, definitely. I once had a guidance counselor… I was a senior in high school and I went to school in Diamond Bar, California, which is about a 30 – 40 mile drive from LA. So I grew up outside the skirts of LA.
LA became known for getting into the movie or entertainment business, it was kind of deemed as: ‘Why would you do that? That’s impossible.’ I remember at my graduation ceremony in high school I was terrified of going to college. I was like, ‘I wanna make movies… How do I do that?’ And my guidance counsellor gave this beautiful speech to the graduating senior class and it was about failure. She said, failure to me is when you’re unhappy and she’s like, I think you succeed in life – and she cried – when you’re happy. Happiness is when you’re successful. She’s a firm believer of that.
So it’s kind of bringing back to mind that Erica’s therapist, Dr. Mansell, played by the beautiful, beautiful, James Elden; I mean, he’s so amazing. I remember writing that scene and I just thought of what my guidance counselor said. So I definitely kind of felt I maybe took a little bit of my guidance counselor and put it into Dr. Mansell. Because I feel Dr. Mansell is not trying to tell Erica, his client, ‘You’re right or you’re wrong’. It’s like, ‘No, look how far you’ve come. I know you’re going through this rough patch or you’re feeling like you failed, but you didn’t. I always saw that scene as – where Erica goes to him one last time – it’s like ‘No, you’re here, you are succeeding in what you’re trying to do.
So, I do think the same applies to film, or any arts, entertainment…it’s because, let’s be honest… I think the entertainment industry’s gonna feel like I fail, but I’m a true firm believer of ‘No, I think if you keep going no matter what kind of reviews you get, or you think you have a horrible shoot that went down, I think if you get up and keep going, even if you’re not even going to set right now, if you’re getting up to write a word a day on your next book and script… To me, I feel like that’s not failing because I’m like, ‘Well, no, you’re still getting up and doing it because somehow there’s that motivation that’s kicking in with talented artists to be like, ‘No, you can’t stop, you have to keep doing it otherwise you’re gonna regret not trying to give it that second or third time shot.
So, I think a lot of things that Dr. Mansell says in the movie can apply to the entertainment industry or just in life in general.
FF: For people who watch The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) and identify with the theme personally, what other films would you recommend on the theme of mental health?
NR: So with The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019), when I was doing rewrites and edits of the script, and even when we were about to film, I told Maddison and Alex, then, particularly, to pay attention to the film Short Term 12 (2013) which stars Brie Larson.
I think Short Term 12 (2013) was her first leading role and actually that role got her her now Oscar-winning role in Room (2015). Short Term 12 (2013) deals with a lot of themes of recovery and wellness. It’s such a beautiful film; I don’t want to give too much away but it’s about a girl in her 20s; her job is to help people for a living and it’s through one of her new patients… it opens a wound from her own past.
She starts seeing this young girl as her young self and then there’s a twist and you see why. But it’s such a beautiful story and it’s a film that kind of inspired me to keep The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) on this route too… They use minimal flash backs so you actually have to sit with the character when you see them going through a painful thing. The director, Dustin Cretton, does such a beautiful job where you sit with the character and then he’ll go to a reaction shot of another character so you’re kind of feeling, like, the character who’s wondering ‘What’s wrong with this person?’ So you’re sitting with that thought.
Hands down one of my favourite films is Ordinary People (1980), a film by Robert Redford. It’s such a beautiful book written by Judith Guest. It’s a film about recovery too and it deals with a young man who gets out of the hospital after a boating accident that involved a relative of his and the whole journey. They incorporate flashbacks so you see why he’s feeling so much self hatred and guilt and why there’s tension between him and his family.
Definitely Ordinary People (1980) was like the Bible for The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019). I remember I told John Posey and Della Lisi Kerr who plays Cathy in the movie, ‘I need you guys to watch Ordinary People.’ And I remember John said it’s such a sad movie… Yes, but I want you to watch the parents’ marriage, because, if you notice, we see kind of how their marriage is, where it’s at today (without giving too much away of the story).
And another good one, to add to the list, is Thirteen (2003) starring a young Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed. Catherine Hardwicke is probably most known for doing the first Twilight movie but Thirteen (2003) was her directorial debut. That was one film that scared me so much because they talk about things like social issues, wellness, mental health, how they deal with some things… I don’t wanna say addiction, but where we see the characters, using outlets to not deal with what they’re feeling, which is a lot of pain and grief. We do see abuse get brought up – both primary and secondary – and I think Thirteen (2003) stood out to me because I was about 14 or 15 when that came out so when I first watched it it was such a traumatising experience, but I just couldn’t take my eyes away.
What scared me was knowing that Rachel Evan Wood, the lead, was 13 and Nikki was 14 when they filmed it. So watching that and seeing how young they were and able to pull so much of those emotions off, I mean, it was both impressive and terrifying. These are literally kids going through this. It started making me think ‘Well, how did they film that, you know, if that person’s a minor, knowing they had to do 20 – 80 takes doing that same scene. And anything else by Catherine Hardwicke…I’ve been following her work since because it was such a haunting but beautiful story at the same time.
All three of those films in general deal with such mental health, wellness and recovery in such a beautiful, hopeful, yet realistic way. I think people should check them out just to see how they feel about the end result with recovery, because I think they’re shedding light on a lot of the darkness.
FF: What are you working on now/next?
NR: So, right now we’re actually in post production. It’s a comedy drama feature based on a short a friend of mine did many years ago. It’s called Howard Original, about a washed up screenwriter. He gets writer’s block, he escapes to a cabin, and he can’t find out if he’s stuck in reality or in an altered universe when he gets to this cabin.
It’s like a complete 180 because we have the same editor on Howard Original that did The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019), and we’re just at the end of post production. So we’re actually in the colour correction phase right now. And I’m supposed to be getting a cut to watch later.
I’m excited because Howard Original is one of those…my friend and I were, like, let’s just get up and make it! We shot it very low budget. Look, I mean, nowadays I think indie filmmakers should know this too… You can get away with filming a feature even if you go SAG New Media, SAG AFTRA, which is the union. Nowadays, a little secret is, if you don’t have funding to pay certain actors or crew, people will take a back end percentage. Make sure you just get this on contracts. Put a contract to everything, even if someone agrees to work for copy credit, you know, just make sure you put it on a contract or if they do a little bit more work, I say always offer some sort of producer credit.
And that was kind of what made Howard Original possible to film. It was, right, let’s just film it! And it’s a very cool story because it’s completely opposite from what The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) is. I’m kind of happy about that because I wanted to try something new. And I’m excited to see what people think. We’re aiming for a February 2021 release date, especially right now with the pandemic. And I know with the election coming up, it might mean my producing partner and I, of the project, were a little worried about releasing it sooner.
Also my second book, Skeletons, part of the Elephant trilogy. That’s coming out next year in 2021. I just got the second or third draft from my editor, the wonderful Katie Elizabeth. She’s such a fantastic writer herself, an amazing editor as well, too.
I’m definitely kind of more in post edit mode right now. I think that’s kind of nice because it feels like a nice little break from set life. And I’ve been trying to edit another script, but like most artists, I’ve been kind of in celebration mode right now with the release of The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019) recently. So I think I’m looking forward to taking a week off and some time in September.
If anyone’s curious to check out other projects, you can follow my film accounts on Instagram and Facebook. So it’s @extraordpictures. I’ve been doing some throwback stills of some shorts I have done in the past and sometimes just reposting, like other artists and friends of mine that have projects coming out. So yeah, definitely excited. I think it’s kind of interesting to be in edit post mode for a while, especially now with sets being closed down here in California.