Hector David Tapia (he/him) has been working as a Director and DP in Philadelphia for over two years since moving to the United States from Mexico City. This month on Project Forte, he sheds light on the uniqueness of Mexican cinema as it hinges on the idea of a compact, multifaceted crew who thrives by innovating and problem-solving out of creative necessity. This is slightly different from the larger American machine, which can afford increased specialization due to enormous budgets and crews; and therefore, less departmental interrelationship. As witnessed by Hector, many who contribute to Mexican cinema are rewarded with resourcefulness in exchange for the passion they must pour into overcoming each obstacle. True to that experience, Hector brings every skill to bear when on set, trusting in his fellow filmmakers and inspiring camaraderie. It takes a connection, an opportunity, and a yes to open doors, and his story is no exception. Read on to hear more about Hector’s journey so far!
Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Kris Mendoza: Welcome to Project Forte, Hector. Let’s begin with how you got your start in the industry.
Hector Tapia: It was probably 15 years ago, when I started out as an editor for a TV network. I was mainly editing live concerts, documentaries for bands and stuff like that. I was really focused on the indie scene back in the days, probably 2005 to 2010. I was in Mexico City at the time, focusing on editing those kinds of projects and it was like a full five years of just sitting and editing.
Kris Mendoza: What drew you to the profession? What were some early influences other than the music scene which led you to understand you wanted to pursue this? Were you a big moviegoer growing up?
Hector Tapia: That’s an interesting question because throughout the years I discovered it really goes back to my childhood. I always saw my dad grabbing the camera, like all the time. For example, at Christmas, he would wake up really, really early and wait for us with the camera ready to see that Santa Claus had come and then he would capture our reactions. That was a constant image that I’ve had stuck in my mind since my childhood. But, my only dream and goal at that time was to be a professional soccer player. I had tunnel vision for the sport until high school. Eventually, things with soccer got complicated and I lost interest in pursuing a professional career when I was in my senior year and it’s funny cause that’s exactly when filmmaking entered the frame for the first time when we had this final project assignment to craft a video. I think that was my first official approach toward this passion.
There were three or four of us on a team and we could do anything we wanted, we had complete creative freedom. So we filmed at a friend’s place and I remember recording and somehow “directing” him. It was like an “I’m having a nightmare” kind of scene. I remember saying or feeling like a really interesting exercise to me. To be honest, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it but it didn’t matter because I think I internalized the main message: “I enjoyed filming a movie”. Back in 2002, we didn’t have access to nonlinear editing software like today and we figured out a way to edit that piece. I think we just recorded the TV screen and then we would basically edit on camera. That part was really tough and tricky for us, but in the end, we delivered the final product so it was a success.
Moving forward, I went on to college and studied engineering for a year. Just as I was realizing that was not for me at all, my older cousin was also switching from his engineering major into communications. He said to me, “Why don’t you try this too? Maybe you like photography.” I was really frustrated with my engineering major and that question really inspired me to look back at the camera and that previous experience of making a film made all sense, it was like: “Yeah, I think that’s what I was looking for this whole time.”
And I really liked the program and what the career offered at the time, cause it’s always changing. The only thing I regret is the fact that it was going to be a huge extra cost for my parents, a whole year of tuition to the trash but they were really supportive as always. They made me and helped me feel comfortable switching to a creative career. Then, within the first two years, I met a friend who needed me to edit and retouch photos for her, and I realized that I really liked that creative process as well. She connected me to her boyfriend who was a producer at this TV network and luckily they were recruiting. He interviewed me, it was like a quick stand-up interview, I remember him saying “You seem like a good fit” and then he walked me through the door of the Executive Directors. I was so nervous but that second interview went well and the next day I showed up and started editing my first TV show. I was really lucky to get that job.
Kris Mendoza: Nice. What was the industry like in Mexico City at that time? Is it a totally different animal from the United States?
Hector Tapia: I mean, some people say that it’s really a closed circuit –
Kris Mendoza: Tight-knit?
Hector Tapia: Yeah, like a tightly woven industry. It is very large, although I was really lucky it is indeed hard to find an opening. I remember one of my post-production teachers explaining communications as a broad spectrum. He said “In this major, you basically have these options: Radio, TV, Commercials or Cinema. And more sad news… he said, you will only have one or two opportunities in your lifetime to get into the industry. So, don’t waste them. That was like the word, the clear message.
Kris Mendoza: It sounds like you were doing a lot of Post at that point, but as far as Mexican, the U.S., or even global filmmakers, who were some folks that you were following and being inspired by?
Hector Tapia: I know it’s gonna sound cliché but definitely one of my main influences was Alejandro González Iñarritu when he released his first feature: Amores Perros, in 2000. It was very impactful to me. I remember watching that movie 10 or 15 times with one of my best friends in high school and it just woke us up. We thought, “Wow, this is something new. This is amazing. This is Mexico.” We memorized almost entire sequences, dialogues, and scenes. It had such a raw texture, visually innovative, super complex scriptwriting, and great performances. It was a complete boom and success in my country. That movie revolutionized and changed Mexican cinema forever. Because, back to my childhood again, in the early to mid-’90s, Mexican cinema was garbage, I remember going to the theater with my family to watch “La Risa en Vacaciones 5” a prank movie saga, they made like eight movies, all exactly the same: actors, jokes, pranks, places, and songs. At the time we laughed a little, but now I look back at that era and it’s like: “What the hell happened to those Mexican filmmakers? Then, a few years later, we all saw Iñarritu, Arriaga, Cuarón, Del Toro, Lubezki, and many others raising their hand and the rest is history.
Back to Amores Perros, at the time I was just a pure viewer, you know what I mean? I didn’t have this bias of being on set or of being a cinematographer, yet. I wasn’t analyzing the technical aspects of the movie. I was just like into-
Kris Mendoza: – Drawn into it?
Hector Tapia: Exactly. I just let myself absorb it. That was my first big impact and big influence. Then also, I really liked Y Tu Mama Tambien from Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki. Those guys were my biggest influences starting out and still, they are.
Kris Mendoza: Very cool influences and I should say even without knowing too much about Mexican cinema, it was very clear to see at the time that they were inspiring and inspired by a global zeitgeist. I know Iñárritu did Babel in the early 2000s, but I feel like it wasn’t really until 2014 when he did Birdman that he became a household name.
So, using this as a jumping-off point, let me ask you: what makes Mexican cinema unique? Are there some elements or approaches within Mexican storytelling that differ from other cultures in terms of filmmaking?
Hector Tapia: I would say first that Mexican filmmakers are great problem solvers and they are driven by their passion, so they always find a way. The budgets for Mexican films also tend to be smaller which encourages a lot of multi-tasking and creativity. That’s one of the main differences between U.S. and Mexican filmmakers. For example, in Mexico, most of the time one person will cover a lot of roles while here in the US it’s really uncommon to see that, it is definitely more structured here at all levels of production cause everyone has a specific role. I think it can be seen as an advantage for a Mexican filmmaker, because if you don’t have the budget, you are going to try a thousand different ideas to get your project made and learn so much from each experience.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, you get resourceful very quickly when you don’t have the budget.
Hector Tapia: Exactly. And we are like that, we don’t let any obstacle stop us. And you know, we have this beautiful ability to connect, and that aids in our resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to make friends get the shot, whether that just means talking to the police in a hectic and crowded location to get them on board, knock doors to see if the neighbors allow you to come in to get the shot from their balcony, or even helping someone in the crew solve a problem.
Kris Mendoza: When we talk about resourcefulness and smaller productions with really high value, the first person that comes to mind is Robert Rodriguez. Obviously, he’s American-born but of Mexican descent, and shot a lot of his early work, like El Mariachi, in Mexico. He did a lot with very little.
Hector Tapia: Exactly.
Kris Mendoza: It’s really interesting to see how restricted access to X, Y, or Z inspired a creatively stimulating environment, where you were forced to think outside the box. I read Rebel Without a Crew, which was very insightful in its approach and reminds me of this, but I never thought of the cultural fingerprints involved. Thinking about Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids) or Iñárritu (Revenant) you can see that moment when you do finally get access, in this case, to all these toys and all these resources – you are unleashed and your creativity can be fully activated. Is that what brought you to Philadelphia?
Hector Tapia: Actually, I made that decision out of love, really. About 3 or 4 years ago my wife was given a really nice opportunity to work here and took it because it was a good financial decision for us. It was rough on our relationship, but I traveled back and forth as much as I could, especially to see my daughter and Melanie (my wife) flew back to Mexico sometimes for vacations. She has a really good relationship with my family so we got through it in the end.
Finally, she did say, “I’m not moving back to Mexico. The only way you can stay with us is if you move to the U.S., to Philly with us.” So despite the fear of moving, love definitely won that battle and things have really been working out well since then.
Kris Mendoza: That’s amazing. You know, I didn’t realize until recently that your wife is Melanie Silva! I follow each of you separately and it finally clicked when I saw you both post the trailer for the really touching piece about your daughter.
Hector Tapia: Oh, that’s awesome!
Kris Mendoza: What’s it like being in a relationship where you are both in the same creative field? I’m so curious to know what it’s like to live and breathe creativity, art, and film production at home and even work together in some regard.
Hector Tapia: That’s a very interesting question because it was really hard at the beginning, but we evolved and balanced. We met at this TV channel in Mexico City. She and my sister were both editing and they became best friends. That was how we connected and then we started spending more time with each other.
Melanie is a very talented filmmaker and storyteller, while I’m more focused on the visual realization. She’s always telling me, like, ” You have to focus more on the story.” Then I say, “You have to focus more on the visual ” [jokes] I think we push and also complement each other really well, but in the beginning, it was a little bumpy trying to meet halfway.
Sometimes when we’re together, there’s a little healthy competition, and I have to remember that one is not better than the other, we only have different styles. Also, when I started focusing more on cinematography and directing, she started to focus more on producing. She and one of her best friends and colleagues have now founded their own media company here in Philly and our talents and styles can be combined and complementary.
But it’s also really nice to see that we can accomplish and deliver projects of our own. It’s not, like, all wonderful. Obviously, we have some friction sometimes when we’re stubborn about our approach. But we’ve arrived at something really really sharp and true to what we want with this project you mentioned earlier, Dear Sofia, which is about our daughter.
Kris Mendoza: I bet it would be totally different if you were both directors or both DPS. Your nuanced differences mean you can complement each other and also enrich each other’s work in terms of open constructive critique.
I know personally, I would have a tough time opening up my creative vulnerabilities to my significant other, let alone wearing two different hats with them. When you’re working on something as personal as Dear Sofia, how do you switch on work? Any advice for couples in the same field?
Hector Tapia: It’s really tough because sometimes, for example with this project, we’re spontaneously being inspired by something interesting that Sofia is doing. I have to follow my impulse to just grab the camera and start. It’s a matter of seconds to switch the hat, being a parent and then a filmmaker. We do like to keep our work separate for some of our other projects.
As far as advice, I would say probably the word would be humbleness if that makes sense from both sides. It’s important to set aside your egos. Rather than battle, you listen and ask questions out of love and respect for the other. You have to be open to hearing them and learning them, which helps you to know each other’s weaknesses and talents in terms of storytelling. When you can share like that first, you find out that you really can have some separation and be in charge of one part of the process while they are in charge of the other. You trust each other with the talents you see in them.
It really helps to always approach the other with a respectful suggestion, and not tell them they can’t do it. I find myself asking “What do you think about this mood for the scene?” or “What do you see if this is the direction I want to go?”
Kris Mendoza: I watched the trailer that you both posted and was very moved by the visuals and the story, so I can see each of you in it already. Just to touch on your daughter’s personal experience a little, I’ve had experience with the diagnosis of autism in the family and what that can mean for your relationship with your family, especially your wife. Talk to me about how that project came to be and how it’s evolving.
Hector Tapia: We’ve been filming for almost a year, because it’s entirely dependent upon Sofia’s mood, and some days we only shoot one or two scenes. It’s been a learning curve, and of course, we have two different processes regarding Sofia’s autism. Melanie has her own way and I think I go a little bit slower than her. My acceptance of the diagnosis, I mean. It’s going to be almost two years now. She was diagnosed back in September 2019, and for me, it was really tough to understand because my daughter is so wonderful.
I began processing by minimizing her behavior. I was in denial, saying “no, to me she’s, like, a neuro-typical little girl.” I wasn’t embracing her difference, but Melanie helped a lot with my process. She did a lot of research, read books, and subscribed to Autism groups on Facebook with other parents who were sharing their experiences and knowledge. While she did that, I was mainly focused on my work but then I realized that it was not going to be good enough for me and for Sofia. I started to get more and more involved and then I suddenly became inspired to use my camera to help me see what I needed to see: Sofia.
I told Melanie that it will be really helpful to me if I just start filming her, just be with her on and off camera and explore what happens. She agreed and so we talked with Sofia. She loves to watch videos. Actually, I edited a video for her every year for her birthday and it makes her so happy. She always likes to watch them a thousand times and memorize her words or “dialogues” in each video. In terms of filming the movie, which is more of a docu verité, we always ask her first, because sometimes she doesn’t want to film and isn’t in the mood and we must respect that. It all started a healing process, working on this film with my family. I’m always editing some sequences and going through the footage and then I see things, looks, reactions, and behaviors about Sofia that I wasn’t aware of, so shooting this movie has been really insightful in terms of that and also therapeutic for me.
It’s important to ask yourself what your motivations are when you do something like this. Personally, I’m always checking in to make sure I am doing the right thing or asking if I’m being selfish by making my daughter a subject. Do you know what I mean? It’s a very difficult situation, internally for me. But Melanie, our parents, and our family, have all been really supportive about that because they can see we are doing this out of love for Sofia. We don’t want to expose her. So far, we’ve agreed that we would not show tantrums or expose her to ridicule because she wouldn’t be able to say that is ok to film.
Kris Mendoza: I can see you’re concerned about exploiting your daughter’s story and situation, but at the end of the day, I think it sounds like your hearts are all in the right place. You’re really documenting for her, and for your family, which is something I’m totally used to. My dad documented every waking step of our lives growing up and always had a camera.
I think you are blessed with the opportunity that you are actually a professional in the industry so you can capture these moments and turn them into art. I think if other parents and families can get anything out of your message, it would be hugely impactful for those who are experiencing their journey of acceptance with an ASD diagnosis. I am looking forward to seeing more of it.
It seems like you’ve really sunk your teeth into the Philly scene, working with a couple of different production companies. What makes you do what you do? Why do you love it? And what’s next around the pike for you?
Hector Tapia: What’s next? I want to film and film and keep filming for the rest of my life. That’s what I want. Regarding Philly, I love working with Kyra Knox, a very talented emerging director and producer. We are actually shooting her first documentary feature and also I really enjoy working with you and your team at Maestro. I’m so happy that you consider me for the work you are doing. I’m excited to see what Philly has to offer this year and as I expand my career. Also, I’ve been shooting documentaries in LA and would love to shoot more in New York. I’ve been pretty lucky. Obviously, I want to keep filming in Mexico. I recently sent one of my latest short films to top festivals around the world, it was proudly shot and produced in my country. I really want to be like I am now, you know, filming, editing, applying to festivals, traveling, filming again but this time more and more interesting projects, better stories and characters. I get a sense of belonging just from grabbing the camera. It is my vehicle and my key to knowing the world and to connecting with more people.
That’s what I dream of. That’s my everyday obsession and it’s happening. I’m living that dream one day at a time, one project at a time.