Infusing New Blood into a Shakespearean Classic

When Ed Talavera, associate professor in the Cinema and Interactive Media Department, approached his former student Ronnie Khalil about directing a feature film for the School of Communication’s Film in Greece summer study abroad program, neither of them had any intention of making an LGBT interracial vampire romance. Yet several unexpected turns shaped With a Kiss I Die into exactly that.

UM alumna and assistant professor of screenwriting Barbara Leibell teamed up with alumnus James Orie to write a comedy about an immortal Juliet Capulet never dying, as she did in the original Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet. Seeing more potential in the film as a dark drama in which Juliet must live all eternity without her true love, Khalil worked with the team to transform the script. The next twist came as a result of the casting decisions.

“During the casting process, our readings with the male and female love interests kept falling flat,” Khalil said, noting it was his casting director who suggested they try having two of the women read together. “We did the reading again, and suddenly everything clicked.”

Khalil made the bold decision to cast a woman as Juliet’s love interest, as well as the decision to cast a black woman as Juliet, a historically Italian character. Khalil, an Arab-American who is familiar with the struggles of being typecast, embraced the diversity. After 12 years as a stand-up comic, Khalil transitioned from performing to working behind the camera, and has since written, directed and produced several independent films.

As the character identities in With a Kiss I Die changed, Khalil and his writing team had choices to make, particularly about whether to alter the dialogue to accommodate two female leads. They decided to not change much.

“We definitely had to re-examine how we were going to sell this movie; it definitely became a lot more niche,” he said.

Once the team got through the pre-production phase of the film, production proved even more complicated. For many students who signed up for the Film in Greece program, this was a crash course in what it really takes to be a filmmaker. Paola Cétares was a first-year graduate student pursuing an M.F.A. in film with nothing more than one short film under her belt when Talavera encouraged her to become the producer.

“I haven’t learned as much as I did making this movie in all the time I have been studying film,” Cétares said.

Producing a film of this magnitude with only one month on set is a challenge of its own, but it’s even harder when production is occurring in a foreign country.

“The day that everybody was arriving in Greece, we did not have any locations,” recalled Cétares, who felt like she was becoming a local after wandering the islands for days trying to secure locations that could potentially match upcoming scenes.

For Khalil, this challenge meant there was no way to set a fixed schedule, and actors had to be ready to shoot any scene at any moment, with no rehearsal or blocking beforehand. With all the obstacles and changes being thrown their way, the cast and crew had no choice but to be adaptable. Besides Khalil, Cétares, and cinematographer Jorge Valdés-Iga (also a UM alumnus), the crew was composed of UM undergraduate students who had never stepped foot on a real set. All had to power through arduous days of production to finish the film on time.

“I think everyone was a little shocked at what it takes to make a great movie, but once everyone was on board and had the shared vision, it really ended up working out well,” said Khalil, who teaches film as a visiting professor at Lynn University.

With a Kiss I Die made its screening debut at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema on August 28. Through Clownfish Productions, the independent production company Khalil co-founded, the team is applying to film festivals and seeking worldwide distribution.

This article originally appeared at http://news.miami.edu/stories/2017/10/um-filmmakers-infuse-new-blood-into-a-shakespearean-classic.html.