Award-winning social impact filmmaker, Julia Verdin has a new film MAYA coming out this weekend in selected cinemas and on VOD. I sat with Julia to discuss her project as well as her career which spans several decades.
You’ve produced over 40 feature films, written 3 screenplays directed 3 features, lots of short films as well as a feature documentary. In a challenging world of entertainment, that is quite an accomplishment. To what do you attribute your success?
I am a very positive person, and that has really helped me. When I find a project that I am passionate about, that passion drives me to succeed. I also think to have a meaningful career in the film business, you have to be willing to work hard and roll with the punches. Many times I’ve had people come to me with promises of funding that don’t come to fruition. Overall, I have found the only way to get a film into production is to set a start date and put one foot in front of the other to do what needs to be done.
It’s also important to have to have a great script, with strong roles for actors so you can attract a name cast to get investors or production companies interested. Passion is very important. If you are passionate about getting a certain story made, you will find a way to make it happen. That passion will keep you going and make you willing to do the work needed. It takes a lot of hard work, commitment and resilience. You have to be willing to not give up and always find a way.
How did you get into making social-impact films?
About 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to try directing. Taking the time to learn more about directing and the visual language of cinema made me think about my voice as a filmmaker and the type of films that I, Julia, wanted to make. I decided then that I wanted to make films that would have some meaning and purpose and raise awareness on issues that I cared about and wanted to try and make a difference in. That was when I started to research how to best use films for social impact. Blood Diamond was a film that really inspired me as I saw the change that happened as a result.
What led you to start Artists for Change?
The reason I founded the non-profit Artists for Change was because of my belief in the power of film to raise awareness on key social issues. I talked to many non-profits and realized that most of them did not have the budget to create media to raise awareness for their causes, as the majority of grants they get have to go to providing services.
After my previous films, Angie: Lost Girls and Lost Girls, I received many letters from parents saying, “Thank you for making this film, we watched it with our teenage daughter and it was a very bonding experience. She said she finally understood why we always wanted to know where she was going and to call us regularly.”
If the films I have made on this topic can help prevent other teens from being recruited by traffickers, all the love, energy and long hours I have put into making these films will be so worth it to me.
A lot of your social impact films are focused on the wellness of children, whether that is raising awareness about human trafficking, homelessness, or addiction. What drew you specifically to this topic?
Child trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal activities in the US and globally. Not having kids myself, I’ve always been inspired to try to do what I can to support underprivileged children, those who don’t have parents and families. I have done volunteer work at orphanages, runaway teen shelters and with foster youth. I have met a lot of teenagers who have been through the most terrible experiences, some of their stories were heartbreaking, especially hearing about them being trafficked and it was not something I could look away from.
Can you tell us about your latest project, Maya?
I am very proud and excited about the new film Maya that I wrote and directed, which will be coming out in cinemas and on VOD on January 26th, 2024. Maya stars Patricia Velasquez, Rumer Willis, Rena Owen, Gian Franco Rodriguez, Anthony Montgomery, Billy Budnich, and newcomer, Isabella Feliciana. It highlights the danger of minors being recruited by traffickers on social media. Social media sites have allowed traffickers a faster and more effective way to recruit young victims. Online recruitment and grooming increased after the pandemic as children spent more time online for virtual learning, often with little parental supervision.
Isabella Feliciana plays Maya, who becomes a victim of trafficking. Patricia Velasquez’s character, Camilla, Maya’s mother, has faith and a willingness to overcome addiction to help her daughter, which is incredibly moving. It’s a story of courage against adversity, good conquering evil, hope and inspiration. The film is also a mother/daughter story, about their relationship and the cycle of abuse. Teenagers growing up with domestic abuse in their home are likely to get into abusive relationships themselves as it seems “normal” to them.
The film’s goal is to inspire communities to look out for the vulnerable amongst them and give them the support they need. Research shows that when people are emotionally engaged, they self-educate about a topic and are more likely to act. The great thing about film is that we can come to care greatly for fictional characters because of the two-hour journey we go on with them, and it is my hope that the audience would come away from Maya’s story with a greater willingness to look out for the people around them in their everyday lives.
There is also a short, educational documentary I created to go with the film. It includes interviews from experts in the field talking about the film in relation to what they have encountered whilst dealing with survivors and fighting these issues, along with cast interviews and clips from the film that aid in illustrating these concepts.
How did you go about researching for the project?
Wanting to make a film that felt authentic, I spent time with detectives working in Human Trafficking. I asked questions and listened to stories about different cases they had dealt with. I also talked to survivors and had a survivor consultant on the script, who read through it and gave me comments. I spoke with a lot of people working in the field and read a lot of articles. It was astounding to me how prevalent this issue is in the US, as well as globally. The stories are heartbreaking and were sometimes hard to listen to.
Can you elaborate on your casting process? What drew you to the actors who you chose for Maya?
I have long been a fan of Patricia Valesquez. She is a wonderful actress and also very active on social issues. She was the first person I approached for Camila and so I was thrilled when she accepted.
Maya was a hard role to cast. I needed to find an actress who looked 15-16 but was over 18. I also needed to find an actress who was willing to go to some of the darker places needed and had the maturity to handle that. The role required a big range of emotions. Hundreds auditioned for the role, and it was a very lengthy process. After doing callbacks, I still didn’t feel I had found the perfect Maya. I went back to some of the original self tapes we had, and there was one actress we had given a call back to who I had liked but was told she was no longer available for our dates. I watched her audition again. It was really good. I called her manager to ask about the availability issue to see if we could work around it. It turned out she was graduating and so there were 2 days of our shoot she wouldn’t be able to do. I told the manager that we would like to do a call back with her; and if we chose her, we would work around it. In the callback, she blew us away. I immediately knew this was our Maya. Patricia came in halfway through and was listening on the stairs. We both looked at each other after and nodded. Izzy was amazing and totally fearless. She really did a remarkable job and her performance is really outstanding.
Can you describe your creative process regarding how you sculpt characters, especially in relation to Maya.
I based the character of Maya on various young survivors of trafficking I have met over the years. I didn’t want her to be only a victim. I wanted to set up her character as a kind and loving person, who was talented and had the potential to do well. She’s talented at art, giving her a good creative outlet. I also wanted her relationship with her mother, Camila, who is played by Patricia Valesquez, to feel very real and authentic. Patrica came on board the project as an associate producer and was very helpful in developing that relationship in the script with me, as she has a teenage daughter, coincidentally named Maya. I wanted to show both their love and frustrations with each other. I also wanted to have a strong faith foundation within each of them, that helped them each find healing.
What do you have coming up next?
I recently directed No Address, about five individuals who, for various reasons, have ended up living on the streets. They come together and form a family to fight the various challenges they encounter from gangs who want to exploit them and locals who don’t want them in their neighborhood. The goal with that film is to raise awareness on the homeless crisis. I also co-directed a feature documentary, Americans with No Address, on the subject, too. My next project is a narrative feature that highlights the tragedy of Opioid addiction and Fentanyl, called The Killing Machine. I am just finishing the script and plan to shoot later this year.
Maya is coming out this Friday 26th January 2024 in selected theaters and on VOD. https://www.artists4change.org/filmprojects/maya/
To find where you can watch Maya in Cinemas: https://www.artists4change.org/filmprojects/maya/