Dina [Buno] could’ve made a million different decisions over the course of making this film that would’ve changed it.
Directing duo Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ alternately comic and tragic, and best when both at once, Dina won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
The film aims to capture the essence of its title subject, larger-than-life fortysomething Dina Buno, as she goes about her everyday life in suburban Philadelphia, in the lead up to her nuptials to her fiancé Scott Levin. They both live on the autism spectrum: Scott has Asperger Syndrome, while Dina has what her mother describes as a “smorgasbord” of mental health issues. Santini and Sickles unravel the physical and emotional scarring of Dina’s past relationships—her first husband succumbed to cancer and she nearly died at the hands of one “psycho” boyfriend—as she sets out to carve out a new beginning with Scott. It’s an unscripted journey riddled with a lot of roadblocks.
Dina doesn’t resemble other nonfiction films. On the surface, shots are completely static and color graded like an artful independent work of fiction. Meanwhile, Michael Cera’s transformation is finally complete: The film comes adorned with a humming and guitar-strumming score supplied by the quirky actor. But more to the point, the filmmakers are so unobtrusive in documenting their subject’s plain-spoken self that it occasionally feels as though we’re watching a scripted narrative.
Santini and Sickles previously turned their empathetic eye toward Puerto Rico’s trans community in Mala Mala (2014). In similar fashion, Dina so clearly comes from a place of love and admiration, without ever bearing the mantle of having to educate its audience about autism itself.
Dina opens in select theaters on October 6.
To start, maybe we could squash any concerns future viewers might have about the possible exploitative nature of Dina. It’s pretty clear if you watch the film that it’s not exploitative at all. Dan, you specifically share quite a history with Dina as well, don’t you?
Dan Sickles: Right. I grew up with Dina. My dad was her teacher in high school and also a paternal figure to her after she graduated. He started this group called the Kiwanis Abington Aktion Club. It still meets bi-monthly at the public library in Abington. I grew up going to these meetings so I’ve known Dina and the supporting cast for the film my entire life, really. Dina likes to say that she used to babysit for me, which is always fun to hear because I don’t really know how true that is. But I like that she considers me her own in a way.
I’d love to know what Dina and Scott thought of the finished film and, since they’re both unfiltered and plain-spoken by nature, what the first things they said to you were.
Antonio Santini: We showed Dina the movie first on a laptop at her house and her reaction was—she started to give us notes. With the dentist scene, there was a moment that she remembered where she was tapping her foot nervously and laughing. She was like, “Oh wait! You should put that back in!” There was also a therapist session that we filmed and didn’t include because we didn’t want to medicalize her experience in the film. She was also like, “You should put that in there.” But more so than that, she was kind of laughing at herself. She understands how funny she is. She’s pointing at the screen like, “I’m such a diva” or “I’m such a ham.”
Dan: As for Scott’s first reaction, I remember he was very critical of being off-key sometimes in the songs that he sings in the film. He was very critical of his own musical know-all.
How much footage did you actually have when you went into the edit?
Dan: I think we ended up with about 550 hours worth of footage. Some of those hours are of different angles. With the wedding, for example, we had three cameras for that event so some of that doubles up a bit. But it was quite a hefty bit of footage. For every moment that Scott and Dina are watching TV in the film, there’s hours of them watching television, sometimes even from that same night. It’s a testament to our editor [Sofía Subercaseaux], who really sat through every single second and found some moments that Antonio and I hadn’t discovered in the footage yet, and then lending herself completely to ultimately what was a tedious way of shooting.
Antonio: The whole approach was to just leave the cameras rolling, for sometimes hours, knowing that in a three-hour shoot there would be maybe 20 seconds that will be really great. We built that discipline to keep doing that and not force the moment or force the day. Some days we wouldn’t get anything and other days stuff would just happen. On our first film Mala Mala, it was the opposite where the camera was moving and we were always chasing the action. Here, we created really controlled environments so the actions are always contained within the frame.
Whenever a documentary looks as good as Dina does, there’s bound to be questions about possible manipulation and staging going on to get the compositions and coverage that the makers want. Are there instances of that happening with this film?
Antonio: Well, the first thing is that her house is a certain size. It’s not that big so we had limitations on where we could put the camera. With the living room shot that we constantly revisit, there were just a few angles we could shoot from to capture the action as we wanted. Starting from the apartment, we wanted everything to be medium to faraway from her always and never go into a close-up. That way, you could always see her in the context of her experience. As we started capturing her in the apartment in relation to her space, we just continued that language throughout and adapted it to when she went to the mall and when she was waiting for the bus.
Dan: I guess the question is understandable because certain moments in the film lend themselves to a surreal nature. But I think something that’s important to mention is that when they go on their honeymoon, for example, and the shot of them in that Jacuzzi, was Scott’s doing. He had picked that resort out months before it happened and actually borrowed money from his mom to pay for that suite. It’s the type of place that, if you grew up in the area, you saw ads for on late-night TV for this couples resort. What’s funny is that I knew of this 8-foot-tall martini glass hot tub that he had rented for their honeymoon. So we had enough information that we needed to do what we needed to do. Something that’s also great about working with Scott and Dina is that they know their routine. The sequence of Scott going to work takes all of 40, 45 seconds maybe, but that entire scene is comprised over a few days of waking up with Scott, following him outside, and following him onto the bus. If he’s wearing the same outfit, waking up at the exact same time every day, leaving the house at the same time, catching the bus that comes at the same time and walking the same route to get to the bus every single day, we use that information to help us compose shots.
That martini glass Jacuzzi—everyone says something about it.
Dan: [Laughs] I think something more insidious with questions like this is the notion that Scott and Dina aren’t as brilliant as they are in the film. The fact is that they are. Scott to me is like a Shakespearean character. There are moments in the film where he says things that are gorgeous like, “If I had been through what you’ve been through, I would’ve possibly perished by now.” He says these things you can’t script. But if you’re there to capture for 550 hours, there are gonna be beautifully tender moments that you mine. That’s what really happened with this.
Antonio: This question you’re asking also points to the underlying philosophy in our work. When we started working on Mala Mala, in our heads we probably wanted to do a narrative fiction movie but the topic was real life that we also wanted to address. So we were always thinking in a narrative sense, with both of our films, even though we were working with the fabric of reality. The kind of reputation that documentary has is that it’s talking heads, it’s less exciting than narrative fiction, it’s a bit more dull… You know, people will be like, “I don’t want to watch a documentary tonight because I don’t want to think.” But Dan and I don’t see it like that. We believe that, if you have the patience to observe reality, it’s actually gonna be way more surreal and interesting than fiction. You have to let it unfold. The more patience we had in shooting Dina, suddenly right there something would happen. The sunset shot during the honeymoon required a lot of patience because Scott and Dina were there for a while talking and we were really faraway from them. It’s good that we stuck to it because it just so happened that the couple walked in front of them, which sparked a whole conversation about intimacy between Scott and Dina. There’s no way we could’ve planned that.
Dina had a horrific thing happen to her, which is slowly revealed as the film goes on. The realness of her problem is so pivotal to this story. Was she open to go there from the start?
Dan: Yeah! Well, I don’t want to say “Yes” so easily. [Laughs] I think it was difficult for her, but she’s an incredibly generous individual when it comes to sharing her experiences. We met with the DA who tried this case with her and won very, very early on in the process. I talked to her about going to visit him before I went. When he happened to have all of this information about the case on the desktop of his computer, that was another conversation with Dina: “What do you think about us including this information?” Dina’s nothing if not courageous. I think she’s been hungry to tell her story and this just happened to be the perfect form to do it in.
Dina at one point in the film says to Scott, “I’ve been watching these reality shows and how they film.” We do see that she’s into Keeping Up with the Kardashians and I Am Cait specifically. I likened that to her maybe thinking about you guys filming her and her expressing a self-awareness and curiosity about what all of this could mean.
Dan: Oh yeah.
Did you at any point feel like Dina was performing for the camera? I of course ask this because we all perform when there’s a camera around to varying degrees.
Antonio: That was something that actually tripped us out a lot. We would show up at her apartment and, as we were catching up on the day and everything, we would start to put the mic on her. That way, it almost felt like she wasn’t really that aware of us putting the mic on her. Even though she was, she was caught up in talking about something else. Then we would slowly step away from her and Adam [Uhl] would hit record earlier. We would just ease into it without saying, “Go.” Then we would “Cut” and sometimes she would look at us and go, “How was that? Was that natural?” And we would be like, “What?” [Laughs] She didn’t change at all her behavior from the moment she was in front of the camera to after, but she was obviously aware that the camera is there. When we were at Sundance, people would ask us, “How did you do it?” and honestly, it’s with Dina’s magic. She really has a magical ability to keep it—
Antonio: To keep it real.
I was reading Michael Cera’s Stereogum interview where he admits to approaching you guys about making music for the film and not the other way around. He also made it sound like you really had your hearts set on getting that Yazoo track and Michael’s song maybe didn’t quite fit into your vision for the film. How hands-on were you in his creative process?
Antonio: The way that it works with Dan and me is that, usually when we have a project and we need something to get done, it’s up to us to reach out and interview and hire people. Sofia, our editor, invited Michael to one of our test screenings when it was really close to its final stage and he emailed us after, offering to make music. It was like, “No pressure. If it works out, use it. If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry.” For us, if anyone approaches us in that kind of generous manner, we’re going to be open to collaborating because it’s more refreshing than us looking for the person and hiring them and giving them a paycheck for their services. At the same time, we did tell him that our movie is pretty minimal on music, except for the parts where Scott’s singing. We told him, “This is how we want it to be, but we’re definitely not going to hold you back if you have some sort of inclination and desire to make something.” So throughout the process, we had meetings and watched the movie together. We talked about spaces where music could work. Based on that, Michael just started making music for those spaces. Some of it worked, like when Scott moves into Dina’s apartment. That part didn’t have music before and when he scored that, it actually allowed us to make it more of a montage. So music actually influenced that space. When it came to the track for the music video for “Best I Can” that was just released, we were like, “Ugh! We like it, but there’s just no space for it in the movie.” We appreciated all the work that he had put into making it and we just wanted to find a way to give it its own life.
How have things changed for you guys since winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance? Have there been significant offers that will help you breathe life into a new project?
Dan: You know, doors open a bit easier. But I don’t think we’re ever going to stop realizing that there’s an aspect to the business where you’re continuously proving yourself. In a way, I don’t think it should be easier for us to make our next film because we have to approach it in the same way in which we made our first two in order for it to work. You’re lending yourself to something that’s happening in real time. There’s no blueprint. Dina could’ve made a million different decisions over the course of making this film that would’ve changed it. So your heart has to be in it. But for the film to be validated in that way is huge. I think what hits me hardest is the fact that all of it worked. The film comes from the same team who made the first one and it only really consists of a handful of us. Making it just because we think it could be something and when it turns into something that has had such an awesome reception, it adds a whole other level to the experience. It’s really given us so much.
Do you have another nonfiction project lined-up? And do you want to venture into fiction?
Dan: Yeah, we’re in talks for a few nonfiction projects right now. But again, I feel like that sort of work is about catching the right train at the right time that’s going at the right speed, you know? In terms of fiction, that’s also something that we’re interested in playing with. For us, I don’t think it’s about genre as much as it’s about story. We’re concerned with making things that will be talked about 10, 20 years from now and that takes time.
Antonio: If you want to make a project right now, people kind of want you to send them the full idea fleshed out. That’s just not how either of our movies were made. It’s such an organic process and relationship. I didn’t grow up with Dina. I met her through Dan at his dad’s funeral. The process of getting close to Dina and understanding her was just like any kind of friendship or relationship. It just takes time to develop. You can’t expect the first shoot to be this amazing, perfect, harmonious thing. You’re getting to know each other, opening trusts, becoming friends, learning to appreciate and respect each other, and understand how far you wanna go. Eventually, the actual movie is shaped through those feelings, out of respect and admiration and love. And they don’t always have to be positive feelings—they can be anything. Little by little, you start working at it until it’s months later and you’ve accumulated all of this stuff. The movie’s almost like this byproduct of this relationship you’re having. So many things are happening that aren’t scenes in the movie. There’s so much interpersonal stuff happening between Dan and Adam and me. There’s stuff happening in our home lives when we come to shoot, which applies too, you know? You might have a personal question at home when you show up to the day of shooting where you’re like, “Here’s a subject who’s exploring love. Let me actually see how I can interact with her in a way that will teach me something.” I say that to mean that it’s a little bit tricky because when you make a fiction movie, it’s kind of easier to make a blueprint. For us, we’re interested in making documentaries that maybe look like narratives, but the process is still about working with reality.
Antonio, how did you and Dan meet? Did you connect over a passion for filmmaking?
Antonio: We met through our passion of, I guess, partying.
Antonio: I was at a party that was kind of boring—my friend would throw one every week—and I was slumping against the couch. Then the door opens and this guy walks in, wearing a giant Mexican sombrero. It was Dan. I was like, “What? Who is that guy? He’s giving me a run for my money.” I might’ve been wearing a hat, too. Then it was my birthday the following week and I sent him a message on Facebook like, “Do you wanna come to my birthday?” and that was that.
Antonio, I know you’re from Puerto Rico. Dan, you just made a post on Instagram about donating to the island, calling it your second home. You and Antonio obviously filmed Mala Mala there as well. How can every individual do their part to help Puerto Rico right now?
Dan: Puerto Rico is a special place. Not only have I spent a lot of time there, some of my closest friends are from the island. There was also a time not too long ago before Dina where I lost a lot of my family. It was the people in Puerto Rico and Antonio’s parents specifically, who sort of stepped in to take care of me. It’s always been a special place for me. It’s always been a largely ignored place. Its history has sort of been erased so we don’t know enough about it. There are certain people we still haven’t necessarily heard from. Antonio’s friend actually started a relief fund.
Antonio: It’s helpprdespacito.com by a local non-profit called ConPRmetidos, which for the past years has focused on helping the island out of this crisis. Its main focus was in helping build business relationships with the U.S. to bring more money into the island. Then both of these hurricanes happened and they’ve been completely focused on just helping rebuild the island back, buying generators so they can power hospitals and businesses, so food can be produced… So if you’re interested in helping out, that’s a great one to contribute to. It’s in collaboration with FEMA, who’s doing research in Culebra and the rest of the island to see where to best allocate the money.