BY MIRANDA WHEELER ’19
Writer-director Cass Fernandez-Dieguez ’19 has always loved cinema. “I remember when I was little, my grandpa would pick up a camcorder and we would go and make movies,” they said. “It wasn’t until I was in about 11th or 12th grade that one of my teachers noticed I had really strong screenwriting skills. Whenever there was a project, I wanted to do a video project.”
They declared a film studies major their first year, eventually adopted a production concentration after taking a particularly interesting video production class with Professor Bernadine Mellis. The assignments for this course, as well as Advanced Video Production the following semester, included small variety projects and, later, 10-minute shorts. For Fernandez-Dieguez, these homework assignments soon turned into screenings, and ultimately a portfolio for a professional post-Mount Holyoke life in the entertainment industry.
“I totally vibe with film theory and film history,” they said, “but I really like the payoff of creating something and seeing the end result.”
These projects accumulated into a series of films. The first, “Small Gods,” is an interpretive self-portrait that explores the feeling of being forced to wear a mask, particularly relating to identity in sexuality and gender. The film features a character making a decision, entering Abby Chapel, and experiencing a literal unmasking. Another student actor transitions into Fernandez-Dieguez in a moment of empowerment.
“The prompt was to do a self-portrait but to focus it around a period of your life where someone else made a decision for you, or your agency was denied,” they said. “I wanted to take less of the actual things that happen and more of the feeling … that you’re forced to wear a mask, which is the main motif I centered it around. I had the idea of the feeling of this person being forced to make a decision whether or not to put on a mask and pretend to be what these people want them to be.”
Another, “This is Not About Aliens,” was a collaboration with theatre and astronomy major Abby Carrol ’19. “The film itself is one of the most interesting and fun things I’ve worked on in a long time,” Carrol said. “As a writer, Cass is incredibly unique. They come up with such clever ideas that translate so seamlessly from page to screen, a talent that I think is difficult to come by.”
“One of the delightful aspects of [‘This is Not About Aliens’], which is about a human lost in an alien universe, is that they pulled off a science fiction film with no special effects or digital wizardry,” said Mellis. “Cass used recognizable locations and student actors to build a world and teach us its rules while also sustaining the tension of a mystery within that world, just through the power of their storytelling and characterization and a few suggestive props. The film also does what I think the best sci-fi and fantasy do, which is tell a really good story about an unfamiliar universe while reflecting our own in an oblique way. The concept behind the film, while taking us to an alternate reality, also manages to function as a commentary on aspects of our own — including advertising, virtual reality and the blurry line between objective and subjective reality.”
Their most recent film, “D-List Superheroes,” is a short action parody to be screened alongside other final projects from Advanced Video Production this spring.
“Cass is working now on a mockumentary about a team of superheroes with underwhelming powers of dubious value,” said Mellis. “They want to save the world but they all suck,” said Fernandez-Dieguez, laughing.
“Again, they’ve taken on a project with a fairly substantial cast, multiple locations and a degree of complexity to the production process,” said Mellis. “But I know Cass is up to it, because of their track record with previous projects and I’m eagerly awaiting the rough cut.”
In creating these films, they described their process as a highly visual one. “What happens [is] I get an image in my head, and I get more images, and I write them down or draw them, and eventually I get a narrative and string them together.” Their cinematic influences include directors Wes Anderson, Taika Waititi and David Lynch.
Interdepartmental coursework has also expanded their creative toolkit. The Directing I class in the theatre department, under the tutelage of Rooke Theatre director Noah Tuleja, offered an opportunity to cultivate skills in developing and executing a group vision in a short time frame. “We had to set up these things on the fly. We had to convey our ideas clearly enough, but also quickly enough, that it would come together by the end of 15 minutes, or by the time that Noah [Tuleja] would give us. I found that really helped with connecting with people,” they said. “As a director, you want to be friends with your actors but you also want to be able to say, ‘this is what we have to get done.’”
“They always have a plan, but they’re flexible with how they go about completing it and they’re also incredibly efficient,” Carrol said of Fernandez-Dieguez. “They know exactly what shots they need to get and will add extras if a new idea comes to mind, but they always are ready to go and they work well with just about everyone. I admire and respect them and everything they do because they’re an amazing director to work with and overall they’re just an incredible human being.”
From their studies in the classics department, they often draw inspiration from the storytelling and plot devices found in the writing, theater and mythology of antiquity. Inspirational courses have included Horror and Melodrama, Writing Poetry and Queer and Trans Writing, taken with Professors Elizabeth Young, Samuel Ace and Andrea Lawlor, respectively.
They also discussed the importance of networking within the arts on campus to create collaborative projects, such as films. While early casting calls were based on Facebook posts and emails to the department via production mentor Bernadine Mellis, ongoing associations became invaluable moving forward. Relationships built with actors in their first class projects influenced the casting for later shorts: “[the actors] were very adamant, you know, ‘if you ever do anything else – I’d love to be in it.’ From there it just became easier to work with these people who I already developed relationships with,” they said. They also credited fellow film students in the production concentration for their willingness to support each other’s ambitions. “I find they’re all very lovely and helpful and always excited to help with projects,” said Fernandez-Dieguez.
On collaborating with Fernandez-Dieguez, Carrol added, “They are so willing to listen to new ideas from their actors and implement them if possible, which not all directors are capable of. Something that I think is really great too is how relaxed they are as a director… you can’t help but feel comfortable and ready to go.”
Among Fernandez-Dieguez’s favorite parts of studying film at Mount Holyoke is the thoughtful analysis and self-awareness the community brings to the discipline, especially regarding the implications of authorship, the problematic history of the medium and unique social consciousness woven throughout the historical and theoretical foundation taught here. “I think it’s so important that younger audiences are reclaiming [the medium] and creating their own work,” they said. “There’s an interesting power shift happening right now.”