New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Q&A: Eden De Jesus on originality and urban lifestyle in filmmaking

WSN spoke with NYU Tisch Alumni De Jesus to discuss his upbringing and influences towards his thesis film, “Mamey.”
Behind the scenes on the set of the film “Mamey” in February 2022. (Courtesy Photo by Amanda Buschmann)

24-year-old Eden De Jesus is carving a path for himself in the ever-changing film industry. The Chicago-based filmmaker, who graduated from NYU Tisch this past May, depicts gritty realism with tumultuous stories that transport audiences back to ’80s and ’90s cinema.

In his thesis film, “Mamey,” two Puerto Rican brothers — Angel (Jon Rodriguez) and Victor (Carlos Filomeno) — attempt to rob their cousin Dario (Felipe Caita). The robbery is interrupted by their aunt, who invites the brothers to sit down for lunch. The short was officially selected for the 81st NYU First Run and the 12th Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. It also earned De Jesus a spot in HieronyVision’s Film Incubator Program, where he will be developing his own original feature film.

De Jesus honed his skills as a film director and writer. The director sat down with WSN to speak about his evolution as a filmmaker trying to create timeless works.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: What was your upbringing like, and how did that fuel your creative pursuits?

De Jesus: I would say that I always knew I wanted to do something in art, but I grew up in a family where that wasn’t really an option. We grew up really, really poor here in Chicago. We grew up on welfare, on food pantries — all that type of stuff. So art for me was always discouraged, but I always knew I wanted to do it in some capacity. It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to go to a private high school called Chicago Waldorf High School here in Chicago. I think that pushed me over the edge of wanting to do something more in art.

WSN: Who are your inspirations that influence your work?

De Jesus: Tarantino and Scorsese for sure. I just watched the new Scorsese picture. It was amazing. I would say Sidney Lumet. He is not as well known, but I’ve been watching him for a long time. He did these classic films from the seventies, like “Serpico.” He worked with Al Pacino a lot, like in “Dog Day Afternoon.” 

Sometimes I like movies where the director’s not that famous, films like “The Game” with Michael Douglas or “Dark City.” Some of those I really like, kind of the Bruce Willis movies and early action films of the nineties. I grew up on all of that kind of stuff.  

Something that’s not through film, but that I picked up while I was at Parsons was Maison Margiela. He would layer paint on top of clothes. I think that filmmaking is this kind of curation, so you’re pulling from influences and there’s this layering of material. I think that connects to what I do.

WSN: Do you think that being from Chicago has played a role in what you like to create in terms of your films?

De Jesus: 100%. I’m Puerto Rican and Mexican-American, but I think about Stanley Kubrick a lot. He was Jewish and Hungarian, but that’s not what he’s known as. He is Kubrick and has made “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining.” Even though I have this kind of ethnic heritage, I’m 100% American and I identify more with being from Chicago than anything else. I want to be known for my work. It’s this constant thing in life, not being boxed in, but 100% I think that Chicago is probably the biggest influence on me.  I wrote a whole feature script about making Chicago almost feel like a character in the movie.  Similar to “Fargo,” if you’ve seen that and how the weather makes it, it’s such an important aspect of the film. That’s like the Midwest.

WSN: How has New York City and NYU impacted your development as a filmmaker?

De Jesus: It’s totally different. Here in Chicago, it’s more relaxed. I would say that being in New York City, I’m playing by different rules. You do have to be kind of aware as well. In Chicago, I’m from here, I have family here, but when I’m in New York, I’m by myself. In terms of the NYU community, I think that it was very tough for me to fit in at first. Sometimes I felt like I was undercover a little bit. “Let’s not mention where I come from or how I grew up poor, I’m just here with everybody else.” It is a very difficult thing because it’s not like you want people to know your story and feel bad about it. But when I got over that part, I think that when working with peers, I really enjoyed learning how to make movies and figuring out that you’re gonna have to do everything.

It’s all about you as the writer, director and filmmaker. It’s your thing, your vision. Working with the people at NYU, It’s incredible how talented people are. It really makes you feel like you’re up here, you’re at the highest level that you could be.

WSN: Do you think there is room to be explicit and intentional when making a film considering the aspect of cancel culture?

De Jesus: I’ve always been somebody that’s like, we live in America, freedom of speech. I think that art is so important in our world.  Because artists have the ability to say whatever the hell they want to say, even at the threat of persecution. There are people that make works of art, and they could be killed for it. I feel that you have to live and die for that ability to say whatever the hell you want to say. That’s the whole reason I wanted to do art.  I feel that if art is not stepping on toes, and is not provocative, then it really isn’t doing anything for you.

I have certain family members, who I’m not gonna say, but if I want to do something inspired by them, am I going to censor all of the things that they would normally say? No, I put it all out there. Because that’s the reality. That’s the truth. Even if you don’t wanna hear it. That’s so important because I think the more you go towards wanting to censor it, the art will become worse. “I can’t say this. Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t write that. If I write this, I’m gonna offend this person.” You can’t be tiptoeing around your artwork.

Whatever the hell it is, you just gotta do it. Because if I don’t fight, we’re going to live in a world where we don’t have good art anymore.

“Mamey” will be screened today, Nov. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Museum of the City of New York as part of the International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival. The short film will also be released digitally on De Jesus’ YouTube channel this Friday, Nov 3. 

Contact Costa Moore at [email protected].

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