(Alejandro) I grew up as a theater kid in L.A. My family was more about sports—my dad was an athlete and it was a big left turn for me to be interested in theater. But they were so supportive. My dad gave me a camcorder and I was making movies with the neighbors by the time I was seven. At a young age my parents sent me to theater school to learn acting.
As an actor, I found I was often typecast. I was always the delinquent, the gang member or someone in need of salvation. I felt there was so much more to the story than what was depicted in the media and left acting. I spent some time playing baseball in college with a stint in the Caribbean; I considered getting a master’s degree in theology. Around then I met Noel and I decided I needed to get my act together! I considered what I was strong at and decided it was creative development and storytelling. I applied to different jobs and was hired as a creative director at an agency in Madison.
It was an exciting, scary and strange time and a bit of culture shock to move to Madison. I spent six years at the agency and during that time I had the opportunity to dive in and help them beef up their storytelling division. A lot of my work was for a recovery center, telling stories about some of the toughest places in America.
During this period, Noel and I made our first short film together, Fantasy in D Minor. It was a three-year journey to get that made and the film was accepted at a number of film festivals including Oxford and Cannes Short Film Corner. It was an incredible, beautiful surprise and just as it was being accepted, I lost my job. We were really conflicted about whether we should go to Europe and show the film and decided to go for it—it was a leap of faith.
We spent a month in Europe and the film did really well. We had created our company, Bravebird, LLC, to make the film and on the plane home, I just had a surge of energy and clarity and felt like decades of my life were converging.
During my time in film and the agency world, I was struck by the glaring reality that one demographic and one gender was telling everyone’s story. Why was there so little diversity in film and the advertising world? It felt like an invisible epidemic: there was no diversity at the top and little at the bottom. Films that were supposed to show culturally diverse experiences were riddled with “white savior” tropes.
We created Bravebird to transform the narrative for how people of color are represented on screen. At the heart of it is an ideology we call Cinema Dignité. Historically, visual media has presented a distorted image of minority life. We strive to depict diverse cultures with dignity and authenticity.
Looking back, I’ve come to see that being pushed out of my agency job was divine providence. God pushed me out and it’s been an incredible journey.
(Noel) I’m much newer to this than Alejandro. I grew up in rural Washington among people who love football, love to farm. But I’ve always had a creative itch and loved storytelling and dissecting what various messages were trying to tell. When we first moved to Madison, I spent six years with the UW Foundation working with the Chancellor and in the office of student financial aid helping raise money for needy students. Most recently, I worked with Centro Hispano before moving to BraveBird full-time.
Our longer-term vision for Bravebird is to become filmmaking mentors. One of the key reasons film isn’t diverse is because it’s incredibly expensive if you go the traditional route of film school. You have to be able to tolerate risk and the time it takes to get noticed—which means that many of the people who go into film have family wealth or support systems.
We hope we can create mentorships and a program to help train people in our methodology of ethical storytelling. We’d love to be able to create the momentum to help fund other people’s projects. It’s been beautiful to experience people telling their own stories in a more authentic way.
Our most memorable caffeine (Noel) Coffee has a very nostalgic place in my life. One memory is from right before our wedding. We were at Alex’s parent’s house. It was late and I had to drive home so Alejandro made me some coffee so I could stay awake for the drive. The cup he made me was delicious—but so strong I started to have heart palpitations! My other memory would be drinking coffee with my dad. Before college he would make me a coffee on his espresso machine and we’d sit around and talk.
(Alejandro) I don’t drink coffee, but I have strong memories of my grandfather drinking coffee with sweet bread—dipping the sweets in the coffee and reading his Bible.
My current caffeine of choice (Noel) is typically a macha. I also love to have coffee when I travel. Madison has a good coffee scene and I really like Mighty Peace coffee from Barriques.
The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with are (Noel) Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese artist. He has a fascinating perspective on art and faith and how artists intersect with the world. We have one of his pieces and it would be fun to meet him. I’d like Alejandro to get to meet Steven Spielberg one more time—he’s met him twice and I think there should be a third meeting! I’d also pick Malala. She just blows me away.
(Alejandro) I’d pick José Mujica. He was a political prisoner in Uruguay who eventually became the president of the country—basically their Mandela. He applied so much mercy and grace during his administration, one of the rare political figures with a strong sense of moral responsibility.
I’d also love to have met Fred Rogers. He was focused on helping young lives express their emotions in a healthy way. He feels like a kindred spirit and I’m very connected to his spirit.
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: (Alejandro) I wish we could value people where they are instead of trying to change them or force them into a mold. I wrestle with that daily—why don’t we accept and value people? I’ve spoken to so many people who didn’t feel loved or cared for. Who felt so isolated.
(Noel) There was a project we did for a rehab center in Colorado, and one woman told us “If you could stand before the world, fully naked, that would be enough.”
I hope that through our stories, people can see themselves as valued and bringing beauty into the world, appreciated and loved for who they are. There is so much polarity; I hope to bridge that divide. Narrative does a good job bypassing logic and the fences we place around our minds. It asks people to question and to think differently.
I also have a heart for the immigrant crisis, which is happening around the world in an unprecedented way. I’d encourage countries to be more merciful.