Interview with “Reefa” Director-Writer, DP and Producer

In August 2013, 18-year-old Columbian-born artist Israel "Reefa" Hernandez was killed by police while tagging his signature symbol — an eye surrounded by flower petals — on an abandoned building in Miami. His death led to protests, and serves as a symbol for thousands of families who have lost a loved one via police brutality. Writer and director Jessica Kavana Dornbusch’s retelling of the socially important story is beautifully shot with a breakout performance by Tyler Dean Flores as the title character.

Like Israel, Dornbusch grew up in Miami to immigrant parents. She met Israel’s family a year after he’d passed away and acquired the rights to his life and artwork, working with them to get the story right. In her script, issues of immigration and police brutality are viewed from a humanistic perspective, and even in somber tragedy there is an overwhelming feeling of optimism throughout. Flores gives an easy, charming performance as the titular character while DP Mike McGowan paints a multifaceted Miami where vibrant primaries and Art Deco pastels all take on a golden sheen. Turquoise water, sun-kissed skin, and the hot pink neon glow of the city is captured by McGowan’s effortless camerawork.

REEFA stars Tyler Dean Flores and Clara McGregor

As Miami natives, portraying an authentic experience was imperative for McGowan and Dornbusch, and color was one of their most important tools. As it turns out, looking effortless requires a lot of work. “We did three camera tests and had the time to build the color palette, tweak it, and work with Bradley Greer of KyotoColor to build LUTs and eventually do the final color on the film,” explains McGowan. “We tried and tested filters at PRG. Having that support in pre-production gave Jessica a lot of time to do what she wanted on set with the actors instead of moving lights around.”

More spontaneity in the moment meant that the young, often first-time actors could skate through their scenes more freely and riff off one another naturally. “Because the budget was tight, having someone like Mike who not only is a camera operator but also a DP and Steadicam op gave us shot flexibility we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise afford,” said Dornbusch. “He could just strap on a camera and get in with the kids to let them have a level of improv.”

McGowan’s skill paired with lightweight equipment choices made those improvised scenes shine. He used an ARRI Alexa Mini with Cooke and Angenieux Optimo lenses. “I loved our camera and lenses, they flared beautifully when we needed them to, and the mini gave us the ability to just let the kids skate,” said McGowan. “You can’t do that with many cameras of this image quality and resolution.”

PRG camera on REEFA

Throughout the film, McGowan uses backlighting and a gold filter paired with a classic soft to diffuse the light and achieve a subtle glow around Israel. “Israel’s favorite color to paint with was gold, so we wanted to use it predominantly in the film. I also thought that symbolically it played with who he was: the golden child, the one this shouldn’t have happened to,” said Dornbusch.

PRG Account Executive Dawson Peden worked to get the Reefa team everything camera-related they needed, within their budget. “The support from Dawson and PRG from the very beginning helped us make a beautiful movie,” said producer Ed Arenas. “This fledgling production started with a very small budget, but PRG had the people, space, and the understanding of their gear to make it work for us.”

"Reefa" is now available to stream on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, On-Demand, FandangoNow, and all major cable/satellite platforms.

Film Credits:

Produced by:
Jessica Kavana Dornbusch: Writer, Producer, Director
Cindy Teperman: Executive Producer
Ed Arenas: Producer
Elayne Keratsis: Producer
George Perez: Producer
Mark Pulaski: Line producer
Alejandro Suaya: Producer

Cinematography by:
Mike McGowan

Film Editing by:
Tina Pacheco

Camera and Electrical Department:
James Baldanza: Camera operator
Jonathan Bowens: Best boy grip
Brett A. Frey: First assistant camera
Adam Lighterman: B camera second assistant camera
Sean Lunski: DIT
Paco Moises: Best boy electric
Salim O. Sangary II: Key grip
Osvaldo Silvera Jr.: Camera operator
Jeff Togno: Gaffer

Casting by:
Ed Arenas
Natalie Ballesteros
Carla Hool

Production Design by:
Barbara Peterson-Malesci

Set Decoration by:
Mark Dane

Costume Design by:
Danny Santiago

Makeup Department:
Donny Djuric: Makeup
Gianna Sparacino: Hair

Production Management:
Elayne Keratsis: Unit production manager
Simi Wein: Production supervisor

Second Unit Director or Assistant Director:
Daniel A. Davila: Second unit director
Melanie Grefe: First assistant director
Ryan McInerney: Second assistant director

Art Department:
Sarah Arvanites: Art department coordinator
Lauren Caulfield: Set dresser
J. Mark Harrington: Visual consultant
John Francis Kupfer: Lead man
Craig Mark Ledermann: Property master

Sound Department:
Scott Clements: Sound mixer
K. Joshua Fernberg: Sound effects editor
Erika Koski: Foley Recordist
Fred Kupfer: Boom operator
Phil Minard: Assistant sound editor
Jacob Ortiz: ADR Supervisor
Raymond Park: Sound effects editor
G.W. Pope III: Foley artist / sound effects editor
Tyler Wehner: Foley Editor
Amanda Zohar : Sound recordist

Chick Bernhard: Stunt coordinator
Artie Malesci: Stunt coordinator

Casting Department:
Cynthia King: Casting assistant

Costume and Wardrobe Department:
Reno Reeves: Costume supervisor

Editorial Department:
Bradley Greer: Digital intermediate colorist

Location Management:
Lauren Caulfield: Location production assistant
Devin Kina: Assistant location manager / location scout
Matthew Rubino: Location assistant
Sherrill Smith: Location manager

Script and Continuity Department:
Emily Pendas: Script supervisor

Additional Crew:
Lynisha Arceus: Production assistant
Michael Bedell : Production assistant
Xavier Cortes: Production assistant
Robin Cousart: Production controller
Glenn D. Feig: Legal
Gabriel Anthony Herndon: Behind the scenes
Colleen McCarthy: Key craft service
Pete Mongelli: Craft service
Karen Oberman: Publicist
Emerita Ocana: Accounting assistant
Maru Patetta: Production coordinator
Fabiola Rodriguez: Assistant Production Coordinator
Michelle Ryan: Production assistant, first team