Exclusive Interview with Yelyna De Leon
You are credited as actor / writer / producer for Murder in the Woods? Which one of those jobs satisfies you the most?
I love all of them equally, however if I had to choose the one that satisfies me the most, it is writing. As an actor, I love get lost in a character and experience different emotions, however most of the roles I have read for or played with the exception of some recent ones, are usually stereotypical and once you get typecast, it’s not as challenging of a job to do. And I love figuring things out, especially if they are challenging so the answer should be producing, but it’s not. There is nothing like creating a world, and characters, sitting in front of a blank screen and having to imagine situations, and conflicts that will have twists and turns that will eventually resolve. All while entertaining, having a message and keeping audiences engaged, that is quite the challenge. And oh so satisfying when you see actors breathing life to your work. And then to see the film you wrote nominated for a “Best Film” category and the roles you create nominated for “Best Actor,” Best Actress,” and “Best Supporting Actor,” along with five other nominations, which is the case for “Murder in the Woods,” at the Macabre Faire Film Festival, there truly is nothing more satisfying than writing. So hands down, final answer- writing.
What inspires your creativity? And where did you get the idea for Murder in the Woods?
My creativity is inspired by a lot of things, my environment, people, art, (street art) music, culture but most of all deep conversations, people’s energy and daily life situations that I find myself having to figure out as well as myths and stories that I have read. Most of the people I surround myself with are creative geniuses in their own space and just hanging out with them, for a deep conversation or fun adventure is absolutely inspiring.
The idea from “Murder in the Woods” came from my love of the slasher films like “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” classic horror films like “Halloween,” and from the play “Ten Little Indians,” which is the first play I ever performed on stage. I love scary stories and remember making the long treks from Chicago to Mexico on the bus with my grandmother and having to sit through 20 hours while we crossed Texas and it was always late at night. This was my favorite time because it was when my grandmother would tell me scary stories and of course she would tell me these stories as though they happened to her. Her storytelling was one of a kind and she would scare the hell out of everyone within earshot, especially me, with her retelling of the Llorona, Chupacabras, Duendes (all latino myths) and other worldly ghost and horror stories that would all make for great films. Making this horror film felt like a love letter to my grandma, honoring the time scary story times we used to have. About a month ago I was watching the film for quality control and I screamed really loudly and Luis the director was like, what’s wrong?” I said, “I got scared.” I know what’s going to happen in the film but it still scares me every time I see it so I know my grandma would be proud of it because she loved horror films and telling scary stories to scare the hell out of people, just as much as I do.
Murder in the Woods has an all Latino cast. Was that a preconceived notion?
Absolutely. I met the director of the film while studying for my masters degree in film and TV from USC and we were both two the very few latino students in the program. We both had similar experiences regarding the feedback we received on our “latino” projects. Originally I had written an anti-domestic violence thriller which Luis was going to direct and from the moment I wrote that script, it was written with latinos in mind to play the characters. And when we decided to make “Murder in the Woods,” we had that same idea in mind, to cast a diverse cast. Which is very common for me. Growing up, I would see films, tv shows and plays and rarely see any people of color or latinos especially in leads. So when I am writing, casting, producing, directing, or have any control over who is going to play the characters I am very conscious and determined to cast people of color.
As an actress I have had a long career of playing stereotypes and have worked with some amazingly talented actors, actors who just need the right role to breakout. It’s very rare for latinos to get an opportunity to have a lead role in a feature and more so for a horror film.
We saw that with the audition process, as some of the actors who auditioned didn’t know how to audition for a horror film since they had no experience with the genre. And just like everything, you have to work at your craft. Because of this, we always knew that we wanted to cast Latino actors in lead roles, to help create stars in the process. I actually wrote the role of Chelsea for Chelsea Rendon who played my daughter in “A Better Life,” a 2011 feature film that was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for Demian Bichir, directed by Chris Weitz. I also wrote the role of Jesse for Jose Julian who starred in “A Better Life.” The role of Jule was written for my son Julian Ortega but had to be cast when we pushed production and he was no longer available due to school obligations. Other roles were also written for Latino actors I had worked with in the past, Soledad St. Hilaire, Rolando Molina (A Better Life) and Kurt Caceres. The role of the Sheriff I wrote with Danny Trejo in mind, and we were going to make this movie with Danny no matter what.
Danny Trejo has become an icon in genre films. From Dusk Til Dawn, Machete, Halloween, and more. How was in working with Danny?
Working with Danny Trejo was truly a dream come true for me. Literally. Funny story. When I was writing the script, I envisioned Danny in the role. I said we have to get Danny to do this role no matter what. We had been in talks with his reps during preproduction however we had not secured him yet because he is so busy and his schedule is always booked. The week that we were scheduled to shoot his scenes, I had a dream about him and in my dream I was face to face with him, giving him my elevator pitch about who I was, about the film and how he had to do this role because it was written for him. Three days after having that dream, which felt so real, I had just got off a 14 hour day shoot and as the producer, had the task of returning a trailer to Marina del Rey since we couldn’t get it into the steep canyons on Topanga Canyon.
I was exhausted but hungry so the P.A. I was with and I stopped to eat in Venice after dropping off the trailer. As I was walking to the car, I open the car door which was on the street in front of a café chicken café and as I look inside, who do I see? Low and behold, Danny Trejo!!!! I bee-lined inside. I saw that he was eating so I didn’t want to bother him. I walked up to the register and asked the P.A. what he wanted to eat, he answers, “We just ate,” really loudly too. I just looked at him like really? I then look at the menu and order a cookie and a soup. Those were the cheapest things on the menus. I waited till he finished eating. His daughter got up to get the car and then Danny went to the restroom. When he came out all the cooks, cashiers and hostess asked him for a picture. I then had 10 seconds between the time he was saying his goodbyes to intercept before he got to the door. Lol. I went for it and no lie, I gave him my 30 second elevator pitch just like in my dream. He asked me when we would need him, I told him that Friday. He said he would check with his reps and get back to us. Sure enough a few hours later we had booked him. And that was my dream come true. On set he was the greatest, he brought all the actors to a whole other level and it was so much fun to see him saying the lines that I wrote for Sheriff Lorenzo with him in mind. He is incomparable as an actor and gives 3000 percent to his characters and makes shooting so much fun.
What was your biggest challenge in making Murder in the Woods? The biggest challenge? There were so many, shooting in 15 days, in 19 degree weather from 4pm to 4am, I would say the weather. When you think of L.A. you don’t think of rain, or cold, ever. But let me tell you, we got rained out about four days and it was so cold,
everyone including myself got very sick because it was so cold. Not to mention it was supposed to be summer so the cast had to be in summer clothes and pretend like it was hot outside. We shot in February. I’m from Chicago and can take the cold but since we were in the woods we weren’t allowed to have heaters on outside so it was beyond freezing. Besides the weather, funding an indie is always a big challenge. Because both the director and myself had to wear multiple hats to get this movie made and finished.
What has been your proudest moment so far – re: Murder in the Woods?
My proudest moment up until two days ago was selling out the largest house in the Chinese Theater and winning the Achievement in Film Award at the LA Skin Fest. As of today, it’s a tie with receiving 9 nominations including Best Film, at the prestigious Macabre Film Festival and seeing the actors I know are stars nominated for best actor/actress awards.
What is your feeling on the current state of Hollywood?
I truly believe that change is here. People have been talking about diversity for the longest time but then you read all the reports with the statistics on roles for minorities and it’s very disappointing because it seems to be all talk. However, this past year I worked on two amazing projects, one is a tv pilot called Mlifriend and the other a feature Bride Plus One and both are written by women of color and then seeing “Murder in the Woods,” selling out screening, I feel change is here. The audience is ready to enjoy a fun film like ours.
Do you think 2018 is going to be a game changer for women in the film industry?
Absolutely. For far too long or rather since the beginning of the industry it’s been a boys club and 2018 has just started and it’s already been declared loud and clear that #timeisup and is the game changer that we have all been waiting for. I got in an uber the other day on my way to an interview for “Murder in the Woods,” and the driver asked me “what do you do?” That question is always the first questions people ask me and I always reply, “whatever it takes.” She then asked well like what specifically, I went on to tell her about “Murder in the Woods,” and she said, “A lady, wrote a horror film?” I laughed but then thought about what she said and replied, “Yes, this lady wrote a horror film.” The fact that it surprised her, means that we still have a long way to go to change how women are perceived in the industry, as actors, writers, producers, directors. I was a single teenage mom so there isn’t anything that I can’t do or figure out or make happen. And I know a lot of women who have the same mentality when it comes to making things happen so I’m glad that women will finally be given the opportunities that we have all been so patiently waiting for and absolutely deserve. Shout out to all the amazing women in horror and to all the awesome Scream Queens!
Where can fans go to check out Murder in the Woods? They can go to our website www.murderinthewoodsmovie.com
On instagram : @murderinthewoods
Facebook : @mitwmovie
What does the future hold for Yelyna De Leon?
The future holds lots of awesome projects already in the works. There is talks of a sequel, so we shall see. I am writing, producing and acting in lots of upcoming projects. You can follow me @yelynadeleon on IG and FB for updates.