A Conversation With St. Louis Filmmaker Robert Herrera
Come into it blindly, and you might have a hard time deciding whether St. Louis filmmaker Robert Herrera’s film “Palacios“ is a documentary or a drama. That’s not because it was shot for no budget in the director’s own apartment … or because the three actors in it are all untrained … or that one of those actors is the director’s precocious Boston Terrier. It’s certainly not because the script isn’t beautifully written, or because the performances aren’t stellar. The plot of “Palacios” is simple: a white woman wakes up and discovers a young Black man asleep on her roof. But the complexities that premise unearths—as well as how the film’s design explores them—feel more real than staged, as powerful as life.
We caught up with Herrera over coffee about what it’s like to move out of documentary filmmaking, how the story of his film dovetailed with the lives of his actors, and his favorite dog movies. “Palacios” will screen this weekend at the St. Louis International Film Festival, on November 11.
You aren’t a film school graduate, but you’ve built a career in the industry—first with documentaries, including “The Grey Seasons,” and now with your first narrative feature, “Palacios.” Why did you choose to dive in and learn as you went along?
I didn’t want to go to film school because I didn’t want to hate film. I didn’t really like school very much. I had a fun time in art and architecture school, and it was all still relevant to my eventual career. And then, of course, it was just a matter of having the luxury to play around with cameras and computers and having the equipment. To this day, I’m an awful crew person. I’ve never been anything but a director and an editor. I mean, I’m not much help to my friends on set when they’re directing. I’m like, “Well, I can get y’all lunch, because I don’t really know how to set up this light or program this camera.” [Laughs.] I don’t really have on-set skills, but I know how to make a watchable movie.
But yeah, the first documentaries I made were my ‘film school.’ Which is great, because it was longer than anybody else’s ‘film school [laughs].’
“Palacios” is your first narrative feature, and you’ve said that it was “more designed than written.” Is that because of your background in documentaries?
Yeah, “Palacios” was made by all guys who do [documentary filmmaking]. I’ve shot nothing but doc; my crew has done nothing but doc, reality TV—that kind of thing. We wanted to make the film in a way that made sense to us. When we shot this, I had zero experience on a movie set. I had never even been on a movie set. “Palacios” was kind of this experiment to see if we could work in this sort of low-grade, minimal, documentary way, and really focus on performance.
So when it came time to execute that experiment, where did you start? Did you design the story around the set and the physical resources available to you on a no-budget feature, around the strengths and personalities of actor? Or maybe something else?
I would say it was both—I wanted to make a movie in my apartment, and I wanted to work with Libby Bibb [lead actor].
I’d been living in this apartment with a huge rooftop at Euclid and Delmar for about eight years, and I always knew I wanted to make a film there. I’d known Libby for even longer, because she’d done a reading for a script I wrote ten years ago, and I’d always known I wanted to use her. There had been other scripts, completely different scripts with other characters, other storylines, a broader scope, more actors. I’d even auditioned male lead actors with Libby years ago, but nothing ever worked. But one thing I’d realized during those male lead auditions was that every young Black male from the city who came to audition was awesome. But the parts I was auditioning for didn’t make sense for young Black males from the city. So years later, I kind of re-evaluated it and said, “I’m going to make a film for an actor like that, alongside Libby.”
How did you find your film’s other lead actor, Olajuwon Davis?
Olajuwon wasn’t actually part of those early auditions; he was someone I’d met years back. He was part of a lot of social justice groups and community groups, and I had a friend doing a documentary on one of them. He was a subject in that documentary, and he was this smart, charming, likable high-school kid with your classic growing-up-in-the-city family background. I’d seen him on camera, and we’d been friendly. I hired him to help me on a documentary once as part of the crew. He eventually went to college for a couple of years, but couldn’t afford it and had to move back [to St. Louis]. By the time I asked him to be part of the film, he was back home, and he and his girlfriend had two children and a third on the way. It was kind of a tough time for him. But once he was on board, I based everything around him and Libby.
The plot that emerged from that strategy is really powerful, and the way that plot ended up dovetailing even further with real life is more than you expected. Without revealing too much about the ending of “Palacios,” we learn along the way that Olajuwon’s character has made a terrible mistake and gotten himself into real trouble. In real life, Olajuwon himself went to federal prison on gun charges shortly after you wrapped. How did real life impact and shape the trajectory of this film?
“Palacios” was shot four years ago, and it was intended to be shot, thrown together and put out. It wasn’t expensive—I paid for it myself, and it was an experiment. I wanted to do it, put it out and move forward. But then a few things happened: one was just that my commercial and professional work got crazy, and I was insanely busy. The way we shot [“Palacios”] did not make for a smooth edit. It was all over the place, almost always over a dozen takes, and typically at least half those takes were improvised, so I had to kind of write the film in the edit. I just didn’t have time for it.
Then, the events of Ferguson happened the following summer, and that really made me nervous about whether the film would be perceived as a direct response to Ferguson—which it really wasn’t. Then Olajuwon was arrested in November of that year. Once he was arrested, I really didn’t think that I should finish his film. I thought, this is all complicated, this is all problematic, I should just quit and move on. And I did quit and move on.
Then years went by, Olajuwon’s case and his plea are decided and he goes to federal prison. Over that time, I started to re-think the film, and how it fit into the new dynamic that was emerging in St. Louis. I started talking about to Olajuwon on the phone, and friends. I mean, I’m a minority; a lot of my friends and family are minorities, so I was really interested in a minority perspective, besides my own, about what it would mean to put Olajuwon out there as a “terrorist,” as a “criminal,” and to make him visible in that light as part of this film.
So when I finally decided that I would finish this film, because he was okay with it and everyone involved decided that we should just do it, I became interested in how the film almost started to seem like a documentary, and how I could portray it that way. It was interesting how the storyline in the film, in some ways, aligns with what happened to Olajuwon in real life.
Do you hope the film will help change the way the audience views how and why people make mistakes like that?
Yeah. I mean, I grew up in a “bad” neighborhood, in the quote-unquote “bad” side of town. I went to the worst high school in my city, and grew up in an all-Black, Mexican, low-income community. I know plenty of people who went to prison, and I have a lot of friends who went to prison. I have this perspective that sometimes normal, good people are put in tough situations, make mistakes and get sent to prison. And that’s their life. They’re not awful people, they’re not bad people—well, obviously, some are—but not everyone. I wanted to put a face to people like that, people like that who I’d known in high school. They were always people who I liked, who my family liked.
Today, I live in Shaw on Flora Place—which if you aren’t familiar, it’s a strange place for a young tattooed Mexican motorcycle rider who wears hoodies and saggy pants to live. Vonderrit Myers was shot on the street corner not far from my house by the private security firm hired by Flora Place, and there’s a lot of tension about that in our neighborhood. I don’t remember if it was Vonderrit or another young Black man who was shot in St. Louis, but I remember someone saying, “He had dreams, he was a good kid.” They were talking about the young Black man’s plans for the future. But the counter argument was, “No, he was a criminal. He had a gun.”
The truth of the matter is that up until a person becomes a “criminal,” they’re often just a normal, happy person who has dreams. I know Olajuwon Davis in real life, and that kid has dreams. He’s smart. I think he’s a good kid. In the film, if you like Olajuwon, that’s not because Olajuwon’s acting—that’s just Olajuwon acting like Olajuwon. That’s him. If you see that kid on the screen and think that’s a hardened evil criminal—that’s you. He knows he did something incredibly stupid and wrong and he regrets it, and he’s going to have to live with that. But it really bothers me to hear people say that young Black men like him are just hardened criminals, that they got what they deserved.
Aside from exploring some complex themes, “Palacios” is, surprisingly, also just a really great dog movie. Tell me about the Boston Terrier in this film—he’s definitely the other breakout star.
That’s Ingebar! He was my wife’s dog—she named him Ingebar, and I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s a lineage name; he comes from good breeding stock [laughs]. He and I had a rough relationship the first few years of our life together because I’m not a little-dog person, but he’s kind of a big dog in a little dog’s body. Boston Terriers are scrappy; they’re tough little guys, and too smart for their own good. Ingebar isn’t trained at all. This guy doesn’t know how to do anything on command. I thought that Holly and Eugene needed some levity, something to go to and pace the film a little bit. Having a dog in there made sense to me. I just love movies with dogs.
What are some of your favorite dog movies?
My two favorite dog movies, currently, is one extremely serious Hungarian movie called “White God,” which just came out—it’s a very intense, European film and it’s über depressing.
So not “Homeward Bound.”
Nah. But my other favorite dog movie is the Disney movie “Eight Below,” where Paul Walker goes to save his eight huskies who are stuck in the Arctic [Laughs].
But in “Palacios,” we just made a point to keep Ingebar around. When we wanted him to do things, we gave him chicken nuggets and French fries, and of course he got really sick after the first week of shooting, because we needed him to run over here, and sniff this, and hop up on the couch. But then there were points where he was just over it, where he just sat down and hung out—which is what dogs do. So there are lot of cute scenes where he’s just asleep on the floor, and he’s just snoring, like he does.
All photography courtesy of Robert Herrera.