Rising filmmaker Kristian Mercado talks making his SXSW hit, the space rom-com If You Were the Last
Filmmaker Kristian Mercado is a jack of many trades. In his rising career, the Puerto Rican gentle giant has orbited around many mediums, from helming comedy specials for Hannibal Buress, Michael Che, and Sam Jay to directing music videos and live-action and animated shorts. Whatever medium there is, he’s directed it — or if he hasn't, it's on his to-direct list.
After winning Best Animated Short at SXSW in 2021 for his animated short film Nuevo Rico, the filmmaker returned to the festival this year with his feature-length debut, If You Were the Last. A sexy, funny space rom-com, the film is set three years into a space mission where astronauts Adam (Anthony Mackie) and Jane (Zoë Chao) are stranded on a broken ship with no coordinates to get back home. Content that it’s just the two of them, Adam asks, “Why not have sex?” which Jane laughs off at first, but later turns into a hearty debate. Throughout their efforts to return to Earth, the Astro-friends go back and forth on whether or not they should do the deed — the will-they-won't-they getting hotter as the discussion goes on.
Setting a steamy rom-com in space is no easy feat, but Mercado immerses the viewer with a barrage of brightness, thrown into the ship’s production design and stop-motion exterior. Offering non-stop laughs and sweet chemistry, If You Were the Last provides a comedic and colorful calling card for Mercado, who even got a spaceship tattoo on his arm to commemorate the project and experience he'll "never forget."
AP spoke with the rising filmmaker following the film’s SXSW premiere to discuss tackling his first feature, his animation influences, and finding the balance between romance and comedy in his direction.
When you got the script, what was the first thing that went through your mind?
I was going through a lot. I spent a whole year reading scripts and nothing was connecting. Then I got this script and it jumped out of the page — magically in a way. I was going through some heartache at the time, so I think the combination of heartache and the script, I really connected to it.
How was it to pivot from something like your animated shorts to a live-action feature?
I am such a mixed media human being. I'll direct live-action, mixed media, stop-motion animation. I believe in cross-pollination of techniques. I think they all teach you something and then you can apply it to the things you learn. If you like photography and it teaches you about composition, it doesn't mean photography has to be your main thing, but it applies to your filmmaking. There's some elements of it that do overlap with animation, thinking about art direction and composition.
Did your background in comedy and directing stand up specials help navigate some of the comedic moments in the moment?
100%. Comedians have to have a relationship with the audience and filmmaking [when making a special]. I think [about the] audience when I work on feature films in the same way comics do. I have seen and digested so much comedy at this point and ingrained it into my being a bit. I feel like I know how to structure a joke, get the timing tight, tweak the words with it right there. A lot of that came really useful in this.
When I was watching the movie [during the premiere] I was tracking where [the audience] laughed and how much — which was nonstop. I'm not even trying to gas myself up. In all earnestness, I felt like, "Damn, we got a lot of laughs." I was blown away by how captivated the audience was and how much they laughed with us.
The film is very colorful and imaginative. What inspired the visual aesthetic?
I like the idea of making movies that are colorful. When I was making the film, I really always centered it around the emotion I got from the script. I wanted to push that warmth. I wanted to make a film that felt like you're always really engaged, and the visual engagement was helping me feel something about the story.
The production design features a cartoonish robotic smiley-faced AI and there are Nintendo cartridges on the ship. What was the inspiration behind those aspects of the ship's look?
Love is about nostalgia too. A little bit like you remembering something. We are aware that somehow your memory is a creative version of something, you know? I wanted to pepper that whole design of the film with that feeling of nostalgia where it's like, "Is this real or is this more like a memory than how it felt?" So, counting these '90s era references: They were like blowing out cartridges, their love of music, their love of films from a certain era. There's something about being able to remember something that makes it sweeter.
How did you find that right tone of keeping the comedy and romantic sexual tension between the characters?
You're always looking at the film from a perspective of friendship. Friendship is a cornerstone of life. With friendship, there's always a sense of caring and communication. There's a lot of communication in the film. They're talking about what decision to make together. They're like, "Should we just talk about this vibe and ride it out?" Zoë [Chao's character Jane] is in charge. She's actually the commanding officer on the ship, so [it's] always kind of her choice. I know that was always important in the film, for sure.
What was the experience like working with Zoë Chao and Anthony Mackie?
Dude is so great. I love them both. We all had a friendly vibe [on set]. Anthony got his own goofy energy, which is funny because I don't think people realize that he's goofy. Then Zoë is so thoughtful and charming, and such a super talent. I was really blessed to have such good actors for my first film. I think my process for work was always, "I'll dive in," and then they're like, "I'll dive in with you." We all had each other's back.
The film features a handful of dance sequences. What were some references and or influences behind the framework?
Obviously Dirty Dancing, Rosie Perez, the fly girls from In Living Color. I love dancing, so it was a mix of cool TikTok dances, which would be in the back of my head sometimes, then salsa, and contemporary dances. That's [part of the fun] that there's that weird diversity of dances.
[Zoë and Anthony] did around a week or two [of choreography practice]. You could tell they were exhausted because all they did was dance all day. They had to learn all these dances and it was a process. Also, me as a first time feature director, there is so much depending on the dances that I was, not nervous, but going, “Oh man, it's getting a little hot.”
Was there any pressure going into it, being your first feature?
I'm a pretty zen guy. You will never know that I feel pressure from the outside. But inside, I might be dealing with it, shit just crushing me. Any time you make a film, I think you feel like you're pushing a boulder up a mountain. As a director, you can live and die with the project. It's like you're going to be there for every stop, no matter what. Your DP is doing a lot of work, but they're only there for the shoot. You're shepherding a project throughout its life. That's a lot. But it's beautiful and you love it so much. It's like you can't help but be there.
After this, what are what other genres you would love to play with?
I'm working on a drama right now — a hyper reggaetón drama. I really want to do that. I like anything that makes me feel something. So, if there's a real emotion attached, that's what I'm seeking out. I'm working on a couple of other things, but I do think love will be a theme that I play with a lot.