When Peter’s neighbor offers him cash in exchange for loaning out his car, the two end up on the road trip of a lifetime. While Unidentified Objects can fall under the sci-fi genre, it’s challenging to fit it into one specific category. This platonic love story about the beauty of companionship is comedic at times and distressing at others, but conveys a clear overall message: no one wants to feel alone.
The film is directed by Juan Felipe Zuleta, who has previously worked on multiple music videos and shorts. It stars Matthew August Jeffers as Peter, who is known for his role as Dr. Mark Walsh in New Amsterdam and Russell in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The cast also includes Golden Globe nominee Sarah Hay, Hamish Allan-Headley, Roberta Colindrez, Tara Pacheco, Elliot Frances Flynn, and Kerry Flanagan.
Screen Rant chats exclusively with Director Juan Felipe Zuleta about writing a story specifically for a Little Person and blending different genres to create a well-balanced film.
Juan Felipe Zuleta Talks Unidentified Objects
Screen Rant: I’m super excited to chat with you because I loved Unidentified Objects. It was so unique—I thought it was phenomenal. I would love to hear about where the idea for the story originated.
Juan Felipe Zuleta: Thank you, Rachel, I appreciate it. I’m glad you liked it. The story originated at the beginning of COVID. It was when everything kind of came together. Before that I had some sketches of a Little Person and Leland and I, my writing partner, the main writer of the screenplay, we had sketches of a character of a gay dwarf. We just had that idea in the back of our heads, because we just find it very interesting, and we wanted to do a character study with a Little Person.
And eventually when COVID hit and everything shut down, and we find ourselves in our apartments without doing much, it kind of came to us—this road trip idea of escaping our life and escaping the reality we were living at the time, which was obviously a collective experience everybody was having. And actually, the idea came really quickly to us once we discussed it, and then we came up with the character Winona, and we realized we care about characters who are outsiders. I usually love to explore characters who are not your traditional status quo human being. That’s when we wrote a treatment about it and everything came together, and then the script came a few weeks after. It was pretty quick once we had the general idea.
I was originally going to ask if the film was created with a Little Person in mind for the main character. I didn’t know if that was just how the casting happened to pan out. I think it’s wonderful that you intended it. Was there anything specific that inspired that decision?
Juan Felipe Zuleta: Yes. So from film studies, in general, I went to film school and I like watching movies, there are two things that I’m fascinated by. And one is—we know there’s a great pool of performers out there who are Little People actors we’ve seen in all kinds of movies—David Lynch movies across the board. Obviously, Peter Dinklage is the main one. I’ve never seen a movie, besides Peter Dinklage movies, where there’s a true character study, where we truly get to see the world through those characters’ eyes. So just those two things combined, and then I guess the second thing is it’s just interesting that nobody has explored that.
I was surprised. We started writing it as like, “What is the world through the eyes of a Little Person?” And earlier on in the process, when we were finishing writing the script, we actually started casting. We started reaching out to all the Little People actors, and we started auditioning, but then we found Matthew, who was the first actor we brought on board. We had a conversation with him, and he gave us a lot of permission in some ways of telling us, “You should do this here.” He gave us permission to tell this story in a way that felt authentic, and we were respecting, obviously, that angle. But yeah, it was always a Little Person.
That’s great. I was a fan of Matthew’s work already from New Amsterdam, so I was so excited to see him in it. His character is really interesting and unique. Peter starts pretty closed off, but he really opens up throughout the movie. Did you have a certain starting point and ending point when you were crafting his character arc?
Juan Felipe Zuleta: Yes, we did. In fact, Matthew and I, we created this metaphor that we utilize in the making of the movie to see where the character arc was. And the metaphor was that Peter, the character he plays, is a lighthouse. He’s the brightest, most beautiful lighthouse in the world, and it’s located on the most beautiful coast, but it has no electricity. So that was where the character begins this story. As this person who has so much potential inside, but he basically is shut off. He has no electricity.
When you start the movie, this guy’s living in his apartment by himself taking pills, and he’s completely detached from society. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody. He hates the world. And by the end of the movie, we wanted to make sure that he has a little bit more light and finds a little bit more hope, or a little bit more self-love, and finds a place in the universe. Find that he wasn’t alone and that he actually belonged. And that’s kind of what this story, at the end of the day, for me, is about.
I thought that the dynamic with Winona really added to that. You described it as a platonic love story, and I love that because this relationship is the center of this film. What kind of work did you do with the actors to make that connection feel genuine?
Juan Felipe Zuleta: Alright, so for me, I think from a directorial standpoint, I think making sure that there’s trust, among them and with me, is the most important element. So we had a lot of conversations about building from personal experiences, and we were able to open a vulnerable, safe space among all of us, so that we could truly discuss that. And I think, both actors in their own ways, their personal experiences brought a lot to the table. For example, Matthew is a Little Person who’s had multiple surgeries throughout his entire life, he wants to be a performer, he wants to be an actor.
And the world is very cruel with Little People performers. Most of the time, historically, they are thrown into the freak show, you know what I mean? They’re not necessarily your typical character that gets to build a three-dimensional arc on a feature length story, or in a TV show. So we could build a lot from his personal frustration. And Sarah is actually the star of Flesh and Bone. She was a Golden Globe nominee, but she comes from the ballet world. She was a professional ballerina. And in that world, women are objectified. Right? They stop being humans for a moment, and they become like objects, and everything has to be so perfect, or otherwise, they’re useless, and they don’t work.
So I think trying to find that, and then being able to build trust among them and with me, and then obviously, one thing that worked well was also making them opposites. That comes from the writing and that comes from Leland and I crafting the characters and making sure that they were literally complete opposites so that when we put them in a car together on a road trip, there was going to be just normal electric shocks between both of them.
Since you mentioned this being a road trip, do you have an affinity for the road trip genre? I’m a big Thelma and Louise fan, so I was curious. Is that something you wanted to write about?
Juan Felipe Zuleta: I love road trip movies. I love that genre. One of my favorite movies ever is Y tu Mamá También. And one of my other favorite movies ever is Little Miss Sunshine, both which are, in some ways, big inspirations for Unidentified Objects, not only in the road trip charaacter journey aspect, but there’s a lot that I took from the way they shot both of those movies and I think we have a little bit of that dark comedy from Little Miss Sunshine. Obviously on a smaller scale.
We don’t have Steve Carell, but Matthew is brilliant and Sarah is brilliant, and the movie was shot in a very naturalistic way, so handheld like in Y tu Mamá También. Except a few aerial shots, 95% of our movie was shot handheld. I wanted to feel like we were going on the road with them. And obviously, the car shots and stuff like that, we have car rigs, but besides that, everything when they’re walking and when they’re moving, it’s very much shot similar to Y tu Mamá También in that sense, because I love that naturalistic feel that you are there. You’re part of the journey. You’re sitting in the seats with the characters. So those I would say, but I also love Thelma and Louise.
This movie feels like it could fit into a lot of different genres. As you said, it’s a road trip, there’s comedy, and it has a lot of depth. Were you shooting for one thing in particular, or did you want this to be a balanced film?
Juan Felipe Zuleta: To be honest, I don’t look at movie [genres]. Unfortunately, that’s not something distributors want to hear, but I don’t try to make a movie and say, “I want to be like this genre.” The kind of films I’m attracted to, and the kind of movies I like to create, are movies that are combining all sorts of genres. Leland, my creative partner, he’s also very much the same. We love sci-fi, we love road trip movies, we love dark comedies. I love movies that have a lot of mystery and ambiguity, so I wanted to put some of that throughout the story.
There’s a movie called Lynch, and it’s basically a series of chapters of filmmakers talking about how David Lynch stole so much from The Wizard of Oz. I think we have a lot of that in our story, actually. We have a story of escapees. They’re escaping their normal lives and reality and going into these almost fantastical, trippy, sometimes surreal, kind of road trip, and in the process, they find themselves.
I want to say that people, audiences, and distributors shouldn’t be afraid of those kinds of stories, because usually people who like sci-fi are gonna like it. People who like comedies, I think you’re gonna love it. And people who love road trip movies, I think they’re gonna find a very authentic take on the road trip genre, which is really hard to do. And I think in this particular case, I think we as a team, did something that I feel very proud of.
Lastly, I want to ask you about your other work, because I saw that you also directed content for brands and you’ve done music videos. Are you most interested in feature films?
Juan Felipe Zuleta: I actually just finished a music video for Maluma that just got released. It’s called Junio, I co-directed it with him. I don’t know if you know who he is, but he’s a big Colombian singer. I’m from Colombia. I have another video that I worked on with him that is going to be released in November. It’s really beautiful. I’m very proud of that one. But yes, my heart is in movies. I think movies and TV shows are becoming the ultimate kind of format for visual storytelling. So after making Unidentified Objects, I cannot wait to make my next movie.
I have two that I’m working on right now. One is still developing, we’re still writing it. The other one is a Spanish-speaking, psychological thriller. Genre-bending. It has elements of horror, it has elements of a psychological thriller, but it’s very much inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s civil war coming-of-age films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, which is in rural Colombia in the early 2000s. And it’s a story about two kids whose mom goes missing one day, and it’s them trying to figure out what happened to her and where she is. But again, it’s like in the middle of nowhere. A lot of towns in Colombia were abandoned because of the wars.
It was one of those towns that was half abandoned and only a few people were left behind. It’s exploring the world through the perspective of kids, and you can truly go anywhere because kids don’t have a preconception of the world. They don’t know what left or right means. They have their own view, and they’re discovering the world in an authentic way. In Unidentified Objects, we’re seeing the world through Peter’s screen and through Peter’s perspective. So that’s kind of how they relate. You start going into these very specific and very unique sequences that were only there because that’s how the characters are experiencing the world.
About Unidentified Objects
Peter is a flamboyant, misanthropic dwarf hiding from the world in his shabby New York City apartment. But an unexpected visit from his upbeat—and possibly unhinged—neighbor Winona forces him out of his shell and onto an impromptu road trip. Their destination? What she believes to be the site of an upcoming alien visitation in the wilderness of rural Canada.
On their increasingly-surreal odyssey, Peter and Winona will encounter bickering lesbian cosplayers, shroom-addled survivalists, and even extraterrestrial highway cops. But the further they go and the more their trauma comes to light, it becomes clear that the only thing more nerve-wracking than being abducted is being alone in the universe.
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The in-person screening for Unidentified Objects will take place on October 19 at Nitehawk Prospect Park. Virtual streaming options are also available from October 13 to October 25.