Meet Kenny Riches, Miami’s breakout indie filmmaker

Kenny Riches is the writer and director of The Strongest Man, a distinctly Miami film that debuted at Sundance this year and will have its east coast premiere Monday, March 9 at O Cinema Miami Beach during the Miami International Film Festival. The New Tropic subscribers can get discounted tickets to the film with the code NEWTROPIC2015 when purchasing through the MIFF website.

With its quirky antiheroes, dark comedy, and a setting in a multilingual Miami removed from the glitz and glamor of most on-screen portrayals of the city, The Strongest Man has drawn comparisons to the films of Wes Anderson and the hipster classic Napoleon Dynamite. MIFF writes of Riches: “The rising voice of the new Miami film style has found a sonorous spokesperson.” We spoke with Riches about making The Strongest Man, being a Miami filmmaker, and what’s next for his career.

Why did you set out to make ‘The Strongest Man’?

It all just kind of stemmed from initially visiting Miami about seven years ago, and coming in the winter for art fairs. We were coming here to visit Meatball [Robert ‘Meatball’ Lorrie], who plays Beef in the film.

Three years ago, we decided to pick up and move here because we had gained a lot of friends in Miami over the years, and the weather’s great, and the art scene just has something a lot of other cities besides L.A. and New York don’t — There is actually money in the arts in Miami.

A lot of the film is based on my own experiences and having friends show me around the city. Beef is sort of a mashup between me and [Lorrie], and a lot of the film draws from our lives here.

There is a whole lot of Miami in the film, but really a Miami that many outsiders don’t see. Why was that important to you? How do you think the city has influenced your work?

Miami is such a specific place. There’s so much to work off of, whether it’s Latin or Caribbean culture, the art world, or the way the city works and looks to someone who is part of it. I wanted to capture that. There’s nowhere else like it and as I was writing, the city kind of became a character in itself.

At Sundance, I think people from Los Angeles or elsewhere didn’t really understand a lot of that cultural stuff in the film. I’m really excited to screen at the Miami International Film Festival, because I think people here will really get it .

There’s a specific moment that I think is a good example of how Miami is so different. In the scene, Beef introduces his friend Conan as “Chino.” In the subtitles, it says “chinaman.” He follows by saying his parents are Korean. That moment to me is such a Miami experience. I’m half-Japanese, but the Latins here just say Chino as a general term, even though it translates to Chinese. Not all Asians are Chinese!

When I screened at Sundance, I think people thought I was trying to be funny or hip, but they don’t really understand the extent of that joke because it’s so specific to Miami. There’s a lot of that in the film, there’s terms like “supposably” and all those kinds of quirks. At the beginning of the film, they’re snorting Pixy Stix as a sort of vague reference to cocaine. Unless you’re from here, or really aware of Miami culture, you’re not going to understand those little gems. Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot by being so specific, but I like using the city in that way to shape the characters and the story.

Director Kenny RichesDo you think Miami can gain traction as a place for indie film?

I hope so. You’re still seeing a lot of film coming out of Los Angeles and New York, because they’re the most established cities for it. There’s a lot of film out of Texas now, because Austin has become a film mecca. New Orleans was seeing that for a time, and became very recognizable as a place for film.

Right now, Miami is going through this exciting time where indie film is gaining a lot of attention. It’s one of a few places where indie theaters are opening, not closing. Miami has been represented at Sundance for the past few years because of the awesome stuff Borscht has been making. I think people here are starting to see film as art, and I want to see more indie filmmakers making films that work Miami in that way.

You managed to fundraise for a feature, which is an unusual feat in Miami. What are the challenges for Miami filmmakers in a scene that is still pretty nascent?

Funding is a hard problem, but I think that will change. The more people see film, the more they can look at it as art, and the more I think they’ll want to support these artists that are making films and telling stories. We had some investors in Miami and some in Salt Lake, where I am from. We started a crowdfunding campaign, but halfway through we found out we were in Sundance, so I knew we couldn’t spend the time it takes to run a campaign and still finish the film. The timing of that campaign could have been awesome if it was a week or two later, but ultimately we had to cancel it and find investors.

I want to see more good films coming out of Miami in general. There are people working on features, and I think we will see more of it soon. I am really excited about that. Wherever you live, you kind of want to boost up the community where you work. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more success, but funding is always a challenge. It’s always the biggest challenge.

Congratulations again on your success at Sundance and your new contract with UTA. How are you feeling about this recognition, and what’s next in your radar?

I feel the same, really. I still live in my little apartment and I’m trying to get back to work. I think that a lot of doors have opened up for me, which is amazing, but I tend not to get too wrapped up in those things. I have  a great team of sales agents who are actively seeking distribution for the film, which is a big help. I’m not wandering around in the dark on that, so it means I can get to work day-by-day on making the next film.

I’m writing another film now that takes place in Miami and the Keys, so that might be next but it’s still very early. So, I’m not quite sure yet.

Mostly I want to make films with my friends, and I want that to continue. So, yes, I definitely want to get bigger budgets, so everyone can get paid what they deserve. And, we have a lot of talent here, so I’d like to move on to budgets that are more realistic so I can bring on more people.