The voice of the student body

The Dial

The voice of the student body

The Dial

The voice of the student body

The Dial

Alumni Profile: Melissa Rodriguez’s Early Success in the Film Industry

Meet Melissa Rodriguez: a brave risk-taker who was able to find success in a male-dominated industry at a young age. 

Melissa Rodriguez, an independent filmmaker from the Hackley Class of 2009, has received high praise for her short film Helado as well as an Audience Choice award at the Festival of Cinema in New York City. I had the opportunity to talk to her about her new film which she wrote, directed, and produced. We also discussed the impact her Hackley education had on her and learned how support from her teachers and her experiences on the Hilltop gave her a foundation for her career. 

Credit: Melissa Rodriguez
Melissa at the YoFi Fest where her film won an Audience Choice Award. Melissa is accompanied by her mother Doris Benitez and Helado producer Brendan Smith. They are shown carrying ice cream cones to commemorate the name of the film which is ice cream in Spanish.

Ms. Rodriguez came to Hackley in fifth grade and gives the school credit for making her a hard worker, a skill that has served her well in her career. Reflecting on her high school career, she commented that she had many teachers encouraging her. 

Ms. Rodriguez described history teacher Vladimir Klimenko as her “unofficial counselor.” He was the first person she would reach out to for advice because she valued his worldview and his life experience.  She said, “I used to joke that there is not one thing he hasn’t done.”

Ms. Rodriguez, in her junior year, took Anne Siviglia’s Creative Writing class which changed a lot for her. Ms. Siviligia fostered a safe space for her students which was important to develop character and to improve as a writer. In the class, Ms. Rodriguez learned how to deliver feedback and critique the writing of others, which has been invaluable in her career. 

“Ms. Siviglia is the first to message me on Instagram to tell me she is proud of me, which has made me feel really great about myself,” said Ms. Rodriguez. 

In Ms. Rodriguez’s senior year, she took Kevin Rea’s senior English class where the class read a novel and then watched a film it was based on. Reading Clockwork Orange and then watching Stanley Kubrick’s film was a defining moment for Ms. Rodriguez. 

“I remember being like, oh my god, I love this, examining the composition and comparing it to the text. This type of class was like a key, it unlocked a lot of doors for me,” Ms. Rodriguez said.  

As she looked back on her time at Hackley, she noted two experiences outside of class that were particularly empowering for her. She was one of the first girls to play on the Hackley Middle School football team. Football made Ms. Rodriguez mentally stronger and taught her how to take risks. 

Credit: Melissa Rodriguez
Melissa was one of the first girls to play on the Hackley football team. She played on the team in Middle School in 2003. Football made Melissa stronger and taught her skills about sticking up for herself.

“I always wanted to make my mark at Hackley, and football has had a lasting impact on me to this day,” Ms. Rodriguez said. 

Coffeehouse, a performance event where students can showcase their talents, created while she was at Hackley and continues to the present day, was influential for her as well. Ms. Rodriguez was the first, at the time, to perform a spoken word act. This moment was important as it was the first experience where she realized that she commanded the stage and everyone listened to what she wanted to say.  

Film interested Ms. Rodriguez even as a child, but the desire to make it a career only clicked when she began taking film electives at Hackley. By the time Ms. Rodriguez arrived at college, she was certain that she wanted to work in the film industry.

Ms. Rodriguez graduated from Hackley in 2009 and went on to pursue a career in film production at SUNY Purchase, earning her BA in Film and Television Production. From there, she earned her MFA in film at Brooklyn College and then went on to start her own video production company. Influenced by the feminist punk movement, she named her company Riot Girl Productions to brand her business as one dealing with social issues and amplifying marginalized voices. She believes that all of her work reflects those goals.  

Ms. Rodriguez worked as a director and producer for major brands like Apple Music, Verizon, and Pepsi. However, what means the most to her are the personal homegrown projects. Her latest short narrative film, Helado, “Ice Cream” in Spanish, has been running the festival circuit and has won several awards. The film script, written by Ms. Rodriguez, is based on Ms. Rodriguez’s mother’s childhood growing up in Latin America.  

Credit: Melissa Rodriguez
Melissa’s short film Helado has won a variety of awards at film festivals. The film follows the story of a young girl named Estrella. After her mother suddenly passes away, her entire life in 1960s Mexico begins to crumble. Estrella’s father, spiraling in his alcoholism, abandons her to her older half-sister, Marla, thinking this would give his daughter a better life. Stuck in Marla’s abusive household, Estrella reaches her breaking point after she’s sent to fetch ice cream for Marla’s family late at night. It is then that she is forced to confront the traumas of her past manifested as a Giant Shadow Man. She must make a choice: run back to Marla’s or run away.

“I’m so proud of that work, because it was such a personal project, because of my mother’s story,” Ms. Rodriguez said. 

She not only wrote the script but produced and directed it on location in Mexico and was able to bring her mom with her to the set. 

It took a couple of months for her to develop the script for Helado. She was able to leverage her networking contacts and acquired a cast and crew two weeks before filming on location. They were able to film in just two days due to having the right location, having a director of photography who could move quickly, as well as effective pre-production. They were able to complete post-production in two months. 

“Since the film was a period piece set in 1960’s Mexico,” Ms. Rodriguez said, “I wanted the film to look and feel authentic to the period. In addition to production design and wardrobe to match this time period, we also communicated this with the lenses we used, the aspect ratio we filmed with, and the way we decided to color grade the film.“ She added, “A lot of the movie’s visual elements were inspirations from Moonlight, Parasite, and It Follows. I loved the color in this film and felt it informed so much of the tone and style.” 

Ms. Rodriguez expressed that one should not be afraid to take “calculated” risks in one’s career. 

“The way I saw it, making this film was an investment into my career. I wasn’t going to regret self-financing this film because I don’t believe in half measures. If you’re going to do something, you’re going to see it through and do it right.” She continued, “There are two things I often quote, ‘Luck is the residue of design’ (John Milton) and ‘No half measure’ (Breaking Bad). I remember both of these things anytime I do a project.”

When making her film, Ms. Rodriguez had to make multiple artistic choices. However, the most difficult part of creating the script was condensing her mother’s lived experience into a short film. She hopes to explore other characters and moments in her mother’s life once she develops Helado into a feature film. Helado is her greatest accomplishment thus far, and she is working on developing this short film into a feature-length production which would be her first feature, marking an important landmark in her career. After that, she would like to take on television projects as well. 

While Ms. Rodriguez’s accomplishments are exceptional, the path to get there was not easy. As a freelance director and producer, there are periods when work can be slow. Additionally, the writer’s strike had a huge impact on her, as it did for most in the film industry. Ms. Rodriguez expressed the importance of standing in solidarity for what’s right while recognizing that it is difficult to sustain a career in times of strike. 

“Navigating those difficult times is really challenging as a freelance artist, but they push you to figure out other ways to think outside of the box. I am constantly questioning myself: ‘How else can I be creative?’” Ms. Rodriguez said.  

Credit: Melissa Rodriguez
Melissa filmed her short film Helado in Mexico. They filmed for a total of two weeks, after several months of developing the script. Melissa’s mother was able to join her on set, which made the experience even more special for Melissa.

While working on her films, Ms. Rodriguez also teaches classes on video techniques and technology as well as podcasting and audio storytelling at SUNY Purchase, her alma mater, and Montclair State University. 

“I have always wanted to teach. I always wanted to show students everything I wish I knew at a younger age and be a sort of open book to my students,” said Ms. Rodriguez. 

She feels teaching allows her to connect with the students because she was in the same spot as they were a few years ago.

Ms. Rodriguez’s advice to Hackley people is to “take advantage of the vast community that is Hackley.” She reflected that her eyes light up anytime she meets a Hackley graduate and illustrated the special qualities that Hackley graduates have such as intelligence, the ability to work hard, and the prowess to navigate difficult situations. 

Her accomplishments are impressive, especially for someone who has been in this business for less than a decade. She shines as an example to students of what passion, dedication, drive, and talent can do. 

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