20 Under 40: Lucas Leyva

Here is my contribution to the 20 Under 40: Season of the Arts preview running in Sunday’s Herald.

Filmmaker and playwright Lucas Leyva, director and cofounder of the hippest, most eclectic and electric movie festival in South Florida, began his love affair with movies as a kid, when he learned about Godzilla. “I was really into dinosaurs, so one day my dad brought home Son of Godzilla,” Leyva says. “I watched it over and over so many times I broke the VHS. I liked that he had some darkness to him. In some movies he’d be good, and in other movies he’d be bad. You never knew what he was going to do.’

 The same goes for the wildly prolific and gifted Leyva, whose low-key demeanor conceals a tireless imagination and unpredictable creativity. Born and raised in Miami by Cuban parents, Leyva wrote his first play at 16. The Holy War was a satire on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that told of the epic battle between the Church of Tom Cruise and the Church of Harrison Ford.

When he was accepted into the New World School of the Arts, Leyva planned to pursue acting. But instead he began making short films with other students, such as an installment of The End of the World, a compilation about the apocalypse in which every movie had to run precisely 6 minutes and 66 seconds. Film school was the logical next step, but the short that Leyva submitted on applications as a sample of his work was greeted by a unanimous thumbs down. “I remade the crucifixion scene from The Passion of The Christ but with product placements,” Leyva says. “One of the guys comes up and gives him Gatorade, things like that. And they didn’t like it. I was rejected by every film school in the country.”

During his stint at New World, though, Leyva had continued writing plays, 10 of which have been produced by theater companies around the country. Having lived in various Miami-Dade neighborhoods all his life, Leyva was eager to move away for college, so he enrolled in a theater program offered by Fordham University in New York City.

“Like a lot of kids who grow up in Miami, I was sick of it here,” Leyva says. “I thought it was a cultural wasteland, and New York sounded like a place where all these creative types could get together and exchange ideas and collaborate, which is something I had never found living in Westchester.”

But New York turned out to be a lot different than Leyva expected. His professors were not amused by how he handled his first assignment: a one-act play with two characters, one set and one lighting design. “My play had 18 characters, including a chorus of sea monsters and a chimpanzee,” he says. “They were very upset about that, so they kicked me out.”

Undeterred, Leyva switched to the communications department, where he learned to shoot and edit 8mm film. During summer and holiday breaks, he returned to Miami, reunited with his old New World pals – musicians, dancers, architects, poets – and began the Borscht Film Festival in 2005, an offspring of an inter-disciplinary festival they had started in high school. The group collaborated on each other’s movies, centered around a theme that changed every year, then screened them to the public for free.

Why the name Borscht? “There’s really no reason for it, but we’ve been asked it enough that we came up with an answer: Borscht is this Ukrainian soup that can be served hot or cold, made up of all these disparate, home-grown elements. But when you put them together, they make one quirky soup.”

Meanwhile, whenever school was back in session and he returned to New York, Leyva increasingly discovered that a lot of the plays and art shows that moved him the most were the work of Miamians such as Tarell Alvin McCraney and Hernan Bas. So after graduating in 2008, he came home. “Every time you see Miami in a movie, it’s tits and rollerblades and South Beach,” Leyva says. “That’s nice, but the stuff that’s actually going on is a lot cooler. Living in Miami is almost like living in a magical-realist town like Macondo. The city has so much potential to be its own character on film, and no one had done that. So we decided to do it ourselves.”

The 2009 edition of the Borscht Film Festival, comprised of short films shot in various Miami neighborhoods, was held at a sold-out Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in November. When the theater’s projector refused to turn on at curtain time, Leyva’s musician friends entertained the crowd while a festival staffer scoured the city for a projector to rent. Instead of jeering and booing, the crowd embraced the vibe. The screening started two hours late, with the movies shown on a rickety projector placed in the middle of the audience.

The reaction was so positive, and so many people had to be turned away, that Leyva has set his sights on the Adrienne Arscht Center for the Performing Arts as the site of this year’s festival. He also has applied for two arts grants to supplement the growing event’s corporate sponsorship. “Miami is a very unique culture, with its own language, pace, weather, nightlife and corruption,” says Sam Rega, co-director of Miami Noir: The Arthur E. Teele Story, who worked on last year’s festival. “Lucas’ work in film, theater and festivals captures the idiosyncrasies of Miami and translates them in such a way that people in and beyond Miami can relate. He breaks the Miami stereotypes and tells original stories that reach deep into the heart of the city.”

 Leyva’s film entry in last year’s Borscht, Day n Night Out, was set in Liberty City and Homestead and was later screened at Cannes. He has also cofounded Foryoucansee, a theater company that aims to attract young people with idiosyncratic, irreverent, multimedia plays, and was a contributor to the poetry anthology Hialeah Haikus.

“I’m either doing a lot or nothing at all,” Leyva says. “Basically I want to be Steven Soderbergh, who can make these personal projects and then turn around and do something a lot more commercial. But I also love theater, and I almost feel like the Borscht festival is a work of art in itself.”


Position: Filmmaker, playwright, director and cofounder of the Borscht Film Festival and Foryoucansee Theater

Age: 23

Quote: “This is kind of a nerdy thing, but I’m really good at the game of Risk. I’m ranked globally online. At one point I was No. 7 in the world.”

Newest project: Directing an avant-garde musical in collaboration with artist Jillian Mayer and compiling all the plays he’s written and posting them online



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