Jacob Gradaille, a Video Production major and Film Studies minor at Rutgers University–Newark, grew up in the city’s North Ward, the youngest of three children born to immigrant parents from Cuba and Peru. Education looms large in the family: His aunts, uncles and siblings all have bachelor’s degrees, and his mother recently received her undergraduate degree from RU-N's School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA).
Gradaille, whose professional moniker is J.A. Grad, is part of RU-N's Honors Living & Learning Community Scholars program, which he credits for making him much more conscious of social issues and the ways they can subtextually come up in film. His latest work, a short film called Speculo, recently was selected for and screened at the 2022 Newark International Film Festival. It explores how college friends cope with loss after the suicide of a close friend.
“I'm always impressed with the emotional maturity and resilience of my video students at RU-N and their ability to tackle critical, timely issues in their films,” said Professor Kimi Takesue, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who oversaw Gradaille’s project. “Throughout the pandemic so many people have struggled with mental health issues, including our students. The Video Program is extremely proud of Jacob's well-deserved success and that his film was selected to premiere at the 2022 Newark International Film Festival.”
We sat down with Gradaille to discuss his love of film, his latest work, and how it felt to be honored by NIFF.
How did you get into film, and why do you feel it’s the best storytelling medium for you?
My interest in film came from my uncle, who had filmmaking aspirations as I was growing up and got me interested from a very young age. YouTube also sparked my interest in video content in general. I started making videos in 2009, thanks to my aunt encouraging me, and never really stopped. My grandfather instilled in me a general interest and passion for art of all forms, and video is the medium where I find all other mediums intersect. By proxy, my interest in film has given me interest in photography and music, but I like all forms of art, so I dabble where I can.
What was the production timeline for this film?
It was seven months from start to finish—October 2021 to May 2022—starting in my fall Screenwriting course and finishing in my spring Narrative Production class. Looking back, it’s crazy to think that I spent that long on a singular project. Speculo is, to date, the most ambitious project I’ve made.
How did the story for Speculo come about?
I had the idea in my junior year of high school and tried writing the screenplay back then but Iost interest in it. I returned to it for my Screenwriting class and was able to flesh it out into a more complete work thanks to Professor Takesue. It was heavily inspired by Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon. The story focuses on denying oneself the chance to process and heal from trauma, and how we deserve to be vulnerable and reach out to others around us, a concept that I and many important people in my life have struggled with. Reflection is a theme of the film, and “speculo” roughly translates to “mirror” in Latin. I think the proper word is speculum, but speculo had a better ring to it.
The story focuses on denying oneself the chance to process and heal from trauma, and how we deserve to be vulnerable and reach out to others around us.
Flesh out the plot for us, if you would.
The story is centered around Malva coping with the passing of her friend, Mary, along with Malva’s friends Morgan and Madeline, who are even more vulnerable than Malva. Malva tries to isolate herself from the situation, while her friends want to help her grieve. The setting is left ambiguous, though it was shot in the North Newark/Belleville area. The characters are in their early-to-mid-20s, though again, that detail was left ambiguous. The Mirrorface character is aesthetically derived from Maya Deren’s character in Meshes of the Afternoon.
Tell us about the cast.
The cast was a mix of friends and people I’ve met through the Rutgers/NJIT theater program. The lead role of Malva was played by my dear friend Zoe Papianni, who has done local TV commercials and theater productions and can cry on command better than any actress I know. During my time in an improv production at NJIT, I met two incredible actresses: Alyson Fernandez, who had that authoritative and nurturing nature that the character Madeline required, and Dariel Angeles, who had the sense of humor and bluntness that perfectly fit the character of Morgan. The role of Mary was played by my production assistant, Veronica Papianni, after the original actress backed out, and Mirrorface was played by Jaevon Lawrence, who is tall and has a strong presence.
And your crew?
The crew consisted of five people as well. I mainly directed, working alongside my director of photography, Alana Garcia, an incredible talent who meshes with me stylistically. On sound, I had my good friends Shelssy Solano and Safa Daftani, who both have incredible attention to detail, and it’s thanks to them that the film sounds as good as it does. We also had original music scored by fellow video-program student Adam Hassan, and he and I worked together on curating the sound for the piece. Everybody just understood the project very well and made the creative process seamless.
What were some of the most challenging and rewarding things about doing this film?
I had to direct and produce the project, which is more than I usually shoulder. I had to organize our locations and shooting days, handle the catering for cast and crew, and make sure everyone got to set on-time and got home safely. There were lots of moving parts, and at times it was overwhelming, but the rewarding moments came in-between shooting when the cast and crew just conversed like friends hanging out. Everyone involved just had such good spirits, and that really motivated me to see it through.
How did it feel to complete the project, and what did you learn?
The feedback and encouragement from my peers and Professor Takesue really validated for me that I was doing something significant. The whole process taught me that producing isn’t necessarily what I would want to do long-term, and I’ve come to appreciate and trust my abilities as a director.
Who’s idea was it for you to submit the film to NIFF, and was the submission fee an issue?
The idea came from Professor Takesue. She really enjoyed the final product and insisted that I submit the piece to the NIFF. Considering how much I respect Professor Takesue as my professor and a filmmaker and artist, it meant a lot to hear her say that. There was a submission fee, and I paid out-of-pocket because I felt very strongly about my project and wanted to put up the money myself.
How did it feel having your film accepted by NIFF and then watching it screened in front of a live audience?
I was actually on a call with crew members when I got the news about the NIFF selection. We were all very excited and proud of what we had accomplished. I quickly contacted the rest of the cast and crew and gave them the news. It was really nice to see our effort get recognition. The screening was held at the Cityplex theater in Newark, and seeing it on a big screen was surreal. My short was screened with two other pieces, and the audience was receptive to all of them. It was overall a really cool experience.
Thanks for sitting down with us.
Thank you for the opportunity.