Jess dela Merced, Bay Area native and one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” is on the move. Speaking over the phone last week, it became apparent this wasn’t just a figure of speech. Dela Merced was literally on the move, driving through the streets of Los Angeles as we talked.
There simply isn’t time to slow down -- she’s in preproduction on her first feature-length film, Chickenshit, for which she just just received a $25,000 “packaging” grant from the San Francisco Film Society and Kenneth Rainin Foundation.
“We’re hoping to shoot next summer,” dela Merced says. “We’re just getting the script ready and trying to find the right collaborators and financing.”
Part of what’s drawing support to dela Merced’s newest project is her award-winning work in short films. Her graduate thesis film from NYU, Hypebeasts -- now available online courtesy of Film School Shorts -- skillfully balances the youthful excitement with simmering racial tension as two Filipino-American siblings and their Korean-American friend join a line of die-hard sneaker fans. When that tension explodes into a riotous mob, dela Merced (who also stars in the short) spares no one from either physical violence or the shaky remorse that follows.
Hypebeasts is inspired in part by a racist incident at a Chik-fil-A near UC Irvine, where dela Merced went to college. When the fast food joint provided receipts to two Asian students, the customers were identified as “Ching” and “Chong,” despite never being asked for their names.
“I had never been affected by any racist event ever,” dela Merced says. “It shocked me so much that that could happen in such a safe space.” She was long gone from Irvine by the time the Chick-fil-A story broke in 2011, but it stuck with her.
“I realized how naive I was, thinking that something like that couldn’t happen,” she says. “That’s when I realized I needed to explore how I see the world and try to share that with an audience.”
Chickenshit tells the story of Phoenix, a young Black girl in Detroit who joins forces with a ragtag group of boys to save their neighborhood from an arsonist. Dela Merced wrote the screenplay after working as the cinematographer on a classmate’s film in Detroit. “People said it was unsafe, but I had an immediate connection to the city. I wanted to know more about it,” she says.
Born in San Francisco and raised in South San Francisco, dela Merced was drawn to more than just Detroit’s cinematic ruins. “I see how lucky I was growing up in such a diverse city,” dela Merced says. “It motivates me to want to tell this story about these kids who aren’t growing up in such an ideal environment.”
While making her fourth short film Wait ‘Til the Wolves Make Nice, which acted as a proof of concept for Chickenshit, dela Merced worked closely with local non-actor children, filming everything -- pyrotechnics and all -- in five days.
“We didn’t follow the rules. We just did everything ourselves and we didn’t have that much help because we were trying to keep it as cheap as possible,” she says. In the process, she proved to herself -- and others -- that she was up to the task of making a feature-length film.
While there's still a ways to go before Chickenshit reaches audiences, dela Merced retains a sense of urgency about the film, especially in today’s political climate. “I am motivated even more because of what’s been happening,” she says. “I feel like Detroit is a cautionary tale, and it needs to be told as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, watch Hypebeasts in its entirety, courtesy of Film School Shorts: