Over the years, Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood has undergone a transformation from a mundane warehouse district in a sketchy neighborhood to a party hub featuring massive graffiti art that attracts visitors from around the world. Filmmaker Jose Daniel “Jaydee” Freixas has experience watching that transformation happen first hand. During Miami Dade College’s 36th Miami Film Festival the University of Miami film school grad will world premiere his new movie Vandal, which follows graffiti artists tangling with the value of their craft, on artistic and commercial levels, and each other.
Freixas moved to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to begin work on a project starring actor Benecio del Toro and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (more on that later), among other projects. Speaking via phone, he says he has firsthand experience watching Wynwood transform. “The fact that I had a day job there, and that I used to bomb the neighborhood at night and then to see what it is now, it is pretty surreal,” he reveals.
His day job was humbling work in a version of Wynwood that was far from the tourist/party hub it has now become. “One of my first jobs ever was pushing boxes in my aunt’s warehouses in Wynwood,” he says. “This was in the mid ‘90s, late ‘90s. I used to do graffiti in that neighborhood at night, and it was a very gangster neighborhood. It wasn’t a safe neighborhood by any means. You didn’t want to be there at night.”
Directing his first feature film in Wynwood has been something Freixas has wanted to do for 15 years. In 2011, he produced Magic City Memoirs, whose script he co-wrote with Aaron J. Salgado, the film’s director. It won the “Lexus Pursuit of Perfection Award” following its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival. Eight years later, Freixas returns to the festival directing a script he co-wrote with Andrew Bozalis and his producing partner Tony Gonzalez. He says the vision of the film he first had has changed with the perception of graffiti as a legit art nowadays.
Reflects Freixas, “The graffiti game and the way that graffiti and street art are perceived around the world has also changed. When I was doing it, if you were doing graffiti you were just a straight up outlaw. You were a criminal, and it’s definitely not something you would so openly tell people at a cocktail party that you did.”
Graffiti was actually Freixas’ first passion. He says he got into filmmaking to find a legit way to express himself artistically. “Back then, there really wasn’t an avenue for graffiti artists to make money,” he explains, “so I kind of said to myself, well, I want to stick to something that is still in the creative realm but that I can make a career out of … and also partly because a lot of the stories and the experiences from my childhood and high school life in the graffiti game kind of informed a potential movie that I had in my mind.”
With the blessings and even the cooperation of the city and county, Freixas was able to have his cast commit officially sanctioned and supervised acts of vandalism in places they would have never dreamed to have bombed. He says all of the graffiti acts in the film were legally legit. “Both the City of Miami and Miami-Dade, they really hooked us up and accessed things that normally wouldn’t be accessed, like the MetroRail,” he reveals. “They let us vandalize a MetroRail car.”
He says it was surreal to call “action” to tell a group of graffiti artists to commence bombing the train. “For many of the graffiti artists that would work with me, they would look at me and go, ‘This is so crazy, I can’t believe we’re out here with permission,’” he says.
The film features scenes where the gang of artists take to the streets on a tear of spraying buildings and property. The performers faces are pixelated in tribute to many videos that can be found on YouTube featuring graffiti artists breaking the law to ply their craft. Freixas says the pixaliation wasn’t some sort of way to get around trouble for the filmmakers themselves. “That montage is meant to mimic a lot of videos that a lot of graffiti artists are doing in today’s day and age,” he says. “Ever since the rise of YouTube and cell phone cameras, now, a lot of graffiti crews, they shoot themselves in the act of vandalism, and they cut together these really dope videos.”
The film works hard to capture the current reality of graffiti artists around a story of two rivals. Nick “Damage” Cruz (Daniel Zovatto) takes his skill so seriously, he only practices it for artistic purposes. Then there’s an artist called Sizmek (Beau Knapp) a sinister dude who has turned a cartoon image of a snake into an cottage industry. Freixas says both men are hybrids of several people he has met or of stories he heard during his years in Miami’s graffiti scene. “It was kind of like a composite of a few guys that I met along the way that were similar to that. Like what you see in the movie, people like that exist in Miami,” he notes.
Zovatto was just named among 10 Latinxs to Watch in 2019 by Variety. “He’s gonna be like the next big Hispanic star,” notes Freixas, “and that’s the thing, this is the most Hispanic he’s ever really been in a film. He does more general market stuff like It Follows [a film we reviewed], but this kid’s really special. He’s going to have a really big career.”
The actor also paints, and after reading the script, Freixas says Zovatto said he had to play the role. “He totally connected with it,” Freixas notes. “He said, ‘I have to play this character. This is me, you know, I’m an artist.’”
In the film, you do see Zovatto do some of his own painting. Freixas says the actor’s background in painting made him a quick study. “We did teach him how to do graffiti in that way, and he learned very quickly,” says the director.
The filmmakers still employed real graffiti artists to stand in for some of the more complex work and the production of actual works that appear in the film. Freixas says careful camera placement and editing trickery make it look seamless. “We found graffiti artists that kind of physically look similar to these characters, so a lot of times when you see the graffiti being sprayed, it’s not really the actors,” he reveals. “It’s actually real graffiti artists.”
As Vandal makes its world premiere, Freixas has begun working on another long gestating project, which was announced alongside some big names almost three years ago now (Paramount, Appian Way Nab Cuban Mob Saga ‘The Corporation’ With Benicio Del Toro to Star). “My company, Exilium, we have a lot of projects that are moving forward right now. We have another project that was announced fairly recently called The Corporation, which is based on a book about the true stories of the Cuban mafia in America, and we’re producing it with Leonardo DiCaprio, Paramount, and it’s gonna star Benicio Del Toro.”
Like Vandal, The Corporation has been a project Freixas has wanted to produce for over a decade. “When I was a film student at the University of Miami I caught wind of the story in the Miami Herald, and I just got obsessed,” says the filmmaker. “I just started researching anything and everything I could find on this subject and just one day realized, holy shit, I found the Cuban Godfather.”
He says over the years, he met several important characters of the story, including the attorney for the man at the heart of the story, Jose Miguel Battle (he died in 2007) and Detective David Shanks, a former Miami police officer who spent years investigating Battle and eventually took down the whole organization. Shanks was writing a book about it, and Freixas optioned his material. “I amassed all this material and met with Del Toro and pitched him the whole movie,” recalls Freixas. “He said find someone to turn all this research into a book.”
So Freixas and Gonzalez approached author T.J. English, a writer Freixas describes as the foremost authority in non-fiction organized crime books. English’s book Havana Nocturne is a New York Times Bestseller and is about the Italian mafia in Cuba. “Basically, where that book ends is where my story begins because it’s about the Cuban mafia in America,” says Freixas. “The guy leaves Cuba and basically starts this whole syndicate in New York.”
Freixas says English jumped aboard the project immediately. He describes the author as knowing all about tying his own work with the research the director had done prior to their meeting. What resulted was the book The Corporation. “We shopped the book out in LA,” says Freixas. “It was pretty amazing. We had a whole bidding war. All the major studios bid on it, Sony, Warner Brothers, Universal. All of them are bidding on it, and then Paramount won with Benicio Del Toro attached to star and Leonardo DiCaprio attached to produce.”
He and Gonzalez are working as creative producers while David Matthews adapts English’s book. So far, there is no director attached to the project yet, but Freixas hopes an announcement will come before year’s end. “We’re hopefully six to 12 months from moving forward,” he notes.
Vandal has its world premiere during the 36th Miami Film Festival on Thursday March 7th, at 6:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at MDC’s Tower Theater. Tony Gonzalez, Jose Daniel Freixas, Daniel Zovatto and actress Otmara Marrero will all be in attendance for the red carpet and a Q&A session.