SxSW 2021 Interview – PLANT HEIST directors Chelsi & Gabriel DeCuba

When a wildlife officer receives a tip about suspicious packages being sent to Asia he further investigates and exposes a black market operating out of local California post offices. What exactly is being smuggled? Plants. Dudleya Farinosa to be exact. This small unassuming plant carries a hefty bounty on its head internationally, where a single succulent boasts a price tag in the thousands. As poachers ravage the California landscape, volunteers, native plant biologists, and local government fight to stop this ecological destruction. Having its world premiere in the Documentary Shorts Competition at SxSW 2021 Online, we speak with the creators of PLANT HEIST. 

Welcome to SxSW and congratulations! Is this your first SxSW experience?

Chelsi DeCuba: Yes, still have moments where I have to remind myself that we were selected. It was so unexpected and certainly the best surprise of 2020. 

Gabriel DeCuba: It certainly is and we could not be more honored to be a part of it.

How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send your project into the festival?

CD: I probably heard about SxSW five or so years ago when I became increasingly more 

interested in the indie movie scene and the mystery around film festivals. SxSW is one of the big ones so it’s hard to miss once you tune in. 

GD: I first heard about SXSW a while ago when there was a lot of buzz around the film festival and musical offerings at the event. To be honest submitting our film to SxSW was always, in my mind, a bit of a long shot. Considering how many amazing projects the film festival attracts. We are both so honored to be a part of the event!

Tell me about the idea behind PLANT HEIST and getting it made!

CD: The idea was ignited when our mutual friend forwarded a news article to my brother about these succulents being stolen. After doing his own research I could feel his sense of excitement and urgency to tell this story as a documentary when he pitched it to me over a casual dinner. I was ready. With both of us working in commercial production as our day jobs, I think we were both ripe for a creative pursuit and here it was sitting in front of us. So we started the journey and the start was probably the most intimidating part. We knew we needed support in any way we could find it. Two Bay Area production companies we both work with were generous enough to give us a little starter budget and let us use their camera gear, lights and mics at no cost.  We had a crew of two, sometimes three so really had to learn a lot quickly to fill in some of the gaps of not having a crew. Gabriel had to DP, set up lights, and a boom mic, while I assisted with gear and took on the bulk of setting up  and interviewing our subjects. Securing that first major interview with the main character of the film was the hardest part. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife were hesitant when we came asking about putting them on camera to tell this story. We had to spend multiple phone calls building trust with the captain of the department. When we finally got the green light for the interview, it was definitely a sliver of hope that we could actually do this thing. We committed and started to secure more and more interviews with key players. We would spend our long car rides up and down the California coast discussing our interview questions and fine tuning them to get the response we were looking for to tell the story. Once we finished the interview we would hunt for interesting B-roll to make the most of our production days. We wrapped production one interview shy of getting everyone on our list due to the onset of COVID and the shutdown. We started post production in the middle of COVID, going back and forth from the East Bay to the North Bay to edit. Gabriel took on the bulk of the technical aspects of editing in Adobe Premiere Pro while I read through interview transcripts and scribbled on flashcards. It was a challenge to continue to work through the edit as the world was shifting and changing so much on a day to day basis. We had some good days and bad days but eventually made those tough choices in the edit room and decided it was time to submit to film festivals. 

Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this project?

CD: The director who got me interested in filmmaking is Terrance Malick and the way he captures the beauty of our natural landscapes and the human experience. I like to listen to a lot of composed music by Alexander Desplat and Hans Zimmer, or any of the classical pieces when I am in the middle of a creative pursuit. It often inspires me to think about things in new ways. I am constantly inspired by other women in film that are paving the way, Reed Morano, Chloe Zhao, Kate Arizmendi, Dee Rees, Sandra Winther, Olivia Wilde, Greta Gerwig to name a few. 

GD: Director David Fincher,  Cinematographer Darius Khondji and the way he shot outdoor scenes in the film Se7en, The Cove documentary by Louis Psihoyos, The Devil Next Door documentary by Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan. Dirty Gold Documentary by Stephen Maing and the HBO show The Outsider adapted from Stephen King’s novel by Richard Price. I feel like I held all these people and their works in my head while shooting and working in post production on Plant Heist.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?

GD: Our main camera was the Sony Fs7 paired with the Sigma high speed prime lenses. Almost all the B-roll shots in the film are shot using that setup paired with an Easy Rig.There are however three or four shots that we decided to use the smaller Panasonic GH5 on a gimbal head to achieve the look and low angle we needed. Considering we were a crew of three and at times just myself and my co-director Chelsi, it was definitely a balancing act of wearing multiple hats while in production of Plant Heist. For interviews in controlled environments we chose to shoot locked off on a tripod. We would have loved to have a two camera interview setup, but our budget just did not have room for another camera. So we decided early on to shoot in 4k and deliver in 1080p so we had room in the edit to punch into the larger 4k image during interviews to cover cuts. To light interviews we used a combination of Kino Flo Diva lights, Joker 800 HMI, and Litepanel LED lights.

Being all virtual this year, what do you hope to get out of the virtual SxSW experience? And where is your project going next?

CD: This is our first time at SXSW let alone any other festival so we don’t have the in person experience to compare it to. Which maybe is a good thing? It’s all new territory in general for us. We are hoping we are able to make connections with all the other talented filmmakers in the festival, and of course for people to see our film and take something away from it. Plant Heist will continue on the film festival circuit for 2021, with The Environmental Film Festival in DC next. 

What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

CD: Maybe making a short film collective where you charge a lower price for the short film library for an extended period of time after the festival and a percentage of that would go back to the filmmakers. 

If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?

CD: Use the resources you have and just start the project. Getting passed the first hurdle is the hardest but once you begin to follow the threads of the creative process, the belief in what you are doing gets stronger and the opportunities to learn are at every corner. If you can get excited about learning nothing can be a wasted effort. 

GD: First, read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, then use any and all resources at your disposal to create something that inspires you. Constantly break down your favorite films, watch them over and over. Turn the sound off even and observe the light and the cuts without distraction. Turn the sound back on and pay attention to the layered sound design or orchestral score. Be a constant student of the craft. Learn what each department does on a film set. Trust that no one has your unique point of view.

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

CD: Stutterer by Benjamin Cleary.   

GD: Alone Time by Rod Blackhurst. An expertly crafted story that does so much with so little. Find it on Vimeo!  It’s wonderfully simplistic and truly chilling.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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