Priscilla Pozo | Contributing Writer
After filming his first feature film For My Sister (2019) entirely on his Samsung Galaxy S9+, filmmaker and FIU alumnus Gabriel Rhenals is back with his second movie State v. Unknown.
Rhenals, a communication major who graduated in 2016, was a member of several clubs and honors societies, most notably Film Initiative: Underground at FIU, now known as The Film Initiative, FIU’s only student film club. During his time at FIU, Rhenals was able to produce two short films: Leo’s Love Letter (2014) and The Promotion (2016).
Rhenals began filming State V. Unknown in 2021 while many pandemic restrictions were still in place. Rhenals’ solution was to film using what he had right at home.
“A few months ago I finished my second feature film. I began production late last year while there was still some lockdown, still some apprehension about the pandemic,” said Rhenals. “I shot the entire film using webcams exclusively, so really the entire film is just a series of webcam recordings with a wide variety of talent.”
This is not the first time Rhenals has had to think outside the box when shooting a film. For his first feature-length production, For My Sister, Rhenals relied solely on his smartphone and a handheld gimbal, a device used to stabilize the camera while moving.
For My Sister received praise from publications such as MiamiArtZine and Film Threat and is included on Amazon Prime, Tubi, and Roku streaming services.
The success of his first feature-length film gave Rhenals the confidence to go into his second project State v. Unknown.
Poster for “State V. Unknown” courtesy of Gabriel Rhenals.
Labeled by Rhenals as a “pandemic-proof production,” State v. Unknown details the history of Cal Modesto, his rise to fame, and his eventual demise as a civil engineer in the city of Verity Falls. Crime and conspiracy surround Modesto as he struggles to maintain his position in the city as well as his innocence. Rhenals opted to not disclose some details as the film is not officially released yet.
With a cast of more than 50 actors, Rhenals spent eight months working one-on-one with actors and filming via Zoom to produce the film. For State v. Unknown, he cast FIU alumni Andrew Garcia and Mia Scornavacca.
Scornavacca and Garcia, who have both previously worked with Rhenals, described him as a passionate director with a unique and meticulous style.
“You can tell he is very passionate about his work. There were times where we would try to nail a certain line and we would do it over and over again, but he also gave me room to make suggestions and interpret lines freely,” said Garcia.
Although filming with webcams was a novelty, it entailed some of the normal trials of filmmaking.
“It was interesting doing the movie via webcams, but Gabriel was very patient,” said Scornavacca. “We would do takes over and over again and he never complained.”
Growing up, Rhenals was a member of various visual arts programs and by high school, he had found a passion for filmmaking. Some of his major influences come from the work of New Hollywood directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
“I was really into visual arts when I was younger. My dad describes how, before I was properly verbal, I would express myself through line drawings. If I was feeling calm, smooth, flowing lines, but if I was frustrated, I’d draw jagged, sharp lines. That’s my earliest memory of my inclinations toward art. In high school, I got the bug for filmmaking. Given my background in visual arts, it was an inevitability,” said Rhenals.
Rhenals is currently working on submitting “State V. Unknown” to various festivals and local screenings. You can keep up with his work on his website or on Instagram and watch the trailer for “State V. Unknown” here.
Rhenals is also working on a memoir to commemorate his over 20 years of filmmaking. The memoir is an account of his creative childhood into his professional career as an independent filmmaker.
“I don’t know exactly what the future will hold, but I am prepared for any opportunity that may show up,” said Rhenals.
When asked what advice he would like to give to those pursuing a career in film, the reply was simple.
“Now is the time. You have to be your own industry, invent your career, figure out your process and start your own productions,” said Rhenals.