Talk about making an entrance!
Titled Cerulean Blue – which also happens to be the colour of the sky and a motif throughout the film – Ortega’s masterpiece is a road trip romance with a twist.
It traces the journey of mismatched travelling companions who reveal long-held secrets, broken hearts and unexpected connections during an eye-opening drive to Melbourne.
The film stars Alex (Jack Michel), an introvert who’s coping with obsessive compulsive disorder and chasing a memory from the past, and Lily (Senie Priti), a high-spirited hitchhiker running from something with as much determination as Alex is running to something.
“I wanted to explore the romantic road trip genre but turn it on its head,” Ortega said.
“It’s not a very typical romantic comedy and what you think might happen may not.”
Ortega was determined to deliver a story people could relate to rather than an unrealistic and clichéd romance.
In fact, the plot is loosely based on real experiences the director was going through at the time he put pen to paper.
“I wanted to get my feelings out there,” he said.
“I wrote a script and then realised I could actually probably make something of it.”
Ortega has had a life-long love affair with film.
The 27-year-old talent is the product of migration, with his maternal grandparents hailing from the central Italian town of Ascoli Piceno and his father coming over from Spain as a toddler.
“My love for cinema mainly started with my dad, who’s a big film fan,” Ortega said.
“We used to spend every Saturday together and most of our time was spent watching films... we formed a bond over it and gradually I realised it was something I really loved.”
Though Ortega’s passion for film was undeniable, he never considered becoming a filmmaker until he was in his last year of high school.
“I remember being in my media class in Year 12 and talking to my teacher about film,” he recalled.
“He saw that I was really into it and knew a lot about it.”
When his teacher asked him what he was planning on doing after high school, Ortega said he was considering architecture.
He was met with the candid response: “You’re not an architect, you’re a filmmaker.”
That very same teacher who convinced Ortega to pursue his passion will be in the audience at the screening of Cerulean Blue, 10 years after that serendipitous conversation unfolded.
During the festival, Ortega will introduce his film and participate in a Q&A with Michel and Priti.
So what does it feel like to have his film in the festival he’s been attending since he was 17 years old?
“It’s the same feeling I had when I made the film – I didn’t really understand what I was doing until it was over,” Ortega said.
“I know what’s happening but I don’t think I’m going to fully understand it until I’m there... I’ll probably freak out a little bit!”
While Ortega’s hard work has certainly paid off, it’s been a long time coming.
He began writing the film in October 2015 and it took him a year to cast the two lead actors.
“They already knew each other and had chemistry so it worked,” he said.
“Also, Jack [Michel] was the only person who was able to play the lead character in a realistic way and make me believe that he had obsessive compulsive disorder; everyone else was too over the top like they were doing slapstick.”
This was a crucial factor for Ortega, as he never intended the film to overtly be about the character’s disorder and mental illness in general.
“The story is about a guy who’s in love but doesn’t really understand what love is,” he explained.
“I wanted his mental illness to be there, but I wanted it to be in the background and slip out slowly during the film.
“In reality, when you meet someone who has a mental illness, it’s not so much about discussing it; it’s there and you understand and learn about it slowly.”
Ortega concluded by saying there are just two things he hopes people take away from the film.
“Firstly, I want people to understand the point of view I’m trying to make with my lead character,” he said.
“He’s not a typical kind-hearted protagonist; he’s a misunderstood hero.
“I want the audience to understand where he’s coming from and get in his mindset.”
And the second thing?
“I want people to be entertained... that’s the whole point of cinema!”
Cerulean Blue is screening on August 11, 13 and 18 at MIFF.
For more information and tickets, head to the festival’s website.