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Steve Long Director Of Global Film Exhibition in conversation with Filmmaker Fernando Betancourt 

Fernando, the story of "Not a Hero" unfolds around the complex world of celebrity and fan expectations. Have you ever had an experience that shifted your view of someone you looked up to?

I’ve had a couple of celebrities that I used to look up to but then stopped when I realized the kind of person they are behind the scenes. One that stood out to me the most was Drake Bell. As a kid, I loved watching Drake and Josh. It was one of my favorite shows and I wanted to grow up to be Drake because I thought he was so cool. When the show ended, I would pray that we got a sequel series or even a one-episode reunion. That all changed when I heard about his allegations and later saw his court trial. After hearing about all of this, especially when he pleaded guilty, I stopped caring for both the show to come back and for him. To me, there’s a line you don’t cross. Once you cross that line, I no longer care about who you are or why you did it.

The journey of the two young fans in your film starts with excitement and takes a turn towards something deeper. Can you share a personal encounter that changed your perspective on meeting our heroes?

I don’t have a personal encounter that changed my perspective on meeting our heroes, but what really influenced this film was the case of former YouTube pop star Austin Jones. Jones was a rising pop star from 2015-2017, and during this rise, he had a lot of controversies behind him. Most notably, he would contact his underaged fans through social media and manipulate them to create disgusting content for his sick pleasure. What made me angry is that he did this for years and got caught multiple times, but he was able to get away from it nearly each time. Yet, he still had this fanbase that would defend him, saying “he’s just misunderstood.” He finally got caught in 2017 and convicted in 2019, but it still makes me sick knowing that he got away for so long just because to some people, “he’s a hero” that can do no wrong.

The after-party in your narrative is a turning point. Is this reflective of a real-life moment you’ve witnessed or experienced, where a seemingly glamorous event revealed a different, unexpected side?

It wasn’t reflected as a personal moment but was loosely based on the “Jessi Slaughter Case” where Jessica Leondhart was raped by Dahvie Vanity, the then-lead singer of the band Blood on the Dance Floor, at a party. I found it disgusting that a girl that young was invited to a party by a musician over double her age.

Jay Gray's character carries the weight of public perception versus private reality.

Was there a particular insight or personal philosophy that guided you in crafting this character’s complexities?

A particular insight that guided me in crafting Jay was the idea of “my hero can do no wrong” that the public seems to have when their favorite celebrity gets caught in a controversy. Going back to Austin Jones, he was able to get away with what he did for so long simply because he manipulated his fans since he knew he had a fanbase that would defend him. Drake Bell has a fanbase still in Mexico, which is why he makes songs in Spanish and does tours over there. The list goes on and on, but it really does seem that the general public will defend their favorite celebrity until the end, believing they can do no wrong because they’re their “hero.”

With a title like "Not a Hero," you’re challenging a common narrative. What was the spark that ignited your desire to tell this story of disillusionment?

I’ve had the rough idea of “Not a Hero” for years. What really sparked my idea to create this was the fact that Ezra Miller was still cast as The Flash, despite the controversies he was in. It seemed like the only reason he got away with what he did was because he had a movie coming out. I found it curious as to why the movie just wasn’t shelved since WB has a history of shelving finished movies. Austin Jones and Drake Bell were also big influences I had when crafting both the story and Jay Gray.

Your film touches on the darker undercurrents of fame. How did you grapple with these themes in a way that stayed true to the characters' humanity?

I actually struggled with these themes in a way that stayed true to these characters’ humanity. With Jay, I wanted the audience to both love her when we are first introduced to her, but then start to get creeped out when we spend more time with her at her place. One thing I made sure not to do was give Jay an “excuse.” I had thoughts of making Jay a drug addict behind the scenes, but I felt that it would maybe make the audience feel bad for Jay and defend her, so I omitted that. We also don’t see what exactly Vicky saw as I want that to be up to the audience. People have asked me what Jay’s reason for doing what she does, but I didn’t want to exactly answer that in the film as we don’t really know why these celebrities do what they do.

The two girls' journey in "Not a Hero" is one that many can relate to. How did your own experiences shape the way you brought their story to life, and what do you hope viewers, especially younger ones, will learn from it?

When it came to shaping Vicky, I wrote her based on what I would geek out on the most as a kid, being Pokemon. My parents didn’t really understand what Pokemon was, but they knew that I loved it. There were even times that they would get sick of seeing it since at one point it’s all I cared for. I had all the games, posters all over my walls, shirts with Pokemon on them, etc. For Brenda, I wrote her based on my teenage experiences. When my friends were doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing, I would try my best to help them, even if it ended up being the wrong decision.

I wouldn’t tell on my friends either to their parents, which is what Brenda did when not telling Vicky’s mother. Brenda makes mistakes, which is what we do as teenagers. We try to be the hero sometimes. What I hope viewers can learn from this film is to not trust people you don’t really know, even if it is your favorite person in the world. You don’t really know who you’re worshiping, besides the persona they portray to the public.

Sometimes, as we learn, humans are the worst monsters out there. The boogeyman isn’t the monster that hides under your bed, but the person you thought would never hurt you.

Is there a scene in "Not a Hero" that felt particularly close to home for you, and can you tell us about the process of bringing it to the screen?

There wasn’t really a scene that felt particularly close to home for me, but the scene that stuck with me the most was when Vicky got drugged. I really wanted to make sure the audience could feel this sense of dread, so having a first-person shot was the way to go in helping bring that scene to life. I was really happy with how it was shot and the sound design behind it. My friend Ernesto helped a lot with the sound design, and I think he nailed it perfectly with the first-person shots.

When the audience watches your film, what kind of personal reflections do you hope "Not a Hero" will inspire, and what is the main takeaway you want them to have?

The personal reflections I hope my film will inspire is for audience members to look at the reasons why they love their favorite celebrities. Is it because they're a good person? Their work? Or for their looks? My main takeaway is that they realize celebrities aren’t any different from us, they’re people after all, and shouldn’t be seen as heroes that can do no wrong. Sometimes, we even realize that they’re the worst people out there.

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