EAST WENATCHEE — Growing up in the Wenatchee Valley, Jesus Celaya would work in the orchards and packing sheds with his family.
Now, the Eastmont High School alumna is winning competitions and awards for the films he writes and directs.
Celaya, 33, turned a new page in his filmmaking career when he recently won the inaugural Spotlight Dorado, a nationwide short film competition sponsored by McDonald’s, for his film “Lucha Noir” at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, Dec. 7, 2022.
The McDonald’s Spotlight Dorado is meant to help create more Latin American representation in the film industry.
He was one of three finalists named in August 2022 by Spotlight Dorado after submitting an original screenplay in June. The three finalists were awarded $75,000 to bring alive the screenplays they wrote. They had just a little over two weeks to film, Celaya said.
The finalists were also given mentorship by actress and producer Stephanie Beatriz, best known for her role in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto.”
As the winner, Celaya will have the opportunity to work with McDonald’s on creative initiatives and campaigns for a year.
“Spotlight Dorado is an amazing award, and the first ever award went to a Wenatchee guy!” Celaya said.
“Lucha Noir” is about a luchador (masked wrestler) who is also a detective. While trying to solve a crime, the luchador talks to a demon spirit.
Celaya said his passion for filmmaking began with making videos with his sisters and cousins at home. That grew into an activity he would share with his friends, making films on their property in orchards in Orondo.
He graduated from Eastmont in 2008, where he was on the track and the wrestling teams. He also filmed the track meets and wrestling duals.
While attending Eastmont, Celaya took some classes in digital media arts and video editing at the Wenatchee Valley Technical Skills Center. That’s when he said he realized he wanted to take a chance and go to film school to start his dream of becoming a film director.
After he graduated Brooks Institute in Ventura, California, Celaya said he was left financially broke and moved back to the Wenatchee Valley in 2012.
He worked in the orchards and fruit packing sheds like he did growing up. But this setback never discouraged him. Celaya continued to write screenplays and send them to film production companies, competitions and talent agencies.
“I just happened to be obsessive as a personality, and kind of illogical,” he said. “I would always say since I was in grade school, ‘I’m going to be a movie director!’”
He said his “obsessive” personality led him to write three to four screenplays a year. Celaya said most screenplay writers usually write at least one a year.
After sending his screenplays, Celaya said he started winning or placing in some competitions, which prompted him to move back to southern California in 2016.
He said a screenplay for a small film production company got him recruited for a fellowship at a Sundance Institute Feature Film Program lab in Utah in 2019.
Celaya said getting into the Sundance lab was like winning an Oscar because some of his personal heroes, like Alfonso Cuarón and Quentin Tarantino came from that program.
He said he worked on film sets and learned more about the industry from experienced mentors he idolized.
Then, he was invited to a Sundance film directors’ lab and got a grant to direct his first short film, “Wolves,” which won Best Horror/Thriller/Fantasy Short Film at the 2022 Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles. It also recently won Best Horror Short Film at the Official Latino Film and Arts Festival.
Celaya said being in Sundance was his greatest artistic accomplishment, but Spotlight Dorado was the most visible thing he has done because it’s sponsored by McDonald’s.
He said Spotlight Dorado is like a splash that can be seen internationally.
Working on the film sets can be stressful, Celaya said, but he keeps a positive attitude. He said his experiences growing up in Wenatchee toughened him up for the challenges.
“When I hear someone say working on set is hard, I’m like, ‘Come on, working in the orchard is hard;’ let’s keep it fun,” he said.
Celaya said his dream is to have a movie premiere in Wenatchee, in the theaters he grew up going to, like Liberty Cinema.
When asked if he would have a showing of any of his films in the valley, he said if there was an interest for it he would be glad to. He said that his films are more on the “artistic side” and not everyone’s taste.
Growing up, Celaya didn’t see many Hispanic names or faces in professions outside of agricultural work. Now when he comes back to the valley, he said he sees more Latin American owned businesses, and doctors, teachers and other professionals.
His advice to young Latin Americans from Wenatchee trying to pursue their dreams is, “Get ready to hear a 1,000 no’s, which is alright because it only takes one yes to change your life.”