Rudy Mancuso Talks Synethestia in Directorial Debut ‘Musica’

It’s a drizzly Mondy morning in New York and the hotel restaurant I’m sitting in is filled with the sounds of prep work for the day. To me, the tinkling glasses and ringing silverware are easily ignorable, the hodgepodge of clinks and clatters immediately fading into the background. But for writer and director Rudy Mancuso — of Vine and Youtube stardom — there’s a veritable drum line around us, being played bottle by bottle. Actually, it’s the very reason we’re here. 

Mancuso is the director and star of Música, his debut film based (somewhat loosely) on his life growing up in the Ironbound, a tight-knit community in Newark. First premiering earlier this year at SXSW film festival, the movie follows Mancuso as he’s caught between two women and two paths of life. But the driving force of the movie is synesthesia, a condition when your brain processes input through unrelated senses, like connecting letters with taste or someone’s name with a color. Around four percent of the population experiences it in wildly different forms — and Mancuso is one of them. Where I hear noise, he hears rhythm. 

“I can hear every single bottle that he just put down,” he tells me, fingers tapping intermittently on the table. “I can tell you exactly how many and what each pitch is. But I’ve learned how to cope with it and not let it distract me. The film takes place at a time when ‘Rudy’ didn’t quite know how to tune it out.” 

Billed as a “non-musical musical,” Música posits itself as a romantic comedy, giving viewers an inner look into the life of a creator desperate to pick a path. A street performer who does puppetry in the subway, Manusco plays an autobiographical role as a New Jersey college student named Rudy who’s trying to take control of his life and avoid his mother’s persistent request that he marry a nice Brazilian girl. His relationship with his girlfriend Haley (Francesca Reale) is rocky — a situation made intrinsically harder by Rudy’s synesthesia. His world is confusing, every noise pulling focus and a desire to both love and leave the confines of the Ironbound. When he meets Isabella (Camila Mendes, Mancuso’s real-life girlfriend) at a local fish market, their budding relationship, combined with his inability to break it off with Haley, starts the romcom’s requisite love triangle — eventually forcing Rudy to figure out if what he really wants, and if that desire can break through the noise.

For Mancuso, Música wasn’t just a dream practically 10 years in the making — it’s a physical representation of a decade’s worth of skills he learned from becoming a part of the first great generation of internet stars. 

“I knew I wanted to make a movie loosely based on my experience because I was like, ‘The way I see and hear things definitely is not normal.’ People are not like this. Most people don’t describe their experiences like this. I’d love to see this on screen. As I started getting older and I became a teenager and young adult, I knew that dream was consistent but I also had a hard time figuring out who I was and what I wanted. And then I fell into this world of content creation, and I quickly realized that was kind of a perfect avenue to film and TV.”

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As a teenager, Mancuso bought his own film equipment and started a small business, having his mom drive him to local restaurants and cafes, where he’d offer to shoot them a cheap but well-done commercial. Movies captured him in a way reality couldn’t. “I think I struggle with real life sometimes. It’s it’s too real. It’s too tangible, three-dimensional,” he says. “There’s something about the theatrical experience, whether it’s a stage or screen, that transports me to a place where I feel I need to pay attention.” 

While in college for film production, on recommendation from a friend, he downloaded a new app called Vine. Videos were six seconds — and the rest happened in a flash. Months after posting his first videos, which combined Mancuso’s quick humor with his Brazilian heritage, he was moving to California to pursue a career as a content creator. His first roommate was comedian Ramy Youseff (pre-Peabody award or Oscar-winning film) and from a couch in Echo Park, Mancuso built his Vine career. At the heyday of the content creator’s debut in the entertainment industry, Mancuso represented the first true generation of content stars to make the transition from app to YouTube to straight-up cash. With seven million subscribers on YouTube alone, Mancuso frequently averaged close to 20 million views per video and was a constant fixture among collaborators like LeLe Pons, King Bach, and Juanpa Zurita. But beyond the fame, Mancuso really credits his days on Vine and subsequent content creator career with giving him a much-needed crash course in filmmaking. 

“Academically, I was pretty inept. I had a hard time sitting down and listening to anybody talk about anything you still do. But give me a camera and throw me in a situation, and I’ll learn more,” he says. “ There was no editing [with Vine]. There was no lighting. It was all native in the app, very what you see is what you get. It started to teach me how to apply a guerilla makeshift style to filmmaking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but fast forward 10 years later, on a shooting day for Música, I wasn’t worried about anything. Because I had all this experience creating stuff on my own with no help. So I think the main thing was it conditioned me to be really self-sufficient.” 

Música is clearly a first offering, showing all the telltale signs of a debut film. But behind some stops and starts is a movie practically bursting from the seams with heart and earnestness. Mancuso says he’s already working on his next two features, both of which deal with a different aspect and perspective of synesthesia. He’s also excited not to act in them and experience filmmaking as a director without any distractions or worrying about his own performance. Later on in the day we talk, he’ll join his family and friends in a 300-seat theater in New Jersey to watch the film that celebrates his hometown. But perhaps the biggest gift the film gave Mancuso was his relationship with Mendes— whom he met on the set of the film and began dating. The couple have now been together for almost two years. 


“It was kind of beautifully ironic but also really magical. I was able to have this incredible connection and chemistry with somebody on and off screen,” he says, smiling softly. “I’m not a trained actor. I don’t have a ton of experience. I was worried I would have a hard time faking chemistry. I don’t know that I trust my abilities enough to do that. So once I met Cami, that concern no longer existed. It felt like we’ve known each other for far longer than a couple of weeks and made the process really, really easy. Life imitated art in a very real way.”

Música releases on Amazon Prime on April 4


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