Meet Tin Dirdamal – Director of Death in Arizona

opening2014Last weekend I was in Mexico City for the official launch of the 2014 Ambulante documentary tour.  The roving film festival has an insanely impressive 35 venues through out most of the burroughs in El Districto Federal.   It wanders around in Mexico City one more week until the 13th when the tour hits the road to its next stop in Guerrero.   The tour will conclude May 4 in the magical land of Oaxaca and by then it will have traveled to 12 different states throughout Mexico presenting its diverse, international lineup of the latest documentary cinema.

Ambulante has 12 different programming sections including the popular music section, Sonidero, Dictator’s cut, devoted to human rights & freedom of speech,  and Injerto, the art & cinema experimental section.  Ambulante’s viscus however is Pulsos, where you’ll find the most recent, most original voices of the robust Mexican non fiction narrative.  It is here that the world premiere of Death in Arizona, a futuristic documentary, as described by the director, Tin Dirdamal is being presented.

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Still6 copyI first met Tin at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival with his opera prima, DeNadie which won the Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.  He is by far one of the most curious, unpretentious, inspired minds I’ve ever met.  We took a jaunt up to Coyoacan plaza, an ancient mecca of artisan vendors and merchants, for coffee at my favorite El Jarocho, tamales, and found a relatively quiet garden to have a conversation.

DeathArizona1The story is quite personal, about a love lost and a self found, to say it broadly.  Without giving away too much, the love in the film is also the producer and co-director Christina Haglund.  I asked Tin about his creative process, his favorite Jodorowsky film, his experience at Sundance, and his philosophy on filmmaking and well, life.  Check out our conversation and then the trailer to his film.   He is truly a one-of-a-kind, thought-provoking, and perhaps the most brilliantly unassuming human being I’m happy to know.  Now you meet him.

Here is a trailer of the film – that for me resonates as a journey culminating towards a flickering light and illumination at the end of a tunnel of heartbreaking solitude.  The intimate, moody, futuristic and transcendent film, Death in Arizona.

REZETA – Mexican feature film wins Special Jury Award at Slamdance

REZETA written and directed by Mexican born but trans-nationally influenced Fernando Frias, was recognized with a Special Jury Award Prize at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival which celebrated its 20th anniversary last week.  It was the U.S. premiere of the film after its world premiere at the Morelia International Film Festival in 2012.  The story is about an Albanian model named Rezeta (played by the naturally charming Rezeta Veliu) who flies in to Mexico City for a work stint and develops an unlikely relationship with a down to earth, blue collar guy who works construction on set and who doesn’t fall all over her like most men do.  It’s an unexpectedly genuine, credible and revealing take on the opposites attract friendship romance, and one enjoyably surprising in its sympathetic and dimensional portrayal of a jet set beautiful model, who in many ways, her world savvy independent experience and maturity becomes much more of a threat to the men in her life than her looks.  Here’s the trailer.  Read on for my post Park City interview with Fernando – a talented up and coming voice to watch out for.

1. How was your Slamdance experience?  What is something that people might not know about Slamdance?

Slamdance is fucking fantastic. It’s all about filmmaking at its purest form. Slamdance has a very unique stamp. They dare to program great work that defies convention and they help create communities around genuine filmmaking. They have kept loyal to their famous phrase: “For filmmakers by filmmakers” for 20 years now. There’s a lot going on during the festival and still all the staff are extremely friendly and have such great attitudes. People might not know that the festival has been around for that long and that they have discovered people like Christopher Nolan and Lena Dunham, among many other big names.

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Film Still of Rezeta
2. What’s the next script you are working on?
It’s a story about a very particular Mexican kid around Queens. I had one earlier draft that I wrote for a class at school but when I came back to it, I found that it went in a very different direction that what I originally had in mind. The good thing is that after realizing that, I wrote the story in prose as a short story in the voice of my character and I had the great luck to be selected  winner of the  Bengala-UANL award (Nuevo León University). It’s a first edition contest open to all writers, journalist and filmmakers from Mexico and the objective of such a great contest is to find good ideas for scripts and help them throughout their developing stage. After I found out that I won, I got so excited that I completed a new draft in 2 weeks. I am currently revising it in 2 different workshops.
20140120-Slamdance-DSC_01065. What kind of culture do you belong to?
I’d say I belong to the DIY culture but I don’t know how much will that do for an answer. I can tell you that I’m Mexican born and raised in DF with parents who came from opposites sides of town.  I grew up traveling to unknown places because my mother worked for more than 25 years in Airlines, so we had standby tickets and we would go to the airport not really knowing where we were going too. It was cool because we could only fly on low season so I missed school and I wouldn’t know where we were heading until the very last minute… I guess this made an impact on me because all my work ends taking place around cultural differences…
6. What was the most inspiring thing you did or saw in Park City?
I have to say that winning the Jury award  for best narrative film at Slamdance was a huge surprise and really exciting but I also had a blast snowboarding, something that is kind of new to me.
7. What other US Latino filmmaker have you recently discovered or follow?
I discovered Alejandro Fernandez from Chile. I really love his film To Kill A Man which played at Sundance and won a big award. At Slamdance I think I was the only Latino but I might be wrong. As for names, I have to say that this last year I saw two amazing movies from Chile and Brasil: Gloria by Sebastian Leilo and and Neighboring Sounds by Kleber Mendoça. 
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Fernando is pretty modest.  He’s a Fulbright scholar in NY at Columbia, and his experimental documentary, Calentamiento Local (which means “Local Warming) won the Digital Prize at the Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival known as FICCO in 2009, the penultimate year of the once IT festival.  A highly lyrical, romantic capturing of the symbiotic, magnetic relationship of ethereal beaches and the sensual bodies who traipse and fall in love on them in  Mexico. You can see the full film here.  Fernando has also made some really cool artist portrait commercials for Converse.    
Check out more of Fernando’s work on his vimeo channel

Meet Edgar Muñiz: The Most Prolific Filmmaker You Don’t-but-should-definitely Know

Bio_Pic_photo_2“I’m a compulsive filmmaker,” admits Eddie Muñiz the 33 year old California native who has 12 films under his belt.
One of them is The Never Daunted, his 10th film. Not too long ago I saw it as a festival screener dvd and I vividly and immediately felt that rare exhilarating rush of discovery amid the dvd stacks of derivative story lines.   The film is about a  man who, unable to cope with his infertility and the monotony of a dead-end job, becomes withdrawn from his relationship and grows obsessed with a strange Western that comes on television late at night – which only he can see.   The film’s captivating sincerity and epic  male psyche exploration makes Muñiz not only a writer/director to follow, but one to actively support.  He’s one of those creative manic types who are actively pursuing their art of storytelling without frills, on the fly and for the love.  On the weekends and perhaps limited by budget but never held back by its raw, transcendent humanity.  In talking to him you can tell he is completely immersed in and relishes the craft.  So much he hasn’t had the bandwith to fully explore the mine of distribution outlets.  Thanks to our brave new world of Direct to Fan online distribution, we can finally check out some of his films, in particular the singular The Never Daunted.  Now available to stream on Seed & Spark.  Once you get hooked you’ll want to see more of his work, some of which is available on his website.   Read on, get to know this cool cat and get a  taste of his sensibility and work ethic and tell me if he’s not inspiring.
The_Never_Daunted-2Adjusted1. Putting together one film no matter how modest the budget requires a lot of collaboration, an insane amount of tenacity and organization.  What is it about your creative process and style that has allowed you to be so prolific?
 
You’re right.  Making a film does require a lot of collaboration, and I think there are either filmmakers who embrace this aspect of filmmaking or they don’t. I completely rely on it, but that’s also because I work with a lot of like-minded people and really talented, smart people. I think that the only real trick I have is that I won’t start with a script. The only reason I’m able to complete so many projects and get them done so quickly is because I’ll take care of the scheduling first, which I think is the hardest part, and then force myself to write something under pressure before the day I have to shoot. I never really start with an idea or theme in mind; I’ll start with a person I think is interesting or that I love being around. I know that sounds weird, but so many of the films I’ve done started from just hanging out with a friend or with new people. After hanging out and getting a sense of their personalities and of their views, I always think it’s interesting to take a version of that person and place him or her in different scenarios that I later come up with. This approach not only opens up several narrative possibilities for me, but it also makes it so that I can make the film and keep discovering new things as I’m going along. The part that I play in this is almost nonexistent. I just have to make sure to listen very carefully, work within my means, prepare for any setbacks or last-minute changes and finally remain objective enough to shape a film out of all of it. It is a compulsion in that filmmaking is a priority for me, and I’m constantly thinking about it. I never stop and it drives a lot of my friends and family crazy. I would always rather film than go to bars or to parties or to lunch or to dinner…unless I can film when I’m there!
 
2.  The dialogue feels so natural in your films.
There’ve only been a few times that I’ll have specific lines I want my actors to hit.  Sometimes I’ll be married to these lines because I overheard someone say it a certain way, but all of the credit here should really go to my actors. I’ll know the emotion I want from the scene, I’ll know the tone, and specific expository points, but that’s it, and that’s only the structure or the blueprint. They’ll improvise off my sides, and sometimes this will be a page with four or five lines on it – between two or three people – and what would’ve been a 1-minute scene on the page, they’ll turn into a 3 to 4 min. scene full of twists and turns, with sharp, understated, and insightful subtext, sometimes strange, sometimes bizarre, sometimes hilarious. But always unexpected, and that’s the point. 
_DSC22313.  In The Never Daunted, there is such a genuine vulnerability not often found in male driven films.  You said you were raised by your mom and aunts, do you think this helped you get in touch with this modern masculinity side?  You show such a profound and illuminating notion of the pitfalls of having to live up to a macho masculine, cowboy, protector and provider role, it really expands my perception and elicits my empathy for the male perspective.
That’s really cool of you to say!  Because my mom was always working, I’d spend a lot of my days with my aunts and my grandmother…. I have two uncles that I admire very much, but I don’t think I ever measured up to that Mexican macho male thing, nor did I ever really care to. For what it’s worth, I grew up with more of a feminine perspective – because of my aunts and my mothers – and this kind of allowed me to see how proud men can be, how delusional, overbearing, fearful, and how selfish we can be as well. And I do love to look at this in my films, and I’m often guilty of all of this male posturing too. Although I understand the culture of cool cinema and even appreciate some of those films – the cowboys, the gangsters, the hitmen movies- I can’t help but see that same macho bullshit from my childhood being perpetuated over and over again in our culture. It’s also a constant reminder that I’m none of those things and that maybe I should be feeling like I ought to be. I think men are much more interesting than that though, much more complex and multidimensional. But a variation in movies is great – don’t get me wrong. Nevertheless, if there’s a story about a bank robber being chased by the cops, and he’s forced to pull a man and his little boy out of their car, and speeds off, I’d rather see the story about the man having to explain to his boy what just happened.
 
The Never Daunted STILLS 384. You mentioned you’ve gotten feedback from Guy Maddin and Monte Hellman, have they inspired your approach and aesthetic?  Who else contemporary filmmakers do you draw from and connect?
Guy Maddin and Monte Hellman were the only two that took the time to respond, and they were also the two that I was desperately hoping would respond, so I did make more of an effort with them. I do love movies that are very postmodern and abstract and these two guys are still making very interesting and provocative work. Guy Maddin continues to find new ways to tell stories and I can’t passively watch any of his movies. They require my complete attention and that’s what cinema should be, I think. With Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, I had the experience where I had to keep watching the movie over and over again so I can decide whether or not I liked it.  And Road to Nowhere was a movie about movies, which is something that still interests me, as indulgent as it might sound, and this meta-fictional element comes up in not only The Never Daunted, but in other movies I’ve completed since then. And I love all types of films and filmmakers, but as far as the ones that make me excited about not only watching their movies but going out and making more of my own, I’d say Hong Sang Soo, Carlos Reygadas, Lynne Ramsay, Agnes Varda, Gus Van Sant, Miranda July, Alfonso Cuaron, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Mary Harron are maybe my favorites right now. And obviously, this list is always changing .
 
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5.  Does is it get easier with each film you make?
Working with actors and non-actors has gotten easier for me. It’s a different language I use with both, but I’ve learned to appreciate this aspect of filmmaking more than any other. It’s the part where I get to work with them as people, but the discussions aren’t always about choices or behavior or the psychology of a character. A lot of times it’s them telling me personal stories and me sharing personal stories with them as well, which is why I feel that the friendships I’ve made through filmmaking have been so rewarding and amazing to me. There’s no chit-chat or formalities; there’s no time for that. So a person will go from being an acquaintance to a deep personal friend you feel you’ve known for a long time, and this will happen simply because they’re willing to bring their personal experiences and specific views to the table. As cheesy as it sounds, it can feel like the purest expression of the self and art. Learning that a lot of them are willing to do this, or maybe because they trust me, has given me much more confidence when directing a scene, so it feels much easier. All the other technical stuff is a pain in the ass, but I learn it because I have to and because I didn’t go to film school.
 
_DSC16696.  What do you personally get out of making a film from the creation and observation of the human condition? 
I guess it’s the same thing that I get out of teaching, but to be honest, teaching is much more rewarding. Both require a lot of self-reflection and discipline, but in teaching, the results are right there and you can actually see the light bulbs go on in front of you. With filmmaking, it can be very painful and I can think that I’m addressing several questions that are important to me, but once the film is done, I’m sometimes left with even more questions and concerns than before. The greatest pleasure that I derive from making a film is having connected with people in the process. At the end of a film or at the end of a screening, I often feel like a fraud and like I didn’t complete what I set out to do. I start wondering what I even want to gain from all of it, and I’ll just watch other people’s films and wonder, “Who the hell do I think I am, making my own movies, or assuming that people even care?”. But the one constant pleasure is my relationships with my friends. The fact that I built friendships in the process and that they trusted me and that we completed something together. Then, inevitably, I’ll get excited about another project and I’ll bury myself in another opportunity to work with them.
 
Haley_Project_STILL_137.  In your words, what is Haley, your latest film about?
The Haley Project has a couple of stories running parallel throughout, but at the center is the story about a girl named Haley, who we only see in the beginning of the film and in a flashback at the end. It’s loosely based on my friend Laura Benson, who actually plays Haley, but it’s also about other people in my life who I’m always in awe of. I have a few friends who are always telling me stories about these exotic places that they’ve visited and these crazy adventures that they’ve had.  My friend Nick Null, who plays Murray in The Never Daunted, has a lot of stories like this too. But I thought it would be interesting to look at this kind of person, but from the perspective of all the supporting characters in each of their stories. How are these supporting characters, who don’t get to float on from place to place, affected by having met someone with a seemingly more interesting life? So I had two guys, played by Seth Johansson and Brian Randles, become competitive and mean with each other over their love for Haley, without Haley even there anymore. And in the same movie I have a romantic Frenchman who arrives in LA, in hopes of finding love. And I love this idea because it’s usually the other way around: the starry-eyed, American Francophile visits Paris in search of love.
Check out the trailer for The Never Daunted below and click here to watch the film on Seed & Spark.
 

GOING HARD FOR IT – Carmen Marron and her upcoming new film(s)

Dreams (still) come true in Hollywood.  Although so few and way far in between, the against-all-odds fairytale dream of an unknown and bold voice getting a shot at the big time and the big screen remarkably still happens. Just ask Chi-town girl, Carmen Marron who didn’t let the fact she didn’t go to film school stop her from diving in and directing Go For It!  She got her movie into film festivals and sold it to Lions Gate who released it on 200 screens including all Home Entertainment ancillary.  But don’t get it twisted, this ain’t no lottery.  It’s a hell of a lot of work to get here. The story you tell has to come from deep within your core and show.  Only then will studios, agents, financiers come knocking on your door.  Take it from Carmen, you just got to do you.  You got to be in it for the art/humanities and it’s got to be something you would do for free.  If you had to, that is.

?????????????????????????????????????????????Go For It!  tells the story of a high school teen, whose passion and talent is hip hop dance, but pursuing this dream clashes with her humble immigrant working class family and stark reality of limited opportunities raised in the inner city streets of Chicago.   Carmen wrote it as a way to get through to the high school teens she met while a guidance counselor because she realized it was the only way to get their attention (through entertainment).  She never intended to direct the script until after five years of sending it around to directors including Ken Loach who told her she was the only person to direct it.  In 2009, Carmen rolled up her sleeves, crewed up and shot the film right where she grew up around Logan Square, Humboldt Park and Pilsen. She received a standing ovation at her sold out world premiere at the Dances With Films Festival in June of 2010.  Carmen has been mad busy since but surprisingly she gives off a calm, just checking things off her crazy full To Do list vibe.  I met up with her a few days before she was flying to Panama on behalf of the Fulbright Institute of International Education to talk to young kids about filmmaking.  Here is the scoop on her full slate of upcoming films. As you can tell, she is not only riding the momentum but is driving and steering it with a clear vision of the stories she wants to tell.  Check it.

Sounds like you had an amazing world premiere screening of Go For It!  How did you manage to sell out your first festival screening like that?  What kind of promotion did you do?

I’m a marketing freak and so I did a lot on Facebook.  I raffled off tickets.  I have a business degree so I took a lot of marketing classes.   I just think that to make it in this business you have to be marketing savvy.  If you are going to be an independent filmmaker, you have to have some knack for it.

They say it’s sometimes harder to make the second feature than the first.  How did it go for you?  At what point were you completely convinced that no matter what you were going to keep making films?

Before Dances with Films, I did a pre-screening at the Boston International Film Festival, not in competition. It was a rough cut and I just want to see how it played in a non-Latino city to get some honest, hardcore feedback.  The audience was 90% Caucasian and they were so moved by it.  Many approached me after the screening, crying!  That this Caucasian woman from Northern California can relate to a Latina from Chicago trying to follow her dreams – it was really surprising for me.  I knew I had a special story, and it was so much who I am. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to continue telling stories no matter what happens with this movie. I know now I have the ability to connect with the public.’

Once a film is finished there is so much more work to do to get it out there, at what point do you manage to find time to even think about the next project?

 It’s different with everybody but with me I was so focused on getting Go For It! in theaters.  I really wanted to affect as many kids and women as possible.  We got lucky winning audience awards at different film festivals.  I didn’t have a sales agent or representation.  Someone from Lionsgate came to the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival screening at the Mann theater. Lionsgate called me literally during the second added screening. I don’t even know how they got my number. From there it took the next six months to officially sell it.  The deal closed by January and we released it in May 2011.  After the movie came out, I was really exhausted.  I started getting offers.  I had an agent interested in me.  I was getting indie scripts to direct but I didn’t really feel any of them.  They were dark, Sundance-y stories, good scripts but not inspirational, not my type. Then out of the blue, I get contacted by an attorney on behalf of a writer client, who said they saw my movie.  They asked me to read and consider a script to direct. It was called Border Town back then and I didn’t like the title.  I didn’t get to reading it until a couple weeks later, in the middle of when I was writing my own script, a Latina comedy which I just finished. Anyway so I read this at night and I literally broke into tears, it was such a good script.  The writer and the producer flew out to LA to meet me and I got attached. It’s called Saving Esperanza. It’s an incredible true story about a woman who went to the border to do mission work with her child and then fell in love with a baby at an orphanage.  She tries to bring the baby to the US to provide critical medical care because the baby is dying but it is in the middle of Sept. 11.

ENDGAME SAN ANTONIOEndgame came about in the middle of working on that film.  The same producer I was working with told me about another script, also based on true events; an inspirational and empowering Latino story.  This was August of last year.  I read it, (Endgame) and it had so many good elements to it, but the script needed work so I said to her I would be willing to rewrite the script. The writer was also the producer and a wealthy immigration lawyer in Texas. I told him what I would want to do with it and he was totally receptive and he said we got a deal.  That was September.  I started rewriting it in October, I started flying out to Texas to do scouting and get local casting after the new year, we did prep in March and shot this past April.

Wow, so both projects came to you fully financed?

Endgame was, the other one we’re still trying to get the rest of the financing.  We hope to shoot that in the next six months.  I was really lucky because of my reputation with Go For It! These scripts came to me and they were good fits.  Its funny, it’s a lesson in this industry where you’re always looking for work, that if do what you love you will attract the right people at the right time. We are tying to get Endgame ready to submit for the Sundance deadline.

ENDGAME Med Poster 300ppiSo tell me more about Endgame

Endgame is inspired by this incredible success story that is happening right now in Brownsville Texas.  It’s the third poorest town in the U.S. It’s right on the border of Matamoros.  It’s 99% Latinos, straight from Mexico, and the drop out rate and poverty levels are really high.  About twenty years ago the school districts and the parents rallied together and started teaching competitive scholastic Chess in schools to try to improve kids’ cognitive skills, focus, agility, basically to keep them out of trouble.  It started with one teacher JJ Guajardo, who we got to be our chess consultant in the movie.  He literally took a group of delinquent kids who were always in detention and started teaching them Chess.  Sure enough the kids responded and he assembled a little team.  They went to regionals, then went on to state. Under his guidance they won State Championships seven years in a row, beating the rich prep kids in Dallas. It still gives me goose bumps to think about it, this is like true life!  The vice principal tells me some of these kids didn’t even have running water, and here is the community pitching in to get them bus tickets to go to Dallas to compete with kids who have had grand master coaches since they were five.  And these kids are beating the pants off them.  So now Brownsville is known around the country for their scholastic chess because they are realizing that is their way to make it.  Kids are growing up to go to Yale, Princeton, Harvard.  They are traveling all around the world to compete.  The film is based on education and Latinos, which is kind of what drives me, like in Go For It.   I was a guidance counselor so that resonates with me.  It was an honor to be there in Brownsville around all those giving, loving families with so much integrity.

RicoTell me about the cast

We have a real strong cast.  We got lucky.  Rico Rodriguez, Manny, the kid from Modern Family is the lead and he is amazing. He carries the movie.  He’s very charismatic, very humble, normal down to earth kid.  His parents have done an amazing job.  He’s Mexican from Texas, that’s why we were lucky to get him for this role.  We could have never afforded him.  This is low budget, I mean much higher than Go For It! but the actors that we got are incredible and we couldn’t really afford their rates.  Rico’s parents however, felt that this story represented their lives so they wanted their son to represent their family in such a positive way.  Justina Machado plays Rico’s mother, she is also from Chicago.  She is a phenomenal actress. Efren Ramirez from Napoleon Dynamite also stars.  The film is a mixture of both drama and humor, like Searching for Bobby Fisher, Stand & Deliver.  It’s a family film, PG 13.

Was there a conversation about whether it should be bi-lingual? English or Spanish?

In the original we had it that la abuela would speak Spanish and we would do English subtitles, but then Ivonne Cole who plays la abuela said, ‘I really think we should have her speak English with her accent so we can keep her more relatable and people can connect with her’.  And it worked better that way without the language barrier.  She has her own type of Spanglish.

Carmen Marron ENDGAME BehindTS stillI remember crossing through Brownsville in my childhood when my family and I used to drive from Chicago to San Luis Potosi.  It was like being in a different world, transients, predators and shadiness.  Do you touch on the seedy border town side as well as the politics that come with it?

We are telling a tremendous success story here, so yeah we touch on the social obstacles that the kids face.  We touch on Rico’s family and the immigration and border issues.  It was definitely important to the investor who is an immigration lawyer, to ask questions like, ‘If your child wasn’t born here, should your child be deported as well?’ The Dreamer angle plays into the story.  In general what I wanted to convey was that these students, even though they come from a poor, marginalized community, they are the most confident, down to earth, giving, honest, normal kids that you will ever meet.  It shocked the hell out of even me because I also had my own preconceived notions. I was also nervous about the safety since it was a border town.  But I was so blown away.  I remember seeing Rico Rodriguez, who is a millionaire kid, home schooled forever and around the most intelligent sophisticated adults all day long.  Here he is transplanted in Brownsville, hanging out with ten other real local kids and I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them.   I really couldn’t and I’m very perceptive of emotional behaviors.  After this experience I would live in Brownsville and raise my kids there and I know they’d be respectful and normal.  I wonder if a lot of that has to do with the chess program’s influence.  It’s been around now for twenty years.  It’s made a huge social impact.

So you got one film in the almost can, another about to shoot, you are also writing your own…tell me

I have written a musical I want to shoot in Chicago.  Even though I’m working on these really great projects, that’s my baby baby next.  My gift to society, to really show Latinos, you know.  It makes me feel really good to provide opportunities to new actors to let them shine, to open more doors so that the audience can demand more roles.

That’s right, you got “Introducing Gina Rodriguez” in Go For It!

Yes, Go For It! was her first feature.  I got her right out of NYU.  She had only done a short film and some commercials.  She moved out to LA right after Go For It.  Then there is Aimee Garcia who plays the lead in the film who has been in the industry for 20 years; She said to me it was her first leading role. I couldn’t believe it.  That resonated with me.  I think it’s our responsibility as Latinos to keep trying to push these types of films.  The films that we are making or choosing, like the scripts that I’m writing or the scripts that come to me.   I always think when I’m reading something, how can I make this lead a Latina? I figure it out how so I can pitch it.  You can’t just be like, ‘Oh I’m just going to do whatever they want me to do’.  I could’ve easily done that and probably would have made it faster.  It’s not what I got into this business for.  It’s so much a part of me to tell these stories.  I would do this for free.

For all my chi-town peeps, you can see Carmen speak at the Women in Film, Chicago event next Wednesday, July 10, 6:00pm – 8:00pm at Moe’s Cantina.  Event cost for non-members is $20.  More info here.

#LAFF2013 Tapia – The Indomitable Spirit & Legacy of Johnny Tapia

TapiaPoster-thumb-300xauto-33284The brief and tumultuous life of prizefighter Johnny Tapia, who passed away last year at the age of 45, elicits overwhelming empathy and incredible awe.  The documentary directed by Eddie Alcazar, intimately reveals the immense emotional agony and pain he suffered in his life but also shows that for the series of extreme, rock bottom lows of misfortune, Johnny always jumped back up to reach equally extreme heights of success and triumph, like winning five boxing championships, meeting the love of his life, Teresa Tapia, with whom he has a young son, and becoming a beloved hero to his hometown Albuquerque, as well as around the world.  Johnny grew up without a father, and his mother was the world to him.  At the tender age of 8, his mother was viciously murdered – a traumatic catalyst for what became the pang of his tortured existence. The documentary, which is world premiering in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is powerfully narrated through Johnny’s own words.  Alcazar adds a touch of style and a gorgeous cinematic framework.  The film opens with Johnny’s slightly raspy Burqueño slanged voice over young Johnny Jr. punching the air in the New Mexico desert plains and celestial horizon captured in wide panoramic vista at the magic hour, painting a metaphysical element to the legacy he leaves.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 12.08.11 PMEddie was working on a dramatic feature about Johnny but after he passed, Eddie took the research footage and made it into this documentary film.  The dramatic feature, which he is co-writing with Bettina Gilois, (Glory Days, The Hurricane) who co-wrote Johnny’s biography, Mi Vida Loca is readying for a fall shoot in Albuquerque.   50 Cent is an executive producer on the documentary and is also onboard for the dramatic version.

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Teresa & Johnny Jr. at the world premiere screening

The documentary is gripping and utterly poignant. Hearing his inner, unwavering fury takes on a dark possession.  His voice and soul feel weary but he is unrelenting against the demons he waged battle with every single day of his life.   Seeing him from his early days rising up through the boxing world first as the “Baby-faced Assassin” to his later years as the lines of anguish take over his face and his body becomes heavily drawn with symbolic tattoos, his killer instinct clashing with his vulnerability. At the world premiere screening, his wife Teresa and son, Johnny Jr. came out to introduce the film but did not return after the screening, as much as everyone wanted to see them.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was too overwhelming for them and Eddie declined to do a Q&A out of respect, feeling that what’s important in the doc is Johnny, and Teresa is the only person who could talk about and for him. He told me that a couple days later when I got the opportunity to interview him.  I learned the ABQ native has some Bolivian lineage and found out more about both Tapia films.  Here’s a redacted transcription of our talk:

How did you know Johnny, how far did you too go back?

I never actually met him until I knew I wanted to do a movie two years ago.  Back then it was about creating the narrative version of his life so I sold him on my idea of doing one year of his life in his youth and he was totally up for it.  Then I got the rights and we basically just started following him around at that point. As I was following him around I was writing the script.  It was all about research and compiling all this archival footage.

Relating to him.

A lot of it is because he embodies the Albuquerque culture, which is a little bit different. Having somebody that stands out from ABQ is always kind of special and he definitely kept it real from his upbringing so I think that’s why everybody in ABQ has that strong connection with him and each other.  It’s distinct.  The community always looked up to Johnny. There is no professional football or baseball team and he was one of the first professional athletes who came out of that area.  More than seven thousand people came out to his funeral.

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Kick ass image by Sam Flores.

How did you manage to contrast the darkness of his life with all the other light and positivity he also experienced?

It was tough, which was I never intended to do the documentary. I wanted to concentrate on one year of his life because there is so much to his whole life, and it was a really really hard process confining everything that he’s been through so I was experimenting and discovering it as I went.  Bu there are as many highs as there is lows and his life in particular is filled with many from each side of the spectrum.  As far as my experience with him I never saw too much of the dark side other than when I interviewed him.  I mean personally it was just fun, just me and him playing around.  He was always active, jumping on the trampoline, playing ping pong, when we’d go out to eat he’d shake everybody’s hand. He really couldn’t stay in one place for too long.

Doc vs narrative, what do you intend to do with the dramatic feature you weren’t able to do with the documentary

filmThe documentary was about trying to hone in on what he said and having him say it directly to the audience. I didn’t want to interrupt anything too much.  We did a little bit of stylistic stuff intertwined to show a little bit of the spiritual side, you know like his connection to his son, and his connection to nature. But I wanted to keep it pretty loose on that, only scratching the surface of what I’m going to do in the feature. The feature is going to definitely be a little dreamy and spiritual.  When I say spiritual, there’s this thing that I recognized when I would talk to Johnny, I was always trying to pin point how his mind works – and he feels like his mother is right next to him.  So that plays a large role in the actual film; the presence of his mother, always around and also that connection with his youth.  In the feature as its written now we pop back and forth in his life from Johnny at 27 years old, and when he was 8 years old when he lost his mother. Its always trying to establish the connection of where he finds all this anger but also power, passion and energy that was super important to have. That drives every action in his life, I think, from that point forward, and I’ve had conversations with people who agree he became stunted at that age.  He still felt like an 8 year old when I’d talk to him, he had a child like spirit, insight.  He was not that formally educated, he was street smart, he improvised with whatever was around him.  He had that excitement, wonder and would be happy to see someone looking to give him love, and made people happy.  He was always surprised at any good news.

In a way its hard to imagine him as anything but a boxer, literally pounding and fighting his demons…

He was really hyper, boxing was a natural thing for him, it was a natural release of energy, it was actually perfect, getting into the ring, always training is what kept him alive.  It’s hard to think of him as anything else, maybe some other kind of athlete.

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Curtis Jackson at the second screening; “It was so interesting to see someone, 3 weeks before they actually passed, reflect on their entire life.”

How did 50 Cent come on board?

It all came through Lou DiBella, (executive producer) the boxing promoter and tv/film producer.  When we finished the film we started showing a handful of people to get people’s thoughts on it.  Lou was actually head of the HBO sports division who helped put together the infamous Johnny Tapia/Danny Romero fight back in the day so he had that connection. He showed the movie to 50 cent with who he has a partnership… 50 felt all these similar things and really connected with what Johnny went through (they both suffered the loss of their mother around the same age).  Also he grew up in similar crazy circumstances.  Its weird how you connect the dots….

Tell me about your producer Andrea Monier

Yes, Andrea Monier has been pivotal. We are friends, she’s also an actress but an amazing producer.  We worked on an Everlast spot first and she did an amazing job.  To do a documentary you have to have a super strong producer because there is a lot of work like archiving footage, etc. I couldn’t have done it without her.

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And this amazing artwork by Akira Beard

Describe the driving creative process in writing the narrative

(Losing his mother)  that’s the biggest thing.  All his issues stem from that; drugs, psychological conditions, we explore a lot of him meeting and falling in love with Teresa.  It’s a big part of the film; the love story, but then that also connects to the mother. There’s a lot of similarities between Teresa and his mother as far as the expectations Johnny had, he almost felt like Teresa was his mother, she replaced her in a way.Feeling like a baby with your mother, a lot of the treatment you get from your mother at that age.  I come from a single parent as well and it helped me a lot to realize how much Johnny valued his mother.  Like, I don’t’ know where I would be without my mother, those thoughts always trickled through my head.   Johnny was super proud to have Teresa next to him as his woman.  I don’t think he ever constricted her in any way.  She was more the person who kept him in place, she was the one who handled the business and dealt with the promoters and he looked up to her in terms of what direction to take. He trusted her opinion above all.

What do you think she saw in him?

She likes to joke that she was young and stupid but I know there’s a lot more to it.  She has all the traits that he may have needed help on, and likewise, he showed her the excitement, spontaneity that she was looking for in life, and that quality of never expecting or knowing where the day is going to go was interesting and that’s what she gravitated to.

It must have been hard to watch him fight all the time

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Eddie Alcazar

Well, the professional aspect is almost better than the day to day reality in ABQ.  There are worse street fights, guns involved.  Every time I’d go to a party there were gunshots. I wanted to show this world that is not familiar, Breaking Bad does it a little bit but its not as dark or raw as it really is.  (ABQ) is a beautiful place but it’s a weird thing; there’s this subculture, an underbelly. It has a big native American population, Spaniards, Mexicans, I don’t know what leads to so much conflict but maybe the biggest thing I can relate to is there’s not too much to do. So people just …they are bored and act crazy sometimes.

Big thanks to Eddie for the interview. LA folks I urge you to go see Tapia tomorrow night, Saturday at 9:50pm at the Regal at LA Live.  Get tickets here.  Details on the big ABQ screening forthcoming.  Also be sure to queue it up on GoWatchit and like it on Facebook to support it and to get updates on where it lands with its theatrical/television/VOD release.

OJOS! Sneak peek at Gina Rodriguez’s new comedy and interview with director Nicole Gomez Fisher

nikniksmileUnveiling at the Brooklyn Film Festival  this weekend is the world premiere of SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES, the directorial debut of former stand up comic and actor, Nicole Gomez Fisher.  Gina Rodriguez plays the hilariously real and spirited star of the movie, Alexis Fish, a role she booked right as Filly Brown started making waves at film festivals last year.  A great cast of women join her including Tony Award winning stage and film actor, Priscilla Lopez who plays her mother, and Ana Ortiz (Ugly Betty)  who is enjoyably pert, as Gina’s sister.  Sleeping with the Fishes is also the first feature produced independently by Courtney Andrialis, a rising producer with many more exciting projects in development (she started her career as assistant to Bingham Ray in 2003).  I gotta say, I just love the female power of this film!   Check out the just- released trailer of the film, and read the interview I did where I check in with Nicole, a week before she releases her first baby (film) into the world.

How did your Latino/Jewish background and childhood inform your creative expression as you started conceiving of your first feature?  

I was born and raised in Brooklyn…a true Brooklynite at heart. My mother is Puerto Rican and my father is of Jewish descent, an interesting mix that has clearly influenced my life and my writing. I don’t necessarily identify with one over the other…both sides make up who I am. I knew when starting SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES that my background and my point of view wasn’t a filmmaker’s voice heard too often. I wanted to express myself and tell a story about a young woman trying to find herself in a world that she felt excluded from…not only from the outside world, but from her immediate as well.

 Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 9.51.42 AMWhat’s your connection with Gina?  How was it to work with her in comedy?  She’s got great timing and tons of energy.  

I did not know Gina Rodriguez before making SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES. We met through our casting directors Sig DeMiguel and Steve Vincent. Her agent read the script and loved it, passed it on to her and BOOM!  A meeting was set. We actually met in the bathroom of Rosa Mexicana and it was love at first sight! Gina was incredibly energetic, bright, enthusiastic and funny! I was excited to work with someone “fresh”. I knew before we even ordered that we would work well together. She was just coming off the Sundance premiere for “Filly Brown”. It was an exciting time for her and it showed. She’s a natural when it comes to comedy, so she made directing incredibly easy. Gina’s choices were spot on and she just understood the timing of comedy. It takes a real pro to know when to “go there” and when to pull back and she did. I would say try this and within seconds she would make a slight adjustment and go. If she thought something didn’t work or wanted to try another shot, we went with it. Collaborating with her was such fun.  She made directing my first feature a pleasure.

The tale of a 30something whose life has not gone as expected and must deal with the pressure of returning to a childhood like dynamic at home with the parents, is so relatable and universal, but it can also be quite personal and individual, how personal is this screen variation to you?  What did you want to convey that you had not typically seen in this popular canon?  

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.55.19 AMIt’s personal. The story itself is loosely based on my family, but there are many aspects to it that are a mix of truth and fiction. For my lead, Alexis Fish (played by Gina Rodriguez), her coming back home after years of living a lie all in the name of “saving face” is paralyzing for her. As you mentioned, her resilience to stay true to herself has been an exhausting journey.  Having to deal with the loss of a loved one while trying to pick up the pieces of your life only makes it that much harder to overcome. I wanted to take a classic story and make it new. Yes, she is returning home to the pressures of family, but in Alexis’ case, returning home to her mother is what is so daunting. You have two strong women who don’t see eye-to-eye: one whose pride identifies her, the other whose pride is crushed as she struggles to find her identity.

 I love that you chose to do your first film a comedy.   There doesn’t seem to be as many first films as comedies tackled in the indie world, and even less from a female written and directed perspective.  What are your influences in this vein?   Also, what is it about our passionate Latino culture in particular you think that makes family dysfunction so melodramatic and ripe for comedy?

I was a stand up comic for years and I love writing comedy. I’m a huge fan of films that blend comedy and drama. It’s what life is made of—the ying and the yang.  Some of the funniest moments in life are also the saddest.  When you can stop and laugh at a time when hope seems dim, that is life changing. Laughter has pulled me through some really hard times. …Where there is passion, there is drama. From my experience, Latinos are very strong-minded, very passionate and very vocal about what we believe.  The combination makes for some terrific melodrama.  It’s who we are—they go hand in hand.

 Who were some key collaborators and mentors for you during the launching of your first feature?  Tells us about Courtney as producer – she’s from HD net films, how did you two bond about the making of this film?

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 11.14.33 AMSome of the key collaborators were my husband Joe, my friend and fellow screenwriter A.J. Meyers, my casting directors, my father and of course, my producer Courtney Andrialis. Courtney and I have built a solid relationship around SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES. I met her via our casting directors. She’s young, eager and has a ton of knowledge. She was an integral part of the making the film. She brought on an amazing team that held me up throughout the entire process, which for a first time director is so integral. There were a lot of learning curves for me. Courtney did a great job of keeping me together and supporting me throughout the entire process.

 As you navigate the wild west of distribution, how are you feeling and where are your expectations with getting the film out there?  Are you going to be exploring the newly paved roads of direct distribution models or pursuing the traditional theatrical and window route?  

It’s great that now filmmakers have so many ways to reach their audience.  We are excited for our world premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival on June 1st.  After that, we’ll keep our fingers crossed and see!

Best of luck with the film and have a blast at your premiere, Nik!

For tickets & screening info (June 1 is sold out, but June 8 still available for all y’all NYers)

Film Contact: swtf13@gmail.com.

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Meet Iris Almaraz, the emotional exhibitionist filmmaker of Delusions of Grandeur

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Iris Almaraz

Iris Almaraz is the writer/director of the delirious, incandescent and quirky film, Delusions of Grandeur, about a naive, grunge-y chicana, Lucy who moves out of her dad’s place in Oakland, and out of her medicated dazed and confused mess, to seize her independence across the bridge when she moves in with a hopeless romantic tranny named Ilusion in the tenderloin of San Francisco. Pining for a mother who ditched her as a kid, Lucy launches into the stratosphere of self-discovery in a search for any kind of true love.  The performances of the diverse cast are so well inhabited and played with relish, the SF 90’s vibe is perfectly nostalgic and channels the city’s storied free love and psychedelia.  In essence, the theme is of womanhood tackled in a uniquely expansive manner, as seen through such a kaleidoscopic lens touching on the lights of sexuality, motherhood, wifey, gender variant roles, Madonna, all in the centrifuge of romance. Terribly sweet without the sugary sap coating, the film premiered at last summer’s NY Latino International Film Festival and is charming the independent film festival circuit across the nation.  The film is next screening at Seattle True Independent Film Festival Thursday, May 9 at 8pm and will screen here in LA, Saturday, May 18 at 8pm at the Casa 010 in Boyle Heights as part of the Reel Rasquache Film Festival.  I was already smitten with the film but now that I’ve had a chance to talk with the filmmaker, I’m an even bigger fan and appreciator of her easy yet bold candor which is felt in her work.   Check the trailer then read on for the realz scoop

Familia and barrio experience totally shape who we become and how we relate our stories. Me, I was born in Chicago’s mexican barrio and then my parents ‘moved us on up’ so to speak, to the neat, white suburbs where I was suddenly the only brown girl and my life became a back and forth between embracing and resisting my ethnicity.  How did your own coming of age inform part of Delusions of Grandeur?  Also what’s your relationship/experience with San Francisco?  I love what a great sense of place the film has with its location as character.

Funny thing is that I had the hood to ‘burbs experience too, only mine was from stints in juvenile hall to Christian summer camp, so by the time I found myself in San Francisco I had a double dose of Catholic guilt and Protestant repression. But when I got to that city the dark cloud that surrounded me EXPLODED!!!  I was a 22 yr. old virgin with a job as a phone sex operator.   My imagination ran amuck and everyday was like a post adolescent children’s book of “Dick & Jane”.  Anyway, you can imagine me trying to explain my college S&M films to my parents – “So how do you know those girls Iris…?” – “oh just from around…”

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 11.36.50 AMWoody Allen’s “Manhattan” played a big influence on establishing a city as a character itself.  San Francisco has so much personality that has not been captured cinematically that it is a shame. I felt I owed SF a big Thank You.

I really appreciate the multi-perspectives in the film on the fluidity of what defines a woman.  Why and what other recurring themes/narratives do you find yourself consistently exploring and attracted to as a result of your background and experiences? 

I’m very fascinated with the traditionally Mexican “Virgin/Whore” dichotomy.   My own woman hood is in constant motion . Even now as a mother of two I find the realities of a monogamous relationship that now has “Dora the Explorer” as the sound track, to be humorous, adventurous and worth discussion. I think I may just be an emotional exhibitionist.   That’s usually too much for people to handle but for some reason when I put it on film it seems to resonate with people who are still stuck in a shell.  They find hope in knowing that they are not the only freaks out there.

How did you go about getting this from script to production?  Did you try to go the traditional route as the system would dictate?  Or did you always know it was going to be the hard DIY way?  What kind of support from orgs/friends/grants were you able to garner and recommend?

leantripIntitially, I had a feature script that would have required a much larger budget.  There was interest in the script but not with me attached as the director.  I knew I couldn’t continue with creating dead end shorts and a feature was the only way this chubby chicana from the East Side was gonna get anyone to pay attention.    The first thing I did was sit down at the kitchen table with my dad and ask “Hey Dad you know that Quinceañera I never had, and the wedding I never asked for… well I need that money now.”  After that, other key members of the cast and crew pulled their family and friend resources together .  We also used online crowd funding to complete post-production .  Our saving grace, however, was having amazingly talented friends who committed their souls to the project.   As a young film maker you have to get used to asking for more even when you have been told “no” a million times before and make sure you keep good company.  People will rally behind you if you believe in you.

I see your work as totally distinct and a truly original American Latino walk of life.  For me it is so encouraging to see there is now more than ever, a steady incoming wave of amazing diverse storytelling from our multi-culti pockets.  Who are some emerging narrative Latino filmmakers/peers you are excited about, that we should all track?

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The hopeless romantic, Illusion, played by the talented Salvador Benavides

This is such a tough question to answer for all the right reasons.  I am continuously blown away by all the diverse work right now.  It will be unjust for me to list of a few when I will inevitably  leave  out  so many.  That being said, there are two filmmakers whose work has moved and inspired me personally .  The first is Aurora Guerrero who has paved a path that young film makers can look to as a blue print for how to do it right.  Not only is she a talented unique voice but she also has an innate comprehension for how the business works. The second is Cristina Ibarra who is an amazing talent that is going to blow people away with her vision and well crafted stories.

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 12.04.18 PMI love how honest your film feels.  Did you ever feel pressure that you had to talk specifically to a Latino audience, or conversely  you ever felt like you had to cut something to avoid alienating any non-Latino audience in your film – if only to reach a ‘broader’ audience.

Absolutly not.  In general I feel like an outsider in most established social groups, so I try to remain true to what my instinct tells me to do.  My priority is and always will be to make films about people.  That’s hard enough to figure out besides trying to appease others always tangles me up in someone else’s web.

How has your experience been with the Latino Film Festivals you’ve been invited to with your film?  How do they rank and operated? What do you think they do best and what do you wish they did better?

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 11.46.55 AMWe have been so blessed this year with the opportunity to meet the most amazing people at festivals.  New York Latino was the first Latino festival we played in and what can I say, there is nothing like New Yorkers. They can be gruff and thuggy on the outside yet sweet and intellectuals on the inside.  The festival takes great risk in programming and finding new talent.  Austin was incredible because the people  of Austin are so down to earth yet out there. It was a perfect match  for our film.  Chicago Latino was the unexpected surprise in the bunch.  Well organized, elegant and classy.  I have to admit I was initially intimidated by the other film makers from Latin America who were the cream of the crop.  But the audience reassured me that I was in the right place.   It seemed as if they had been waiting a long time for a film like ours to come along.The festivals were all amazing at welcoming out-of-towners, but if I were to throw a penny in a wishing well I guess I would say it would be nice if more marketers and distributors would attend the festivals so we could figure out how to get the product to the people.

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Leana Chavez

Both!! I had to have been a little, or very,  delusional to think we could pull of this film with as little as we had.  And I can’t help but feel like life is a dreary place if you don’t have a little bit of magic to make you believe that anything is possible.

What are you working on next?

My next project is “La Puta”, (what-ya gonna do, right? ) The story is set in a mythical dessert border town that nobody can remember which side of the border it was on.  But they all remember “La Puta”, the town whore who lactates a healing nectar from her breast and heals a town desperately trying not to drown in the sea of sand that surrounds them.

~Love it!  Muchisimas gracias mujer!  All y’all Angelenos better come to see Delusions of Grandeur and meet Iris in person Saturday, May 18.  Buy tickets here. 

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