A bright college student gets caught up in an obscure world of conspiracies, mysterious beliefs, and the possibility of more powerful forces controlling the world's destiny, all while trying to figure out his personal dilemmas. This is Asher, an upcoming film by Queens native Francisco Ordonez, whose intricate story is partially inspired by his own quest to form his unique view of the world. The film is still in the development stage, but it already has important talent attached such as Mekhi Phifer, Danny Glove, and Rene Rosado in the leading role. The project will be Ordonez' feature debut and it is based on his 2005 successful short film St. Paul, in which Rosado also starred. Asher is being produced by Erika Olmos through her production company Olmos Kontakto - a joint venture with -Isabel Echeverry - and it's expected to start production later this year. Ordonez talked to us about his interaction with the religious group at the center of the story, The Black Israelites, his organic transition into filmmaking, and what interests him as a storyteller.
Carlos Aguilar: Reading through the synopsis of the film I was intrigued by the concept and your approach. Where did the concept come from?
Francisco Ordonez: When I was an undergraduate student studying sociology at City University in New York I had to do a thesis paper, and it involved documenting a subculture. There were these guys that I had seen my whole life preaching in the streets of New York City, mostly in Time Square. They were the Black Israelites, even though they have different schools, churches, and different names, people on the street would simply call them Black Israelites. I would see them preaching with very unique costumes that had several stars of David and intriguing symbolism. They would talk about the end of the world, a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of biblical prophecies. I was always intrigued ever since I was a kid.
Therefore, when it came time to write this paper in college, I made them the subject of it, which involved spending time with them and getting to know them. They have a church in Harlem on 123rd street, so I spent a lot time with them there. At first it was difficult proposing that I wanted to write a paper on them being that their preaching style is very imposing, at least on the street. It was a little intimidating, but I ended up being upfront with them about writing this. It was a very interesting time, especially because I was 22 years old at the time and forming my own opinions about the world, about power, religion, beliefs. A lot of that stuff stayed with me. Later, when I got into filmmaking I thought it would be a very interesting time in my life to explore, because of all the things that it brings up about how the world really operates under the surface.
Aguilar: How did you make the transition from sociology into filmmaking?
Ordonez: A lot of the skills and the perspectives that sociology gives you are actually good for a filmmaker. They make you see the point of view of whatever group you are studying, and that is something I’ve definitely done with this project, Asher. You can make a movie about this group, the Black Israelites, that is very judgmental, and that is one type of movie in which I’m not interested. I’m interested in a movie that considers what it could possibly be like to look at the world through their eyes, to see it the way they see it. That’s why I think sociology is a discipline that is actually good for a filmmaker. I studied sociology because I was very interested in it, but I was actually considering going to law school. Since you don’t necessarily have to do pre-law I decided to study something I was really interested in related to politics. I have been interested in film since college and that’s where I started writing. Later after two years working out of college, I decided to go to film school. I ended up at Columbia University.
Aguilar: There are a lot profoundly intriguing ideas in your film, which are rarely seen from a Latino perspective. Your project seems to add a different level of sophistication to what a Latino film could be.
Ordonez: I can’t say that I intentionally thought “Let me try to make a movie from a Latino perspective,” that wasn’t on the agenda. I wanted to tell a very personal story where I could use a lot of the experiences and emotions that I gathered during the time when I was doing that thesis paper. If I was going to stay true to that, it was going to be a Latino character. It wasn’t deliberate, but having said that, I do know that a lot of people don’t necessarily look at Latinos as people who could be having philosophical or religious crises. Unfortunately sometimes we are looked at as people who don’t even have that sort of deeper thinking or people who don’t question anything. We are portrayed as being overly religious or incredibly devout, so there is that view. I’m interested in characters that ask questions and that have very deep inner conflicts whether they are Latino, White or Black.
Aguilar: The protagonist for this film Asher is Rene Rosado, whom you have worked with before, more notably in the short film 'St. Paul,' which inspired this upcoming
feature. Why was he your first choice?
Ordonez: Rene and I have worked together in a couple of other things in the past. We are very good friends as well. I know him very well and he knows me, and there is a lot of trust.Besides the fact that he is a very good actor, since we know each other intimately we are able to use those things that we know about each other in order to create a character or to access certain emotions. He gets it because of how long we’ve worked together and how long we’ve discussed this project.
Aguilar: You also have an amazing cast in the other roles, how did you come about getting them interested in your film?
Ordonez: First, Mekhi Phifer got the script through a friend of his. We had sent him the short film [St.Paul] and he really liked it. He has an internet platform called ThirdReel.com where he shows short films, so we first sent it asking him “Would you consider the short for your website?” He was very excited about it, and even Tweeted about it, so that gave me the courage to present him with the screenplay. He read it and signed on. I’ve been fortunate because the screenplay goes over pretty well with actors. The same with Danny Glover, though a third party we were able to get the screenplay to his office. They took about two weeks to respond, and then he sent me a letter of intent. At this point we are working through our casting director and the agencies to get to all the other people and close those deals.
Aguilar: Being this your feature debut how intimidating or exciting is it for you to be facing your first major project?
Ordonez: Every phase involves so much attention from me. We are about to start pre-production and that requires me to be involved in a lot of things from financing, to hiring crew, schedules, etc. I’ve been able to stayed focused, but I’m incredibly excited and I can’t wait to get on set.
Aguilar: In a nutshell, what is your intention as a filmmaker with this film? What is the central idea?
Ordonez: People usually ask “What’s the message?”, but with this particular film it is not about a message, it is more about exploring certain things and that is what I intend to do with the film. I intend to explore those themes, to raise those questions and have people talk about it. How do we create our reality? How do people construct their reality in their minds about religion, belief, power, and politics? The main character goes though some very heavy experiences that bring up all those questions. I’m more interested in telling an amazing story by raising those questions, but at the end of the day it really is an exploration.