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 near right where she grew up in Logan Square. She received a standing ovation at her sold out world premiere at the Dances With Films Festival 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 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 and then 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’s in the middle of Sept. 11.
Endgame 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.
So 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.
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.
I 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, there was a sense you had to really be careful not to fall prey to the lurking danger zone of transients and shadiness. Do you touch on this 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 you know 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 can actually say 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 done a short and 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, this is my 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. For me I always think when I’m reading something, 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 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.