Monday, March 17, 2014

The Tío Louie Interview: Actors-Turned-Filmmakers/Producers

In conjunction with the Prime Latino Media Salón, El Blog de HOLA is proud to present the Tío Louie Interview, where filmmaker and bon vivant Louis Perego Moreno (also known as Tío Louie) interviews actors and multimedia-makers in the business.

In this edition, Tío Louie speaks to actors-turned-filmmakers Mónica Walter Palmieri, Luis Caballero, Adrian Manzano and Adel L. Morales.

Mónica Walter Palmieri

Mónica Walter Palmieri.

·      How was the transition coming from your native Guatemala and going straight in the U.S. to the Lee Strasberg Institute? I met people from across 
the world and it expanded my mind. It was terrifying in the beginning. Language was an issue. Especially 
acting in English. But it turned out to be an exciting experience and made me love acting even more and it was my first experience at that level. Also, while there I did work from Harold Pinter to Lorca and Shakespeare.

·      Being bilingual, which language is your preference? I would have to say Spanish. I don’t have to think about it. There’s a rhythm that is present even if you’re not conscious about it. In English, though I have been here almost ten years, I have to think about it a little more when engaged in a performance in English.

·      As an actor, what pushed you to enter production? I started auditioning and found roles very unappealing and stereotypical. Plus, being Central American many roles were Caribbean-oriented or demanded being a Nuyorican. I felt I could play a French or Italian woman easier. After a year and getting my visa, I then got some freelance work as an AD, scripting, then as a line producer.

·     How did you solidify that desire to produce? I went to the LAByrinth Theater and took classes and felt it was the best step I took. They encouraged me to do my own thing and develop my own art – direct, produce – not to just wait around for a role to surface. There were a lot of improvisation and monologues. There I met Benjamin Martin who had a script for Derailing and he encouraged me to be involved.
·     What came first with the short film Derailing, acting or producing? I started off as an advisor. He wrote the female lead for another friend he had gone to school with. The story was also different initially. Then in a few days he changed the role and then contacted me asking that I take the lead female role. It surprised me, initially, because I felt that he had brought me in solely as a producer and now it was this other opportunity. I embraced the idea because I really liked the script and got to play a character with whom I really connected.

·    How was the experience of juggling both being an actor and producer? We had a really strong pre-production, which calmed 
me when shooting. I had a good line producer and when not acting I was also the 1st AD, as well as the producer. This I would not advise, because as the actor I had to turn off my 1st 
AD brain.
·     What’s next? I’m producing the short film Underwater. I’m also involved in three feature films: a film in Guatemala in which I would be an actor and producer– everyone on board is from the U.S. There’s one in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic with an established filmmaker from Puerto Rico who has shot extensively in Guatemala by the name of Ray Figueroa, and then a project in Brooklyn that involves a futuristic plot film in which I would serve as producer.

Luis Caballero
Luis Caballero.
·      Did you really start as an actor in telenovelas and theater in Puerto Rico? Theater was more satisfying, yet challenging. But in Puerto Rico in the 1970s and '80s, it was a way of making money. Plus making telenovelas and theater went hand-in-hand in Puerto Rico and gave one better visibility for callbacks.
·    What motivated you to come to the U.S. to study, and specifically at NYU? I was hungry 
for more knowledge and Puerto Rico could only give me as much as it could have at the time. My mentor in Puerto Rico recommended me to NYU and I applied and was accepted. I also wanted to live in New York City. Plus they gave me a scholarship, which was another incentive.
·    How did you make the jump to film from theater? I have always been enamored by film. Plus coming from Puerto Rico, those tools were not very accessible – they were considered more elitist. When in the early 2000s I saw Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también at Lincoln Center, I had this epiphany and knew that this was what I really wanted and had to do.

·      Tell me about the journey with El color de la guayaba (The Color of Guava). As I was making my first film in Puerto Rico, I was already thinking about this second film. I started in 2003 and then it was not completed until 2008. I got the idea caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s when the scent of la guayaba (guava) wafted through the house. Then public television had a program where they reviewed scripts and mine was accepted, however with lots of conditions. One of the challenges to film development in Puerto Rico is that any assistance is tied to the current government. As governments change, according to [political] party; so does the administration of funding, as well as programming.
·     What challenges face Latino filmmakers in the U.S.? Living in NYC is very competitive. Most filmmakers in NYC produce their own work. The question begged is, Where is the Latino voice or power for multimedia-makers to produce their projects on a governmental level or in the private sector? This is the $1 million challenge. The challenge is, Where do you go to find someone who gets your vision and has the power to green-light your project or distribute the finished work?
·      What’s next? I am a Spanish Professor at Fordham University, which pays the bills. But I continue to work in theater and television. I am in post-production for my third film, which is Romeo, Romeo, a gay-theme filmed in Puerto Rico in my hometown of Barceloneta.

·      What is the theme of El color de la guayaba? I wrote four short stories that are connected in this film through the lives of marginalized people: a gay pre-pubescent teen, an older woman with dementia, a deaf and a little person, a Wiccan (“bruja”) and a cabbie 
who drives passengers from town-to-town. I like writing about the poor who are simple, yet lead complicated lives like all of us. I come from poverty and I like to write about these people that I knew in my childhood.
·    I was blown away by the theatrical production, They Call Me La Lupe, starring Lauren Vélez. How was it writing a theatrical production for her? Lauren Vélez has always wanted to do a film on [Cuban singer] La Lupe and she asked me to write and direct a theatrical production, which was well received. James Manos, Jr., the Emmy-award winning creator of "Dexter", finished the script for a feature version of They Call Me La Lupe, but he mentored me with the theatrical script.

Adrian Manzano
Adrian Manzano.
·      You seem to be challenged when you are asked if you started off as an actor or if you’re one now. 
I did it in high school and college at which time I received an award for it in my senior year. After college, I participated in a number of Latino theaters and then decided it wasn’t for me.
·      I see you as a storyteller. How did studying literature in college shape the craft you do today? I love reading and have always loved it. It also gave me the opportunity to read the greats. It has been quite influential in my life. My first short film in college was an adaptation of a Russian story. My writing is very influenced by literature and it has shaped my films to have much more of a tragic ending, which is much more rampant in literature. Shakespeare was very influential in my life.
·      When or how did you take the plunge from theatrical storytelling to that which is cinematic? I had always wanted to be a filmmaker since college, but I didn’t have the mentor or tools. So, I knew in spite of exploring acting that I didn’t care for the instability and the roles offered as a career option. Screenwriting and filmmaking seemed to be much more doable. Then when I was 29 going on 30, I realized filmmaking was a path to take now or never.
·      You received good and bad reviews for your first feature film, Sex, Love & Salsa. How did you feel about the bad reviews? I felt good about it, because it meant someone took the time to watch, review and critique it. If it were so bad, no one would have cared.

·     For someone who hates being labeled an actor, how did you end up having the lead male role in the film you directed? It was a very personal story, but the role of Julian was written for another guy who was based in L.A. and then when the budget was reviewed with the producer, we realized that we couldn’t afford to fly him out. It was a difficult turn to take for me to play the role of Julian because, as personal as it was, I wrote the role of a despicable guy and all these sex scenes and now I had to do it. I never acted in film. My acting was always limited to acting on stage, which required an adjustment because acting for film and theater are two different crafts.
·    Why the “mockumentary” approach to your film? This happened very early in the writing of this project and the fact that I wasn’t going to have money to pay for a lot of production, such as lights and other elements -- it then became even more appealing. The style allowed me to shoot inexpensively and easily and lent itself to improvising while giving it a much more real and honest perspective. There was very little rehearsing.
·    You say that once you cast your actors you trusted them and this contributed to great improvisational moments during production. How was the casting process?  I took my time. I initially took the cattle call approach and that did not provide any great results. I then started going to see plays, indie films and I asked around. I went to the In The Heights website and found my lead actress. I searched for actors who were already working. For Jenny, I knew I wanted someone who was Afro-Latina and found her in Plátanos & Collard Greens. Susan was difficult to cast. She was a referral. I wanted a Caucasian woman who was approaching 40. Initially I wanted someone who was German or European and I went for someone who was Anglo. My brother for the film came from J.W. Cortés who also recommended the Anglo actress. This just reinforces community and the importance of networking and asking around you.

·   What did you learn in the making of this film that you would do differently if you were to do it all over again? I underestimated publicity and in hindsight 
have learned that I should have hired a publicist. I felt that I was able to do it myself. My expectations were very low for this film 
and it actually went much farther than ever anticipated. I assumed that it would be a good lesson for a first film and it rendered much more.
·   What’s next? I’m developing a romance/drama screenplay set in the Dominican Republic about sexual tourism and male prostitution, as well as a quirky black comedy about a female college graduate who moves back home with her family.

Adel L. Morales
Adel L. Morales.
·   What inspired your plunge from actor to filmmaker? Participating in a number of productions for NYU film students and not getting a copy of the short film afterwards. So I decided, if I want samples of my work in film and I’m not getting paid, I might as well produce 
short films myself. So this is how I started in the world of production as an actor.
·     Three short films that you created– Reckoning, Repentance and Trouble Child– have a theme running through them of moral dilemmas. What inspired you to take these angles in your storytelling? Having a Roman Catholic upbringing pushed me to cite morality in films and about this external force watching over you. Also, as I got older I realized, when it comes to morality, that life is not exactly black and white and that grey lines can actually be much broader than we bargained for and this point intrigued me.

·     "Pushing Dreams" started off as a 45-minute film and then you converted it into a webisode series, how did you come to alter the finished product? After I completed the film, I spent a year marketing and looking for a home for it to no avail. Then while 
exploring further and seeking alternative channels, I realized that the internet is a wonderful home for short pieces and why not convert it into episodes that ranged from five to nine minutes and the rest was history. Because of that approach we’ve developed a nice following.

·      Your stories, especially through the production company you co-founded, HollyHood Productions, have always been about the urban experience and community. Why that particular niche and focus? First of all, that is where I come from and secondly, I was sick and tired of all the poor depictions and stereotypes painted about urban communities. We have joys and challenges just like any community and I felt I could tell it with a certain authentic flavor.

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Louis Perego Moreno (Tío Louie) is an interactive content producer and educator who 
for 32 years has owned Skyline Features, a bilingual multimedia and educational production company developing documentaries, television programming and advertising commercials featuring Latinos, blacks, women, urban youth 
and LGBT people. He has trained 1,500 Latino & African American youth over 10 years to produce 
70 documentary shorts. For documentary features he was the producer and director of Latina Confessions (2010) and co-producer of American Dreams Deferred (2013) on PBS.

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