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Monday, September 8, 2008

The Latin American Explosion

It began for me in 1992, with Robert Rodriguez's shoestring EL MARIACHI. Here was this tall, sexy, brash Mexican-American director from Texas, young and gifted as hell. And it was obvious that Rodriguez wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Then, in 1998, CENTRAL STATION, directed by Walter Salles blew my mind. Then the big three showed up: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, and I knew for sure that the floodgates were open for Latin American directors and writers. Will this trend continue? Can we look forward to more Latin American talent hitting theaters in the US or has this been a blip? One thing is for sure, the directors mentioned above aren't going anywhere; they've already crossed over into directing fare that is not necessarily "Latin" in it's focus and yet a unique sensibility shines through. Has the Latino population in the US finally established a political, social and economic foothold that will support more Latino writers, and directors in Hollywood?

The other day I met with my friend and colleague, the phenomenal Bernadette Rivero, co-owner of Los Angeles based production company, The Cortez Brothers, to discuss the world of screenwriting and film making relative to the Latin American explosion.


You told me something so fascinating the other day – that some of my favorite Latin directors like Walter Salles, came up through directing commercials in Latin America. Other directors like Fernando Meirelles and Alejandro González Iñárritu have too. Why is that path so common in Latin America?

You’ll find that commercial and film production in Latin America are deeply intertwined; someone like Walter Salles (Central Station) is known for his filmmaking, but the advertising world also knows that he helms VideoFilmes, a successful production company in Brazil. Meirelles (City of Men, The Contant Gardener) had a long, long career directing commercials before he made a name for himself as a film director. The production communities in Latin America seem much smaller and tighter than they are in the United States, and I think that’s why it’s easier for those directors to launch their careers. They’re already working with the best and brightest actors, crew and producers when they’re shooting commercials, so the transition into films is a natural one.

What do you think of Robert Rodriguez, Salma Hayek and other Latin producers and directors who live and work in the US? Have they opened doors for the Latin American creative community?

I feel that there are a lot of directors and talent originally based outside the U.S. that opened doors for the Latin creative community. González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu Mamá También threw the doors open wide, creatively speaking,for quality Latin projects. For me, they created this watershed moment when Hollywood finally paused and thought, “Wow. Maybe there are some great Latin stories to be told…”

What do you see as the greatest challenge for Spanish-language projects in the US?

Funding. Hispanics are an enormous demographic within the U.S., but distributors don’t seem to see us as a viable marketplace yet. I think it’s going to follow the same pattern that Hispanic advertising did, though… Up until recently, advertisers never paid much attention to the U.S. Hispanic market. Then all of a sudden you realize we have nearly a billion dollars in buying power and are incredibly brand-loyal and suddenly people take note. When it comes to admissions-per-moviegoer, we buy almost 11 tickets for every 8 or so that the general market does. I think that eventually it will be easier to get funding and distribution for both Spanish- and English-language Latin projects when Hollywood learns how to specialize and target those markets like Hispanic advertising has done.

Do Latin American audiences in Latin America have different tastes and cultural touch points than Latin Americans living here in the US?

Slapstick comedy and action seems to do really well internationally. Personally, I think a lot of that has to do with subtitling. I’ve sat through a lot of subtitled movies in Latin American theaters. You’ll see those same movies on television much later dubbed into Spanish, but when you go out on a Friday night to your local cinema you have a lot of text to read. Physical comedy and action are easier to follow on a big screen than really, really wordy dramatic translations or culturally-specific, only-if-you-live-in-America-will-you-get it humor. I know my friends in Mexico City would pick Iron Man over fratpack humor if they were going out to the movies tomorrow night. They’d also put chili pepper and lime juice on their popcorn and eat it with a spoon though, so even the movie-going experience is different from country to country.

What producers and exhibitors operating in the US deliver really great, quality material for Latin audiences?

Overture has John Leguizamo in Nothing Like the Holidays coming up, an ensemble Latin family film that’s more about the horrors of holiday get-togethers than it is about Latinos per se, which I think is a great way of approaching things. I’m exceptionally biased because I really like the director, Alfredo de Villa, and have worked with him in the past, though. Lionsgate has Cheech Marin in The Perfect Game, inspired by a true story about a ragtag Mexican Little League team. But when it comes to finding quality Latin films, I generally make a beeline to Netflix. I know I’m not necessarily going to find great Latin films in the theater every weekend, but I can get some really great films (Crónicas, The Devil’s Backbone, Sex and Lucía are a few oldies but goodies I love)at home.

Where is the cross-over for Americans? In other words, can Latin produced material speak to Americans who are not Latin American?

Good stories are universal, as Y tu Mamá También and Amores Perros proved. And I think there’s something unique about the Latin worldview that makes its way into the works of our most well known directors. I see an awful lot of dark, rich tones and themes in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that make me think of Mexico – even though neither of those films are particularly Mexican. I laughed out loud when I spotted a sugar Day of the Dead skull inside the Hogsmeade candy shop in Harry Potter. There are little touchstones, little ways of seeing things like that, that strike me as very Latin.

Does the Mexican community living here in the US, primarily in California, Arizona and Texas, have a different set of expectations or tastes from other Latin Americans or is it similar?

It seems like urban stories resonate a little more in parts of the U.S. that have Caribbean populations, but that’s not always the case. Across the board, all segments of the Hispanic population seemed to tune into “American Idol,” regardless of their country of origin – even though, traditionally, reggaeton plays better on the East Coast and norteño music on the West. It’s true that there are certain differences in the populations,but seeing ourselves on screen (TV or film) in genuine ways seems to cut through the divisions.

Telenovelas are quite popular in Mexico but your average American might not find them as entertaining – are telenovelas a cultural touch-point which do not translate? Or can they?

Telenovelas run much, much shorter than American soap operas. They wrap up after a few months instead of airing for decades. So when one fairytale storyline wraps up, you’re ready for the next one to begin from scratch. You can mix and match stars, locations, eras, storylines – it’s really quite fun, like the ultimate Rubik’s Cube of bodice-ripping fiction. I think modern Americans are increasingly disinterested in daytime soaps, because after several decades of the same stories you’re beating a dead horse past the point of exhaustion, so we’re either going to see more talk shows or short-run soaps on American TV in the future. I can’t directly attribute that to the success of Latin American filmmaking, but in the wake of “Ugly Betty” at least a few creative minds are open to the concept of telenovelas.

Has Ugly Betty had a positive impact on the Latin American community or perceptions thereof? Has it opened doors for Latin American writers, directors or producers?

It has definitely turned eyes southward. I find a lot of producers looking abroad and asking me what’s popular on television in Latin America lately. It seems to be a two-way street, too. I’ve bumped into producers and crew on Latin American versions of “Desperate Housewives,” for instance, that were meant to be shot and aired in South America. Multiple versions. So Latin television and audiences are now seen as a potential resource and not as inconsequential gnats on the wall, which is a huge difference from five or six years ago.

What advice would you give to Spanish-language writers trying to break into Hollywood?

Write good – or better yet, great – stories in Spanish. It’s much easier to find a phenomenal Spanish‐to‐English translator after you’ve knocked out a killer script than it is to write in OK‐but‐only‐passably‐so English. I can’t tell you the number of Latin scripts written in mangled English I’ve reviewed or covered in the last few years, and 100% of them get a “pass” from the production companies and directors they’ve been sent to because they’re wrong in every way imaginable. Wrong format, wrong grammar, wrong everything. Yet there are really phenomenal Spanish language scripts floating around that could reach a huge number of readers in Hollywood if they just came in with a brilliant English translation attached. If you write a good story, and write it well, it will eventually find its mark.

If you have questions for Bernadette, email her HERE and tell her the Rouge Wave sentcha. Learn more about Bernadette and her translation services at The Script Department.

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