EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Feared, yet respected, as the baddest Chicano on the block, Che (Benjamin Bratt), a reformed inmate and recovering alcoholic, resorts to violence and intimidation to get what he wants. A bus driver by day, Che lives for his beloved son, Jesse, his lifelong friends, and his passion for lowrider cars. Che and the “Mission Boyz” salvage junked cars, transforming them into classics. Che’s macho world is crushed when he discovers that Jesse’s been living a secret life. In a violent rage, Che pummels Jesse and throws him out of the house. Lena, an attractive neighbor and a force to be reckoned with, is a woman with a few secrets of her own. Mutual attraction percolates as Lena challenges Che to reconcile the life he thought he had.
Sundance Film Festival American Spectrum
Director: Peter Bratt
Screenwriter: Peter Bratt
Executive Producers: Tom Steyer, Kat Taylor, Dan Nelson
Producers: Alpita Patel, Benjamin Bratt, Peter Bratt
Cinematographer: Hiro Narita
Editor: Stan Webb
Composer: Mark Kilian
Consulting Producer: John Amaechi
Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Erika Alexander, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Jesse Borrego, Talisa Soto Bratt
Please introduce yourself…
I was born and raised in San Francisco, California. When I’m not making movies, I pound nails, paint houses, and write grants for non-profits.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
My siblings and I and were raised by an activist mother during turbulent and violent times. She was part of the American Indian Movement’s take over of Alcatraz Island in 1969. After years of oppression, native people across the country began standing up for their rights as human beings, and as members of sovereign nations. What went hand in hand with that political struggle was the reemergence of native spiritual values and traditions. I would say that these two influences – the struggle for social justice and native spirituality – is what inspired me and ultimately brought me to film making.
Over the years, I’ve heard many elders explain how we live through the stories we tell ourselves. That stories are living powers which shape our relationships, dreams, aspirations, perceptions, and ultimately our actions.
Today, they say, the world is in need of a new story.
Have you explored any other creative work outside of film?
Though I don’t consider myself a writer, I enjoy “faking” it. And I had a great time writing “La Mision” because so much of it was drawn from real life folks.I also like to sing, drum and mix it up on the dance floor.
How did you learn filmmaking?
I attended NYU’s graduate film program for a quick minute (one semester to be exact). I was sitting in the classroom one day, calculating how much I would spend on three years of tuition, 8 exercise films and a final thesis film, and concluded that I could make a low budget feature for the same amount or less, and in less time. I was in a hurry to get started, so I dropped out.
After moving back to San Francisco and reading every “how to” book there is on screenplay writing and directing, I set out to make my first feature, “Follow Me Home.” I called just about every friend and relative in the community I knew for help, and pretty much across the board, everyone lent a hand. It was such a contrast to making films in New York, where I didn’t know anyone, or have that kind of community support.
It was a similar process launching this project – we enlisted the help of the community, and that became the foundation from which we built the house.
What prompted the idea for “La Mision” and how did it evolve?
Our film takes place in an urban Latino community, and centers on “Che”, a violent patriarch who discovers that his only son is homosexual.
Ours is a culture obsessed with conquering, domination and violence, which is reflected in the history and origin of this country; and that violence is at the heart of the American male identity. Che is no different.
As the outcome of the recent presidential election indicates, many people are hungry for change. We may not know what kind of change we want, but we know we need something radically different than what exists.
On purpose, Che is a symbol of the patriarchal culture around him, and like that culture, is at the threshold of great change. He can either maintain old habits and attitudes, or he can adapt, grow and mature. Either way, he is bound for pain.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
Film is one of the most risky investments one can make, so we expected raising the money to be a process. What we didn’t expect, however, was the reaction we got toward the material. The investment pool is predominantly made up of white money, and more than a few times we were told that “the gay thing” had already been done and was now passe. The underlying assumption being made was that because the dominant culture had already dealt with the gay issue (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Will & Grace” etc.), then everybody else had as well. In short order, what these people were saying was that the white experience is the universal one. When we tried to explain how much of a social taboo homosexuality remains in many communities of color, the reaction was often one of disbelief.
On the flip side, when we tried to rally support from within the Latino and Native community, we were sometimes met with resistance, shame, or straight-up hostility. One relative asked me, “Why do you have to make the son a faggot, can’t he be a drug addict instead?”
As a director, the greatest challenge was of course dealing with the constraints of time and money. Once we secured the financing, we had 6 weeks of prep, 26 days of shooting, averaging 6-7 pages per day. From prep to submitting to the Sundance Film Festival, it’s been eight exhilarating and exhausting months.
After finishing my first film under similar limitations, I vowed to give myself more time to shoot the coverage I needed. That vow will have to be fulfilled the next time around.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
I heard the writer Alice Walker on the radio not too long, talking about what an exciting time it is to be alive. The radio host asked how she could eel that way, considering all the killing, poverty and environmental destruction going on in the world today. Alice reminded her interviewer that it is from hard work that human beings find meaning and happiness. And never before has there been so much work to do.
I love that, and think it’s a powerful place to work from, no matter what you do.
What are your future projects?
Benjamin and I started a small company with our partner, Alpita Patel, and the three of us hope to develop scripts with other writers and directors. In an ideal world, I’d get to continue to write and direct, as well as produce for others.