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.
From the Sundance catalog: "Lalo comes from a Mexican immigrant family that struggles financially. His father, formerly a janitor at the World Trade Center, now works at Ground Zero cleaning up debris. Stefanie’s family moved back to Brooklyn after her sister was killed in the attacks. While her mother tries to hold the family together, her father’s emotions have no outlet but anger. Lalo and Stefanie meet at a birthday party, and although they start off on the wrong foot, the ice melts, and their budding friendship becomes a clandestine romance."
Don't Let Me Drown
Director: Cruz Angeles
Screenwriter: Maria Topete, Cruz Angeles
Executive Producers: Ian McGloin, Virgil Price, Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley
Producers: Maria Topete, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, James Lawler, Ben Howe
Cinematographer: Chad Davidson
Production Designer: Inbal Weinberg
Casting Director: Eyde Belasco
Cast: E.J. Bonilla, Gleendilys Inoa, Damián Alcázar, Ricardo Antonio Chavira, Gina Torres, Yareli Arizmendi
U.S.A., 2008, 105 mins., color
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in Mexico City but grew up in South Central, LA during the 80’s. I lived on 76 and Figueroa but got bused out to Bel-Air and then West LA for school. I experienced LA in extremes and that's what makes me a storyteller and a filmmaker - when you're a little kid from the hood riding the big yellow school bus up and down the opulent Bel-Air hills, as your classmates get dropped off in Limos and Benzes... well, let's just say you develop a hell of an imagination. These childhood stories stored in my memory bank are what drive my creativity. The daily journeys through LA forced me to experience the social polarities and so by default my storytelling has always been influenced by these differences but also by the similarities: the human struggle that hits every one of us despite the social constructs and cages we’ve created for ourselves. After high school, I attended UC Berkeley where the bigger picture came into focus and that's really where I started to grow and decided to become a filmmaker. Berkeley allowed for me to grow, explore, make mistakes, get lost and find my way back. I did some theatre work there and took a pivotal video production class with Loni Ding where I made a documentary on youth criminalization in East Oakland. I've been making films ever since.
How did you learn the "craft" of filmmaking?
I learned my style of filmmaking while at Berkeley. Maria and I and our friends were running around with a CP-16 newsreel camera without a permit while chasing after non-actors carrying fake guns down the mean streets of Oakland when we were trying to do our very cerebral and surreal black/white short film, SACRE, without a script. It was about a kid who was trying to repress a sexual abuse incident by metaphorically replacing it with a recurring dream where he fantasizes about gunning down a group of gang-bangers who try to jump him on his way to school. So, yes, that didn’t quite work out and I learned a huge lesson: it’s all about the script. I quickly started to read books on screenwriting. I also learned what could be possible with a super small crew because when we got back our dailies from Alpha-Cine we were very impressed. Ok, I’ll admit it, the first two reels were loaded wrong. We exposed the film on the base not the emulsion side of the negative but we were still enamored with our Citizen Kane low-angle shots. It was our own film school and for about 3 months we shot every other weekend. I learned some hard lessons then but I also learned what was possible in guerilla style filmmaking and most importantly I learned to always try and keep it raw. Some of the raw quality of the footage we got with just five people and one actor running around and even after attending film school at NYU it’s been hard to replicate. What I got from this experience was my drive and work-ethic as a filmmaker. In graduate film school at NYU I honed my filmmaking and storytelling skills and I learned the most important skill you can’t learn on the street as a filmmaker: editing for character and story.
How or what prompted the idea for "Don't Let Me Drown" and how did it evolve?
The idea for the film evolved about two years after 9/11. The city was still on edge and reading the news was everyday more depressing and enraging so we found writing this story as a way to escape and create an alternate more hopeful reality. Maria and I started talking about how New York City had changed - people were anxious, there was fear in their eyes - and it reminded us of growing up in rough neighborhoods during the crack epidemics of the 80’s. She grew up in East Oakland when it was considered the murder capital of the country. The gang violence then was as random and insidious as this potential terrorist strike that could and would occur in New York anytime soon. It was like all of a sudden we had to watch our backs again. It also reminded us of our teenage years and how sometimes the only thing that would help us escape all the madness of living in the hood was hanging out with that one best friend or daydreaming of that girl or boy you had a crush on. So, we started writing a love story set one month after 9/11 where two young Latinos, whose families have been directly affected by the aftermath, find each other, develop a sincere friendship and consequently fall in love. Together they are able to keep each other's heads above water while the world around them drowns in grief and hysteria.
What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?
I admire the work of Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick and Wong Kar-Wai. In particular, I love "High and Low," "Happy Together" and "The Shining". Aesthetically, I am very much influenced by cinema verité and the neo-realist styles of filmmaking. So I am a big fan of Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicyle Thief", Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", and Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados." I also love Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri," Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai," Satyajit Ray's “The Apu Trilogy” and Charles Burnett's “Killer of Sheep." Other creative forces that have left a mark and stayed with me are the writings of Julio Cortazar, Juan Rulfo, William Faulkner, James Baldwin and Flannery O’Connor. My biggest sources of inspiration are always photographs including the works of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier Bresson, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Sebastiao Salgado.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Longevity is success, it’s hard enough to get one film made, to have a lifetime of continued momentum would be the dream. My goal as a filmmaker is to continue to make films and push the edges of the American narrative landscape to include more stories of marginalized communities but always anchoring them in universal themes that explore the human condition and transcend all boundaries.