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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Amexicano” Director Matthew Bonifacio and Writer Carmine Famiglietti

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Amexicano" Director Matthew Bonifacio and Writer Carmine Famiglietti

Director Matthew Bonifacio and writer Carmine Famiglietti‘s “Amexicano” is the story of an Italian-American and a Mexican illegal immigrant form an unlikely friendship in Queens, New York. Bruno (Carmine Famiglietti), is lazy, out of work and late with his rent. When an opportunity for work comes along Bruno is hesitant because it involves hiring undocumented day laborers on street corners. He is convinced it is not safe and sure enough the first guy he hires is Diego (Manny Perez), a fast talking hustler who could be dangerous. It’s not until Bruno hires Ignacio (Raul Castillo) and meets his wife Gabriela (Jennifer Pena) that his attitude changes despite language barriers and racial prejudices. The film opens at New York’s Quad Friday, September 19 and with other cities to follow.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

Matthew Bonifacio: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 1972, my mother was pregnant with me when she went to see “The Godfather.” I’m guessing that’s where it all started. At a young age, I was fascinated with movies (“Closing Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Rocky,” “E.T.,” Stand By Me,” etc.), and it wasn’t until after high school when I became interested in acting. I took acting classes and performed in numerous plays in Manhattan for many years. Along the way, something else was brewing inside me; I was bit hard by the filmmaking bug. I’ve always believed in hard work and dedication. So I got hold of the required reading lists from NYU and Columbia University Film Schools and started self-educating myself. I had developed a strong passion for directing, writing and producing.

Carmine Famiglietti: I was born and raised in Flushing, Queens. A Met fan and a movie fan. Without question the first thing that attracted me to filmmaking was “Star Wars.” I was only four years old at the time but after I saw “Star Wars” I wanted the toys. Before you know it I was tying string up all over the house and had The Millennium Falcon flying over my mother’s head. From there the creative energy started flowing and it hasn’t stopped since.

Over the years I’ve learned to accept that getting the chance to make movies like “Star Wars” or “Jaws” will be a long shot. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make films that can be just as influential to a different group of audiences albeit smaller. Don’t get me wrong I would love to make a big Hollywood Sci-Fi film someday but if I don’t it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Making independent films is one of the greatest callings in life if you ask me. We get to tell the stories that people don’t get to see in mainstream movies. We may be broke as independent filmmakers but we’re free and there’s nothing better than being free.

How did the idea for “Amexicano” came about?

MB: Carmine pitched it to me in 2006 and I was instantly hooked. His story focused on an unlikely friendship between two different cultures. It was very human and universal. I was very enthusiastic. Day laborers on street corners are a common sight in Brooklyn as well as in every borough. Carmine’s story put a face on the ‘faceless’ undocumented day laborers that we walk or drive by everyday. I couldn’t wait to read his first draft. He was able to tackle a draft pretty quickly because his personal experiences throughout the years — he actually hired day laborers — and he was conscious of how Mexican characters in certain films were portrayed very stereotypically. He also had a dream that befriended an undocumented Mexican Immigrant. Within a couple of weeks after his dream, he had a first draft and after reading it, it clear that “Amexicano” would be next.

CF: I dreamt it. No shit, that’s the truth. I had a dream that I befriended an illegal immigrant from Mexico and fell in love with his wife. It’s like Sting and “Every Breath You Take.” He dreamt the lyrics. Me and Sting, that’s how we do it. Once I woke up the next day I started writing and within a couple of weeks I had a draft and sent if over to Matthew. He gave me great notes and then I went and did some more research to make it as relevant as possible. Not to mention I had some experience to draw on. When I was younger and unemployed, as opposed to being older and unemployed, I worked side jobs and would have to pick up day laborers on street corners. I would go and pick up a complete stranger and by the end of the day we would have built up a bond by working together. There was one laborer who I worked with for a couple of months. He was half my size but did twice the amount of work. Then one day he was gone. I definitely based some of the character of Ignacio (Raul Castillo) on him.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

MB: With “Lbs.,” it was my first feature and the fact that I didn’t go to film school, I wanted to tackle the film without being influenced by other movies. Just go for it. But I did read a lot of film books and director interviews. With “Amexicano,” I wised up and did both. I wanted to continue to grow visually and as a storyteller. I went out and bought a bunch of films, “La Ciudad,” “The Border” (starring Jack Nicholson) and many others. I revisited two of my favorite films, “Amores Perros” and “City of God.” My conclusion after watching all of the films, I noticed they were well crafted, impressive and unassuming. I realized they all had a common thread in the way they were captured: confidently, naturalistically and organically. Keep it real. Keep it simple. I picked up a few books on Mexican journeys, color and design. I wanted to get a deeper understanding on the culture and way of life. My imagination and creative ideas were pumping. Carmine and I went out in the Latino communities and we spoke with legal and undocumented immigrants. In Columbus, a border town in New Mexico where we filmed, we spoke with coyotes, the US Border Patrol and community activists. From the very beginning, one of our executive producers, Cesar A. Baez was incredibly helpful during our research…

Carmine Famiglietti, left, and Jennifer Pena in “Amexicano” directed by Matthew Bonifacio. Photo credit: The Brooklyn-Queens Experiment

CF: Matthew and I are strong believers in having smaller crews. Which I’m sure pisses off our crews sometimes but at the end of the day I don’t think you should hire 25 people for a job that 17 people can do. And I feel that philosophy can translate into the distribution of the films as well. Our goal with “Amexicano” was to put a face on the faceless. We met a number of great people while making this movie and I know for a fact that they are contributing to positively to America in many different ways. This issue is an issue because our government let it get this way. Of course there is a bad element coming over the borders (Mexico and Canada) and we should do everything we can to stop it but I don’t think we should be ripping families apart. No way. What we wanted to show with “Amexicano” is that a vast number of the people living here albeit illegally are good people who still believe in the America dream. Which is something I can’t say for a lot of Americans these days.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?

MB: It’s always money no matter kind of budget you have, though, it forces you to be creative and not take anything for granted. You have to look at it this way and say to yourself. “I’m very lucky, I have a rare opportunity to make a feature film that someone is funding and believes in.” You embrace that notion and set out to make a dynamite film. Bigger budgets will come but so will headaches with lots of hands in the cookie jar. Securing distribution is always a battle. And to get a film released is a pretty special accomplishment. The Tribeca Film Festival did an excellent job with attracting industry attention and getting behind Carmine and me…

CF: Lack of money, money, money. Hey, it’s the nature of the beast when it comes to making independent films. But in reality with recouping the money being next to impossible I agree with the idea that we should spend as little as possible. Some of the creative challenges we faced were learning and having to understand the real challenges that immigrants deal with. We had to educate ourselves and make sure we captured images that are a part of their everyday lives. As for making the film it’s the normal stuff with a new catastrophic problem every 15 minutes on set.

How did the financing and casting for the film come together?

MB: I Iove the casting process, it reminds me of my acting days but now I’m on the other side. It’s stimulating going through headshots, reading resumes, searching for talent in plays, movies and thinking out of the box. I’m rooting for every actor that walks through the door. We didn’t have a casting director for “Lbs.,” the majority of the cast were actors that I’ve acted with in theater. With “Amexicano” we wanted a casting director this time out. I met Heather Hurley through Neil Jain, an actor friend of mine, for another project. Heather introduced us to so many talented actors. With Jennifer Pena, we found her on imdb when researching another actress. You know imdb, a few clicks in and you’re off to the races, clicking this film and that actor, etc. I love that site. Michael Aronov played Carmine’s buddy in “Lbs.” and we wanted to work with him again.

CF: We were lucky to have built in relationships with some investors. One of our Executive Producers, Cesar Baez helped us secure the financing from various investors and a couple of old friends of mine chipped in as well. Plus our other Executive Producer, Stephen Ashkinos once again helped us when it came to our postproduction. He stepped up on “Lbs.” and he did again on “Amexicano.”

What other genres or stories would you like to explore as a filmmaker?

MB: I’m passionate about stories that have humanity, compassion and humor. Character driven stories engage me and when an audience gets to know a character in an unforced way and finds themselves rooting for him or her, those are the kind of movies that get me excited. That said, I’m interested in exploring different genres like a psychological thriller; horror, comedy and foreign films. I’d also really love to make a baseball movie and one day remake “West Side Story.”

CF: Horror, family film, romantic comedy, sci-fi (something like “Signs” or “E.T.“) where something big is going on but it’s told in a couple of locations with only a few characters. It’d be great to come up with the next Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees too. You do something like that and you can make movies for the rest of your life.

What is your next project?

MB: It may be one of these. “Bloom,” which is script of mine that I’m currently rewriting. “Brickhead,” written by Bill Gullo. It’s based on a true event that happened to me when I was a kid. And “Shake.” Carmine pitched it to me and I can’t wait to read it.

CF: Don’t know yet for sure. I’m waiting for my next Sting moment. But I do have something in mind. Ask yourself this question, take away the entertainment business, the weather and beaches, and now give me one reason why someone would move to LA. “Shake” that’s a script I’m working on. I thought of the idea while sitting on Santa Monica Beach in May. I asked myself that question. Answered it and I think found a movie.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

MB: If you pitch your movie to someone and they say, “Oh, please, don’t make that. No one would see it.” Do it! Because that means you may have something that’s not the norm. Countless people told us we were freaking out of our minds that we wanted to make a film on food addiction (Lbs.). Create your own path. Cultivate it. It’ll take time. It doesn’t happen overnight. I was an actor for many years before I got behind the camera. Take acting classes. Read film books. See movies. Go out and make it happen yourself. Become the engine of the project. My advice on-set is to make every day better than last one. Change is good. Embrace it. Improvise when obstacles present themselves. Happy accidents are magic! Have an open mind. Always get enough camera coverage and try to ‘edit’ in your head take by take so you know what you’ve captured and what you need to still get. Stay lighthearted, calm and have fun! You’re making a movie!

CF: Swing away! No fear, just go and do it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or success. I’ve seen people self-destruct just when it’s starting to get good. No one is ever, ever, ever going to care about your film as much as you. And learn how to self distribute.

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