Independent Filmmaker's Guide
September 8, 2020
John Leguizamo Directs His First Feature: Critical Thinking
John Leguizamo has been a force in the entertainment industry for over 30 years and still the storytelling freedom of independent filmmaking attracted him to team up with writer Dito Montiel. Facing the challenges of self-funding and financing and working with a low budget, their movie is more than a story to them. It is a part of the mission to represent their culture in the media, and show it in an accurate way. To make an independent film that would give a voice to the true story of the often overlooked, ignored and written-out communities of Miami youth. With all these pieces in play, they had to become chess masters of filmmaking.
John Leguizamo: I learned this from Spike. It says, “Don’t stay on the same shot. You got it? Move.”
Steven Pierce: So how many takes would you do before you’d move the camera usually?
John Leguizamo: One take.
John Leguizamo: I’ve done over a hundred films, man. I knew you can’t go into this unprepared, and independent film is the toughest thing you’ll ever have to do in your life. You can’t come in there and try to wing it.
Dito Montiel: It all isn’t about becoming a big star. That would be nice too, but it should be about the work and having fun.
Dito Montiel: Getting to go and meet these people that the story was about, reminded me a lot of my childhood. My father was a typewriter mechanic from Nicaragua that wanted me to be a token booth clerk. Not because he didn’t believe in dreams, but he knew how difficult they can be. I saw it as an act of love. To meet these kids and all that, and I know having that moment of, “Maybe we can do something else”, that really excited me. What it’s about, it was more about that than anything else. Like I said, I Googled my way through chess and I’m glad John understands the game, and these kids… Well, they’re not kids anymore, but they know the game like you wouldn’t believe. So it was just about that for me.
John Leguizamo: Yeah, for me it was like, we Latin people are almost 20% of the population, the largest ethnic group in America, the least represented in movies at 3%, less than 1% of stories being told about us, we’re 25% of the US box office. We contribute $1.3 trillion to the economy every year. We’re the least represented in children’s picture books, and we’re almost 30% of the public school population. So how do these kids project themselves? How do they see themselves succeeding? How do other people see us succeeding, and not profiling us and not demonizing us? How do we build our own self-respect? I didn’t grow up seeing myself in superheroes, I didn’t see myself growing up as being the lead of a TV show, the writer of Elizabethan plays. I saw nothing. I never saw myself. And I wanted to drop out of school, that’s why we Latin people have the highest high school dropout rate, because we’re just not seen any anywhere, and yet, we’re crushing it wherever there are no metrics. Wherever there are metrics, we win. In music, wherever you can count scans, J Balvin is the number one Spotify star in the world. You got Cardi B, you got Camila Cabello, you got Maluma, you got people cranking out hits because you can measure.
In sports, because you got stats, you can measure. But in our industry, where it’s on somebody’s opinion, it’s impossible, bro. For 20 years, I’ve been telling, I want to tell Latin stories. We’ve got millions of stories. They’re great. They don’t get it. Even with this movie, I went to the studios, they’re like, “Latin people don’t want to see Latin.” I’m like, “What? That’s the craziest thing you can say to me.” Then they say, “Latin people don’t want feel-good movies.” I’m going, “What? What do we want? Depressing, dramatic BS?” So I had to raise money independently. And that’s the struggle, man, That’s why this movie meant so much to me, because – “Let’s put out positive stories of our success, and discontinue this demonization and exclusion on Latin people.” We’ve been here for 500 years, we discovered this country, we founded it, then we gave it over to England. But before that, we were the greatest civilizations in the world. Empires, Aztec, Mayan, Incan, Apache, Comanche. Where are we in the history textbooks? I used to go to Washington Square Park and play where the best players were, and if you’re not good, you had to pay 20 bucks and they let you play. And they’d always take my money and tell me to scram. But what I wanted to do here, I had the consultants, the real guys, come in. I said, “You got to help me, man. I can’t do this alone, I’m not an expert, after a couple of moves, I start to forget what I’m talking about.” And I wanted to show, in class, what this teacher did, because he was instrumental, Mario Martinez.
These were ghetto nerds. They didn’t want to go the wrong way in this tough neighborhood, and they didn’t want to play football. There was no place for these ghetto intellectual kids, there was no safe space. He created this after-school special class that they could go and he was going to give them book knowledge. And he loves kids, man. Mario loved these kids as if they were his own. And I saw that in him, and I wanted to make sure I could put that on film, and I was like, “Teach me how you taught them, man. Teach me, I want to know how that process happens.” And so he showed me, and I put it there. Sometimes it seems a little long, but I was like, “I want people to understand how this is imparted.” Because these kids had the gift and the passion. He wanted to give him the book knowledge. The trick that happens is, you start watching the movie, you start thinking you know how to play chess as good as these guys, and so when you get to the championship, you think you know and understand all the moves, but you really don’t. But that’s a trick that happens.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. I think some of my favorite scenes are those early ones where you are teaching, and you’re teaching those things with the… Because the cross-talk that happens with the students, and the students that are interested, and the way that’s so ensemble-driven. Those scenes are damn near impossible to put up and make feel real. I thought your performance so shined in those moments.
John Leguizamo: Thank you.
Steven Pierce: You had that tone of beaten-down teacher, just like, you don’t give a shit, nobody’s giving you their money. But then you also had a real connection with the kids, and it felt… It reminded me a lot of Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver.
John Leguizamo: Oh my God, I love that movie.
Steven Pierce: Yeah.
John Leguizamo: Yeah. What a beautiful flick. That was a very important film for me as well, because here I go, I see, “Oh wow. We can be leads, we’re doing positive things in the world, we’re actually making a difference in America.” Because we were just invisible. We’re still invisible. It’s so crazy, man, that less than 3% of the faces on camera in Hollywouldn’t, and in streamers and networks, and behind the camera is even less. It’s so insane, man. It needs to stop. I’m not asking for more, I want 20%, I want parody, and I don’t want any less, and I want it now. I want to see myself reflected, I want my kids to see themselves, I want this incredible youth, Latinx generation, Latinx, I want them to feel they can. And it’s movies like this, and it’s studio heads not standing in the way. And we need Latin studio heads. That’s the other thing.
Steven Pierce: I think you totally, in my opinion, nailed it, which I’ve never said to any movie yet. So I think that comes to your ability, and this is your first time directing a feature film, right, John?
John Leguizamo: Yeah. This is my directorial debut. I did a film for HBO, and I’ve done commercials, but having a script that Dito wrote, he writes the best young people’s dialogue you’ve ever heard. It just comes out of people’s mouths naturally, and they feel proud to be saying what he’s writing, because it feels real.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like all the young people, which are also very hard to sometimes get great performances out of, they all ring completely true. What was your guys’ approach? How did you go about building these characters to get that authenticity?
John Leguizamo: Well, Dito did mad research. He went all the way to Florida and hung out with the real players from 1998, all five of them, and he spent a lot of time, right, Dito?
Dito Montiel: Yeah, we got to just roam around and get to check out their world there, which strangely has been hit pretty hard with this craziness going on in the world. But that was before it. It was just a really pretty special to hang out with them, yeah. It’s pretty great.
John Leguizamo: As you will see, some of the actors that I picked are from that town, from Overtown, Liberty City, Allapattah, it used to be called Liberty City back in the day. And then from there, Angel Curiel’s from there, and Jorge Lendeborg, the Dominican kid who plays Ito, he’s also from Miami. Not that area, but around there.
Steven Pierce: That’s really cool. How did you find them in casting? Did you do a regional casting, that’s how you found them?
John Leguizamo: Dude, the amount of Latin talent out there, and black actors, is incredible. It was hundreds and hundreds of beautiful actors, so talented, so ready to go, it was tough. So I picked the guys that resembled the characters the most naturally, and I don’t just mean externally, I meant internally, that I felt, you are Sedrick. You got that humble intellect, leadership glue of the group. Ito, oh, he’s the handsome, sexy, spitfire, dynamic dynamite. We don’t know where he’s going to go with life. And then Angel, he’s just a funny dude. So I cast them that way, and then I got some incredible talent. And I said to the guys, “Look, this is all on me. We’re people of color, we always have to deliver three times better than everybody, otherwise we get spanked. So I need you to come a week earlier and give me 12 hours a day, and it’s going to be brutal. And you’ve got to rehearse with me every day after shooting. It’s going to be long days, but this is the only way we can deliver.” And they did it. And we came, and I had the guys, the real players, all five of them, as my consultants, and I wanted the exact games that they played. So they broke it down for me, and the last game, the one in the championship, is 60 moves. These guys had to learn 60 moves by memory, and that was rough. We did this day in, day out, dialogue. And then I would call Dito, and go, “This scene is… They’re bringing me some new elements. I want to combine who they really are with the real guys. How do we…” And he would write some beautiful shit that I would have next day to use, I was like, “What? Dito, how do you do this?”
Dito Montiel: It was such a pleasure, I can’t even tell you, because normally you get notes or whatever. John would write the whole thing and send it to me, and say, “Okay, mess with this.” And I’d be like, “Damn.” And usually you get stuff and you’re like, “Okay, this is pretty terrible.” I’d be like, “This is pretty good. All right, I’ll just mess a little with this.”
John Leguizamo: The next day that shit was so –
Dito Montiel: We were like a machine. I’d be like, “Damn, this guy is as quick as me.” The next day he’s hitting me back, I’d be like, “Wow.” But it’s electrifying.
John Leguizamo: That was such a gift to have. I’ve never had that… Sorry, my parakeets are going. I got pets, I’m a pet freak. There they go.
Steven Pierce: Check it out. Look at those parakeets. That’s amazing.
John Leguizamo: … Old-school parakeets
Dito Montiel: I think, do they live like a hundred years? Who has parakeets? I kind of love it.
John Leguizamo: It’s from my ghetto days, my ghetto days
Dito Montiel: I miss people with parakeets. I’m real happy to see somebody do it.
Steven Pierce: I feel like you’re going to turn the camera around, you’re going to have the Komodo dragon over next to the parakeets.
John Leguizamo: The grannies of ghetto folk have parakeets. Yeah, but I got to say, it was incredible. I’ve never worked like that with a writer, who’s as free, as spontaneous, as limitless. You can throw anything at Dito, and boom, it’s back the next day, like it’s Sam Shepherd wrote it, like David Mamet. It had that kind of quality.
Steven Pierce: Dito, you weren’t on set, it doesn’t sound like.
Dito Montiel: No, it was all just emails and calls and stuff I got.
John Leguizamo: He was like a doctor, on-call 24/7.
Dito Montiel: But it was so exciting, because it’d be like, again, usually you get these… It’s a whole different process always, but this was right up my speed. I loved it, because it’d be like, “Damn, he wrote this whole scene that he’s going to film next week? Are you crazy?” I’d be thinking, “He’s crazy, but I’ll jump in too.” And it would be like, “Okay, this is going to be pretty cool.” That’s the trip, and this was a really fun one
John Leguizamo: This experience made me want to direct more. I was a little gun-shy from my last directorial piece that I did, I was very unhappy with it on so many levels. And I said, “This will be giving me one more shot. I’m going to try with Critical Thinking, I really feel it. I was a ghetto nerd, I know these kids are ghetto nerds, and I think I understand it.” I don’t know, I fell in love with… And if every movie can be like this, and I know they can’t always be this beautiful, and just collaborative and fresh, but I’m hoping, man. I really got addicted to the groove and the hustle.
Steven Pierce: It feels like you guys were living in that world. And one thing I wanted to comment on, whenever you said memorizing those 60 chess moves, and the thing. One of the things, I think, is super hard about a movie like this, seems to me, is, you’re showing chess matches, which inherently are not super-visual or super-interesting to watch.
John Leguizamo: No, they’re in your head, man. This isn’t what you would normally be filming.
Steven Pierce: Yeah.
John Leguizamo: Chess is too internal. It’s face-to-face, and there’s so many moments you can put beads of sweat on people, or make them look constipated. But I wanted it to look a sport, and I wanted everyone to… Each championship to be a different sport. The last one is a boxing ring. So it’s the two guys against each other, and they’re going to duke it out, and I want to see the moves look like hits. And then, the one previous to it, I wanted it to be more a basketball game. The guys come this way, they go that way, there’s a lot of moving. And the earlier one is more baseball, a little slower, a little more hit here, hit there.
John Leguizamo: Zach Zamboni, who used to be Anthony Bourdain’s DP for 12 years, through his whole life, was the man for me, because I knew he could do beauty shots, the environments used to go all around the world, and improv, and make… Because with real people, you’re making them do a second take, it’s going to be D.O.A, dead on arrival. I’ve done over a hundred films, man. I knew you can’t go into this unprepared, and an independent film is the toughest thing you’ll ever have to do in your life. You can’t come in there and try to wing it, you don’t have the time, you don’t have the budget. Everything is against you. The days are too short, there’s not enough crew. You got to come there so mad prepared. So Zach and I got together a lot early, the DP, director of photography, and we went with Venice cams, and we went from zero to 90 zooms, because I wanted it to feel mad documentarian. I wanted him to be able to go into a hand if it’s moving, and then pop right back out… Pop to the face, so it feel dynamic, and because you’re going to go from tiny little chess pieces to faces, I needed that flexibility in the lens.
Steven Pierce: With you being in a lot of these scenes, so many of them too, how much did you lean on Zach? How much were you being, like “This is the shot. This is the next shot. This is the coverage.” How much was he contributing and helping you, so that you could focus on the performance?
John Leguizamo: Well, we did a lot before. I’ve worked with Baz Luhrmann, I’ve worked with Spike Lee, De Palma, Tony and Ridley Scott, Brad Furman, you name it. I’ve worked with some greats. And I didn’t realize I had this catalog of all their techniques, and I knew what each technique was for, and I’ve always asked questions, I’ve always been to the director, “Why are you shooting it around like that? Why do you leave it on sticks so long?” And “Why, Spike, why are you using three cams? Ava DuVernay, why are you using four cams?” And we know that the more cams you use, the more improv you can do, because you don’t have to repeat. Because one they actually start to repeat, they also get… Sometimes they get better, others don’t, and then it’s uneven and you can’t fix it in the editing room. It gets a little tough.
Steven Pierce: How many cameras did you end up using?
John Leguizamo: Well, low-budget. It’s a $3 million movie that I’m trying to make it look 20 million, and a two. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get three, if it was the big championship, national championship, then it was three. But always two, but always two running. Always two, so I can… Yeah. One on either guy talking, and the other one trying to cover some other stuff.
Steven Pierce: Got you. Did you analyze it, and be like… You’d have to go scene-by-scene, but you were trying to do a wide, and a particular follow-shot, or were you trying to break it, like two singles –
John Leguizamo: Right – so on the group a little bit, and sometimes I was going, “Let’s get the group on the first…” I learned this from Spike, it says, “Don’t stay on the same shot. You got it? Move.” There’s a lot of directors, they would just stay in that same angle over and over. No, keep playing, but move that camera. So that’s what I told Zach, I said, “Just keep it moving, man. Get the big one, let’s forget the big one. Now come back to these two guys, then come back to this. And just keep…” I’ll do it a lot of times, I believe in a lot of takes, but move that camera for me, so I have different things to have to play with in the editing room, so I can save scenes, or save performances, or save my own ass.
Steven Pierce: How many takes would you do before you’d move the camera usually?
John Leguizamo: One take.
Steven Pierce: One take? You do one-one shot, and then –
John Leguizamo: Unless it was a two-person scene that was really emotional, then I didn’t want to play around too much, because then it just gets too overdone. But on the car with me and Sedrick, where he’s telling me about losing his mom and how his dad got cold on him, and then me sharing with him how I lost my son. I wanted to keep that mad simple. We came in a little tighter and tighter, but you got to keep those kinds of scenes, you can’t be intrusive.
Steven Pierce: One thing I wanted to comment on, you mentioned thinking about how the way Spike moved and about moving the camera so much. I noticed also, it really struck me while I was watching the opening sequence, is the way you filmed Miami, really did remind me, I wrote down, of Do The Right Thing. The way in the opening act, first act to Do The Right Thing, the way he photographs all those brownstones and everything. I don’t know, maybe that was just… Were you thinking about that, or did that just seep into you from your career, and that Rolodex that you’re keeping?
John Leguizamo: Yeah, that one wasn’t so conscious, that little borrow. I wasn’t so conscious, but I tip my hat to my man Spike. Now that you mentioned it, I’m going, “Oh yeah, it is like Do The Right Thing.” But I wanted to show the side of Miami you never see. You always see the beaches, you see that Miami Vice shot, it’s like, “That’s only a part of it, a tiny part of it.” I wanted to show where the real people live, where the majority of the people live, and how they live. And so that was it, to bring you to that neighborhood. And then, what’s crazy about that neighborhood, Allapattah, Overtown, is that it’s right in the middle of these expensive towers all around. Expensive Miami is all around them, and you can see it from your little ghetto neighborhood, right there, but they don’t see you.
Steven Pierce: Tell me a little about how you as a lead actor and director are handling these scenes? How would a scene take shape? Are you giving notes to the other actors during rehearsals, are you just rolling and then jumping in and everybody’s doing it? How are you approaching your process as an actor and a director?
John Leguizamo: Well, I had a cast of actors that I knew were self-directing. Rachel Bay Jones and Michael K. Williams. I don’t got to say nothing to them, but you can just be in a scene and we’ll go there and play tennis, pop-pop-pop. I don’t have to say much. And I needed that, because it’s a mad complicated movie. With the guys, it was a little different. They all had super talents, but it’s five different energies that I have to coalesce, so that was more in rehearsal. And when we’re doing the scenes and I’m not in it, then boom, I can… “Let’s just try that, just a little different.” I think it’s, “My man, it’s already in the line. You don’t have to add extra spin to it. Just tell it.” I would modulate them and they would do it beautifully, and then sometimes they would surprise the hell out of me. I’m a big believer in going back to the monitor and looking, that’s how I direct myself.
Steven Pierce: You were watching a lot of playback?
John Leguizamo: Yeah, yeah, I have to. Sometimes obviously, it’s a mad independent film, so I got to not go back…
Steven Pierce: Right, you don’t have time to, necessarily.
John Leguizamo: “It didn’t feel great, let’s just go. I’ll look at it tomorrow.” But you just don’t have enough time, we’re running out of… we got to move to the next location, and it’s like, “Just do it, let’s just do it.” And I’ll try different ways and hope to God that we got it.
Steven Pierce: How many days did you guys shoot?
John Leguizamo: 28 days.
Steven Pierce: 28 days. That’s a really good schedule, wow, on three million. That’s a hell of an achievement on its own.
John Leguizamo: Yeah. But it’s still not enough time, and those scenes where it had 200 extras, and they got to tap out at a certain hour, it’s rough, it’s rough. And then I had a lot of championships. I couldn’t fill it up as much as I wanted to, because we didn’t have the money or the time. I filled them up as best I could, but sometimes it played off, like that state championship where the school’s half… Well, not even half, what is it? Mostly empty. It looks like they’re beginning.
Steven Pierce: And I think that you know chess, I think there’s a little bit of a suspension of disbelief too, because when I think about a chess tournament, I don’t think about a football stadium being full. I think you can get that a little bit there too.
John Leguizamo: Yeah, you cut me some slack, thank you.
Steven Pierce: What was your crew like? Do you remember what size production crew you had? Not in the exile side of the extras and the cast, just trying to get a sense of how many people were moving lights and cameras and stuff?
John Leguizamo: Yeah. No, small crew, and smaller in different… We shot in real projects, everything was real locations, because there’s nothing a real location, man. You go back to those beautiful 60s when they started going out into the street. Just the reality, the things that happened by accident just add so much extra life. Because you know when you’re always in a studio lot, you feel there’s a deadness, there’s a Twilight Zone feel that starts to happen, like, “Where are all the people? Why does everybody look like they’re walking on the same rhythm?”
Dito Montiel: And there’s always something hanging on the wall that you would never have thought of. Who would have thought of that?
John Leguizamo: Weirdly clean, and you go, “New York is not that clean.”
Steven Pierce: I think in indie films, that’s 90% of the look of everything is the location. You got to pick a location that will work for the scene, because you’re not going to have the money or the time or the people to build it and make it perfect. You’ve got to find it.
John Leguizamo: No, we did paint stuff a lot, and ask permission, just because otherwise it would have been just unbearable to the eye, just so depressing. We just heightened the green in the classroom just to a rich, rich green, so it would go further back and give us a little more room, mental space, in the rooms. And then the projects, man, we went with dark colors that would also work against Michael K.’s coloring. He’s a dark man, and I wanted to make sure that he looked handsome and beautiful. I wanted to capture every bit of that face, and something that contrasted that beautiful skin color.
Dito Montiel: What I think is beautiful about the film here, and maybe it’s why Do The Right Thing, the opening, because I think of Clockers, who… It’s one of those times where in the beginning, you get to see these neighborhoods for once, the beauty of them too, where you don’t normally see that. When you go into the projects in a lot of movies, they put on the bad hip hop soundtrack and somebody comes busting out.
Dito Montiel: I think in a lot of ways, it’s a mental game. For me, just checking it out, where I was like, “Oh, it was so nice to see these neighborhoods like this that aren’t vilified immediately.” Sure, bad things happen. Bad things happen everywhere, but that’s where my head went when you say with these colors on the walls.
John Leguizamo: But Dito, you know what it is? It was a note that I told the crew, I said, “I don’t want ghetto porn.”
Dito Montiel: Yeah.
John Leguizamo: That’s what I said, “I don’t want it to look so depressing, and so…” Because there’s a lot of joy in these underprivileged neighborhoods, you find joy in other ways. Obviously not financially and not in those terms, but you make your own joy, and you make your own place respectable. And it even though it’s modest, you make it your home and it’s yours, and there’s things you love.
Dito Montiel: And funny, yeah, because with Miami and all that, a lot of us, me being one of them, I didn’t know much about Miami. So I thought Miami is the Strip of Miami, and then you get to check out Dade, and all these other places, and you’re like, “Oh wow, it’s got a little bit of everything.” But again, I think it’s an attest to the film you decided to make, which was, this is not going to be ghetto porn. We’re just going to go into a neighborhood that this is where the story takes place, and a little bit of everything happens there, just like everywhere. You don’t see that all the time, and that was a nice thing about the casting as well too. That’s like me, not seeing it yet.
Steven Pierce: When did you guys film this?
John Leguizamo: Two years ago, October 2018.
Steven Pierce: So what was post like? Did you do that in New York, back here?
John Leguizamo: Yeah, we did it at Light Iron downtown, on Princeton and B-way. It’s a great, great space. You have a theater there, and Jamie Kirkpatrick was awesome, and Buck… Matthew, we call him Buck, were really instrumental. We just played around, we did our storyboards, messed around, we cut a ton of stuff, put some stuff back. You know how it is, it’s a new picture in the editing room. It’s the second type of writing.
Steven Pierce: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s what I’ve been learning more and more with talking to filmmakers like you, is that there are three different scripts. There’s the one you write, like Dito, and then there’s the one you shoot, and then there’s the one you edit, because ultimately, now you’re looking at what you have. So were there any surprises for you, because you’re moving the camera so much, and you’re being so fluid in doing this? Did you have any surprises in the edit of things you wish you could have done differently, or was it always just, you liked having those options, and you felt the performance was always tracked?
John Leguizamo: Yeah, I was really happy with everything except one championship that was really… It just kills me. I don’t know, I was tired, I was worn out, and I had given the shots in the way I wanted to have done it, and everybody forgot what I had said, and it just came out corny and boring, and not the visual splendor that I wanted them all to have. I wanted them all to be visually stunning, and that one to me was the worst. But we cut a lot of it out, and made it a much shorter scene to get out of the pain.
Steven Pierce: That’s what I always say, at least if it’s not going to be good, it can be brief.
John Leguizamo: Yes, It’s like my sex life.
Steven Pierce: I didn’t notice anything being bad like that –
John Leguizamo: It kills me, man. I got to say that… Because I had a whole thing orchestrated that the camera would pass by and then it’d be… Time would elapse, and it’d come by, and then it’ll be a whole… So every pass was a different… And then it didn’t come out that way.
Steven Pierce: It didn’t work out? Well, that’s the risk, and ultimately you cut it down, it didn’t hinder the movie. That’s something you take forward in your next one.
John Leguizamo: There’s a scene that I love that came out crazy good, that was fun, was the pool scene. And Angel, I was like, “Angel, you got to go full Monty, bro. You can’t go half-Monty. What is that? You’re a kid, you’re crazy. Just do your thing, and we’ll be respectful.” And it just added this element, it was like, “Wow.”
Steven Pierce: I love that whole night, that whole scene, when you come up with a pizza and you have all that… It just feels so authentic. That’s one of those moments where I was talking, I was like, “I feel like the writing and the performances just did this.” And you guys really had something clicking and special. It’s so hard to say, because it seems like, in your head, you’ve seen this a hundred times, but doing that overlapping dialogue and ensemble-scene, it’s hard. That shit’s real hard.
John Leguizamo: Yeah. You need kids who know timing, actors that know timing. I’ve been studying Preston Sturgis lately, because he’s a master of timing. Obviously he’s from the theater and he brought that overlapping, and five actors all talking, but like instruments, it’s orchestrated. Because you could still hear the dialogue and the big points, even though they’re all talking almost at the same time. And you’re like, “Oh my God, this guy, it’s the magic of film actors and directors who had studied theater. Nobody else thinks that way.”
Dito Montiel: And then having a kid run naked, like John said, you can’t fake wow.
Steven Pierce: You can’t fake that, yeah.
Video: Now people, this is going to be very basic for some of you, but for the fish, or the newbies, as I to call you, it’s going to be eye-opening, because what you’ve got is 64 squares, 32 pieces. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, what Ivy League school you may go or may not go to, what prison you hopefully never set foot in, because chess is the great equalizer. Okay? Now in the opening, white always moves first. Now I wonder what old white guy thought of that rule, right? I know you hear me.
Steven Pierce: What is your distribution plan looking like for the film?
John Leguizamo: Well, we got picked up by Vertical, we had a little bit of a bidding war, and Vertical seemed to offer us the most all around. Producers, money up front, I want eyeballs on my movie. We’ll have a trade off, and Vertical seemed to offer the most and cared about the movie the most. Obviously we got into South by Southwest, but COVID took that away. We got into Deauville, very prestigious film festival in France, we couldn’t go there either. And theaters, we were going to be in 10 cities. I think we’re going to be in two or three, and people aren’t even leaving their homes anyway, even in those three cities, it’s just not going to theaters right now.
John Leguizamo: So we’re on Amazon, iTunes, Voodoo, a ton of streamers, we’re all over the place except Netflix.
Steven Pierce: Are you trying the virtual cinema route at all with Vertical, or are they just going straight to… If it’s going straight to the streaming platforms, I’m assuming not?
John Leguizamo: No, there’s going to be a few theaters, but in states that have opened theaters, because it’s September 4th and New York has not, Chicago has not, Miami has not. There’s very few. I don’t even know where the states are in cities that we’re going to put it in theaters, but I think this is the way to distribute it right now. We’re all really hungry for entertainment, they’re running out. We want to see ourselves reflected back, us Latin people, and I think it’s timely, it’s really this whole time we’re living in, this topsy-turvy, upside down world we’re living in where…
Dito Montiel: There’s a lot going on these days.
John Leguizamo: We don’t know who’s good, who’s bad, and we’re confused and nobody can agree on facts, and the beautiful thing with Black Lives Matters is it’s really making a change. And us brown people are all for black lives, because it’s our sister cause. Latin people are the second most shot ethnic group, after black people, by police, there’s been so many deaths in the past four months with Latin people in their homes, young kids being shot, and then we had that assault in El Paso, 23 Latin people shopping in a mall, just some random white supremacist comes in and shoots people living their lives, innocent, beautiful people.
John Leguizamo: So I think it’s time to start seeing Latin power, and I want to see Latin faces, and I want to see our positive messages out there.
Steven Pierce: So what have you learned and what advice would you give to filmmakers that are making their first film or two? Is there anything that you learned on this set you are going to take into your next directing project?
Dito Montiel: I think John said it before, you got to… Or the truth is, do it yourself. I always joke like, “Yeah, I’d love Channing Tatum to call me up to make GI Joe Four, but until he does, I’m going to keep writing my crazy little people, and trying to get it done.” And this was something that I know that John wanted to inhabit it with the people that it should be inhabited with, and to pull that off is no easy task. So if you’re talking about a first time filmmaker, YouTube is your friend, iPhones are your friend, iMovie, or writing playhouses. Live it. Forget all that other stuff, you don’t need it. It’s like waiting for a big record deal, I’m glad they’re all gone now. Do it on your own.
John Leguizamo: I say to kids is exactly what Dito said, it’s say yes to everything, man, do it on the ‘Gram. You don’t wait, don’t wait. Nobody’s going to write it for you, nobody’s going to produce it for you, nobody’s going to get it done for you. Especially if you’re a person of color, you better figure out how to do it on your own, the lowest budget. Do it like Robert Rodriguez did, remember? Selling his blood, maxing out his credit cards, but look where he’s at, man, because nobody’s going to give it to you.
Dito Montiel: And you’ll enjoy the process too. That’s the deal.
John Leguizamo: You earned it. Anything that you sweat and suffered that much, you’re going to love it even more.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org