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Skirting the Issues: Exclusive Interview With Carlos Berrios

Skirting the Issues: Exclusive Interview With Carlos Berrios
César Vargas

I recently sat down with filmmaker, Carlos Berrios, to discuss the state of Latino cinema and his short, “Skirting The Issues”- which was written by multifaceted filmmaker, Franc. Reyes. Carlos Berrios is one of the most insightful and pleasant people I’ve met in the industry. Perhaps one of the few Latinos who really know the ins and outs of the industry and isn’t afraid to speak about them candidly. Our conversation lasted for hours. Read all about it and see why: 

What was it about “Skirting the Issues” that appealed to you? Why did you decide on directing it?

“Skirting The Issues” is one in a series of short films that Franc. Reyes wrote over 15 years ago as a writing exercise. He never really considered making them because he was busy raising money for his first feature film, but he agreed to let a few people in our inner circle go about finding money to get them made, and also as a way to support the people in our crew who wanted to direct and act. But raising money for short films proved harder than we imagined and after a while we became discouraged and stopped trying.

I had chosen “Skirting The Issues” because I felt the conversation in it was important, and was very much what Franc. was talking about at that time. He has a way of cutting through the bull and seeing things for how they really are, and it was easy to see that the ideas and observations presented in “Skirting” were way ahead of their time. They still are. Particularly since not much has changed for us in the last 15 years, so in discussing making it today, we knew the script would still be relevant today.

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Photo: Kenneth Brown/Photo Excellence

A topic that you touched on is the concept of conditioning. Can you tell us about it?

I can’t take credit for this, as my personal realization of how Pop Culture conditioning affects Latinos psychologically in the U.S. is something I first learned years ago from Franc.’s observations of our experiences in the music business and his experience making films.

The idea of conditioning someone’s mind to accept concepts and ideas has been used throughout history, but American Pop Culture has taken it to another level. For minorities the repercussions can manifest in strange behavior and not so subtle forms of self-hate, like Sammy Sosa bleaching his skin white, or Japanese women getting an operation on their eyes to make them more round. For Latinos who want to make films, the barrier becomes a Latino marketing liaison at some agency in Hollywood crying out for less stereotypes and more positive images, negating the fact that the images they’re talking about were not even created by us, but by people who have a pre-conceived idea of who we are as a people, most likely learned through the same media that unfairly distorts us in first place.

If the American Latino is conditioned to aspire to what Pop Culture dictates us to aspire to, then doesn’t it make sense that some would aspire to be other than Latino? If the image of the successful individual in film and television is the image of a non-Latino, then what are the people who are creating these images really saying, and how does it affect Latino self worth? In the end, just like the character of Janet implies, the choices you make in life are a direct consequence to the level of conditioning that you’ve been subjected to, and only the ones who are aware of this can make choices that help, and not hurt our ability to express ourselves as we wish.

The challenge for us as American Latinos is to be mindful of the bigger picture. We know that we want to see more images of ourselves in the mainstream, but trying to use statistics and demographics as weapons in an argument that no one in power cares to have doesn’t seem like an answer to us.

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I know you have a long-standing friendship with Franc. Reyes and I’m sure you both influence each other with your work. What are some of the things, besides “Skirting the Issues,” you are both working on?

Franc. Reyes and I have been friends for 27 years. We met when I was DJing at the largest nightclub in Queens at the time, L’amour East. We soon found ourselves working on music together and have been best friends ever since. Franc. has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Rock and Roll history and as a record producer I found those discussions to be quite inspiring. He would play countless documentaries on the 60’s, and of the music legends of that time. There was one documentary on The Beatles that we watched over and over and over again because it was so inspiring to us.

Later, Franc. was living in downtown Manhattan and we would find ourselves talking for hours, until the sun came up, about the film industry, our aspirations and what we should be doing. Long challenging philosophical conversations about the Latino in America, what our barriers are and how we can circumvent them, and it was non-stop. To this day we have almost daily hours long conversations as we discuss every aspect of getting the work done.

Under Franc.’s Alumbra Films banner, and together with our partner Lisa Nunziella, we’re working to get several projects off the ground at the same time. One of these is a film titled, “With Friends Like These.” A film that Franc. wrote after one of several times we drove cross country in his Mustang, and is to be my feature directorial debut. This is important because the idea of a writer/director putting on, not supporting from afar, but actually aiding in getting another filmmaker into the system is almost unheard of, especially in our community. But it’s a testament to the way Franc. works, and has also been part of our plan since those days when Franc. lived in the city, to create a company where there is real creative collaboration between artists. We have a short list of directors we want to bring into the fold when the time is right.

Any difficulties in bringing “Skirting The Issues” to fruition? Budget, location, production, finding the right actors?

I felt that I needed to get a practice run in before we jumped into “With Friends Like These” so I revisited the “Skirting” script. Franc. touched it up a bit, updating the Pop Culture references, but everything else stayed the same.

The script calls for five Latinas of different shades of brown and backgrounds. We initially started with 500 actors and whittled that down to a reasonable number, but we still had to see four girls at a time on the first day of auditions. Two more auditions later and we had our cast. But it was quite a thing, casting very for very specific looks, personalities and still find actors who have chemistry with each other.

Malcolm Purnell, the cinematographer, and I had worked together on “The Found” which turned out terrific. But this time I had less money. Ultimately we shot with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, a nice camera, but challenging to shoot with in a tight space because it doesn’t use a full chip, so you don’t get the full range of which ever lens you use. We got around that by using a Metabones adapter.

My girlfriend agreed to let us use our place as the location. But I wasn’t going to do the short if I couldn’t get a Chapman Pee Wee dolly. I had designed the shots with the dolly in mind, and was ready to cancel when we had difficulty getting one. When we finally got it, I had to figure out how to get the thing into the apartment since we didn’t have money for a truck or grips, and it weighs 300 pounds. But we got it in with my brother’s help and one of my friends.

I had a very detailed shot list, and the shooting went very smoothly. The editing was tough, four characters interacting for 16 minutes in real time. Then the sound mix and color, and there you go.

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What has been your overall experience with the Latino film industry? Do you think that by calling our work Latino dooms it to obscurity?

That’s an interesting question, because this question has been a point of contention for many years. Remember, Franc. wrote “Skirting The Issues” over 15 years ago and that question has been part of the debate since that time. It’s the reason Margie [one of the characters] goes through the list of European ethnicities in her blood. It’s become clear that part of the American Latino problem is an unwillingness to own up to our Latino-ness. Over the years we’ve heard many actors say, “I’m not a Latino actor, I’m an actor who happens to be Latino.” and therein lays the issue. It’s an indication of how desperately one wants to be accepted in the mainstream world. We are American filmmakers, yes. But in Hollywood, the fact that we are also Latino automatically puts us in the category of “other than,” and if we can’t proudly call ourselves American Latino Filmmakers, then what are we doing?

What approach do you suggest we take in order to make a bigger impact?

I think the plan at Alumbra is the way to go, to make films that can be marketed and distributed commercially across the board. If there is to be an American Latino filmmaking community, we very much need to demonstrate that we’re capable of creating content that makes money. That’s the goal. But if you make obscure independent films about the Latino struggle that are very cultural, you may win an award at some festival. But you won’t see that film in any theater in the U.S. outside of those that love to play indie films. And chances are if your film is in one of those theaters it’s not going to make much box office, and box office is what we need to concern ourselves with.

We spoke about all these stats about us (spending power, what we consume, etc.) and how some entities keep, in a way, parading it to brands, studios, and networks. Do you think the intention comes from a good place? Do you think they do it so it can benefit content creators or is it just a front to syphon money that should be going to our artists so they can at least produce work?

It’s pretty clear that media corporations are trying to figure out a way to capitalize on the growing Latino population. But it seems that these companies have found yet another way to include us without actually including us. Take television, for instance. They seem to be more willing to adapt to the idea of diversity as far as casting goes to make their shows more appealing to minorities. But when you look a little closer you realize that their idea of diversity does not include opening the door for us to write our own characters. On any of these shows the Latino is at most a secondary character, and chances are a writer who is not Latino will be writing that character, so what are the chances that they’ll get the nuances right?

When the studios get tired of listening to Latinos complain about our lack of presence, they’ll add more Latino faces. But they’ll continue to be one-dimensional stereotypical characters. If the studios are not willing to let us write our own characters, and TV is not willing to let us write our own characters, should we really waste time and energy complaining? Over the last 15 years I’ve literally watched while some of the most talented Latino actors have grown old waiting for their big break.

The African American community has already laid out what should be our path. They were in the same boat back in the 80s, look how far they’ve come. One of the best African American satires of that time was a film written and directed by Robert Townsend called “Hollywood Shuffle.” Latinos are still in the Hollywood Shuffle stage.

What do you suggest is the best way for us to have a real new wave? You mentioned that every few years there’s talk of a Latino wave that’s blossoming, but it never completely blooms. I do hear people say that this time around there’s a different energy. Are we more prepared now for it? You know, with less expensive technology, social media, and bigger connections within the community?

Back in the late 90s everyone was talking about the Latin Explosion. Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony had hit the music scene. We had Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek with Desperado. Leguizamo with Empire. But that’s it. That was the Latin Explosion. Today there are even less Latinos of that stature. You may see more Latinos on TV, but that’s not the same thing. One of the more impossible aspects of filmmaking is raising money, and one of the first questions an investor will ask is, “who’s the star?” Now imagine a Latino filmmaker trying to raise money for a commercial film with a Latino protagonist. The question becomes, “Is there a Latino star?” The answer is no. If there were, Hollywood would have already cut Latino filmmaker’s throats and made films starring Latinos, written by non-Latinos, of course.

10682176_10152744560470559_8743687383912004425_oThe fact that John Leguizamo was the protagonist in Franc. Reyes’ “Empire” is a tremendous accomplishment. Same goes with Robert Rodriguez and Antonio Banderas in “Desperado”, Edward James Olmos in “American Me” and “Stand and Deliver,” and Jennifer Lopez in “Selena.” Of the thousands of movies made every year, these and a few other handful of films represent the only time Latino actors have had the opportunity to play a lead role in an American Motion Picture that was distributed by a major studio since the 50s. That’s huge. That’s the goal we need to strive for because no one is going to create the American Latino star for us. We have to do it ourselves just like Spike Lee and John Singleton did for the African American community. Without their pioneering work, Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry would not exist. Probably neither would Denzel Washington, Ice Cube, and countless others.

You told me that shooting digital is not as cheap as everyone thinks it is in contrast to film. Can you break it down for us?

In putting the Budget together for, “With Friends Like These,” Franc. and I researched the pros and cons, along with cost, shooting 35mm Anamorphic vs. the RED camera. The first thing we learned is there is now only one company in New York that continues to process film, and one in Los Angeles. In New York, Technicolor and Postworks, who were rivals once, joined forces to keep the art alive. And in Los Angeles, there’s Fotokem.

Film at the moment is dirt cheap, for obvious reasons. Film camera rental rates are also at their lowest, again for obvious reasons. Lenses stay about the same.

What most don’t take into consideration are the creative people, equipment and time you need to capture the image properly in digital if you expect it to look anything close to film. It may not matter much if the target for distribution is the Internet. Your 5D footage will probably look fine. But when you watch these things in a theatre it really makes a difference. Digital has more contrast than film so you need to filter the image so that it’s not so harsh. You need to stay away from primary colors because they saturate too easily. You need to have a colorist and DIT on set to make sure you’re getting the image you really want.

This is what they do on the bigger Hollywood films. The problem with not doing these things is that digital is not as forgiving as film, and when you push digital past it’s limitations in regard to latitude or color, that’s it, you’re done. The idea that you can just strap on a lens, a battery and start to shoot is a myth. Or at least it’s the wrong way to go about shooting digital for a commercial film. So taking these things into consideration, when we lined up the pros and cons vs. time on setting up the shot, etc., it was cheaper on paper to shoot on film.

Another thing that I found interesting is the way we (or studios) market our work and you mentioned how we are conditioned to dismiss certain venues we see them on. Why do you think that is? Is it that we are not creating engaging content or is our work not getting adequate promotion? Both?

It goes back to the discussion in “Skirting” on conditioning. With marketing you’re not only talking about Latinos but Pop Culture as a mass audience. Our conditioning is so complete that we don’t respond to anything that isn’t marketed the way we come to expect things to be marketed. Companies spend Billions on finding ways to lure you in as a consumer. They’ve experimented over decades and figured out how to best reach the masses. So as a consumer, are you going to spend your money on the obscure Latino film whose trailer you just happen to catch on a Facebook feed? Or are you going to go to the movie that has the $50K surround sound trailer that you catch at the Megaplex in your town? Have you ever wondered why Latinos talk about “needing to support Latino product” but don’t come out in droves? Well, that’s why. Latinos, just like everyone else, are conditioned to respond only to what they’ve been conditioned to respond to. That’s why they’ll make up a good percentage of the box office for Tent-Pole films like “Fast and The Furious,” but not for “Chavez.” Maybe over time social media will play a bigger role in marketing as society adapts more to technology, but Facebook and YouTube as a marketing tool for Latino product today? Not so much.

What’s next for you?

Alumbra Films has enough work to keep us busy for the next ten years. I’ll be directing my first feature soon. I’m also looking forward to more feature film editing work. I edited and mixed two features recently, and one of them was just picked up by HBO. Franc. has written and is working on some exciting film projects, and since I probably won’t be editing my own feature, I’ll most likely be editing his. Keep it all in the family. But really, directing is what I want to do.

Where can we see “Skirting the Issues?”

We just had a terrific screening at CBS in New York where the Q&A became an open discussion about the issues we just talked about. The next screening will be at the Museum of The Moving Image in Astoria, Queens in New York. Both the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals are on our radar. After that we’ve been discussing taking it on the road to inspire more discussion.

Photo: Kenneth Brown/Photo Excellence

Photo: Kenneth Brown/Photo Excellence

Go see “Skirting the Issues” Friday, September 19th, 2014- 7:00pm at the Museum of The Moving Image. 36-01 35 Av, (at 37th Street), Astoria, NY 11106.

Stay for the Q&A with Carlos Berrios which will be moderated by Barbara Matos, Director of Diversity at CBS.

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