Empire : It's Our Turn : An Interview with Director Franc Reyes
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Interviewed by Wilson Morales
While there has been an enormous amount of musicians entering the film industry as actors, one notable musician is going a bit further than acting. Franc Reyes grew up in the Bronx and was a dancer for many years before he started to write music. Once he did that he conquered the music charts with songs like “Temptation”, sung by Corina. Looking to expand his horizons, he has written and directed his first feature film, Empire, starring John Leguizamo. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Director Franc Reyes talks about the process of getting Empire made from a Latino perspective.
WM: How did you come up with the concept for the story?
FR: I just stepped outside. This is my neighborhood. I shot it in my neighborhood. The Victor Rosa character is just a combination of the people I grew up with.
WM: What’s the difference between this film and other past gangster flicks?
FR: Well, to answer that question, let me tell a story about something that went down recently. A person, a Latino, who hadn’t seen the film, had a problem with what’s going on here. She said she hates Latino drug dealer movies. Well, I said, “Name one, not 2, just one”. She said “Carlito’s Way” and I said “No, that Brian De Palma”. Then she said “Scarface” and again I said, “No, that De Palma as well”. She then said she hated this whole thing with “Mi Vida Loca” and I said “that Allison Anders”. “What about “Blood In, Blood Out”?” she said, and I said “that’s Taylor Hackford”. I said to name one film directed by a Latino and she couldn’t. I told her that she hadn’t seen the movie yet. What’s different from this movie and those films is that it comes from the perspective of someone who was there. For that reason, you are going to see it from a unique point of view. That’s the difference between this film and Oliver Stone’s version of “Scarface”, because he wrote it.
WM: One of the themes of the film is being successful without forgetting where you come from. Did you personally experience this?
FR: I don’t think it’s possible. I think forgetting where you come from is a decision. I don’t think it’s something that just happens. I think you make a decision to forget where you come from or you don’t. I could never forget where I come from. I have family there.
WM: How you define Victor’s character?
FR: He got lost. He wasn’t so much moving away from the neighborhood as much as he was getting lost in this new idea of making money. This movie is not about drugs; it’s about money. If shoelaces were selling like heroine, then we would have a shoelace problem.
WM: What inspired you to make this film?
FR: I knew a few of friends who I was losing, rapidly to the crack situation and I don’t think these types of stories weren’t being told. Some may like it that these guys in the film are perceived to be likeable. I know when my boys died and I was over the casket, I was crying. So those guys were likeable to me. They have to likeable for you in order for me to explain the story the way I want to.
WM: Do you thinking you are glamouring drug dealing because these guys are likeable?
FR: Yes, because in your neighborhood, if someone drove by in a Mercedes Benz with a woman in a fur coat and a suit, would that be glamorous? Probably so to a few people. In some neighborhoods, these could be doctors. Well, in my neighborhood, they’re drug dealers. It doesn’t make any less glamorous. You take all the crime, all the shoot-outs out of this film, and show someone that, then you’re glorifying something that I’m not. That’s something else. It’s a 75-ft screen and you could do anything on that screen and glamorize it.
WM: What inspired you to write about the Wall Street transition?
FR: It’s funny because that topic is topical because of Enron and all that, but when I wrote it, it wasn’t. But I knew guys like that. I knew guys who worked on Wall Street who weren’t real dudes. The whole Victor Rosa mentality is a disease mentality. The idea of growing up in the ghetto is crazy environment, and so is Wall Street.
WM: Can you talk about the casting?
FR: I didn’t even give the script to John (Leguizamo) because I thought there was no way I was going to get him. I just wanted to a make a small film. But through a million channels, I got the script to him and he responded. He called and said that he knows guys like this and he hadn’t seen a script written like this before. He wanted to do it. When he asked who was going to direct the film and I said, “Me”, he said, “Are you sure?” I said I wouldn’t do something I didn’t think I could handle. John was the most professional person. I was a director on the set as well as a student. When you have people like John and talent like Peter Sarsgaard and Delilah Cotto, and Isabella (Rossellini) and Sonia Braga, there was a lot to learn. You have to have this balance. You had to be able to learn and be able to direct. I think I was able to do that.
WM: Was there a big challenge in taking this film to the studios to get distribution?
FR: The film was edited by Peter Franc who did the editing for “The Verdict”, one of my favorite films of all-time. We were working really hard trying to get the film finished. We got it done. We had something to show. I went to Hollywood to sell it on Sept. 10, 2001. So when the 11th happened, that was it. I couldn’t get a meeting. I couldn’t get anything. Hollywood shut down. I arrived in Hollywood on Sept.10th. I was sitting in a hotel for 2 months trying to get meetings and it couldn’t happen. So I came back to New York, and it was a different place. I got a call from Sundance. They saw the film and wanted to put us down. We went to Sundance and I had never seen anything like this. We had packed screenings. I wasn’t even in competition. They put me in a category called “American Spectrum.” We had 3 screenings and all were jammed packed, but we didn’t sell the film. I wasn’t going to back to New York. So I went to Hollywood and was not leaving until I sold it. That is when I met Santiago Poso of the Arenas Group and he saw that he could do something with this film. He took it to Universal and they fell I love with it. So I don’t it would have happened without the Arenas Group.
WM: Did you have challenges from the people now supporting the film?
FR: I don’t think it was an issue. My first cut was 3 ˝ hours. But when we trimmed it down, they took it for what is was. They understood what they were looking at; at least the folks at Universal did.
WM: Coming from a musical background, how did you evolve into directing?
FR: I danced all over the world as a dancer and then I started to write music. I had a couple of hit danced records in the early 90s. I then wanted to don something else. I had to find a medium where I can use both talents. Film was it. Growing up in the South Bronx like I did, one doesn’t have $40K for film school. I did the survival thing. I went to Barnes and Nobles and Starbucks and read as many books as I could find. I would read the books for hours and put them back. Actual directing is about 2% of filming, then rest of it raising the funds and then selling the film. My avenue was screenwriting. I had written a bunch of screenplays and I didn’t have any other way to get in. I had reading around NY and my readings because popular. That’s because of 2 reasons; one, the script was good, and two, I would cook. Eventually the right people came around.
WM: How did you get an amazing amount of musical talent to be on the soundtrack?
FR: I met with Kedar Massenberg, the head of Motown, and I showed him the film. After seeing it, he said he some stuff that could with it. Kedar, and Kathy Nelson, the head of Universal records, really put this thing well with some of the music but 4 of the songs, including the one sung by Jon Secada, were written by me. Emilio Estafan produced two of the songs. I produced one the songs and Angel Lopez produced another song. There’s even a song written by Diane Warren. I wrote the songs while I was writing the screenplay.
WM: What’s next?
FR: I just did a deal with Universal to do another two pictures and I’m actually preparing one now called “Ceramic Life”. I’m in the middle of finishing the screenplay. That story is about an aging pop female superstar who becomes fatally obsessed with a fan.
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