EXCLUSIVE: Ray Ellin On Directing The Latin Legends of Comedy
Ellin talks about creating comedy, shooting a live performance, and how he made the film with 6 credit cards
Comedian Ray Ellin wanted to showcase comics Joey Vega, J.J. Ramirez and Angel Salazar because he felt they were great comedians, they had paid their dues, but they had never really gotten the recognition that they deserved. So utilizing 6 credit cards, Ellin decided to record these guys performing (and in other situations) and thus The Latin Legends of Comedy was born.
Part stand-up comedy concert and part documentary, The Latin Legends of Comedy captures the struggles and successes of the first Latino comedians who, over twenty years, broke into and became pioneers of New York's stand-up comedy scene. The comics (Joey Vega, J.J. Ramirez and Angel Salazar), dear friends from the beginning of their careers, give stellar performances showing why they are the top Latino funnymen in the country.
Ellin recently sat down with us to talk about his experience directing this film.
First off, could you please tell our readers about The Latin Legends of Comedy DVD?
Ray Ellin: On the DVD is the top three, I think, Latin comedians in the country; certainly the top three in New York. Angel Salazar, Joe Vega and J.J. Ramirez. These guys were the first Latin comedians in New York, they're sort of pioneers in the stand-up comedy scene. Their inspirations were comedians like Don Rickles, Robert Klein and Richard Pryor. They didn't have any Latin role models to choose from other than Desi Arnaz and to some extent, Freddie Prinze. In the film you learn about their lives and you see some of the struggles they've had to go through to get into the New York comedy scene. They all perform at the same venue that they started their careers, The Comic Strip Live in New York City. It's a club where Seinfeld started and Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.
In the film we shot different performances of each of these guys but in the movie they're all performing in front of the same crowd on the same night. It was really interesting to see how each one of these guys, who totally have a different style... and they were all able to work the same crowd and get incredible results. It's sort of a documentary/concert film hybrid. There's no laugh track, there's no intercutting between shows. You learn about each of their lives. You see how family is important to them. They do have fairly consistent values and consistent backgrounds. Yet, their approach to performing is very different between the three of them.
How did you come up these three Latin comics as opposed to others that are on the scene?
Ray Ellin: There's two things. One, I started as a stand-up comic myself. I still do stand-up actually. I was hired by a Latin media company to create and produce different things. I did an animated series that John Leguizamo did the voices for. They asked me to create and produce a live Latin stand-up comedy tour. So I put together this tour and we did it in New York. At first it was 13 weeks in New York, I rotated like 35 or 40 Latin comedians. The next year we did it in New York, Chicago, Miami, parts of New Jersey so it did very well.
I already knew J.J., Joe, and Angel from being a comic. I had worked with them very sporadically. Whenever we did these shows, these guys were just head and shoulders above everybody else. It really just kind of hit me one day. Okay, these three guys started together, they all started at the same club, around the same time in New York City; there weren't really too many other Latin Comedians at the time.... These guys were always so good and I liked that they were old friends, so the combination of how talented they were, their history of where they all started, and the fact that they've been friends from the beginning... which is very rare in this business. That was sort of what made me want to do the film with the three of them.
I just felt these guys are so good and they really haven't gotten their due. It would bother me if I was doing stand-up for 25 years, and to be at such a great level, and not really getting what I thought they deserved. It could be one part geography. They stayed in New York whereas other guys were in L.A.. It could be an element of luck. It could be hard knocks. It's different factors, I suppose.
What are the logistics of directing a live stand-up performance?
Ray Ellin: We had a minimal amount of rehearsal. There wasn't too much to rehearse. It was more tech rehearsals where I tried to instruct where everyone would try to focus on. Particularly, Angel Salazar who is just so physical. I didn't want the performers to worry about where the cameras were. Or, worrying about hitting a certain light. I just wanted them to be able to do whatever they wanted to do and not interfere with that. The hardest part of capturing the performances is that you're sort of shooting in a box. That club, it's a decent size, but at the end of the day you're just shooting in the box. You want to try and make it as visually appealing as possible.
I knew that a lot of that would have to be done in post; cutting around a good amount. I had six cameras in the room... each performance is a lot longer than it would have been ordinarily. They were trimmed down because I wanted the movie to be under two hours. Shooting in that space where there wasn't that much flexibility with lighting, there wasn't too much depth in the room, that was really challenging. Really just trying to make the room look like it was more than just the room.
What do you have coming up next?
Ray Ellin: Well, I financed this movie myself on 6 credit cards. I just figured, "You know what I think this will work." So I kind of gambled it. I'm not a wealthy man by any means. Right now, I was hired to direct a film... it's like my big, fat Latin funeral, that's the gist of it. The other thing I am very excited about is a new website called DailyComedy.com. It's a comedy website where top comedians from around the country post new material every day in text and video. So I started that website with a partner of mine. So between the website and this other I'm pretty revved up and stuff. Also, anyone who wants can create their own comedy content on the site.
The next steps with Latin Legends is to distribute it overseas. I've had interest in places in other countries. Then of course the TV rights, I need to sell those.
The Latin Legends of Comedy is available on DVD through Fox Home Entertainment.