Movie PictureWhat do you think about using Spanglish language on a Hispanic film? Do you think it's appropriate to have an all in English dialogue in a film with Hispanic characters, or do you think it's better to leave certain dialogue in Spanish?
I think it's a little of everything. Communication is key. You use what you can. The idea is to use language as interestingly as you can.
What do you think are some of the current opportunities for Hispanic directors, and how do you think this film affects those opportunities?
I don't believe with major studios the opportunities are there yet. I shot Empire independently. As of right now I don't know of too many Latino projects being developed at major studios. I tried to shoot the best film I possibly could with the time and money I had. I believe it's a good film. Arenas and Universal took notice -- that in of itself may affect some opportunity.
As a Hispanic writer / director, do you only get Latino type projects? Are you looking to "cross over" into general market type projects, like Cuaron (Y tu Mama Tambien) with Harry Potter? Do you think this is an angle that Latin directors should take, or should they be more focused on the Hispanic community?
Right now I'm being offered a cross section of projects. Though I believe Cuaron is a wonderful filmmaker and will probably hit Harry Potter out of the ball park, as a writer I've written a wide spectrum of stories with Latinos in them. If I made a film with a 100% Latino cast, I wouldn't be true to myself and what my life is all about. Art imitating life. Having said that, it also applies the other way. If I made a film with a 100% African American or Caucasian cast, the truth wouldn't be there either. There isn't a story that exists that Latinos along with every other culture can't tell. My cast will always include Latinos because that's who I am. But I live in a wonderful world of cultures and I hope my films will always reflect that.
Do you think that being both the writer and director for Empire helped the overall outcome of the film? How so, and how is it different from being a director and working with another writer?
This is my first feature and I wrote the script. I've never worked on another writer's project. It absolutely helps the process to be the writer. It's your story and you can take it anywhere you like. The overall outcome of the film derives from your imagination and your imagination alone.
How do you see the future of Hispanic / Latino-themed films in the US in terms of talent, directors, and language? Do you think that it's growing as a separately carved market, or do you see it as crossing over more with mainstream Hollywood films?
There's no doubt about the Latino talent pool out there. Latinos have been a part of the fabric of American Pop culture since the idea of Pop culture began. I was asked recently what I thought of the Latino explosion. I don't believe that the "Latino explosion" in popular culture has begun, with all due respect to J-Lo, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony etc. If a Latin explosion in popular culture is to happen, it will have to happen across the board -- music, film, art, literature, etc. I believe we're on our way to that happening. I think it's a great time to be a Latino artist/entertainer/writer/director. As far as "crossing over" is concerned, there's nowhere
to "cross over" to. We're already here!
Do you think of John Leguizamo as representative of an certain US Hispanic group (ie, Puerto Rican) or more as generally appealing to all Hispanics?
In Empire John represented the guys I grew up with. In "Moulin Rouge" he represented Toulouse Lautrec, in "To Wong Foo" he represented Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez. He's Latino. He represents us all well.
What is it like working with John?
The awe I have for John will always be there. His talents are limitless. I'm looking for something else we can do together. Working with him was a like going to class. Directing him was a thrill.
How did you come about to write and direct this film?
I've written many screenplays on many different subject matters. Empire was my attempt at writing a modern day gangster film from a Latino point of view. While in the middle of writing it I realized that only I could bring to the film what it needed as a director to keep the film as authentic as the script, having taken a lot from my experiences in the South Bronx..
What were some of the biggest obstacles in making this film? Did you get any criticism or concerns about misrepresenting the Hispanic community?
There was one time when shooting in The Bronx when a woman (community leader) started to protest about the "perpetuating of stereotypes" on my set and disrupting it. I took the woman to the side and asked her what her problem was. She said she was tired of "Latino gangster movies". I asked her to name one of the many "Latino gangster movies" she was tired of. She mentioned "Scarface." I told her it was directed by Brian De Palma, not from a Latino POV. Then she said "Carlito's Way", I said once again that was De Palma. She then said "Blood In Blood Out." I said that was Taylor Hackford. She became frustrated and started to complain about the Latino images on television, shows like NYPD Blue, Law and Order, etc. I told her the images she was "tired" of are not images written or created by Latinos, that finally she had in me a Latino director shooting a story in our neighborhood and she disrupts "my" set. I gave her a copy of my script and told her to read it and come back to me. I assured her if there were any stereo typical characters in it that I would get rid of them. She came back at the end of shooting day with tears in her eyes and asked me to sign the screenplay for her. I've said all this to say that though I understood her concerns, sometimes we just need to get out of our own way as Latinos.
Why did you cast Leguizamo to be the lead?
I never thought I could get John Leguizamo. I sent the script to many Latino actors. But many refused to even read it because the lead was a Latino drug dealer. Which didn't make any sense to me. John called after reading the script and asked me how I planned to shoot the film. We went to lunch and spoke about it for hours and the rest is history.
How did you come about to cast Fat Joe? When you wrote the script, did you write his character thinking specifically on Fat Joe for the role? What about with Treach?
When I first wrote the script I wrote it about a guy who couldn't get up from his sofa to have a gunfight. I had Big Pun in mind (Rip). Joe has a smaller frame and he moves fast for a guy as big as he is. But when I spoke to him about the role, he responded positively and did an amazing job. He realized there was more to his character than just a gunfight.
Is Fat Joe in the film to attract the urban / Hip-Hop demographic, or is did you have a specific reason for his casting him in this role?
When I cast this film, I didn't really think like a marketing person. I wanted the best people for the job. His music took off after we shot the film. A little luck doesn't hurt.
Has your background in music influenced the way you see and understand Hispanic urban cultures?
Absolutely. Someone recently called Empire a Latino "New Jack City". I responded by saying that musically I grew up listening to was Tito Puente, Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades on one side of the street and Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire and RunDMC on the other. The Black music influence in my film is obvious. I'm not sure there is any Latino musical influence in "New Jack City", knowing for a fact that the African-Americans in Harlem also grew up on Tito,
Hector and Ruben.
Do you think Empire is a true representation of what it is to grow up and be in the rat race in the Bronx?
For some, not for all. There is no "one film" that can represent an entire people.
Did your music background influence you to involve urban music icons, Fat Joe and Treach, in Empire?
I needed to keep the film as authentic as possible. Some of the actors that auditioned for the Treach role couldn't bring it. I've seen Treach in other films. There was no doubt he can bring it.
Are there any particular scenes in the movie that were directly inspired by, or reflect personal experiences?
A lot of the moments with Carmen (Delilah Cotto) and Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo).
Would you say that Empire personifies the current philosophies and ambitions in the streets of the Bronx? To what extent does this hold true to other Hispanic neighborhoods (ie East LA)?
Latinos are a very colorful and diversified people with an array of philosophies and ideas with which to challenge our ambitions in life and succeed. Coming from any ghetto, the pitfalls are there. Whether that be the ghettos in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, etc. Empire personifies one slice of life, one that I'm familiar with.
Are the characters in the movie inspired on real life people and experiences?
Yes and No
What made you decide to write Empire?
Desire, ambition, inspiration and desperation.
Dont't forget to also check out: Empire