The Reluctant Director: Working in the DIY Age

Juan Diego Ramirez, an actor who makes movies, speaks about his latest film, "El Toro"

By Antonia Santiago
Published on LatinoLA: May 6, 2013

The Reluctant Director: Working in the DIY Age

Juan Diego Ramirez, is an actor who makes movies. So that makes him a director, right?

Not according to him. He insists he will always be an actor.

Acting was how I first gained notice of Ramirez. He is still one of the most versatile stage actors I have ever seen. His performance of a racist cop on trial in 'Sticks and Stones' was so real, I thought he was going to come into the audience and beat me up. Just thinking of his performance in 'Revelations" makes me cry and his performance in the 'LA LA Awards' was proof he was a comedic genius.

Watching a Juan Diego Ramirez performance guarantees you of one thing, you will feel something. Whether it's fear, sadness or joy, his commitment to the craft of acting is irrefutable. That same commitment to acting is now coming through in the films he directs.

I spoke with Ramirez after the premiere of his latest film, "El Toro".

Question (Q): What made you start directing films?

Juan Diego Ramirez (JDR): Honestly, it's because I couldn't get cast in them. It's the ultimate catch 22. You have to work in order to get work, but how do you get work if no one will hire you? You have to create the work yourself and show everybody you are worth hiring.

Q: Do you have any formal training in filmmaking?

JDR: No. Everything I've learned about filmmaking, I learned from watching movies. As a kid, I watched HBO all day and visited the video store once a day. The VCR was one of the greatest inventions ever. Later on, I got to study filmmaking with Werner Herzog and I started working on film sets, so I would just try to learn as much as possible. The person I've learned the most about filmmaking from is John Rangel. He's a very close friend of mine. He's a film director and screenwriter. I look at him as a mentor. We talk about movies all the time.

Q: What directors are you influenced by?

JDR: All of them. It such a huge list. There are so many film directors that I love. I could talk for days about Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, Wong Kar-Wai , Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Charles Burnett, Sidney Lumet, the Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, Blake Edwards, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, Mike Nichols, Sam PeckinpahI better stop, I could go on forever. I just love movies.

Q: Ok I get it, but you don't have one above them all that you could say was your greatest influence?

JDR: If you are gonna force me to choose, it comes down to two. John Cassavetes and Abel Ferrara. Cassavetes because he was an actor. When I discovered Cassavetes, a whole new world open up to me. Here was an actor making the movies he wanted to make. In some cases he financed them himself. He is one of my artistic heroes. I love all his movies. They're brilliant. It's the same reason I love Abel Ferrara. Ferrara makes the movies he wants to make and he doesn't care what people think. He tells the stories he wants to tell. He also makes the movies regardless the size of his budget. Cassavetes and Ferrara are saints to me.

Q: I just saw your latest film, 'El Toro', it seems very autobiographical. Is it based on a true story?

JDR: Yes and no. The story is inspired by my grandfather, Librado Oregel, but what you see on the screen never happened. That all comes from my imagination.

Q: It felt so real, very personal.

JDR: I learned that anything you work on has to be personal, if not, what's the point? Making a film is very time consuming, so all that time and effort you are investing better be worth something. I really don't want to work on anything that doesn't mean something to me.

Q: You're lead actor Tom Sandoval gives a very good performance. How did you find him?

JDR: I met Tom through East LA Rep. We are a part of a reading group. We read plays out loud, we analyze them, we argue over them and drink over them. Tom is very good actor. I wrote this part specifically for him. I know so many talented actors, that I'm really lucky, whenever I want to do something, all I have to do is pick up the phone and we're shooting the next day.

Q: The chemistry between the two of you is a real strength of the film. How did you build that chemistry?

JDR: We didn't have a lot of time to shoot the film. The relationship between the characters in the film is crucial to the success of the film. If you don't buy the relationship, the film won't work. So, I was very concerned about casting the parts. Once Tom agreed to be in the film, there were only two choices to play the other part. One actor was not available and the other one was me. So, I ended up playing the part because I felt the relationship that Tom and I have would play on screen. Tom and I have a trust as performers with one another and you absolutely need that to have chemistry. I felt the relationship we have off camera would help in front of the camera. A lot of people walked up to me after the screening and asked if Tom and I were related. So, I think it works.

Q: The film has a lot of depth to it given its short running time. On the surface the film seems to be about one thing, but the subtext is bringing up some interesting issues.

JDR: I don't want to get into that. I don't like telling an audience what to look for in my films. But, you are right, the subtext is there by design. The fact that you recognize that makes me very happy. I've had people come up to me in the past and tell me they think my movie is about this and they tell me something so out of left field, that I am completely baffled as to how they could read my movie like that. In the end, how an audience reads my movie is up to them and that's what I think is so great about movies.

Q: I've overheard some people in the lobby saying some very positive things about the film. How do you deal with the critical reaction to your work?

JDR: I listen to everybody's opinion of my work. I try not to dwell on the opinions, whether positive or negative. I can't control whether the film is viewed as a success or failure. The only thing I can control is the story I want to tell. Don't get me wrong, I want everybody to love my work, but let's be realistic, with my track record, that's not going to happen.

Q: What's next?

JDR: I'll be on stage doing a piece for Playground LA, after that, I don't know. Gotta think of another idea.

Q: What about 'El Toro'?

JDR: I guess we will try the film festival route. I'm not a big fan of the film festival process. There are so many films being made now, that the odds of you're film getting programmed are against you. Film Festivals are expensive. I think you are better off using that money and organizing your own screenings. But I will try to get the film out there. I'm very proud of the film.

Q: So do you feel like a director now?

JDR: No. I'm an actor. All my instincts come from being an actor. I make movies because there is a story I want to tell. Actors are storytellers too. Some of the stories I want to tell are best told through film, others are better told on stage. I only direct these films because I can't explain to anyone else what's in my head, so I have to do it myself.

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