Produced by Boyle Heights native Frank Aragon, the Alan Jacobs' gang drama DOWN FOR LIFE is up for a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival - one of eleven titles added to its category Contemporary World Cinema. The film was shot on location in South-Central Los Angeles and stars local youths in the lead roles. It is based on a true story, starring Danny Glover, Snoop Dogg, Kate Del Castillo, Elizabeth Pena and introducing sixteen year old Jessica Romero from the streets of Wilmington, California.
Frank Aragon's past films include MY FATHER'S LOVE, BOYLE HEIGHTS, HOLLYWOOD FAMILIA and AND SO THEY DIE. All are part of 1211 Entertainment. Aragon's company has been concentrating on the American-Latino audience for the last ten years. Frank is a Mexican-American (Chicano) whose passion is telling positive Latino stories. In 2001, Aragon was the recipient of the Golden Eagle Award as an outstanding independent filmmaker from Nosotros. This is Aragon's first major film festival debut.
Frank tells us:
"I was born and raised in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, eventually moving to the San Gabriel Valley so we could live a little better life away from gangs and drugs. I was raised in a single parent household; my mother and father split up when I was six. My mother was always supportive of me. She just didn't have time to nurture me the way she wanted to. It was always just me and my sister because Mom worked a lot.
Mom always told me that I was a good storyteller. I believed her. If you tell a two year old kid that they're good at something, they believe it and things start to happen. I wanted more grown-up things early on, like a career in the movie business. When my family found out about my dreams, and knew that I was serious, they encouraged me. They patted me on the back and said, "You can do it, mijo!" My friends knew that vision was what was driving me. They fully supported me and are still expecting to have leads in future movies I make.
My sister and I grew up with television, especially FANTASY ISLAND. One film changed my life and that film was ROCKY. I knew then that an underdog could win or, at least in the effort, he was a winner.
I consider myself an actor who is also a producer/director. That is my love, my passion. I'm told I'm a gifted director. After I wrote, produced, directed and starred in my first film MY FATHER'S LOVE, I realized that I have an unshakable confidence which cannot be broken by anyone. My ultimate goal is to someday win an Oscar.
The reason I got into acting was that in the eighth grade I had a crush on my drama teacher. I was student body president and discovered that I loved the drama class so much! Reading plays aloud and then doing them on stage was the best escape for me. I owe Miss Enloe; she started it all.
My first success came from an audition. I took a bus to Hollywood and walked into a dark theater to audition for a play. I was eighteen and they cast me. We took that play to New York City and performed Off-Broadway at Harold Clurman Theatre. I had been auditioning for two years already for things in Hollywood. I even got cast as a dead body in a morgue scene in DEATH WISH IV with Charles Bronson. When I came back from New York at the age of nineteen I got cast in my first film ANGELTOWN with Teresa Salda??a. Bob Morones cast me; I used to drop pictures and resumes off at his door at least once every week.
My biggest supporters have always been my daughter and certainly my family, who celebrate every success and encourage me to keep going. The biggest challenge in starting out was being able to keep pursuing my dream and still eat and live like any normal human being, I was a young man with responsibilities. My high school sweetheart and I had a daughter from all of our love for each other. I was only seventeen when she was born so I was a very young dad. My son was born four years later. Destiny and Frankie are my two children.
My first professional gig was the play I did in New York City Off-Broadway, performing next to a theater in which Melissa Gilbert and Phoebe Cates acted. I knew I was a real actor like them. I eventually ran into them at the deli on the corner and invited them to my play. They came and it was encouraging, (I loved Phoebe Cates, but I didn't get to make out with her.) Working with young professionals on that level, I knew I could make it then.
Originally I started out as an actor but had an accident after returning from Minnesota where I had worked on a film. I asked the director and producer if I could learn to be a PA, a production assistant, as well. They asked me, "Why? You are an actor." I told them that one day I want to direct and produce so I want to learn everything I can. I wanted to be by the camera at all times.That film was Severo Perez's PBS film "And The Earth Did Not Swallow Him" based on the novel by Tom?ís Rivera. I traveled with the film to Minnesota and there I eventually worked in every department. I was a grip, an electrician, in the prop department, the wardrobe department and production assistant. That was my first film school.
When I returned from Minnesota. I worked construction as a property supervisor. Then tragedy struck. I had freak accident and was blinded by a bungee cord that broke, hitting me in my right eye. I lost my vision in that eye and for four years I didn't act anymore, having to undergo surgery after surgery.
Eventually I went to UCLA and studied the technical aspects of filmmaking. Five years later I wrote, produced, and directed MY FATHER'S LOVE. Since then I've made it a point to learn it all. I do what I need to survive, to keep going until I get to the prize.
MY FATHER'S LOVE was my first serious effort, having produced, financed, written, directed, and starred in that film. It was a major undertaking and it helped me learn so many things in so many ways. Hollywood really doesn't care about young or old. It cares about hotness. If you're hot, it doesn't matter if you are one hundred years old. If you're thirteen and hot then you're welcome as well. Hollywood is driven by money and who can bring in the next big payday. In this town, if you are already successful then you are wanted. If you are smart and can deliver in today's age, you can dictate your terms better than back in the day. Especially when you are not dependent upon them for your successes.
I have to say that there is discrimination against Latinos in the entertainment industry. I'm a Chicano and I'm brown. To most Hollywood people I'm just a Mexican and sometimes I am viewed as an immigrant. They judge people based on a perception about us that is false. That being said, most people in the business are also smart, so they cannot deny our worth any longer. They are fighting tooth and nail to try to get their hands on our audiences.
Al Carlos: What about your latest project? How did it come about? What events led up to its showing in Canada?
Frank Aragon: I got a call from producer Scott Alvarez who had seen my work as the location manger on REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES. They knew about me from Effie Brown who knew me from my film MY FATHER'S LOVE. Scott wanted to meet me and talk about a picture.
I read the script and liked it a lot. It wasn't stereotypical and I thought I could make a difference working on the picture. I met with Scott Alvarez at an office in Studio City. Scott and I talked while Alan Jacobs, who was in an office adjacent to ours, could hear our conversation regarding a certain property. POR VIDA is the story about a young gangster girl from South Central who happens to be Latina. Even though he'd heard the conversation, I still didn't meet Jacobs.
We talked about the film and he offered me the job of location manager, I told him I'd like to read the script again but I would like to help produce the movie. Based on my body of work I was certainly more than just a location manager. He listened. I went to La Vegas for a weekend and came back. I was offered the job.
When I returned they hired Dwight Williams, who is John Singleton's line producer and executive producer in HUSTLE AND FLOW. I met with Williams but the meeting turned into my being interviewed to be somebody's assistant, not a location manager or even a producer. I very politely wished them the best of luck with the project and walked away. There comes a point when you have to say, "No, thank you," because you've earned more than they are offering. I still hadn't met Alan Jacobs either while he was in the adjacent office.
They went out and tried to produce the film without me. They shot for ten days out of a twenty-eight day schedule and then went dark. That means the film shut down due to lack of money, being ove- produced, spending too much money, you name it.
I knew that this project was an urban story and could be done cheaply if the right people were involved. People who knew the hoods of Los Angeles and knew what they were doing as independent producers, not studio producers. There is a big difference and the difference is money. Independents are accustomed to working without money and studio producers are used to having it. I learned how to work without it. To make a long story short, I got a call from Scott again. He explained everything to me, saying that everyone working the film was now gone. No more money means they were no longer around. We set up a meeting at the Four And Twenty in Studio City.
This time the meeting was with Alan Jacobs and Scott Alvarez. They asked me to help them produce the rest of the film, keep a log on the days left, keep continuity, handle cast issues, handle union issues, you name it. Problems, problems. I asked them, "Okay so how much money do I have now to finish this movie?" They said only about ten percent of the original budget. I accepted the challenge and went to work.
We shot an additional nineteen days using weekends, making sure we matched continuity, actors, and new locations. No more line producers, executive producers, unit production managers, or location managers, These jobs are usually filled by multiple people on films with money. We didn't have any money so I did them all by myself.
I realized that this is what I've been grooming myself for all these years and I was so ready. The film is simply good. It is excellent. We submitted the film to Toronto and they accepted us. It is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. I am so excited. It is an honor in itself.
Al Carlos: How has the film festival invite affected you? What do you hope happens there?
Frank Aragon: Being selected is my own personal confirmation that I am ready. It has shored up my confidence, giving me new birth and a passion for the next level of projects. I hope I meet some great people who don't mind working on projects with a young Chicano like myself in the future. People who can see through the color of my skin and be okay with me, hopefully through my successes. I can help enable more talented brown people on the set who need a break too.
Al Carlos: What is your next project? How can people support your work?
Frank Aragon: I wish I could say. It's big. It is a comedy written by a big name writer and produced by a young Chicano on his way to making a huge name for himself. Me!!!! Oh yeah it has a strong female Latina as the lead who has yet to be cast. Someone's going to get a big break! Especially if they are a Chicana! People can support me, and the people like me who are trying to break down some Hollywood barriers, by writing letters (emails) to the networks about me and my work. Let them know we are coming and please go see my movies the first week when they come out.
As an artist I want to changes lives. I want to affect people's lives by the stories I'm telling, stories that make a difference in our society. I want to influence the great change that is already taking shape in our country.
My life is one story that can be anyone's story. I know I am blessed and I will live up to all the expectations people have for me by doing the best job I can. Making a difference in others people's lives through the stories I will tell and the films I produce, I will continue to be blessed by the very nature of the work and that process.