Q & A: Directors Guild Award-winner Jesus Trevi??o

"I am a Chicano and I am a director and I am a writer and, above all, I am a storyteller."

By Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: May 21, 2010

Q & A: Directors Guild Award-winner Jesus Trevi??o


Trevi??o began his career in film and television as a student activist documenting the 1960's Chicano civil rights struggle with a super-8 camera. His national PBS documentaries about Latinos and the Chicano struggle include AMERICA TROPICAL, YO SOY CHICANO, LA RAZA UNIDA, CHICANO MORATORIUM, THE SALAZAR INQUEST and BIRTHWRITE. In 1997 he was co-executive producer of the four-part PBS documentary series, CHICANO! HISTORY OF THE MEXICAN AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. From 2000 to 2002, he served as co-executive producer of the Showtime drama series, RESURRECTION BLVD.

Jesus has won dozens of national and international awards and recognitions including (twice) the prestigious Directors Guild of America award. Mr. Trevi??o is also a writer. His collection of short stories, THE FABULOUS SINKHOLE AND OTHER STORIES was published in 1995. His memoir EYEWITNESS - A FILMMAKER'S MEMOIR OF THE CHICANO MOVEMENT was published in 2001. The book chronicles his experiences as an activist filmmaker during the turbulent 1960's and also addresses the status of United States Latinos in 2000 and beyond. His second collection of short stories, THE SKYSCRAPER THAT FLEW, was published in 2005.

www.LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez talked to Jesus about his impressive body of work:

Q: Looking back at you body of work, what are the high points and low points? Are there any regrets?

A: I would say the high points are the many projects I have directed that have been dear to my heart and about which I have been very impassioned. This runs the gamut from early documentaries like Yo Soy Chicano and America to more recent documentaries like the four-part PBS series CHICANO! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement to my Mexican feature film Raices de Sangre (Roots of Blood). All of these are projects that I originated or had a great hand in and they reflect my social commitment and artistic vision.

There are also the dramatic television programs I have directed such as Resurrection Blvd for which I directed the pilot ( I was later was co-executive producer of the television series), and those series on which I worked as a gun-for-hire director where there was great comradery, where working conditions were so much fun, and where we produced such great TV like the Seaquest series, the Babylon Five series, the Star Trek Voyager series, the Third Watch series, Crossing Jordan and Bones. Low points? I guess the disappointment of having to wait seven years between my directing on Segu?n (1980) before I was able to direct the next drama Gangs (1987) a time when I nearly left directing because I felt I'd never break into serious dramatic television directing.

A: Do you consider yourself a Chicano artist or an artist that is Chicano? How do you define Chicano?

Q: I am a Chicano (a Mexican American with a social awareness) and I am a director and I am a writer and, above all, I am a storyteller. And all of these are not contradictory qualities but rather complimentary qualities that inform each other and make me better at what I do. There has been much debate about whether we should single ourselves out as being Chicano or Latino and how this influences how we are perceived. Do we get pigeon holed? Well, I think we get pigeon-holed whether we like it or not. I remember meeting with a studio executive one time who was trying to break the ice by asking me if I knew whether Luis Valdez and Greg Nava came from Mexico or some other Latin country. I informed him that both Luis and Greg had been born in the United States and that the Trevi??os had first come to Texas in the late 1600's before there was a United States of America.

Q: Why did you decide to become a director? What talents do you need to succeed?

A: I became a director as an outgrowth of a deeper motivation to use media to advance the conditions of Chicanos in the United States. I learned early on that media and film could be used to influence people's opinion when I compiled short documentaries on the protests and marches surrounding the Chicano civil rights movement. I learned that media and film could be used in a multiplicity of ways to improve the circumstances of Latinos in the United States. Later, I became hooked on directing as an art form and sought opportunities to broaden myself in this sphere. That was when I discovered that I needed to be more than just a propagandist. I wanted to excel as an artist.
Q: You are highly regarded among your peers at the Directors Guild. Do you think that by doing ethnic projects in the beginning you were type-cast and it limited your opportunities?

A: Historically, Latinos have been out of the labor pool from the very beginning of the motion picture and, later, television industries. The only exception to this is actors - a handful of whom, such as Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland, Desi Arnez and others, who have managed to hone a career in mainstream movies and televison. But during the 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's - where were the Spanish surnamed writers, directors, and producers? We were virtually non-existent. It took my generation individuals like Montesuma Esparza, Jose Luis Ruiz, Luis Valdez, Greg Nava, Edward James Olmos - to change this and create new opportunities in writing, directing, and producing.

What we all faced was a Hollywood system where employment and opportunity is based on "who you know" and it has taken us a while to undo decades of exclusion and do "catch up." Did my ethnicity limit my career opportunities? Perhaps at the beginning, in the sense that I didn't know anyone in the entertainment industry and they did not know me. But once I started working and showed what I could do then the job offers began to come forth. My first commercially successful television calling card was Gangs in 1987. It won the DGA Award for Best Daytime Drama and suddenly agencies that had ignored me when I knocked on their doors were now calling me. I have the producer of Gangs, Howard Meltzer, to thank for that. He was one of the very first who saw beyond my ethnicity and hired me because he felt I was a good director, period.

Q: Who do you consider the best TV director working today and why is that individual so good?

A: There are a lot of great television directors working today. I am fortunate to call some of them my friends. People like Rod Holcomb (he directed the pilot for ER), Paris Barkley, Lesli Linka Glatter, Todd Holland, Chris Chulack and Bill D'Elia. And I am happy to say that there are some Latinos among the A-list of directors that work in episodic television - colleagues like Norberto Barba, Rodrigo Garc?a, F?lix Alcala and Linda Mendoza. You only need to look at the quality television series being produced on cable series like The Sopranos or mini-series like The Pacific to know that we are in the golden age of television dramas. And thankfully, there are Latinos represented in mainstream episodic television..

Q: How has the profession changed over the years? Are there more or less opportunities?

A: I have worked primarily in episodic television directing for the past 25 years or so. When I started I think there was a lot more respect for the role and the authority of the television director. Over the years I have seen an erosion in this area. In episodic television it is the writer/producer who oversees the full span of 22 episodes in a year of production. So it is natural that episodic television would be more of a writer/producer medium than the director's medium that you find in feature films. It is my impression that in the past, many writer/producers had confidence in the ability of the director to interpret their writing They were less likely to want to look over the director's shoulder with suggestions or notes like we sometimes find today. This is an issue that the Creative Rights Committee of the Directors Guild of America is always monitoring.
Q: What would you consider to be your best work so far?

A: I would say my best work as a director is probably the pilot for the Resurrection Blvd. series (2000). It was produced as a two hour movie for Showtime. I had a great screenplay to work from (written by Dennis Leoni) and I was given the freedom to direct as I saw fit. Also in this category of my best directing work I'd have to include Gangs (1988) and The Eddie Matos Story (1994) for the same reasons. I had a chance to direct without hindrance and with a very supportive producer. However, in terms of what may be the most socially relevant work, and what may leave more of a lasting historical legacy, I'd say it would the body of my documentary work. For the past 40 years I have chronicled all aspects of the Latino community in the United States with an emphasis on Chicanos. I continue to do that today. And when all is said and done, people will look back and realize we would not have a visual record of so many important events in American history with regard to Chicanos. We wouldn't have a visual record of the 1968 sit-in at the Los Angeles School Board, the 1969 Denver Youth Conference, the 1972 La Raza Unida convention, or many other events were it not for this crazy Chicano who made it a point to document these events for history.

Q: Chicano media never took off. Second and third generation Chicanos have been shut out of cable and network TV. How do you feel about foreign Mexican interests usurping Chicano opportunity?

A: Mexican directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonz?lez I??arritu, and Guillermo Del Toro are certainly not to be blamed for finding success in Hollywood. They deserve it. They are gifted directors. They have been fortunate in finding success in THEIR country and then building on that success here in the United States. But wouldn't it be nice if more Chicanos and other American-born-Latinos were able to find success in OUR country the United States? If you look at the statistics you will see that yearly only 2% of screenplays in the motion picture and television industry are written by Spanish surnamed people. Only 3% of TV shows and movies are directed by Spanish surnamed people (this includes Mexicans and others from out of country). Yet Spanish surnamed people make up more than 45% of the population of Los Angeles where the bulk of the movies and television programs originate. If you had only 2% of the Los Angeles police department, fire department, or sanitation department being Spanish surnamed in a city where they make up 45 % of the population then there would be civil rights lawsuits galore! But in Hollywood this disparity is considered the norm. It is business as usual.

Q: What happened to the Chicano movement?

A: The Chicano movement is alive and well. If you have any doubt just watch my latest documentary Visions of Aztl?n. There I interview 24 artists who began their careers as socially conscious artists in the heyday of the Chicano movement and continue to do socially relevant and committed art work forty years later. It is truly inspiring to see a generation of artists continuing with a vision that art is not to be separated from our social lives - that art can denounce injustice, celebrate our community, and share our universal humanity to all people. I am certain that if I was to undertake a documentary on Chicano attorneys or social workers or educators or labor activists, I would find the same truth holding true. Latinos in the United States continue to benefit from a social movement that began 40 years ago and continues into the present.

Q: Do you work in Spanish?

A: I do not direct Spanish language television because most Spanish language televison stations are not signatories to the Directors Guild of America on whose board I serve. The effort to unionize workers in the motion picture industry is an important struggle and I am proud to be part of a union (the DGA) that champions the creative rights and benefits due directors. Sadly, Spanish language television disrespects these rights and produces non- union shows at ludicrously low fees.

Q: How do you feel about the quality of network television today? What kinds of stories need to be told?

A: There was a time when programs that singled out an ethnic minority as a "theme" were fashionable. With African Americans one remembers the Cosby Show, the Jeffersons and others. For Latinos this kind of minority specific family shows include Resurrection Blvd, American Family, The Brothers Garcia, and The George Lopez Show. And I agree we need these kinds of shows that specifically target our communities. But this is not enough. We must now allow the fact that we have a "George Lopez Show" to mean that American television has met its obligation to program for and about Latinos. No, we need to see Latinos as a thorough and integrated part of all American television. We are the largest minority in the United States and that should be reflected in the make up of the casts of every episodic TV show on the air. We need both: seeing ourselves in programs specifically targeted to the large buying power of our Latino audience, and programs reflecting mainstream American society of which we are an important and ever growing part.

Q: What are your thoughts on "New Media?" Has it changed the way you express yourself and construct projects?

A: The "New Media" is a double edged sword. On the one hand it offers new and limitless opportunities for communities that have been traditionally silenced for economic and other reasons - to finally have a media voice. Thus, we have a new generation of Latino film makers who now can express themselves using digital video and the internet to reach audiences that was never before possible. On the other hand, the so-called internet piracy (I call it outright theft!) of copywritten movies and television shows threatens the very fabric of how media and entertainment is done. The business model for the production of movies and television shows relies on residuals. If the shows are being stolen on the internet then there are no residuals. Carried to an extreme, why would anyone want to invest in a film if they would longer be capable of seeing a return on their investment because of piracy? For minority film makers, who typically work on lower end budgets, this is even more exacerbated. The "New Media" can be a boon or a cataclysmic disaster for minority and Latino film makers. But I do believe the internet is the future and Latinos must be a part of it.

Q: Tell me about your latest project?

A: My most recent documentary is titled Visions of Aztl?n. It tells the story of a whole generation of Mexican American artists who grew up in poverty and answered to the call of the 1960's and 1970's Chicano civil rights movement by creating "art for the people" and transforming American notions of what art can be. To do this they often had to put their artistic careers on the line. This is a self-financed documentary that celebrates a community of artists who continue to work for social change in the Latino communities of the United States to this day. I soon will be distributing a DVD with special features.

Q: What media platform has the most developmental potential both now and in the future?

A: I think the future of media, in one form or another, is in the internet. No one has discovered a viable business model yet. Perhaps Hulu is the closest with its idea of a subscription fee for watching Hulu episodes that on launch were available for free. One thing is clear. In spite of what so many people believe, the internet is NOT free. It will just take a few years for that fact to sink into the public mind. When it does, we will be able to get on with the job of identifying and developing viable long-term internet business models that sustain and enhance the new media. To that end I have been developing an internet venture on American Latino art and culture.

Interact with Director Jesus Travino at; http://www.chuytrevino.com/home.html


I am impressed and inspired by director Jesus Trevino's words and the legacy of his work
as one of our pioneer Latino directors. He speaks candidly about the misconceptions about
Latinos in Hollywood (executives assuming Gregory Nava and Luis Valdez must be from a
"Latin American country"), as well as the disparity in representation of Latinos in Hollywood.
His numerous contributions over the years makes him one of our most respected and admired.
Thank you for such an inspiring and insightful interview.

www.dyanaortelli.com/ www.youtube.com/dyanaortelli


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