An interview with Amy French, director El S??perstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Franc?®s
By Marvin Miranda, LA Alternative Movie Examiner
Let's just get one thing clear, right off the bat: Amy French is not Mexican. Turns out she's not even French. What she is, though, is a born and raised Angeleno and as such is one of the millions of souls dipped into a melting pot of cultural experiences only to emerge coated in a kaleidoscope of customs and traditions. If allowed to, that is. It's one of these souls French allows to emerge, fly and soar to the tune of his own mariachi song in her debut feature film, El S??perstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances, the only-in-(East)-LA-story of a G??ero who is raised by a Mexican-American family, becoming an overnight Spanish-singing sensation.
Published on LatinoLA: September 16, 2010
Ms. French was kind enough to take time out from a busy schedule to answer some questions regarding her unique Mexican folk (art) tale.
Marvin Miranda: I understand that the movie is loosely based on you and your brother's interesting life story, growing up as children of both a Hollywood executive and an artist while being looked after by a caring, loving Mexican nanny. What led you to turn that story into one where the main character is a non-Mexican man who is raised by a Mexican family and becomes a Spanish-singing pop star?
Amy French: In a lot of ways, the most idyllic part of our childhood was the Mexican part, with our Mexican family. And I say family, because not only did our nanny, Lupe, live with us in our guest house, but so did her two older aunts and her four children, who went to Junior high and high school in L.A. All of the food and music and liveliness at Lupe's house seemed such a vibrant contrast to our mother's Christian Scientist leanings and need for lots of alone time, and our father's, well...British-ness. (I feel the need to mention here what great parents they are. Catholic guilt: check!) The bottom line is, the whole experience really did turn Spencer into a Mexican singer trapped inside of a Caucasian businessman. It was time the Mexican singer got out.
MM: I've read that your brother, star Spencer John French, and you have been facing quite a few quizzical looks and itchy heads regarding the fact you're not of Mexican descent but you've directed a movie that predominantly takes place in the Mexican-American culture. To what extent did you expect that sort of confusion and what have you learned from that experience in terms of people's perceptions/preconceptions and your right to identify with whatever culture you choose?
AF: The head scratching was to be expected. I mean, just look at my brother...he is such a "white guy". Until he opens his mouth, and out float these tender Ranchera harmonies. The confusion is kind of the whole joke of the movie, actually. So I guess not only did we expect it, we banked on it. And although it hasn't happened yet, it is conceivable that someone might be offended, or accuse us of hijacking a culture that isn't our own. All I can say is that throughout the whole process, we always made extra sure that we were telling stories from our personal experiences, and making jokes about our own lives. Sometimes I feel like the movie is more documentary than mockumentary! In the end, a person tends to identify most with whatever culture takes them in and raises them into adulthood, and for Spencer and I, (and probably a lot of other people in this country) we are lucky to have a couple of different cultures that we feel we belong to.
MM: Having taught in East L.A. for several years, I'm familiar with some of the locations you used. Was it challenging at all to get permission to shoot in these bars/restaurants, especially when explaining to the owners that this was a small film and not some big Hollywood production you were working on? Did it help having such an icon of the Mexican-American community as Danny Trejo in your corner or did that confuse the matter even more, "How can it be 'small' when you have 'Machete' starring in your movie?!"
AF: I consider Los Angeles to be a character in the movie. It is the only place that can support a story about a blue collar Mexican family that gets caught up the Hollywood celebrity machine. We did our best to capture the colors and the light and the people here, sometimes moving to three or four different locations in a day, working our line-producer and location manager to the point of madness! Shooting documentary style, we were able to keep our crew on the smaller side, and business owners were kind enough to cut deals when we told them how we were working with such a small budget. (And remember, Danny Trejo wasn't "Machete" yet -- we shot this a few years ago! Not that it mattered, really, he still got recognized everywhere we went, graciously posing for cell phone pictures. I remember one day, we were shooting in this industrial area near some sort of ceramic tile factory, and one of the employees got Danny to autograph a bathroom tile. I loved that.)
MM: Some of the Spanish language songs you and your brother wrote and he sings in the movie are absolutely beautiful, giving the film an unexpected poignancy and heart from the start. Even the rendition of the traditional cure-all hymn, Sana, Sana is quite spectacular in a very low-key sort of way. As you noted in a previous interview, it's a song that is known throughout most of Latin American. I'm Salvadoran and it's what was sung to me every time I got scraped or bruised as a child. If the rub that went along with it didn't make you feel better (and most of the time it didn't) the funny lyrics would. But I digress... Obviously, you and your brother have an ear for rom?ínticas, or Spanish ballads. Can you talk about how Latin music played a role in you and your brother's life. Also, what's with music supervisor "El Ciclon"? Is he a DJ and what was his involvement?
AF: Spencer is such a musical talent, I basically just lucked out in being one of his sisters. I was involved in the song writing process by helping with theme and lyrics and tempo (I teased Spencer that his own inner-metronome was all slow and sad), and I it was an exciting part of the writing/directing in so much as I was able to guide the story and pace through music. But the magic of this soundtrack (available on iTunes, ahem) is all Spencer. When he sings so high and sweet, it just breaks your heart--it's the music that is the heart of the story, and makes Juan a real person. And yes, growing up, the radio was always on during the day in Lupe's house, and we absorbed all of it through osmosis. Not to mention Lupe's middle daughter was a Latin Disco champion, bringing home a different trophy every weekend, and teaching us how to move. But Spencer and I also had an obsession with staging live music videos to songs by Weird Al Yankovic, The Beach Boys, The Police. We would perform these elaborate lip synchs with costume changes and props, which is basically what this movie is! And yes, you guessed right, El Ciclon is a local DJ and producer of Columbian descent who, in the spirit of Spencer becoming Juan for the film, took on his own nom de plume, after "El Ciclon," a classic Cumbia that he loves by La Sonora Dinamita. He's a long time friend of mine who I asked to produce Juan's album and the score, and I'm so glad he did! From the beginning, he had such a deep appreciation for Spencer and the music, and instantly grasped the authentic sound we were hoping to create, from the hymns to the folk to the reggaeton.
MM: I imagine that going from doing TV commercials to directing your first, small feature would be a rude awakening of sorts: You're pointing a camera instead of being in front of it, you're in charge of everything, everyone is coming to you for guidance, you're trying to manage a modest budget. How was that transition for you and how did your commercial experience help when it came to being in charge and directing?
AF: It does sound pretty daunting when you put it that way! Luckily, I didn't have the time to worry about it, it was such a whirlwind. From writing the first outline to the first day on set was seven months. It all happened so fast, I just had to step up as best I could. I had directed theater and already knew I loved working with actors and designers. I had done a lot of improv comedy, too, so I had a sense of how to guide the improvisation. Also, I had paid close attention to how a film set operates, having spent a decade working as an actress. I knew the script supervisor was the guy sitting next to me with all the pencils and knew not to ask the Assistant Director to lower her voice. That got me through the first week. And by then we were all chugging along together, and I could just steer!
MM: The fact that George Lopez and Norman Lear are listed as Executive Producers must raise a lot of eyebrows. To exactly what capacity were they involved in the production of your film? Would you still consider your film an "indie" if you have giants like them involved?
AF: I would argue that any movie where you shoot 100+ scenes in 35 locations over 17 days with eight musical numbers for less than 300 thousand dollars is an "indie". I promise--I've got "indie" sweat stains on my t-shirts and "indie" creases between my eyebrows to prove it. But, having Norman Lear and George Lopez as Executive Producers has been an enormous gift for a little movie like this, and knowing they were on my side gave me confidence throughout the process, from shooting to finding distribution. Norman was the first to read the story and hear the songs, and he really wanted to see me get a chance to make the movie. He sent the script to George, knowing that if he liked it and became an EP as well, it would be another great boost---and George agreed! Then they just kind of let me go off and make it (or break it. Or a little of both?). And that's how I got here.
MM: What's been the general response from the Latino, especially, of course, the Mexican-American, community in regards to your film?
AF: Honestly, the Latino film festivals have been the most excited about the movie. Latino audiences really seem to recognize these characters, pick up on all the subtler jokes and references, and just appreciate the story of Juan as a whole. Besides which, we always knew who we were making this movie for: People with t?¡os and abuelas; people with at least one rosary somewhere in their house; people who know that cactus is delicious. And in the end, if there is one thing that can bridge the cultural divide, it's music. Well...music and silly acronyms about poop.
El S??perstar starts Friday, September 17th: Laemmle's Monica 4-plex.
Friday 9/17: A live evening performances by "Juan Franc?®s" (Spencer John French) on the Third Street Promenade starts at approximately 5:00pm. Q&A with director Amy French and Spencer John French following the 7:40pm show.
Saturday 9/18: A live evening performances by "Juan Franc?®s" (Spencer John French) on the Third Street Promenade starts at approximately 3:00pm. Q&A with director Amy French and Spencer John French following the 7:40pm show.
Sunday 9/19: Q&A with director Amy French following the 1:00pm show.
By Marvin Miranda, LA Alternative Movie Examiner:
From Art House to Grindhouse, Marvin takes you through the high roads and back alleys of Tinseltown's cinematic landscape. Marvin also writes about Italian genre films. Send Marvin your film feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org