As creators of content aimed at general audiences, directors Gaz Alazraki and Ricardo de Montreuil, from Mexico and Peru respectively, were brimming with knowledge during the Directors’ Master Class, moderated by industry veteran Mitch Levine at the NALIP Media Summit. During the hour-long conversation the filmmakers told candid anecdotes about their origin stories and the winding roads they took to get to their current level of success.
De Montreuil is working on the feature iteration of his short The Raven, a futuristic vision of Los Angeles in the vein of The Hunger Games, while Alazraki continues to enjoy the warm reception his Netflix series, Club de Cuervos has received, including getting renewed for a third season. Deeply influenced by their homelands, both artists are prime examples of how mainstream acceptance doesn’t need to come at the expense of diluting their identities. Whether it’s becoming a viral sensation or revolutionizing episodic storytelling, they are both laying the groundwork for other young Latino directors – many of whom were present and sought further guidance from them after the panel.
Finding out that hiring American writers to work on a Mexican series could work or that playing at Sundance won’t solve all of your problems were among the lessons handed out at this session. Take a look at some more highlights below.
De Montreuil on Getting His Start at MTV and Making a Profitable First Film
I grew up in Trujillo, which is a city in the north of Peru, on the coast, and I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I came to study film when I finished high school. I studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design and I graduated as a graphic designer and a filmmaker. My first job out of college was as an art director for MTV Latin America in Miami, so I started with that brand and eventually started doing music videos, commercials, and that led to my first film, La mujer de mi hermano, which I directed like 12 years ago. It was a tiny film that cost $400,000 and made about $9 million at the box office. It was very profitable. We never expected that. It was distributed in Latin America by Fox and in the States by Lionsgate.
De Montreuil on His Career After La mujer de mi hermano
That film was so commercial that I felt that I needed to do something more personal. I did Máncora, which was my second film and it was an official selection at Sundance. I did a year of festivals and I thought I had a career. Then I found out that I didn’t. I did this short called The Raven like five years ago, which became a viral phenomenon overnight. We set it up at Universal with Mark Wahlberg producing, but we couldn’t actually finish the script, and that’s when the Lowriders script came. Lowriders just opened in theaters like a month ago.
Alazraki on Dealing with His Father’s Concerns About Filmmaking
My grandfather was a filmmaker and my father wanted to be a filmmaker. As he grew up he saw how his father had many wives and he thought, “It’s because he is a filmmaker. I don’t want to do that to my family, “ so he went into advertising. He gave us this sort of nostalgic, frustrated view of filmmaking from the outside. We would go to the Cannes advertising festival, and he would talk about the Cannes film festival. We would watch the Oscars obsessively, he was enamored with it and I think he gave us that. The idea was that I was going to go into his advertising agency and after graduating from high school I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was leaning into making films, but he was afraid I would also have five wives. I had to be very discreet by saying, “I’m going to learn film in New York Film Academy, so that I can make commercials.” I did a summer there, and then I went back to Mexico City to study communications, and it wasn’t really the full experience you wanted from filmmaking. I was learning how to do radio, journalism, art history, and economics, like an extension of high school.
Alazraki on the Benefits of Getting Kicked Out of Film Class
I finally got to my first filmmaking class in communications and I got kicked out because I would argue with the teacher. He loved ‘70s cinema and that was all he ever respected, and I thought that Hollywood had good stuff to show for, but he hated it. Those arguments earned my expulsion from the room. I applied to USC and I learned genre filmmaking there, the teachers we had there were not dividing commercial cinema from art house cinema, for them it was all cinema. It was great. It opened my mind to just loving the art form without thinking that there sides to choose from.
Alazraki on the Path to His Hugely Successful Debut
I interned at Marc PlattProductions and I heard him speak about how he wanted to choose the materials that he was doing. At that point I just called my dad and said, “I am not going to go into advertising. I will pursue filmmaking,” and he said, “Cool, let’s do what Iñarritu did. Let’s have you start out with commercials, and then you will earn people’s trust to make a movie that wins an Oscar.” It didn’t pan out exactly like that. I directed commercials for 13 years without ever really breaking into any other advertising agencies. I opened up a production company with Pitipol Ibarra, trying to make legitimate my incursion into commercials, but I was always my father’s son in the industry. Eventually I just pursued short films, I closed down that production company, and I moved into my living room to write my eighth screenplay, which would be my first movie, and it was Nosotros los Nobles. It did better than I expected and it gave me a career.
De Montreuil on Finding Viral Success with The Raven
[After Máncora played Sundance] I was getting a lot of scripts for dramas and at that point I wasn’t interested in making dramas. I grew up loving Ridley Scott’s films, and Spielberg’s films, so I did a short called The Raven – it was a set piece – with some people that worked on advertising and TV. The short is a chase sequence of this guy running away from these big robots in a very authoritarian version of Los Angeles – like five minutes in the future. I thought we’d have it play festivals, build an audience, and eventually try to set it up at a studio. We finished the short and put it on YouTube on a Tuesday night. We got up the following morning and we had like 200,000 views. It was insane.
Views were going up super fast. Suddenly the view counts stopped and we were like, “What happened?” We had to call somebody at YouTube and they told me that if views were going up so fast that they needed to stop the counter because it could be a robot. But a few hours later they restarted the view counter. My agents called me and said, “Studios want to talk to you. They are interested in the short, to make [it] a feature.” That was on Thursday. Warner sent an offer for a development deal, and then DreamWorks sent an offer on Friday.
That weekend I got super drunk. I couldn’t understand what was happening. On Monday they called me to tell me, “Mark Wahlberg wants to produce and star in it.” Justin Marks, who wrote The Jungle Book, used to be my next-door neighbor. I told him, “I got so much attention so fast, and we need a writer. We have a short and an idea for a movie.” Justin was on vacation in Japan and I told him, “You would need to fly back because we have meetings with every studio head next week. We need to pitch the film.” He flew back, cut his vacation short, and we sold the movie to Universal.
Alazraki on Becoming Aware of the Class Divide in Mexico and Finding Satire in It
[Nosotros los Nobles] was very autobiographical in away. The first thing was that when I was in USC I started to bring my friends to Spring Break in Mexico. I was like, “I’ll give you the real Mexican version of Spring Break. We are going to rent cars from Mexico City, drive them to Acapulco, and we are not just going to lock ourselves in a hotel room. We are going to explore Mexico.” For the first time I was becoming aware of what my country looks like for them. The first thing I noticed was the contrast of a Jeep Cherokee that had bodyguards next to this really jalopy, an old bocho, falling apart. I started to just see that theme everywhere I turned.
I came back to the US and I was just a regular office assistant for a production company. My dad owns a company. I’m used to the whole “Simba” thing of, “This is your company son,” but then I was just getting coffee, making photocopies, and doing everything that normal assistants do. You come into focus with the meritocracy because people that started with me started to rise faster, and deservingly so. I was like, “So, I’m kind of lazy and I’m starting to see how this is not going to work in favor of my career.” I came in that mindset back to Mexico, and I realized that people around me really had it all handed to them.
I felt it was wrong to move into my parents’ house after finishing college. I wanted to learn how to live according to whatever I could generate and see if I could create a self-sustainable lifestyle based on my skills. It’s nothing different from what the rest of the world is doing, but very different from my ecosystem. I started to notice that my friends were still living with their parents. We were probably earning the same amount of money but they were not paying rent, or clothes or food, so they were spending a bunch of money in clubs just to get that hot table next to the dance floor.
There was a moment I couldn’t really keep up with that lifestyle and I didn’t want to be with them anymore. I felt we were getting to a disconnect and that was what was fueling this question that was burning in my mind sort of saying, “Why didn’t anyone else notice that there is something off here?” That was the origin of the satire. I looked for different stories to make this point. I really started to notice that there was something off tune when an 18-year-old kid is screaming at a valet, “It’s been 20 minutes and you don’t bring me my car man! What’s wrong with you?” It was like, “Man, this is wrong.” I would see this all the time. That’s where the satire came from.
Alazraki on Why Club de Cuervos Uses American Writers & How He Transforms the Scripts into a Show That is Distinctly Mexican
My brother, my cousin, and I do the adaptation and the actors fill in that extra percent. They are comedy actors, they are smart, and they are great. Between my brother, my cousin, the actors, and I, we transform everything culturally to get there. However, the strength of having the American writers structuring everything is that comedy works because, just as in drama, your character wants something. In a drama what they want is serious, in a comedy what they want is not and the obstacle can be ridiculous. In a drama the obstacle is life or death.
Your writers need to be really good and prolific with those basic things and then the archetypes of comedy that we chose are universal. We have the lovable looser, the bitch, the materialistic one, the dumb one, the one that’s in his own universe, or the logical, smart guy in the Looney house. All these archetypes we built into the characters. For example, we have a player named Cuau, he is proud of being Mexican, Mexico for the Mexicans, he hates everything that’s foreign, he hates the cultural invasion of America, etc. The way I described this character to the writers was, “Write a Black Panther.” Then adapting him to Mexico was like moving the needle five degrees. That’s how we wrote.
The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) seeks to inspire, promote, and advocate for Latino content creators in media. As a non-profit organization, NALIP advances the development of Latino content creation through its programs focusing on narrative, documentary, TV, and digital formats. For more information, visit NALIP.org