5 Questions with Carlos Hurtado, the Director Documenting the Lives of LA’s Troubled Youth

Filmmaker Carlos A. Hurtado shows a light hand and keen sensitivity for difficult topics in Hollygrove: The True Life Story of Monserrat. The short film played during this year’s Cannes Film Festival as part of the Short Film Corner, and has thus far garnered multiple accolades and nominations for Hurtado’s efforts, including Best Short Documentary at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. But that’s not the best part. The best part of Hollygrove is Monserrat.

Founded in 1880, Hollygrove was a Los Angeles orphanage that once housed Norma Jean Baker (aka Marilyn Monroe) when she was 9 years old. No longer an orphanage, Hollygrove now takes on the difficult task of helping children, youth, and families in need. One of the organization’s greatest champions and supporters, Ruby Stewart (singer, model, and rocker Rod Stewart’s daughter), asked Hurtado to create a video representing the kind of work that Hollygrove does. He spent some time there participating in the programs offered to the community and that’s when Hurtado met Monserrat.

Combining live action, documentary, and animation, Hurtado took on the huge responsibility of representing Monserrat’s story: a troubled childhood that eventually led Monserrat to drug and alcohol abuse. She landed at Hollygrove’s doorstep where she was given the kind of support and the safe space she needed to turn her life around. Though fraught with anger and abuse, Monserrat’s story is ultimately about resurgence and about believing in yourself; it’s a story that she hopes will inspire others, just as others have aided and motivated her on her path.

We talked to Hurtado who gave us details about the creation of the film and how his own life has been touched by conveying Monserrat’s powerful story.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker? What happened and why film?
During my last year in high school, I had to give up on one of my biggest passions: baseball. It was during this challenging time that I turned to a movie that had always inspired me – The Goonies. The story behind this film of never giving up and finding a way to accomplish what you believe in led me to want to have that same effect on others. The Goonies inspired me to pursue film in college and it also allowed me to combine my two passions (film and baseball) with my first student projects. I may not have been able to continue playing baseball but I hoped to at least inspire others to pursue their dreams, like baseball, through my stories and imagery. Film allowed me to reconcile my two passions and inspire me to do more.

How did you meet Monserrat? Why did she trust you with her story?
I had been given the opportunity to participate in an upcoming Gala project for Hollygrove which led to the idea of creating a moving piece that could represent the work of Hollygrove to all those in attendance. The idea of interviewing young adults that had benefited from the services and support of Hollygrove began and it developed to the piece everyone sees today. It was at this time that I met this brave young woman. With the support of those around her, she opened up about her difficult past because she wanted it to be source of inspiration and support to other children like her. She wanted to make sure they knew they were not alone. It was for this reason that I didn’t want it to be a regular one in one interview but instead have the audience feel what she went through growing up through images that depicted her life and emotions.

Hollygrove is a mix of live action scenes, documentary, and animation. Why did you choose this treatment for Monserrat’s story? Can you tell us a bit about your collaborators and what it was like to work with them?
I decided on a mix of live action, documentary, and animation because it felt like the best way to depict her story and its sensitive topics. The goal was not to garner pity from the viewers but instead inspire them and this format allowed me to do just that through animation and live action. It took me a while to reconcile how I could achieve this and that’s when adding animation came to mind. Working with the great team of animators was a new experience for me. They were able to take my stick figure concepts I gave them and created what we see today. I provided them with images and drawings that depicted the emotions that I wanted to convey through animation and they did it perfectly.

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How do you approach your projects, generally? What is your creative process like?
The first thing that comes to mind when I take on a new project is I have to figure out what the end goal is supposed to be. For example, what message do I want to send or what emotions do I want to evoke in the viewers? Once I’ve narrowed that down, I develop drafts of possible scenes, develop scenarios, and search for music that could accompany the various scenarios that I’m developing. My family knows my style as well, so many times I bounce ideas off of them and as my harshest critics, I know I will get honest and constructive feedback. Honestly, sometimes my inspiration comes from my family, especially the antics of my three nieces.

How has your relationship with Monserrat and her story had an effect on you personally? On your career as a filmmaker?
I’ve reflected on this many times since I’ve finished the project. She served as a reminder to me that we can overcome challenges, no matter how difficult they can be. She became another inspiration to me, like The Goonies had been in the past. Having met her and worked on this project reaffirmed my commitment to give back to the community and inspire others through my work. It’s not about commercial success but instead successfully touching a life or lives through my work and message.