How This Young Mexican-American Director Made His First Movie With Just $700

At just 21 years old, precocious Mexican-American filmmaker Chris Carmona has already been on stage at an Oscars ceremony and made a feature-length movie. Back in 2015, he was the only Latino to be part of Team Oscar, an initiative created by the Academy that selects young filmmakers based on a submitted video to deliver Oscar statuettes to presenters during the telecast.

Participating in this once in a lifetime opportunity further validated Carmona’s aspirations to write and direct his own work. Three years and multiple shorts later, his debut film Bad Labor is premiering at LALIFF (Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival) this week. However, the journey to competition was unorthodox and powered by his drive to make a project by whatever means necessary.

Inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s canonic book Rebel Without a Crew, in which the director describes how he made El Mariachi for $7000, Carmona thought he could create something of similar quality for even less money. After all, he already had access to equipment and didn’t need to invest in film stock.

“I knew we could do a movie just as good, if not better, for $700,” he explained. Those $700 came from working as a production assistant on Jameson-sponsored short films. With his check taped to his wallet and unwavering determination, Carmona, who was 19 years old at the time, contacted his close collaborators Tony Remigio (co-producer and cinematographer) and Jose Martinez (co-producer). He’d met them both at the Inner-City Filmmakers program – the only formal training the three mostly self-taught creators had.

‘Bad Labor’ still, courtesy of director.
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The first draft of the screenplay was written in 15 days and was inspired by Carmona’s recollections driving by a Home Depot store in Huntington Park, where jornaleros gather waiting for work. “These dudes are so brave,” he thought, “because you never know whose car you’re going to get into.” And thus, the plot for Bad Labor was born. The thriller follows a Mexican day laborer and family man enticed by a charming hitman to help him bury a body in exchange for $10,000.

In order for his radical idea of making a feature with such limited funds to work, Carmona knew he had to keep things close to home and take advantage of whatever free resources were available to him. “I followed the El Mariachi model, where I made sure that everything we had in the script was stuff that I knew we definitely had access to,” he says.

Both the pickup truck – an integral part of the plot – and the semi-trailer truck seen  during the movie’s resolution are both owned by his father; the ranch featured prominently in the third act is the cinematographer’s cousin’s ranch; and the main camera used to shoot the movie, a Canon 50D Mark III, is owned by one of Carmona’s co-producers. Filming without permits, the filmmakers had to be frugal about their approach and find collaborators who were aware of the risks this implied.

‘Bad Labor’ still, courtesy of director.
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Casting his two main actors was a matter of social media connections and immediate talent contacts: Salvador Chacon, who plays the lead Roberto Vargas, came on board after Carmona became aware of him through a recommendation and reached out to him via Instagram. Kevin Nelson, chosen to be the hilariously deranged villain Stanley Tesla, was a fellow student in an improv class the director attended.

A native of the Southeast Los Angeles city of Bell, Chris Carmona wanted to highlight an area of Southern California rarely seen on screen. He shot the project locally for practical purposes, but also as a way to encourage others in Bell, and the neighboring Latino cities of Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate, and Bell Gardens, to follow their artistic dreams even when there are very few precedents.

“In the very near future, I want a kid like me to watch Bad Labor and freak out when he spots those couple of landmarks from Bell where we shot. Rather than try to get away from my city, I wanted to make an impact on it that would eventually travel beyond me,” says the promising moviemaker whose career is off to an incredible start.