Daniel Maldonado Based His Film on Real Events and Turned NYC’s Subway Into a Movie Set

Jeremy Ray Valdez in 'H.O.M.E.'

Films about how society is becoming increasingly disconnected are now a genre onto their own. Think of Paul Haggis’s Crash, Roger Mitchell’s Changing Lanes, or perhaps most appropriately, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. That film’s tagline, “If You Want to be Understood… Listen” speaks to the themes that director Daniel Maldonado (alongside co-writer Hector Carosso) are exploring in H.O.M.E. Focused on two interconnected stories about immigrants in New York City, the film takes on issues of language barriers and miscommunication that are surprisingly timely.

Maldonado grew up in the city and that’s immediately apparent in the film which feels made for those people who make New York their home. Taking place mostly in subway stations and a cramped taxi cab in one night, H.O.M.E. is a film that immerses you in the multicultural world of the city. As a young runaway teenage boy with Asperger’s navigates the subway, an anxious Chinese mother convinces an Ecuadorian taxi driver to help her get back home. These are journeys that, as Maldonado puts it, help us redefine what we think about when we think about “home.”

Ahead of the film’s screening at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Queens World Film Festival, we sat down to talk to Maldonado about the ways he and his crew were able to outmaneuver the MTA to get the shots they needed, and how instrumental his casting directors were in getting Televisa fave Jesús Ochoa on board his project. Check some of the highlights from our chat below.

H.O.M.E. screens as part of the Queens World Film Festival which runs March 15-20, 2016

On Drawing From Real-Life Events

My inspiration was coming from a few different places. There was an article that came out several years ago in The New York Times “Runaway Spent 11 Days in the Subways,” about a young Mexican boy who had Asperger’s that basically talked about how he had ran away from home and he was living in the subways for several weeks. A combination of thinking what that environment must have been like in his condition, brought about some ideas to what is like to be on a journey within a city. I was also inspired by several other articles that talked about how we were communicating — or not communicating nowadays. And then I came upon a story of language barriers and I thought about a lot of drivers in Queens, all over the city. It all came together in an organic way. The original idea was that there were going to be three stories that spoke about immigrants living in the city.

On Casting His Leads

In terms of the casting. I was at a point, especially with the young man with Asperger’s where I was going to go either way in casting someone who had that condition. But I found this middle-ground in that we cast Jeremy Ray Valdez who I’d seen in a few films. He’s a great young actor who has done a lot of work, mostly in LA. Not much in New York. He also confided that he had a sister who’s autistic, and I think that’s what one of the things that brought him to the script. We brought him on, flew him out to New York for a couple of weeks.

Jeremy Ray Valdez in ‘H.O.M.E.’
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The other actors: Jesús Ochoa who’s a pretty big Mexican actor. I saw him in a Sundance film a couple of years ago and he caught my eye and we brought on casting directors who were able to get in contact with him and bring him over. They [Ellyn Long Marshall and Maria E. Nelson] had done the casting for Girlfight and Maria Full of Grace. They were very instrumental in getting him. And then Angela they brought to us and she was someone who stood out from the beginning. She nailed it from the get-go and I think working with the two of them in that second story was a little bit of magic. They hit it off and had a good dynamic.

On the Secrets to Filming on the Subway

“The film speaks to the immigrants of New York — who I consider to be the fabric of the city.”

I was also one of the producers on the film and I knew that we had to be clever on how we approached this. One of the things that we approached it with was shooting with small cameras and no tripods. So that was step one. We also had two cameras and kind of played it off like, if we get stopped by the MTA or the police — which we did, several times —  we had the other camera rolling. So we pushed it. I had to go ahead and do it. And we kind of strategized to film during certain times of the day. That kind of helped. The one thing that we did is, a kind of experiment, actually, was we gave Jeremy, who played Danny, an earpiece and we had him go out into the public with our cameras far back and filmed him interacting as his character throughout lot of the subways, in Grand Central Station, in the Port Authority area. The people that are interacting with him are unaware of the cameras so we had these sort of hyper-real scenes. I think he really thrived on it.

On Screening the Film in Queens

We’re going to be screening at the Museum [of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens] for the Festival and it’s going to be a great setting for the film. Not only because it speaks to New York City, but because it speaks to the immigrants of New York — what I consider to be the fabric of the city. I think the issue of communication and connecting, it’s something we have sort of seen a lot in recent years — put down your phone, pay attention, that kind of thing. But I’m trying to extend this conversation to those that are immigrants, bringing them into the picture, so to speak. I’m portraying characters that we don’t see everyday, especially outside of the city. It’s about giving them a voice.