From Michelangelo to Mozart, the history of Western art has always tended toward the myth of the solitary genius: one man (yes, it’s usually a man) who with little more than a pen or paintbrush and a mysterious personality radically changes the course of Western culture. In truth art is rarely produced in a bubble; any great artist has a close friend, husband, wife, or editor to give invaluable feedback and put the solitary genius in his place whenever necessary.
Yet unlike other arts, film has always embraced this collaborative nature of creation, and its history is filled with the work of great duos from the Dardenne Brothers to Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. Comedy in particular thrives off of that special chemistry produced when you mix one part Laurel with one part Hardy, or when you roll up your Cheech with a little bit of Chong. It’s about energy and connection, and when the sparks fly they can light up the audience like a forest fire.
Enter Hugo Perez and Adrian Martinez. Both accomplished artists in their own right, a chance encounter five years back set the stage for a rich collaboration that is only now beginning to bear fruit. For his part, Perez has spent years writing, producing, and directing award-winning documentaries and short films, while Martinez has made a career as a battle-worn character actor, popping up alongside the likes of Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Will Ferrell (Casa de Mi Padre) and Zach Galifianakis (It’s Kind of a Funny Story).
With a growing collection of improvised, comedic micro-short films slowly gaining traction and a feature film in the works, these guys might have what it takes to be something like the Latino Coen Brothers, or at least their more bronzed second cousins. On the cusp of their breakout success, we sat down with these two close friends and collaborators to talk about self-empowerment, Latino Archie Bunkers, and finding magic in small moments.
How did the two of you became interested in movies and acting?
Adrian: Well, I basically have always been enamored by the movies. They’ve always been able to speak to me. The great movies. On an intellectual and also an emotional level. Movies were my friend growing up. I was very shy so I would go to the movies and I would just sort of find myself in different worlds and enjoying that. And then, as I watched movies — even when I was like 10 years old — I would see actors make choices and I would say to myself, “Well why didn’t he do this?” or “Why did he do that?” [laughs] I was actually questioning the work of Al Pacino and Gary Oldman. And then I just started thinking, “Maybe I should just do it myself.” And it’s been an interesting ride.
I read that you started by auditioning in high school for Unsolved Mysteries?
“Movies were my friend growing up. I was very shy so I would go to the movies and would find myself in different worlds.”
Adrian: Yeah it was a TV show and they were just looking for someone that could run fast, and at the time I was a medalist in sprinting. So I just basically sort of took off at the audition, left everyone in the dust and picked up one line, which was, “Open the door!” So I was banging on the door after doing a sprint and just screaming, “Open the door!” And I still don’t know why I was screaming that, but it got me my SAG card.
Hugo: That was also your first Emmy was for that performance, right?
Adrian: [laughs] Yes, yes. I was at a party once and I told this guy, “You know I just had my chart done by an astrologist, and she said that within 10 years you’re going to have an Oscar a Tony and an Emmy.” And he said, “Yeah, those are going to be your kids.” So we’ll see.
Well there’s hope either way. Whether they’re kids or whether they’re statues, they’ll come!
And Hugo — how did you get into the crazy world of film?
Hugo: I grew up in Miami, in the cradle of Cuban civilization in the U.S. I loved movies when I was a kid, but books were really the thing that kind of transported me. And I would say that books really were my first love and how I found other worlds and other stories. And really the decision to go into filmmaking happened right before I went to Yale. I saw City Lights for the first time — Chaplin’s film — then there was this Chaplin film festival and for a week I saw all of Chaplin’s films and I decided I wanted to do that. And I meant that quite literally because when I went to Yale I spent my first year watching almost exclusively silent films and making silent film comedies that I starred in. So I started in the silent film era, you could say.
How did you guys meet?
Adrian: We met at NALIP [National Association of Latino Independent Producers], at a producers conference. Actually it was a competition that I won for a script and he won for his script. And we met in New Mexico for the first time. He had his project, I had mine, and we started talking about film and ideas and we kind of hit it off, and that was 8 years…
Hugo: 5 years ago.
Adrian: Yeah about 5 years ago.
Hugo: Yeah it was 2009. It feels like 8 but it was really 5. We were both part of this director’s lab that NALIP used to do and it was really a special experience, and Adrian and I connected. And I remember we were on this van ride back to the airport and it was like, “Hey maybe we should get together in New York and talk about some stuff.” So since then we’ve been kind of writing partners and working on screenplays and trying to push little projects together.
Where did the idea come from to make these improvised micro-short films? Somebody had an iPhone and said, “Hey let’s do something,” or…
Hugo: Yeah, Adrian and I have done a couple of small videos over the years. And our friend Ana and I have worked together quite a bit, and so we’ve always been like, “Oh, we should do something, we should do some stuff together.” And we all went out to see a movie at BAM one night, and as we were walking from BAM over to Carroll Gardens [in Brooklyn] to have dinner we encountered this abandoned baby carriage on a dark street and it was really creepy. And I was like, “Okay, we got to stop and we got to make a little movie here, and it’s going to be one take and we’re not going to rehearse it” and that’s what we did. It actually wound up being 2 takes, because I messed up the first take, but that was the first one that we did and we had a great time doing it.
And that’s when we decided we were going to do a lot more of these. And of course 3 months go by before we do the second one, which was Is That Your Boyfriend? But it’s something we enjoy doing, we think that there’s something great about coming up with a loose concept and then riffing on it, improvising a little short out of it. So it’s a little series that we’re going to continue to do and I think we’re going to do more regularly.
I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Shadows by John Cassavetes, but obviously there’s a whole tradition of this loose, free, improvisational style of filmmaking. I am wondering how it changes your approach in terms of directing for you Hugo, and for Adrian in terms of acting. And what do you find attractive about this improvisational style as opposed to something more rigid or rehearsed?
“Instead of: ‘Let’s get the script right’ or ‘We need the money or the gear, blah blah blah.’ It’s like: ‘Hey, we’re going to make a movie right now.”
Adrian: I’ve always been a fan of improvisation. I did a film called Mail Order Wife that was primarily improvised and I find it very freeing. It allows you to be spontaneous. You have to be open to the moment. You go to any acting school and they always talk about: “Stay in the moment, be in the moment.” And when you improvise with the right actors there’s no choice, you have to be in the moment. So it’s very liberating in that way. And, let’s face it, with the right actors — and Ana Asensio’s a fantastic actress — it can be really liberating and just give you a real sense of being present, which is really cool.
Hugo: I think… I don’t mean to get pretentious here, Bertholt Brecht, when he was talking about theater, he said his ideal for theater was that it would be like going to a baseball game, because the outcome should always be in question. I think to do these little improvised films, it sort of breaks down the kind of conventional, you know, “I’m the director, you’re the actors, you’re the crew” and all of a sudden you’re a team. So you call a play and you go, you run it. And that’s what we’re doing. So we talk about it a little bit, we each have our role: I’m behind the camera and then the actors are in front of the camera and we just kind of riff off of each other, and it’s great. It is really liberating and really freeing. Then there’s no excuse not to do something. Instead of like, “Oh, let’s get the script right,” or, “Oh, we need the money or the gear, blah blah blah,” it’s like, “Hey, we’re going to make a movie right now.” So, it’s kind of fun and exciting and I think the results thus far have been good for us.
In terms of these digital micro-shorts, it’s a young format, but do you guys have any models or inspirations? Are there any micro-short series that have caught your attention in the last couple of years?
Hugo: I wouldn’t say that there have been micro-short series that have caught my attention. There have been some webseries that I think have been very interesting because of the way that they’ve been little game-changers. One of them is Awkward Black Girl, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. The interesting thing about it is that it’s taking a look at representations of young African-American professionals and people in a way that we never see in mainstream television. So in the case of that series the thing that I thought was special about it was that it was a very personal voice that showed a different reality than what we’re used to seeing.
“I’m trying to basically create video comic strips for the new media era.”
With what we’re doing it’s a little less tied to a social agenda and it’s really more about, I don’t know, kind of finding inspiration or magic in small moments in every day life and responding to them as creatives. I mean, literally like pulling a little bit of magic out of the air and sharing it with other people.
In terms of what we want to do with it, we want to continue to do the series for ourselves, probably create a little channel around it, and then we’re starting to have conversations about finding a brand to sponsor the series, because I think this kind of concept could be really successful as a brand or content series if we find the right partner. So Garnish Media, who I work with a little bit, they’ve started to put out some feelers to some of their clients, so we’re waiting to hear back on that.
Adrian: We’re talking to you Dos Equis!
I think they heard you! [laughter]
Hugo: So, we’re going to continue to do this because we enjoy it, but we think that there is a place in the market for this kind of work. And the model that I look to for these micro-shorts is actually kind of an old-world model, which is comic strips. If you think about comic strips, they’re these tight little wonderful little narratives in four panels. And I think with these micro-shorts that we’re doing, it’s kind of the same thing. You have a little situation and then you have a sharp hit at the end, you have a little twist or something. So like “Bloom County” or “Doonesbury” or “The Far Side”, I guess those are some of the inspirations, and I’m trying to basically create video comic strips for the new media era.
Adrian, in the two micro-shorts you’ve done so far, you seem to be tending toward a character that’s kind of a shady canalla. Where did this guy come from? Did you come up with it together or does this just come from some place deep within you?
Adrian: I don’t know what you mean, I think he’s a lovable, sweet guy. This canalla thing, I’m perplexed by that.
Okay, what would drive a lovable, sweet guy to steal a purse?
“This particular character, he’s shady and seems a little creepy but… creepy, shady guys deserve their day in the sun too!”
Adrian: I think it was probably just a heavy purse and she seemed burdened by it.
I’m sure that’s exactly how he justifies it to himself. [laughter]
Adrian: I don’t judge my characters, let’s just put it that way.
But is this the type of character that interests you, aside from any type of epithets you could tack on?
Adrian: Well, this is going to sound trite, but I’m interested in every kind of emotional experience that a person has. So obviously as an actor you just want to be able to do them all. The director Peter Brook said that actors are athletes of emotion, and that stayed with me because when I look at… just in New York when you’re on the subway you see all kinds of interactions, and you see all kinds of emotional life going on. And it’s crazy and it’s beautiful and it’s disgusting and it’s wonderful and it’s all there, and you just want to be able to portray that as an actor. It’s your responsibility to do that. So in this particular character, yeah he’s shady and he seems a little creepy and whatever, but hey, I always felt that creepy, shady guys deserve their day in the sun too!
Adrian: So yeah, the challenge is just to bring a three-dimensional experience for the audience with each character, which is hard when you have 30 seconds as in these cases. But you do your best.
Hugo: I think what Adrian does so well is that he brings a kind of truth to the reality of these characters. They feel real, right? I don’t know, there’s a kind of magic that happens. And, like especially in the second one, where he’s the guy that just wanders up and meddles in this situation. I feel like, maybe you’ve never seen this guy, but as soon as you see him, you know him. And that’s because of Adrian’s performance, and the fact that he becomes that guy. And it’s not about making fun, it’s about… this is the guy, you know?
I mean, that guy in particular — the café creep — could easily be a caricature. Just take it up one or two notches and it would just be an over-the-top Chavo del Ocho — que descanse en paz. But he keeps it right there at a level of believability and that gives it something special.
“Go out there and shoot! No one’s going to write a story better than you can about your own truth.”
Adrian: Check’s in the mail, guys. [laughter]
The lack of Latino stories in mainstream media is a constant topic of conversation — and rightfully so — but how do you think these new technologies and platforms might change the game in terms of Latino self-representation?
Adrian: Listen, it’s all about self-empowerment. You can’t even worry about what the studio system is going to do or not do. It’s like expecting Coca Cola to come out with a nutritional soda — it’s just not going to happen. So what’s the question? The question is, “Now what?” And the time has never been better for people of any color to empower themselves with all these bells and whistles that we have at our disposal. I’ve known of people shooting full movies just with their iPhone. And then you can put it on YouTube, you can put it in competitions, you can put it on Facebook, you can do whatever. It’s all there. You still at a certain point will have to come up and try to get your idea sold, but at least you can make product now. You don’t need 5 million dollars, a million dollars, 50 thousand dollars to do anything, you can really just go out and shoot.
And I get a lot of people on Facebook asking me to get together for lunch and pick my brain, and they want to know how you become this working actor, and the message is always the same: look to yourself. Who do you know in your circle that wants to tell stories? Go out there and shoot! Don’t worry about the agent or the this or the that. Really. No one’s going to write a story better than you can about your own truth, your own experience, your own concerns about the world. Really dig deep and empower yourself and make a movie, or find someone to co-write with on a particular subject as I did with Hugo and just take action! That’s the message.
Hugo: I 100% agree with Adrian and I think that in our particular case, instead of waiting for Hollywood or television networks to create the kind of content we want to see, we’re trying to create that content ourselves. Adrian, should we talk about Gabacho a little bit?
“We came up with this idea for a character, it’s a right-wing Latino guy, like a Latino Archie Bunker.”
Hugo: So we wrote a feature screenplay. We were both very disturbed by the immigration situation, particularly in Arizona and this kind of crazy national dialogue kind of demonizing immigrants and the whole discussion around the border. But we didn’t want to approach that directly because we’ve seen that film before. And then we came up with this idea for a character, it’s a right-wing Latino guy, you know like a Latino Archie Bunker. You know, he refuses to speak Spanish, he hates salsa music, he’s anti-immigrant, he watches Fox News and he talks shit about immigrants all the time.
There’s a few of those in my family, yeah. [laughter]
Hugo: It’s like all of our uncles, right?
Hugo: So this guy, who will be played by Adrian, his name is “Hank.” His name is Horacio but he goes by “Hank,” because that’s an American name. He goes to Arizona for a professional conference and he winds up getting deported because he’s brown-skinned and then he has to team up with an illegal immigrant to get back across the border and get home. And on this journey he sort of discovers something about his own identity.
So we’re trying to tell new kinds of Latino stories and show Latino characters that we haven’t seen before, or take situations that we think we know but really look at them in a different way. You know, we’re taking this issue of immigration and the border and we’re bringing to it this broad humor that’s inspired by Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder and what they did in the 70s.
So that’s like an example of what we’re trying to do to change representations of Latinos. And also, excitingly, right now while we’re waiting to make the feature Adrian and I are also working on a prequel webseries that focuses on Hank and his real life here in New York. He lives in White Plains and works in New York.
Adrian: “White” Plains
Hugo: Cause he couldn’t live in the Bronx anymore, he needed to go someplace that was whiter. [laughter]
Hank says things like, “Dominican women have the biggest asses, but Caucasian women have the cleanest.”
Hugo: So it’s just kind of about Hank and his daily struggle with his fellow Latinos. Cause he wants to 100 percent assimilate. He doesn’t want to associated with other Latinos. But other Latinos… like he’s one of them, but he doesn’t want to admit it to anybody. So we’re building a webseries around that that’s a little bit like The Office or like Louie, sort of observational and just following Hank in his life as he gets into a series of arguments because of the shit that comes out of his mouth.
Adrian: For example, something like, “Dominican women have the biggest asses, but Caucasian women have the cleanest.”
Adrian: Discuss. Discuss.
Hugo: Another thing Hank would say: “You know the conquistadors were a good thing for Mexico. I mean, the Mexicans had it for thousands of years and what did they build? Pyramids! The conquistadors came and now we have Hiltons and Starbucks and Chipotle!”
Yeah sounds like a guy you just love to hate. So where should I send the check? How much do you guys need?
Adrian: Just send it blank, and we’ll take care of it. [laughs]
Great, I’ll go ahead and send you guys a blank Remezcla check and you guys take care of everything else. [*Pending approval]
Hugo: I’m sure that’s worth quite a bit!
I’m curious about your specific experiences as Latinos, either in Hollywood or in independent filmmaking. Do you feel like it’s harder to get ahead as a Latino?
Adrian: I honestly don’t see myself as a Latino actor. I see myself as an actor and a Latino human being. But I don’t approach the business like, “Hey, I’m Latino! Any Latino roles out there?” No. I get the breakdowns like any body else. I see what I think I could play in terms of ethnicity. I can play any number of ethnicities. I’ve got a movie coming out in February called Focus where I’m Will Smith’s sidekick and I’m playing an Iranian man. And so when I saw the breakdown I said, “Yeah, this character’s name is Farhad. Farhad is Iranian, he’s a big guy, he’s kind of funny and weird in a crass kind of way. Boom! That’s me!” So I told my agent, “Listen, I want to read for Farhad.”
You know, I just feel like you have to put out there in very clear terms — to the universe first, and then to the business people — that you are enough, and you are eligible to work in any number of roles, in any kinds of ethnicities. You just show up and you do your thing and you’ll find that for the most part, even if you don’t get the job, people will remember your work. People will remember your professionalism, your commitment, your willingness to risk, your willingness to open your heart and your soul and your mind, your willingness and ability to be present. That is what is transcendent, that is what keeps you employed.
“I honestly don’t see myself as a Latino actor. I see myself as an actor and a Latino human being.”
I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve been able to do it because I don’t worry about stereotypes, I don’t think about it, it’s not in my consciousness. It only comes up when I have interviews and people bring it up, but in terms of my day-to-day, I think about work, I think about the possibilities, I think about really just expressing myself as an artist and that’s it!
Hugo: I would agree. I mean I’m a Latino filmmaker because I grew up Latino, but that’s not how I’ve approached my work creatively. A lot of my early inspirations were not Latino films or filmmakers, but like the Coen Brothers or David Lynch. It was really when I started to get to know the work of Almodóvar that I started to really get excited about the possibilities of telling stories that were a little closer to home. Because the way he represented his characters and situations and the world of Madrid post-Franco, I related to it a lot living in post-Castro Miami. Some very similar characters and tendencies. I guess I’ve always just tried to write or work on things that moved me in some way. So my documentary work, for instance, very little of what I’ve done has anything to do with Latino subject matter, but in the fiction, in the narrative pieces a lot of it is really inspired by the community and the culture that I grew up in. Cause it’s close to me, and it’s something I care about, but also I’m trying to take that experience and make it more universal.
I think that’s the trick. I think as artists we can deal with specific worlds or characters, but we have to find a way of connecting with the larger world, and if we don’t do that then we failed. Because if we’re just making films about a community for that community that nobody outside that community is every going to see, then I think we failed as artists in a way.
Were there any unexpected mishaps or bloopers that came up while you were making these short films?
Hugo: I would say the micro-shorts are our bloopers. I mean we just forget the film and we cut straight to the blooper reel and that’s our film.
Shooting in a café you guys didn’t turn any heads? That was in Buenos Aires?
Adrian: Yeah that was at a rooftop terrace sort of “sky-bar” in Buenos Aires. It’s interesting, you know, we were sort of sitting there and at first no one seemed to notice and then as Nicola starts his dialogue and starts getting upset, more and more people started noticing. But, you have to remember Argentina is a country without an army. So they’re very [laughs], they’re very passive about everything. They’re not going to get involved even if they were upset. But everything was cool. People looked and whatever, but it just added to the energy of the experience.
Hugo: In that case there was no cameraman there. The camera was the Facetime on the laptop, so people I think were probably confused about what was going on. They probably had no idea that a film was being made, and they’re like, “Are these guys performance artists? What’s going on here?”
Adrian: But they caught on by the second take.
I can imagine! So any last words? I did want to ask about any plans for collaboration in the future, but I guess Gabacho summed it up, no?
Adrian: Yeah, that’s our baby.
Hugo: That’s the one we’re really pushing to see if we can be in production on in 2015. We feel like the time is perfect for that film, and you know we haven’t seen that character and that story before.
I think it’s a good time to change the narrative on immigration and change the characters we normally see, to tell it from a different perspective. I think it’s a great idea and the perfect time for it, so best of luck with that.
Adrian: And thanks for doing that list of “Netflixeando: 20 Latino Films to Stream” I’m in #12, Casa de mi Padre in case anyone wants to check out any of my work. My buddy Cruz Angeles’ documentary on Valenzuela [Fernando Nation] is really awesome. But everything is really… it’s a tight list.
Well, the Remezcla Film section is here to promote good work!