By PETERSON GONZAGA
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Director Ricardo de Montreuil already had a love for the culture of lowriding, an East L.A. institution, before he was tapped to direct his new film “Lowriders.”
The gritty drama centers on the complex relationship between Miguel (Demian Bichir), a lowrider legend, and his two sons Francisco “Ghost” Alvarez (Theo Rossi) and Danny (Gabriel Chavarria). Estranged from his older son Ghost, newly released from prison after 10 years, and at odds with his younger son, Danny, who doesn’t understand his father’s passion for lowriders, Miguel must find a way to bring his fractured family back together while his second wife Gloria (Eva Longoria) pushes him to reconcile and create a strong bond with his sons.
The Peruvian director’s last film, “Mancora,” caught the attention of noted Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, who tapped the filmmaker to direct the Latin-flavored film. “Mancora” was shown at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, entered in the World Drama category.
Inside a Hollywood hotel suite, de Montreuil discussed the significance of the lowriding culture, family, the importance of a strong cast and his own relationship with his father that helped shape his directorial vision for “Lowriders.”
Q: How did you get involved with “Lowriders?”
de Montreuil: About six years ago, I was developing a film with Universal called “The Raven,” based on a short film that I made. Brian Grazer, who worked with Universal a lot, heard of the short and liked it. He also watched “Mancora,” my latest film and he had this idea to make “Lowriders.” He met with Cartoon Jimenez (producer Mark Machado) before we met and so he approached me and told me he wanted to make a film about lowriders because he said he liked my film “Mancora” and if I was interested. I’m very passionate about East L.A. culture and the arts scene. It’s perfect. I was excited to have been given the opportunity to tell a story of that side of town. Not a lot of people are aware. They don’t know much of that art, culture, music and food worldwide. It’s very exciting to take a picture of East L.A. today.
Q: Speaking of East L.A., portions of that neighborhood are experiencing gentrification, which some longtime residents aren’t happy about. Do you think this film will help expose what the true culture is all about?
de Montreuil: To me, it’s to give recognition to all these artists. First of all, they are American artists who are creating artwork and a lot of times people are not aware of where they are coming from, specifically, lowriders which are amazing art themselves. Not everyone knows that it’s an art form that was born in California in the 1940s. Basically, it’s part of the cultural fabric of America.
Q: It’s exciting to see the film illustrating that there is more to it that the typical stereotype of gangsters or violence but is really more about the cars and family dynamics. Was that important to you to convey that in the film?
de Montreuil: It was very important even before I got into the film. Mr. Cartoon Jimenez (Machado) and Estevan Oriol, producers of the film, when they approached me, they said the we must tell the story from the angle of a young Mexican-American so that people can see the interest of this world through Danny’s (Gabriel Chavarria) eyes. At the same time, we want to show the audience what the lowriders are all about. Sometimes bad things happen but (bad things can) happen anywhere. It’s like what Cartoon said to me, “You go to a soccer game but sometimes things happen outside the stadium.” In the lowrider world, that’s what also happens, so we really wanted to show what lowriders are truly about. It’s an art form that was born in Los Angeles and California.
Q: Since you wanted this film to show an overall and specific aspect of the lowriding culture, did you engulf yourself into the culture from the people and the legends who are living lowriders before filming to understand what you wanted to convey in the film?
de Montreuil: Yes. I was aware of lowriding before making the film, but once I got involved in the film, I got into a different level of what lowriding meant, especially to Mexican-Americans. I think it’s very universal, every culture. Even though I’m not Mexican-American and I didn’t grow up in the lowriding culture, within the Peruvian culture, there are traditions that people are very passionate about that can translate to any culture. I used that and the passion that my father had in his traditions in the same way as the father, Miguel (Bichir) and Danny do.I was into skateboarding as a kid. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to skateboard and tag walls. That’s what kids like and now that I’m old, I appreciate Peruvian traditions.
Q: Did this experience bring you back your youth through the connection of the father and the son and how you mentioned when you were skateboarding?
de Montreuil: Yes. I still feel more connected to Danny, but I have an 8-year-old daughter. Soon, I’m going to feel more like Miguel.
Q: Do you see anything in your daughter that’s she’s starting to like that you may not like?
de Montreuil: No, she’s still innocent. She’s a kid still. Soon she’s going to be a teenager and I’m going to see the rebellious side of her.
Q: Tell about working with Eva Longoria, Demian Bichir and younger cast members like Gabe and Theo?
de Montreuil: We were extremely lucky with the cast of the film in every sense. Me and the producers wanted make a film that was authentic to the culture. Therefore, we look for actors, not just best actors for the roles, but actors that were passionate the culture and the understanding of the culture. I knew Eva before “Lowriders” and so I knew how passionate she was about that culture. I knew that besides being an amazing actress, she was very passionate about lowriders. When we were developing the film, she was the only actress I had in mind for the role. Luckily, she liked the script and she was amazing. She’s a very strong woman but at the same time, she has a maternal quality and that’s what I was looking for.
She’s like her character Gloria because she is the person working to keep the family together even though that wasn’t really her family. If you think about it, she’s probably the strongest character in the film. When the possibility came up to work with Demian, I was at first intimidated because he’s one the best actors today. What he brought to the film, similar to his character Miguel, he’s a patriarch of his family. He became the patriarch of this family because he’s the one with most experience. He’s a generous actor. He wanted to make sure the kids in the film were comfortable working with him. He coached them and worked with them, which made them better actors around him.
Q: Theo said he was rooting for Gabe to get the role. Did you know that?
de Montreuil: The dynamics of the actors off screen was like the dynamics of the actors on screen. Theo and Demian never met because of their scheduling conflicts. Basically, we started working with Theo and Demian just showed up on set and ready. I mean these two characters haven’t seen each other in ten years so actually that scene, they were meeting for the first time. There was a certain distance and for me I think that translated into the film. Demian and Eva, they had a father mother quality towards the younger cast. As you said, they were rooting for them as well as Theo. Theo didn’t share that much time with Demian or Eva because they didn’t have a lot of on screen time together. Theo really bounded with Gabriel. Somehow, they had a really good chemistry with each other. Theo became the older brother to Gabe. And the dynamic between Tony, Yvette and Gabe was like put the three of them together, they became best friends right away. They’re hilarious together. Going out and partying. I mean they are three Latino kids from East L.A., so immediately they were familiar with each other.
Q: Can we expect any behind-the-scenes or bonus scenes on the DVD with the three kids?
de Montreuil: I know Universal (Pictures Home Entertainment) had a crew shooting behind the scenes throughout the production of the film, so I know they’ve already put together behind-the-scenes featurettes for the promotion and I hope they edit a longer version for the DVD.
Q: You were talking about the connections and relationships of the castoff screen. How important is that to you as a director to know that your cast members are able to connect with each other?
de Montreuil: I guess it depends on the character. The job of an actor is to be somebody else different from themselves. An actor is supposed to be able to play in a role. But at the same time, people have inherent qualities. Sometimes when you cast, you want to pinpoint some of those qualities of their personalities that are going to stay and, in the character, they can make the other actors react. You look for that kind of subtle qualities in a personality. We were lucky because the cast embodied the characters that we wrote, so they were pretty much like the characters on the page.
Q: So, was it easy for you as a director that everything fell into place?
de Montreuil: Exactly. Totally. The budget of this film was very small. We shot the film in four weeks. We didn’t have money for rehearsals so I had to solve every scene of productions the same day including blocking. I had a lot of conversations with the actors so we all had a consensus who characters are. When started production, Demian knew who Miguel was, Gabe knew who Danny was and the other actors knew their characters. Basically, my job was to communicate with them where they were emotionally in that moment, and where they were going at the end of the scene. Having a great cast that was invested in the characters definitely made my job easier.
Q: Were there any challenges at all for you as a director? Any scenes that were challenging?
de Montreuil: Most of the cast were very cool. They let me try different versions of the scene. We shot with three cameras because I wanted to be able to finesse the performances in post-production. I wanted to have those options. They were generous enough to have those different scenes to mold that in post-production.
Q: As a director, what do you consider to be the most important element to have a successful shoot?
de Montreuil: I think it’s probably the story. I think the hardest thing of filmmaking is finding a very compelling story. Once you have that, everything else falls into place.
Q: How did you find that with “Lowriders?” Were there a lot of re-writes? Did you come on board when there was a final script?
de Montreuil: There was a script when I joined but I had a different point of view. I really like what they were developing but I think what I brought was I wanted to tell the story from somebody that wasn’t fully familiar with the culture from a young perspective so this person that took us through this discovery of this culture.
Q: You had one of the writers named Justin Tipping who is Filipino. Filipinos also love their cars. Did that help in the script?
de Montreuil: He’s and amazing writer and director. Justin and Josh (Beirne-Golden), were the last two writers. They did an amazing job. Justin is a talented writer and director.
Q: So they were able to finesse the script to what you wanted?
de Montreuil: They did an amazing job. They brought a lot of freshness, especially making the younger cast alive, more true. Justin is a younger kid himself. He’s was able to connect to Danny, and he’s also from California. He understood much more the characters so he was able to bring that inside knowledge for the younger characters.
Q: Would you ever think of working the Justin and his writing partner again?
de Montreuil: Definitely. I would love to work with him again. He and Josh are extremely talented. They made “Kicks.” It’s a great film, so I’d definitely would like to work with them. And also with Elgin James who was the previous writer.
Q: What’s your next project?
de Montreuil: I’m trying to resurrect “The Raven,” which was in preproduction before “Lowriders.” We had to stop because of timing problems. I’m trying to get “The Raven” flying again but we’re still in the process.
Q: What do you want the audience to get out of the film? Is there a message or should the audience simply enjoy the film and the culture?
de Montreuil: It would be for people to know and appreciate lowriding, which is an American art form that was born in California in the ‘40’s. They should be proud of it because it is an amazing art form and recognize that is part of American folklore, just like jazz or rock.
Q: Did you get to ride a lowrider along with being inside the car with the hydraulics going on?
de Montreuil: Oh yeah. It’s supercool. I took my daughters in one and they had a blast. Cartoon took me cruising on a few Sundays on Sunset Blvd. It was super cool.