Alejandro Montoya Marín: In pursuit of the multicultural comedy film
Mexican American filmmaker, Alejandro Montoya Marín recently participated in a reality show where he had to make a movie in just 14 days and with as little as $7,000, under the mentorship of Robert Rodriguez.
In his twenties, Alejandro Montoya Marín, now 36, was the owner of a video club in Monterrey, the third largest city in Mexico, when he heard about an offer to study in Canada and saw a once in a lifetime chance.
“If I don’t go now, I won’t go in five or six years,” he thought to himself.
One of his favorites filmmakers, Kevin Smith, had been studying in Vancouver, so that was the destination where Montoya Marín chose to be trained in the arts he had always had a passion for since he was a child.
He quit his marketing studies, which he “hated,” sold the video club, sold his movies and left the country in which he had lived for 16 years, from childhood to his early adulthood.
After two years, he ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico—he sensed the thriving film industry that was coming alive there.
Nine years later—just a few months ago—he found himself suffering on a reality show, with director Robert Rodriguez “scourging” him to finish a movie in only 14 days with no crew and with as little as a $7,000 budget, a similar achievement as Rodriguez’s mythical 1992 film “El Mariachi.”
Rodriguez mentored Montoya and four other young filmmakers making their movies under the same conditions. The show, titled “Rebel Without a Crew,” was broadcast on the El Rey Network, Rodríguez’s channel.
Montoya Marín adapted a project of his own that resulted in a short feature film. It tells the story of a man in his thirties for whom everything goes wrong on any given Monday (so the film is aptly titled “Monday”). In fact, things go so badly for this man that he ends up being forced by the head of a cartel to kill the leader of an opposing one.
“The heaviest ‘Blue Monday,’” the filmmaker remarked. It is a one-hour comedy that combines action and violence with a candid, absurd, ironic kind of humor.
The film has already been screened at South by Southwest in Austin and the SOHO International Film Festival in New York. It will also premiere on Aug. 18 at the Hollyshorts in Los Angeles, as well as Cozumel and Juarez, Mexico, on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1. Beginning in October, it will be available on demand and on the El Rey Network.
AL DÍA News spoke with Montoya Marín via Skype in July (in Spanish) about film, comedy, Mexico, being a Latino American, and also about what it feels like to be chased by cameras night and day for a reality show.
His Mexican accent and slang are intact. Spanish is his mother tongue but also the one he spoke during the formative years of his life. He was born in the U.S. (Laredo, Texas), but he went to Mexico with his family when he was a child, to Merida, Yucatan, and Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, south and north, respectively.
(This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
AMM: Since I lived in Mexico for a long time I say I am Mexican. I lived there all my life; my personality was shaped there. I try to go back once a year to see my family, and the many friends I keep there and that I like to meet often. (His voice and gestures are enthusiastic, as if they are born from a laugh.)
AL DÍA: If one considers your accent, it seems that you never left.
AMM: True. And, believe it or not, sometimes I miss words, like “how do I say this or that?” But that is normal after not having lived there for more than 10 years.
AL DÍA: In what way did growing up in Mexico shape your personality?
I want to write and make movies that can be identified both with the Hispanic and American cultures. The comedy that I am trying to make is for people from different countries to understand. I mean, I can pinpoint very well how to adapt in Mexico, or the U.S. or Canada, because I already lived in the three countries.
How did it shape me? I feel that I have what many Mexicans have, which is affection towards the family and friendship. I think that it is what Mexican people still own — appreciation for the sense of humor, and working to enjoy life instead of working for retiring at an older age and then spend their money. I think that is why I never have money. [laughs]
(Two days after this conversation, Montoya Marín posts on Facebook that he is selling his car to fund the last of his three pending feature films.)
AL DÍA: Do you want to always make comedy films?
AMM: The truth is I like comedy very much, I like to laugh and make others laugh. I feel it is a way of escaping, a relief to people that they can watch a movie and laugh and enjoy themselves. You go out and you forgot the meaningless problems you had just a minute ago.
I have made two drama films because I don’t want to be pigeonholed only in comedy. I also like making myself uncomfortable, to do something different. [Drama] is very different, it is difficult, and, yes, I would like to do it again, but, for now, I have a very limited time in this world, so I want to have fun while making projects.
AL DÍA: Do you aim to use a Mexican sense of humor in your comedies?
AMM: All sorts. Yes, I feel I want to implement that, that of people who are in Mexico… Many times I went to the movies and many of my friends in Mexico said to me, “This comedy is too American.”
Actually, I don’t even know how to explain it, but that construction of having different styles of comedy in a movie, like a slapstick, where people can slip and fall, that can be appreciated by a certain type of person. I can also add some pop culture humor, but you also have a more black comedy, more offensive. I try to make comedy in a range, so people that go see my movies can relate.
AL DÍA: Something very common in Latin America because of the contexts in which we grow up is that we are tougher because of the continuous crises in our countries. Can that shape our sense of humor and give us a blacker type of humor?
I have been discussing this with many people. You see, now everybody is being too sensitive in the United States. Something always offends somebody. And that’s fine; maybe I haven’t experienced what another person has.
But you have to take into consideration that it is comedy that we are talking about. There are jokes about being overweight. I am overweight and I laugh about it. That is something Latinos have — there are so many problems in Latin America that if we let ourselves be ruined by that, we would be a very boring, depressing group of people.
With that spirit, that we love to live and enjoy life and to be with friends, we take advantage of the dark, obscure situations to create a sense of humor. That is something Robert Rodriguez has. He has a very good black sense of humor and he is also Latino.
AL DÍA: We know how to laugh at ourselves in Latin America.
AMM: Indeed. Yes, I think so. I think we must keep having a sense of humor... We live in a time with so many ugly things going on. Now with the Internet, we can have access to so many things we didn’t know before, but we have to have a sense of humor.
Let’s say you talk to two people and tell them the same thing — you either can insult them or not. It all depends on the tone. I think people need to lighten up. We must appreciate and watch all kinds of comedy. Comedy, I think, is the most difficult genre, and I like it because we all have different senses of humor. It is very difficult to be able to put together a project that all can laugh at. That is why I try to cover all types of comedy.
AL DÍA: So you are looking for a multicultural comedy that can offend and bring on laughing at the same time, according to the recipient?
Oh, of course. In one of my short films, they say, “Hey, where did you find that SUV?” “I stole it from a Mexican guy who was doing monkey business. His name is Juan or Jose... It begins with an H.” I mean, three stereotypes together in a few seconds. It makes me laugh that he says it so naturally; he doesn’t know it starts with a J.
Yes, it is multicultural. These are situations many people can relate to. I don’t want to do something for Mexicans only.
AL DÍA: But Mestizo, like you.
How is it that life took you to becoming a filmmaker in the United States?
AMM: It all started when I was a child. I bought movies, I rented movies, talked about movies. I watched movies unfit for my age. I loved going to the movies, I still do. I try to go once a week. I can watch one movie a day and be fine.
I never knew this could be a career for me until I was 13 or 14, when I started studying the history of film and films that had won Oscars in the 1920s and 30s. And then, as I was growing up in Mexico, where the industry is not big, I saw it like a distant dream: “I have to go to the United States. I have to learn English again. I have to improve my writing so it can be appreciated by the people of this country.” Something I saw could not be easily obtainable.
(This is when Montoya Marín left for Canada and then made landfall in Albuquerque.)
I came here to be able to engage in this way of making movies and to try to create my own content.
AL DÍA: So far so good?
(His tone of voice changes, but his wide smile persists.)
AMM: It has been very slow, excessively slow. There is no much money in the state, but at the same time it is a very affordable way of living, which helps me, with the little I earn.
To make projects that here can cost $5,000 and in Los Angeles would cost $25,000. So you have to put it on the scales, whether it is worth it or not, but the state has treated me very well. I want to do more, but I want to be cautious not to do too much because the result will be average. One has to do quality stuff.
AL DÍA: So, how is it that you were able to connect with Robert Rodriguez?
He is one of the people that initiated my career, in the sense that he encouraged me to start. I used to wash my dad’s car so he would give me my allowance, and with that I would rent Rodriguez’s movies on pay per view. I really liked his movies.
I have always followed him from the beginning. I had such joy. I think he is ten years older than me. I always liked his energy, his dynamic takes and his ability to do all that with so little, and obviously the fact that he was a Latino in a mainly white industry.
So on his channel, they broadcasted an ad, “Send us your work and you can participate in the show.” Little by little, I passed from the top 50 to the top 25, and 15, 10, 7 and 5. They made you give interviews every time, “What are your qualities as a director?” or they made you take tests about lenses. You showed your work, you showed the script. After they accepted you into the top 7, they run physical and psychological tests because it was going to be very stressful and they don’t want you to kill everybody.
That is how it happened. The truth is I wouldn’t do it again because it was really stressful to make the movie while the cameras are following you around. But I wouldn’t change it for anything.
AL DÍA: What was the most difficult part?
I think it was everything. The fact that you have to make a movie with $7,000, then you don’t have private time because the cameras are behind you all day. The show says, “Hey, Robert did it in only 14 days, so do you,” and then it is actually only nine hours a day, but in a set it is generally 12 hours.
You do it in a city you don’t know — we shot in Austin. And you only have three days for pre-production, whereas one usually has three months.
Even for a 10-minute short film I made, we had two months to prepare it.
AL DÍA News: Are you happy with the end result?
AMM: Of course there are many things I want to change, but I am very happy with the content. It is a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously.
AL DÍA: What is the difference between making a film with $7,000 in 1992 and doing it now under similar conditions?
AMM: Before, when a movie was made with $7,000, many people paid attention and they were like, wow! And the equipment he used cannot be compared to the one we used. Ours is more professional, in the sense that nowadays it is easier to find editing equipment for only $100.
[Rodriguez] told me that most of his budget was spent on renting the camera and the film, and I used half of my budget on renting the camera and equipment and lights. I had $2,000 remaining and I saved $1,700 for the soundtrack.
Not one cent was left over. All the actors participated voluntarily because they believed in the project. The thing I am the most proud of is that this doesn’t seem to be a $7,000 movie, but a much more expensive one. Much of this has to do with the drive, the energy and the commitment of the actors and people that carried on.
AL DÍA: You mentioned that Robert Rodriguez was a forerunner as a Latino in a mainly white industry. Do you think this is beginning to change? Is there actually more diversity in Hollywood nowadays?
AMM: There is and I appreciate it. But one must be cautious too — people shouldn’t be hired just for the tone of their skin or for their gender; they must be hired because they are good and they are the right people to do it.
Of course, I love it and now there is a higher possibility that they hire me, but I don’t want to be hired simply because I am from where I am, because that means they are not considering my talent or the way I tell a story but because my last name ends with a vowel. That I don’t like.
When you use that as marketing, that annoys me because that doesn’t make us move forward but backwards. That means somebody in a meeting said, “Hire them because they are Mexican and Mexicans can like it.”
AL DÍA: What is happening now: marketing, or the consideration of the true value of Latin America artists?
I think both. I wouldn’t like if they said to me, “Hey, Alejandro, I want you to make a movie about Hispanics with only Hispanics behind and in front of the cameras.” Then I would say, “Why, if I get along my photography director, who happens to be white, or my assistant to the director, who is African American?”
Why does it matter where we are from as long as the story can be screened and can be made the way I want it, and the viewers can relate to it? It shouldn’t matter. I will hire the one who does it well.