By Mack Chico
Two years after Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took the year-end awards circuits by storm with “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Babel,” and a year after they inked a $100 million deal with Universal to produce five films under their Cha Cha Cha banner, opportunities for other Latino filmmakers — both veterans and those relatively new to the scene — have been on the rise.
And while some are using those opportunities to address issues dear to Hispanic moviegoers, others are more concerned with impressing audiences of all kinds.
“You have to make a film that’s universal, that touches people,” says director Alfredo De Villa. “It doesn’t necessarily have to announce its Latino-ness.”
Even the most quintessentially Mexican of filmmakers, writer-turned-director Guillermo Arriaga — who began his career working alongside Inarritu telling stories unique to life in Mexico City — is making a film about a non-Latino mother and daughter working through their family issues in his directorial debut, “The Burning Plain.” When Arriaga speaks about stepping into the director’s role, he doesn’t talk about making a grand social statement, but about “the chance to collaborate and bring people together, and share the communal experience of having a common goal.”
Following are 10 filmmakers who, through the quality and vision of their work, are expanding the definition of what it means to be a Latino filmmaker, in Hollywood and beyond.
Marilyn Agrelo (director-producer)
Though Agrelo’s sleeper hit documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” brought her attention upon its 2005 release — it finished second to “March of the Penguins” on the list of highest-grossing docus of the year — the Cuban-born director didn’t commit to another project until this year, when she signed on to direct two features, including an adaptation of Aimee Bender’s young adult novel “An Invisible Sign of My Own,” for Capitol Films. She’s also in the early stages of several documentary projects and plans to move back and forth between fiction and nonfiction throughout her career. “Documentary is always going to be really special to me,” she says. “Because sometimes real life is much more interesting.”
Guillermo Arriaga (writer-director-producer)
Arriaga is already well-known as the writer of Inarritu’s first three feature films (2000’s “Amores Perros,” 2003’s “21 Grams” and 2006’s “Babel,” for which he received an Oscar nomination) and for 2005’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (for which he won the best screenplay prize at Cannes). But having turned 50 earlier this year, Arriaga has taken to directing Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron in 2929 Prods.’ “The Burning Plain.” The drama, which Arriaga describes as “the most wonderful experience of my professional life,” has been accepted into the competition lineup at the upcoming Venice Film Festival, and features the jumbled narrative structure that’s become Arriaga’s signature. “I think that’s the way we tell stories in real life,” he says. “We never go in chronological order.”
Luis Alejandro Berdejo (writer-director-editor)
Born in San Sebastian, Berdejo apprenticed in the Spanish film industry and has made a number of acclaimed shorts in different genres, from sci-fi to romance. He’s currently in postproduction on his first feature-length project, the New Line thriller “The New Daughter,” with Kevin Costner. Berdejo says the jump from shorts to features hasn’t been that tough. “Artistically speaking, I treated ‘The New Daughter’ like a short film — but two hours long, in English and with Kevin Costner,” he says with a laugh.
Alfredo De Villa (writer-director-producer)
Still in his mid-30s, De Villa has already made two well-received independent features about Latino life in New York (2002’s “Washington Heights” and 2007’s “Adrift in Manhattan”) and one splashy, semimusical star vehicle for Puerto Rican actress Roselyn Sanchez (2006’s “Yellow”). “Nothing Like the Holidays,” his upcoming dramedy for Overture Films starring Alfred Molina, Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo and Debra Messing, tells the story of a family reuniting to welcome its youngest son back from Iraq. It’s intended for a wide audience, De Villa says. “The Latino audience doesn’t want to be pandered to — or else they’ll turn off.”
Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (writer-director-producer)
Fresnadillo’s entree into the world of filmmaking began auspiciously: His first short film, “Linked,” received numerous international awards and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1997. From there it’s been an upward trajectory for the Spanish director. His 2001 debut feature, the mind-bending sci-fi thriller “Intacto,” was an international success, leading to Fresnadillo directing the well-received horror sequel “28 Weeks Later.” He’s currently in preproduction on the DreamWorks-distributed “Wednesday,” a Los Angeles-set car chase movie packed with twists.
Rodrigo Garcia (writer-director-producer)
The son of famed Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Garcia’s reputation in the film industry sits squarely on his own shoulders. In between making the sprawling indie features “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” (2000) and “Nine Lives” (2005), Garcia has become the go-to guy at HBO, helming episodes of the original series “In Treatment,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Sopranos” and “Big Love.” Garcia will direct Anne Hathaway in his next film, Sony’s “Passengers,” in which she plays a grief counselor who tries to unravel the mystery of a plane crash.
Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (writer-director-editor)
His short films garnered attention for their offbeat style, but Lopez-Gallego’s international breakthrough came with last year’s relatively straightforward festival favorite “King of the Hill,” which chronicles the lengths a man and woman must go to in order to evade a mysterious sniper. Next on his plate is Gold Circle Films’ “Solo,” which Lopez-Gallego describes as a romantic thriller, combining elements of 1980’s “The Blue Lagoon” and 1990’s “Misery.” After working with other scribes on “King of the Hill” and “Solo,” Lopez-Gallego says he’s discovered a preference for collaboration, making ideas his own by “twisting and turning the formula, and making it unpredictable.”
Jose Antonio Negret (writer-director-cinematographer)
Born in Colombia to a South American father and British mother, Negret traveled the world as a boy, “met a lot of people, and wanted to tell their stories.” Following last year’s well-received kidnapping thriller “Towards Darkness,” he has been developing a remake of the 1994 German film “Mute Witness” for Universal and the missing-person actioner “Transit.” He’s focused on making “smart, visceral thrillers” and strives to bring the kind of “outsider’s point of view” that comes from spending time in a lot of different cultures.
Franc. Reyes (writer-director-producer)
Self-taught songwriter-turned-filmmaker Reyes sees John Leguizamo becoming the Robert De Niro to his Martin Scorsese. “I’d work with him any day of the week,” he says of the actor, who starred in Reyes’ debut film, “Empire,” in 2002, and will soon be seen in his upcoming cop drama “The Ministers.” (Wanda de Jesus was the lead in Reyes’ 2007 film “Illegal Tender.“) In the pipeline is a horror film Reyes describes as a “cross between ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Amityville Horror,'” and he’s also developing a pilot for an HBO series about the ins and outs of running a hot New York nightclub.
Patricia Riggen (writer-director-producer)
Thanks to the warm reception “Under the Same Moon” received — Riggen’s immigration tearjerker was one of 2008’s few indie success stories — Riggen is “reading a ton of screenplays, engaging in a few development deals” and intends to adapt one of her favorite novels, Isabel Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune.” Courting a Latino audience — and reaching them at the multiplex, not just the art house — is high on Riggen’s list of priorities. “I had immigrants in mind as my audience, and I know they came out to see (‘Under the Same Moon’). I’m thrilled about that,” she says.