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|Miguel Arteta's Star Maps is a movie that is, in turns, moving and hilarious, thereby capturing both the real power of the medium of film and the absurdity of unreal Hollywood. Star Maps was initially described to me as "sort of a Chicano Midnight Cowboy" and while that's one of my favorites, and the main character does indeed do some hustling, once you switch the location to L.A., this town's constantly moving fantasy/reality scale comes into play. It's also, of course, an indictment of Hollywood and the mainly white mirror it holds up to us. While Arteta is undeniably excited about the release of his own first film, he genuinely seems more excited about the fact that he's one of a burgeoning number of Latino filmmakers whose visions are being shared.
The main character of Star Maps, Carlos, played by Douglas Spain, is a boy on the verge of manhood trying to figure out where he fits as a Latino in Hollywood, struggling with his egregiously dysfunctional family, and pursuing his dream of stardom. I found out, while talking to Arteta, that it's a metaphor for his own struggles as a filmmaker. Although, at least for the time being, there's not much struggling - Star Maps was selected for Sundance this year, and it sold to Fox Searchlight at its second screening.
When I met with Arteta, it was in a cavernous mixing room on the Fox lot, a very glamorous location in my humble opinion, even though he had been working his ass off on the final sound mix and claimed not to have slept in days. With a shock of black hair and a few days' growth, he resembled Robert Downey, Jr. - which meant he also looked like my beloved Greek-American college sweetheart and while that resemblance left me a little dumbfounded, I had to resist the urge to flirt.
TINA: I'm never quite sure of the extent to which people are influenced in how they live their lives by TV and movies, or the extent to which TV and movies reflect the way life is. My own life has been rather soap operatic, and in some areas perhaps I sought out the drama, but in others, life came up with plot twists you'd only see on TV.
MIGUEL: I've been trying to be a filmmaker for so long that my life has become like a movie. What is this movie about? It's about trying to make movies. Ultimately, it's a metaphor for me: What are my obstacles in being able to express myself and to be part of the movie business? There's my dysfunctional upbringing, my feeling of being competitive with my father, that I'm gonna do better.
TINA: Has he seen the film?
MIGUEL: He's seen the film, he's very proud. He took it very graciously. He was like, "I'm sorry for whatever happened in our family, but I'm glad you were able to turn it around and make it work in your favor." But my mother had to leave the room when we were watching it. She suddenly had so much to do in the kitchen. She couldn't stand it. She doesn't want to know that we were unhappy growing up.
TINA: So, although Star Maps is about Mexican-Americans, you are actually from Puerto Rico.
MIGUEL: Puerto Rico, si.
TINA: Do people here in Los Angeles assume you're from Mexico?
MIGUEL: That happens a lot. A Latino is a Latino is a Latino, which, in Southern California means Mexican-American. But I've sort of become an honorary Chicano because of the film, and also my girlfriend is a Chicana. But the film is not all about Chicanos. I wanted to get as many different cultural levels and aspects to the community as possible. So the father is from New York, a Nuyorican. And the mother is from Mexico.
TINA: Where did you find Douglas Spain?
MIGUEL: I put ads out. I saw more than 500 people in two months. We made a commitment, and that was to find a great cast. Because we knew that what was going to make the film great wasn't going to be the camera movements, it was going to be the performances.
TINA: And the writing is amazing.
MIGUEL: Thank you. So we spent all the time we could finding good people, and once we were shooting, rather than having the best food, or a costumer, or a script surprivisor,
we shot for four weeks rather than three - we really stretched our budget - so the actors would have enough time. And we didn't have fifty set-ups a day, so they didn't feel like props being moved around. We were very performance-conscious. Everybody who worked on the film was told, "This is an actor's set, and you have to do whatever it takes to help them concentrate."
TINA: The characters are so fleshed-out, I really feel like I know that family.
MIGUEL: Well, it's inspired by my family life, but it's an exaggeration of what I grew up with. It was a way to do some free therapy, like, I'll write about my family, but I'll take it to the freaking limit. So it was fun to do that, and I'm happy because people seem to be able to relate to the characters.
TINA: Can you tell me about Cantinflas?
MIGUEL: He's the Charlie Chaplin of Latin America.
TINA: That's exactly how I described him to someone last night.
MIGUEL: Well, he's also sort of the Jerry Lewis, depending on which phase of his career you're looking at. He's a god, he's an icon of comedy. If I hear one line from him, I crack up. What he does best is he rambles on without saying anything. He talks for an hour and he hasn't said one thing. And in his movies, he's always confusing people in that way. In fact his name has been turned into a verb, cantinflear, which means rambling on without saying anything.
TINA: I didn't understand the epigram you used from him at the beginning of the film.
MIGUEL: Exactly. It doesn't mean anything. That's how Cantinflas is. He's enigmatic, but still, it's a pleasure to watch him, so I wanted to give a little hint of that, to let American audiences know the great Mexican comic, so they would know he's a mythic figure.
TINA: This film was particularly interesting to me because in New York, I used to have a boyfriend who was a hustler.
MIGUEL: Really? Wow. With men or women, or both?
TINA: With men. But his relationship was with me, and he'd had other girlfriends, though he'd had one long term relationship with a man years before I met him. At the time I got a lot of flak from my gay friends for buying into the idea of bisexuality. So, I was wondering if you'd gotten any flak for showing that Carlos could hustle both men and women, and then have his main relationship with a woman.
MIGUEL: No. The gay community has been very supportive of the film, which has been great. I think it might have to do with the fact that the film attacks the nuclear family. It's such an indictment of how families don't work, or how its members can really damage each other.
TINA: Well, the film is about his family and his dreams, not about his sexuality.
MIGUEL: What happens in the film is that people see him at work. His sexuality is quite suppressed. The one time he really lets himself go is with his father's girlfriend, when he actually allows himself to have some tenderness, and he accepts some nurturing from her, sexually.
TINA: That's such a touching scene.
MIGUEL: I think it's the first time he even thinks about himself in the film - asking, What am I doing to myself? What am I doing to my body and my soul? I thought this wasn't going to get to me? The the moment he lets himself enjoy a sexual experience, he realizes he's ruining himself. That he can't survive this. It's a big turnaround for him.
TINA: And the couple who hired them to perform was satisfied. We call it "The Double Lay."
MIGUEL: Yeah. Everybody comes away with something.
TINA: The TV show within the film is a soap called "Carmel County." Can we talk about soap operas?
TINA: I don't speak any Spanish, but I love to watch the Spanish-language soaps. And even though I can't understand the dialogue, they're so funny.
MIGUEL: They're excellent. They're very hyper-real, like American soap operas, but even more far out. What we were doing with the world of American soap operas was a Melrose Place type of environment, but with a Heather Locklear character who has some of Hugh Grant's habits. When we were writing the film, people would say, "Why would a beautiful actress in Hollywood, with all the money in the world, a husband and child, why would she ever pick up a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard? That would never happen!" And then the Hugh Grant thing happened. After that, I never got any questions about her motivations.
TINA: Tell me a little bit about the making of this film, when did you concieve it, when did it start to happen?
MIGUEL: I was at the American Film Institute, and I was miserable. Latinos were really under-represented there, and I felt tremendous pressure not to make a Latino project. Everybody was paying tuition and everyone felt entitled to relate to the projects they were making. So it was quite frustrating for me, because I was ready to make a very personal piece of work. But it would have been a bad idea, because I would have been fighting everybody. So I didn't make a Latino project while I was there, and that experience resulted in my thinking about how Latinos fit in Hollywood, and how hard it is for a Latino to think of himself in the movie business. And I would drive to AFI every day across Sunset Boulevard, and see these Latino boys on the corners, kind of seductively waving these maps to the stars' homes.
TINA: It's funny how in the movie, Antonio Banderas is held up as an inspirational figure, when I think of him as an absurd Hollywood definition of the Latino male. You know, he got the stamp of approval from the powers that be. But of course, he's actually from Europe.
MIGUEL: Yeah, but I think independent filmmaking from Latinos is really gonna start happening, the way it did with African-Americans in the early '80s. Victor Nunez is doing interesting work, Robert Rodriguez has opened the door for it, Eddie Olmos, Gregory Nava, all these people are being accepted, and are paving the way for independent voices that are a little more on the fringe and saying things that are a little more risky.
TINA: Star Maps is just such a wonderful, beautifully told story, with great characters.
MIGUEL: Well, our goal was to make a great film that just happens to have Latinos in it. And it didn't matter if it was extremely dark or about a scary subject.
TINA: There's pathos, but it's very funny, too. When the father shows up on the set of "Carmel County" in direct competition to Carlos, I laughed my head off. It was like Joan Crawford standing in for Christina when she was in the hospital in Mommie Dearest.
MIGUEL: We took a melodramatic approach to the movie. On the one hand, it made it possible for me to have outrageous things happen, and on the other it seemed appropriate for the way this kid viewed the world.
TINA: I loved the writers on the show trying to write Carlos in as a gardener, but making it about immigrant labor issues - concerning themselves with social responsibility in the context of a TV show.
MIGUEL: It's amazing in Hollywood how, under the pretext of being politically correct, some of the cheesiest things get shoved down people's throats. I love making fun of that.
TINA: That was hilarious.
MIGUEL: All the characters in the film have an image of themselves that is out of reach, or that they're striving for, and it's kind of pathetic. It's part of what Hollywood culture is like. Jennifer's husband is a TV producer who wishes he were a documentary filmmaker; Pepe is a pimp, but sees himself at the country club, like O.J.; Carlos dreams of being a movie star; his sister dreams of being away from the father; the mother dreams of being on the moon with Cantinflas. Everyone wishes they were someone else or in a different situation. The thing I wanted to discuss about being in Los Angeles and what an extreme culture it is, is that people who are not allowed to be in the film business or aren't given equal chances in this society coexist with people who are in the business who are full of shit. It's a very unreal environment.
TINA: At the checkout counters in markets in Beverly Hills, you'll find books like, How to Speak Spanish to Your Maid. So you can instruct someone how to mop your floor, but you can't communicate with this person as a human being. I've always found those books so upsetting, and they're always at the fanciest gourmet shops.
MIGUEL: It's very disturbing how the cultures clash, and I wanted to make fun of that, to sneak that message in.
TINA: In many cultures, women can be either whores or saints. That's true of the Latina characters in this film. But the main Anglo, Jennifer, gets to be both.
MIGUEL: She's very good to Carlos, and very bad to him at the same time. She's an interesting character, and she's based on someone I knew, someone I had a bad relationship with. Something that I think is interesting is that people who are abusing you can also be capable of giving you great love. And that, to me, is one of the scariest things about life, that you can get a lot from somebody who's gonna hurt you. And people who have a need to hurt people also have a need to give and help.
TINA: My hustler boyfriend could be a little abusive, but then he also stuck by when I had a brain tumor, even though he was HIV positive and had his own problems. Talk about a soap opera.
MIGUEL: That's as thick as reality gets.
TINA: Tell me how you ended up at Sundance.
MIGUEL: It was intense. I worked on this for four years. Matthew Greenfield, the producer, moved here from Seattle, and we said, "We're gonna make a movie," and it took four years. We raised every penny from scratch. I'm very proud of the way we made this movie. We turned down offers from people who wanted final say in casting. And anyone who wanted to take control away from us, we said, "No," even though we didn't have a leg to stand on. At one point when we were editing the film, it looked very hopeless. The thing wasn't working. It's a very ambitious project for a first film, because it's not Clerks, it's not two guys in a liquor store telling dick jokes.
MIGUEL: This was an ensemble piece with nine characters, in more than forty locations, going from drama to comedy every two minutes. I don't even know how we got it all in the can. We edited for ten months, and we realized, this is not working. We had to raise another $80,000 to reshoot a fourth of the movie. And our investors were like, "We'd forgotten about you, we're not gonna give you any more money. Just give it up and move on." And we said, "No, this is gonna be great, we just don't have it yet." But none of our serious investors would give us any more money. We had to find new money, and we reshot one fourth of the movie, because we had such faith in it. This is a year after we had originally shot.
TINA: Oh my god, you had to pull everybody back in again?
MIGUEL: Yeah, everybody's wearing wigs in one fourth of the film. Everyone had cut their hair. But I'm really proud that we stuck to our guns and made it the way we wanted to. When we got into Sundance, we needed another $150,000 for a print, and we only had about a month. We were going to the Film Haus and saying, "Yeah, sure, we have money in the bank, start the work - look, here's the check we're gonna deposit," and we'd show them a bogus check. Then we'd think, "Fuck, what are we gonna do - we need to find $29,000 in the next two days, where do we get it?" Little by little, we got through that month. Nobody had seen a print of this film before we got to Sundance, and at the second screening, Fox Searchlight bought it for $2.5 million.
TINA: That must have been so exciting.
MIGUEL: I was totally flabbergasted. After that screening our publicist said, "Here, you're coming in the mini-van, you're fucking set, here's some champagne, drink it." They took me to a restaurant, and at the back of the restaurant Matthew was sitting with the Fox Searchlight executives, and I sat down. They said, "Well, we're gonna buy it for two and a half million dollars." I said, "Really? Excuse me." And I went into the bathroom and I was hitting my head against the wall. I looked at myself in the mirror, and then I walked back out, sat down, and said, "Okay, let's talk about the deal."
TINA: That is amazing.
MIGUEL: 1,300 films applied to go to Sundance, forty got picked, and out of those only three got sold there. There are more than 1,200 independent filmmakers from last year who are out in the cold right now, so we are aware of our good fortune. I feel a little bad to be getting publicity and telling people, "Oh yeah, go make your film." And there may be another 1,200 filmmakers picking up a camera this year whose work may never be seen ...
TINA: And they're only going to be inspired by you.
MIGUEL: I know. But you have to go for broke. We ruined our lives. I took more than $80,000 from credit cards having no way to pay it off.
TINA: I hear you.
MIGUEL: It was scary, but we were very fortunate that people liked the film.
TINA: So, what's next?
MIGUEL: I haven't thought about a new project. I have a lot of ideas, but I'm thinking of taking $50,000 and going to Mexico and shooting a sexploitation movie.
TINA: I'll be in it! I'm a terrible exhibitionist. I'll learn Spanish.
MIGUEL: It would be cool to do something like that, kind of a throw-away.
TINA: That's smart. After pouring your heart and soul into Star Maps for years, you deserve to do something fun.
MIGUEL: It would take the sophomoric anxiety away. If you look at independent filmmakers, nine out of ten really blow it with their second film, because there's so much pressure to do what you did before. So maybe we'll go make a cheesy T & A film in Mexico for no money - nobody tells us what to do, and nobody ever sees it. There, that's my second film.
TINA: The actress who plays Pepe's girlfriend, Letty, reminded me of Madonna in a brunette phase. And I thought, wouldn't it be great if Madonna were in small independents instead of going right for the A-list Michelle Pfeiffer scripts? And although she's an Italian girl from Michigan, she's an honorary Latina.
MIGUEL: She would have been great as a TV actress.
TINA: She would have been great as Letty! She's funny, and Letty is very maternal towards Carlos.
MIGUEL: Well, it sounds like Madonna may have enjoyed the job, you know, sleeping with cute, young Latino boys. Everybody gives her a bum rap, but hey, she's down for brown. [Laughter]
TINA: At the end of the film, I was disappointed for Carlos, because he was in a position where he could have what he wanted, but in order to break away from his family situation, he had to give up his dream.
MIGUEL: We reshot the very last shot of the movie, and now he's walking with more determination and strength. He's wounded, but not completely devastated. In my mind, six months later, he's gonna be living somewhere with his sister and he's still gonna pursue acting.
TINA: I had nothing to offer my hustler, and he, too, had dreams of a better life.
MIGUEL: Usually that's how it happens with hustlers - they think it's a stepping stone to something else.
TINA: Well, in the end a john came into his life who dangled a carrot in front of him, the possibility of a legitimate job with good money. I broke up with him, moved out to the country, and I don't know what ever became of him. Funnily enough, I then moved in with a chef from Puerto Rico who was so into assimilation, that he would always insist: "My family is from northern Spain." I had a hard time understanding that, but shame in general is something I don't get.
MIGUEL: There's a Chicano word for a person who wants to assimilate - pocho - and it means coconut. You know, brown on the outside and white on the inside.