There was a time when Oscar-winning Latino filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón and Iñárritu made their first feature film and look where they are now – untouchable. It’s certainly not a bad label and in a Catch-22-world, everyone has to start somewhere. But not many want to take that risk and give someone their first big break that can send your career off to greater heights.
Destined to follow in the footsteps of these Academy Award winners is Dominican-born, Christopher Lopez. He’s a former actor, dissatisfied with stereotypical roles afforded Latinos that he was thrust to write his own stories countering the quintessential negative images. He made three shorts that paved the way to this feature film that he directed and wrote, Adrift, which had its World Premiere to a packed house at the International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival in NY. It now heads cross country for an LA premiere Thanksgiving weekend. Now we’re cooking!
But more remarkable was a production book he created from the onset with a strategic vision so tight and clear for the feature that it compelled Luna (Lauren) Vélez (How to Get Away with Murder, Dexter) to get involved as producer and lead actress. She then brought James Manos, Jr., (creator, Showtime’s Dexter) on board and his producing partner, Taso Mouhteros. Then the floodgates opened as other stellar cast members got involved: includes, Tony Plana (Ugly Betty), Davi Santos (Power Rangers), Laura Gomez (Orange is the New Black), and Olga Merediz (In the Heights, Madam Secretary, Shades of Blue) and Ed Trucco (Maria Full of Grace and Law & Order). His game was so tight that beforehand he formed a production company he co-founded, Densely Hollow that co-produced Adrift and brought on E-VP of the company, Darlene Rose Javier to co-produce. I sat down to have a conversation with Christopher to get that remarkable journey on how this special jewel of an independent film got made.
TíoLouie: What was the genesis for your feature film, Adrift?
Christopher Lopez: It worked in steps. The opening scene that is eight minutes long about the drug dealer is the closest to reality and that harrowing moment was the inspiration for the story. Then my cousin bought a house in Long Island and knowing that I was a filmmaker, she offered me the use of her house for any film production I wanted to undertake. So originally this story took place in a room, in a basement. My cousin is also a police officer and in the opening scene there is a high-end Maserati that belonged to her friend, a fellow-police officer.
TíoLouie: Luna Vélez tells me that she loved the story?
Christopher: First I reached out to her manager, Tina Thor and sent the screenplay. I didn’t hear for two weeks. I reached out again and they said she is reading it and we will get back to you. Then I was contacted and informed that they wanted to get together with me for coffee. We met in Harlem. In that first meeting there was no pretense and she said that she wanted to come on board as actor and producer.
TíoLouie: The mom character that Luna Vélez played, Cecilia was an enabler in the film. Is art imitating life? Was your mother in real life that way and was your brother as unconscionable and reckless as the character in the film?
Christopher: My brother is as reckless and there was a lot that I did not put in. I personally know how much my mother has done to get my brother on the right track. You can love someone so much and try to get them help, but no matter what they do, kids are always your babies no matter what. It’s about the love of a mother who cannot let go of their destructive kids. When something terrible happened to her son, she felt it because it was something visceral and she knew something was happening to her son. There is such an immense connection that mothers have with their kids. This film allowed me to explore mothers and their journey, plight and journey. The question it begged was how to balance career and family when your family is falling apart.
TíoLouie: How has your family reconciled with your taking their story in this feature film public?
Christopher: In the film the mother says, ‘If it helps someone, it’ll be worth it’. Junot Diaz said we don’t see ourselves depicted in certain stories. And this is not just directed towards Latina mothers. This is their plight and should speak to mothers across any culture… this is their reality.
Tío Louie: How were you able to take creative license with some of the story so close to home, yet making the tale slightly fictitious?
Christopher: I started off with the first scene. Truth is stranger than fiction. Then I wanted to start off with a family drama and infuse it with something that is a little different. We start off with one point in their life and go back in time and show the path taken that got them there. I love horror and Sci-Fi and wanted to inject that in the project and make it more me.
TíoLouie: Though you started off with an architecture background, how has that shaped you as a film Director?
Christopher: I studied architecture at the H.S. of Art & Design and got a scholarship to study architecture at the NY Institute of Technology. I was in that program for two years. I now see that it made a difference in the way I plan and that I am building visuals and words with what an architect does in building structures. But now I am building a much larger world than architects who build buildings.
TíoLouie: How do you label this film?
Christopher: There are elements that are autobiographical. However, I would not say that this is a representation of family and myself. They say you should do what is close to you and what you love. I love my family. I always said I love high-end drama and Sci-Fi and something that is not expected from Dominican filmmakers. Out stories and art are very interesting when given a voice to express it and how we see the world and life when placed in other genres. I want to hear from others, too and everyone sees the world differently.
TíoLouie: In a nutshell, what is your family’s story that brought you to write about it and bring to the screen in ADRIFT?
Christopher: It is loosely based on my family’s story and the fact that my brother was a bit of a problem child that later emerged in a drug addiction of heroine. And the motivation was to tell the mother’s story that you never hear. Especially during these times when there is an epidemic going on and often these people, like my mother who see these stories in the news, feel alone when their story needs to be told, also.
TíoLouie: You had made three short films prior to your first feature, tell me what launched that journey?
Christopher: Initially I wanted to be an actor and took that path for four to five years. But it was a frustration with the roles or lack of roles, and the auditions that entailed one word or a shout. I didn’t think that in the training that I was undertaking this was worth it. In the first short, I played a Latino genetic engineer and in the second I played one of the brightest mathematicians in the world – roles that I would have never been presented with as a Latino actor. I wrote these stories, directed and produced them. By the third film I noticed that what was keeping me from enjoying my films was seeing my face on the screen and so then I stopped acting completely.
TíoLouie: What did you feel successfully contributed in your pitch to making this film, ADRIFT?
Christopher: I had created a 14-page production book: log line, creative statement, my bio, the team involved, sample pictures in the form of a movie board, a breakdown of the budget, schedule for shooting, cast wish list.
TíoLouie: How was it directing two established, top Latino actors like Luna Vélez and Tony Plana?
Christopher: It was incredible. I love to go for actors that I already believe are the characters. That way there is no major rehearsal and they dove right into it. We did not have to rehearse over and over, that probably would have been the case with a novice actor. The actors made it honest about these people’s lives and that is what draws me when I see a film of that caliber. It’s a character piece and all about the performance. That is why I was so staunch set on getting Luna. Plus, because they are so seasoned and we had to shoot the film so fast and furious, it worked.
TíoLouie: Tell me about your business partner, Davi Santos, who is Brazilian, who was in all three of your short films and now in this feature, as well as being a co-producer in your production company, Densely Hollow?
Christopher: When we started off we were two friends who were crafting work together to put us in a different light than the industry was offering. He is also my co-writer. He is so in line with me in what I think how people of color and culture should be depicted and that aren’t just these stock images that are shown to us by people who don’t even know us when telling our stories, but that we have stories worth telling.
TíoLouie: How do you see the distribution path for this film?
Christopher: We’re working on a strategy for what would be best for the film. I feel that there are a lot of people that would benefit from seeing this film. The film’s main theme is the heroine epidemic and that Long Island is the main hub for heroine users in the U.S. and that it’s 90% Caucasian. But it’s a problem happening across this country. Yet an African-American friend pointed out that now because it’s in white communities, it’s gaining national notoriety. This is an exciting time when you have worked so hard on making the film, especially the subject-matter and now it’s a mater of taking it out and sharing with people. It’s so timely. Every day there are three to four stories happening. There was a story that surfaced recently about a whole family that was assassinated across several states by a drug lord.
TíoLouie: What are your $0.10-worth of wisdom that you would share with a first-time Director?
Christopher: To have patience, but also be persistent. When I first started this I tried to control my career. You can’t control and know what the next step is. You have to take opportunities that arise. You can spend ten years planning, but something surfaces to embolden yourself that you can do it – that you can make this film. You have to be patient. I started writing this in March of last year. I met Luna in June and we started shooting in September – it was so fast and furious. I wish I had taken more time writing the screenplay. That’s the base and the floor plan. The first draft is never the greatest. You can take it to the seventh rewrite and just continue polishing it. There is no such thing as taking too much time with your screenplay.
TíoLouie: Your story was set in a middle class Latino environment. What propelled that?
Christopher: This seemed more realistic to me than all our stories that are set in projects, hair up in rollers, inner city tales and that we do live in middle class communities, but happen to be Latino. That we can live in those environments while keeping ties to our culture.
TíoLouie: How was it working with the actresses, Laura Gomez (Orange is the New Black) and Olga Merediz (In the Heights, Madam Secretary, Shades of Blue)?
Christopher: Laura is a good friend of mine and we both had shorts in the Dominican Film Festival in NY, which was how we met. I worked as an Art Director on a short of hers. I loved the work that she did. I love Olga. I am writing a feature film with her in mind. I want to tell a story about someone of her age and stage in life.
TíoLouie: What are you working on next?
Christopher: I am working on a feature film about two girls from Long Island and hope to start shooting in spring of 2017 with my Filipino Producer, Darlene Javier. That is based on a true life story, also.
TíoLouie: How much work did you have to do to get to this stage as a filmmaker and what skills did you have to pick up along the way?
Christopher: I had to learn to be an editor. I had to learn to be a Producer. I had to learn all of this. If we were given the proper money to produce our work, we could take it a notch higher. The way I have been trying to craft and grow my career, I started off with three shorts before I made my feature. They were stepping stones. They expect this in Hollywood. Even if you make a film for $10, it’s got to look like a $10 million film. And a lot of people just want to fly with their careers and projects without a lot of work and planning. It takes a little bit of everything: talent, heart, passion, and tenacity. After making a feature film that you created, you’re left with this feeling that you made a structure. It feels like you made something and it’s an incredible feeling to have made a feature film. And especially as a Latino we don’t often get these opportunities and I had the chance to work with James Manos, Jr., as Producer on my film who was the creator of Dexter and the Emmy-award winning writer from the Sopranos. When I first met with Luna she said she saw my shorts. There was history to my work. I made them with my own money and with little money, but it showed what I was capable of doing something and they were great films. But that allowed me to get to the next level.
TíoLouie: You don’t shun your label of first-time Director, rather wear it as a badge of honor. Any other advice for someone in a similar role with their first feature film that is not often asked?
Christopher: More often than not people are not asking how to do work, they are asking me on how I can help them do their work. If I can do it, you can do it. When I first started this I was an actor then I learned how to do it. Right now I am working with young artists at the beginning of their work. You have to make sure that the work you are crafting is of quality. Strive for more. Don’t cut corners.
Friday, November 25th-Thursday, December 01
Downtown Independent Theater
For show times & tickets:
@TIO LOUIE/Louis E. Perego Moreno Louis E. Perego Moreno/@TioLouie Founder & Executive Producer of PRIME LATINO MEDIA, the largest East Coast network of Latino multimedia-makers, actors and musicians in bilingual Latino and mainstream media, digital and entertainment. An interactive Content/Social Impact Producer and Educator who for the past 34 years has owned Skyline Features, a bilingual multimedia and educational production company developing documentaries, television programming and advertising commercials featuring Latinos, Blacks, Women, Urban Youth and LGBT.
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