After six years of what she terms an "uphill struggle," Latina producerNatatcha Estebanez and partner, director Jan Egleson, have completed theirfeature-length dramatic film TheBlue Diner.
Estebanez and Egleson met while working at WGBH, where their hallwayconversations spawned a full-blown collaboration. Their idea was to meldthe documentary world that is Estebanez' forte with the Egleson's experiencein feature filmmaking. They submitted a grant proposal to WGBH for developmentmoney and were green-lighted to create a dramatic film.
The result is the locally filmed, 35mm feature The Blue Diner.It stars Miriam Colon (All the Pretty Horses, Lone Star, Sabrina, Houseof the Spirits), Lisa Vidal (Third Watch, I Like It Like That,Night and The City, Fall), Jose Yenque (Traffic, The Price of Glory)and William Marquez (The Mark of Zorro, Forces of Nature).
The Blue Diner is the story of a Puerto Rican mother and daughterliving in Boston and their ordeal as Elena, the daughter, becomes aphasiacwhen she mysteriously loses her ability to speak Spanish. Interwoven intothe plot are the unexplained appearance of Elena's boyfriend, Tito's artat the Fine Arts Museum, and the fried brains recipe of the Blue Diner'schef, Papowhich bring about the reunion of Elena, her mother Meche,and her language.
Estebanez claims a number of special aspects for this truly bilingualfilm: "It's about the Latin community without any boxers in it. We'reso used to seeing Latino stories that have the usual suspects of gunsand drugs. Also we have been put in this little box of what our storiesare. What is special about the film is the story, precisely. It's an attemptto say, 'Hey, we are just like you guys.'"
Robert Birnbaum: Give me some background; where you were born,educated...?
Natatcha: I was born and raised in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. I wason a dairy farm that used to be a coffee plantation. The town bordersthe ocean and the mountains. I grew up in the mountains, and I went torural schools and lived a rural life up until I was ten or eleven yearsold. At that time my mother thought it would be a good idea to go to SanJuan, because education was not great in Vega Baja, and there were onlyso many cow stories she could tell.
So we moved to San Juan, where she found a job teaching, and I went toa very good private school because of that. San Juan is wonderfully complicatedand it has lot of class tensions and racial tensions. Much more than whatpeople imagine. I always had been inclined towards visual arts and visualcommunication. Very quickly I found out that if I were to stay in PuertoRico, I would have to console myself with making commercials...you knowwith beautiful boats and with women in bikinis which I really didn't wantto do. So I applied to many many colleges and got myself a scholarship.I ended up, for about a year, in small liberal arts college in PennsylvaniaMuhlenbergCollege. I was the first Puerto Rican woman to attend...it was a cultureshock, not to mention the snow and all that. I didn't like it very much.I also applied for another scholarship and got accepted to London CollegesoI went there for about three years. It was a big banquet. It was a feast.Even though I hated the cultureit was the time of the Malvenes [FalklandIslands] War and my mother was flipping out because she thought thesethings were dangerous1981 thereabouts. I found that what the museumswere offeringa lot of the visual stuff that I had not gotten anywherewasreally very nourishing. Just in terms of thinking about how to watch something.How do you watch something? How do you know when you like something? Itdidn't come natural to me. I knew I liked things, but I wanted to knowwhy. That drove my interest of trying to figure out how do you do this,and why certain parts of aethestics are articulate, and sometimes aren't.And that's in hindsightwhat I was struggling with.
I was also struck by how different people look at things differentlyand how different colors affected people differently. Coming from theCaribbean I was used to bright everything and really alive. And it wasa very confusing time for me...a nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican womanlost in London. I was very lonely. I thought that I knew English. I didn't.I didn't understand a word of the Brits were saying. I listened to mylittle radio every morning to get myself used to the accent. Everythingwas interrupted because I fell ill with cancer. So I had to be returnedto the States to get better. Back at Muhlenberg I finished a semesterbecause that's what I had left. I applied for another scholarship to goto graduate school at the Annenberg School for Communications in Philadelphiaat UPenn...Very heavy on the research but I found a couple of filmmakerswere into something new and they changed my life. I went there on fullscholarship and from there began to make little films. Went back to PuertoRico but realized that I couldn't do what I wanted there.
NE: Again, because of this whole commercial thing. Still in PuertoRico to make films...it was 95% male-oriented. It's the sexual politicsof working in Puerto Rico. I say this with great contradiction right nowbecause on the one hand you have the first woman governor was just elected,Celia Calderon. She's incredible. It's a very strong matriarchal societybut in my field the women who work are either the producers who are bustingtheir asses workinggetting everybody their coffee and soothing everyonethereal filmmakers...there's not a lot of women. So I have found much tomy regret that home is here because of the opportunity. At least the illusionof opportunity.
RB: After years of doing documentary work at WGBH and Henry Hampton'sBlackside Productions, how did you come to doing a dramatic feature film,The Blue Diner?
NE: The Blue Diner started about six years ago with JanEagleson who was a colleague at WGBH (who I met about 8 years ago). Ihad seen his work and he had seen a couple of the music shows that I hadproduced. In the corridors we met, we talked, we liked each others' workand one day he came over to the office and we started toying with theidea of "Hey wouldn't it be nice to produce a drama that includedparts of this documentary world that I knew very well and part of thedrama world that he knew so well." And, of course, it would be verydiverse and multicultural, and it wouldn't look like Masterpiece Theater.It would be a different kind of drama, very contemporary drama. We werevery excited by this. I said, "Why not?" And documentary could be verytiring and gets a little stale. I was very intrigued with the idea, andwe wrote for a grant just for development. And WGBH backed us and thoughtit was a great idea. And from there it's been uphill. We both had to takemany many jobs in between, and that's why it took six years to finish.That was the germ of the idea. We thought of something very small, somethingwith monologues and two cameras...then the more we thought about it, wewanted to conceptualize something that really is a story as opposed toan experimental piece of work.
RB: What was it like to go from film journalism to a drama, amade-up story?
NE: I found there is far more truth in drama than there is indocumentary. One of the big lessons for me in this whole experiencedoingdocumentaries you have the illusion that you are after capturing reality.What you end up doing is constructing your perception of what this realityiswhatever it might be. But you always go in and reconstruct. Whereaswhen you are working with drama, like in the case of The Blue Dinermanyof the things I had to sit down and look at my heartfor the scenebetween the mother and daughter, which had a lot of resonance with myown mother and my turbulent relationship with her, I had to search that.I had to scratch. It had to hurt. And in that sense it was more truthful.That's at one level. Production-wise the transition was smooth, it wasa bigger budget, but the same principles applied. I mean you are a caretaker,you have to make sure you're a shrink. You are a medium, you are a mediatorand sometimes you have to be a disciplinarian. All of those things. Thatapplies for documentary and for fiction. And you are always fighting yourbattles...
RB: What kind of battles?
NE:Battles with everything. When you are making a low-budget film, the oddsare against you. Out of twenty-two thousand scripts registered each year,about three hundred get made. We have to deal with Teamsters, we dealwith unionsBoston, of courseall those things are a nightmare.You have to deal with schedules, and coordinating everyone and strokingpeople's egos, sometime the gaffer or the best boy doesn't like Pepsi,they like Mountain Dew. So you have to go out of your way...you know.It's like a drug, because I thought that I would do this and not do anything...Isaid this is too hard. I now I crave it because the creationwe madeup everything.
RB: You made me think of that Steve Martin joke, "I startedout with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and look what I did..."
NE: For me, it was almost like an exorcism. I dealt with a lotof personal demons with mom in this film. Even though it's not avery lucrative endeavor, it's priceless. The first movie my daughterever saw was The Blue Diner when it screened in San Juan in November.I was trembling, of course, because there were a lot of people from myown family there. But I was also trembling because I wanted her to likeit. She's only two and a half...It meant so much to me. This isa work...we created this. It's not unlike a painting or a book,it has a life...it will be there. This drama has given me that.
RB: What is the film about?
NE: The film is about fear of losing oneself. Profoundly, it'sabout holding, not assimilating, integrating but not assimilating. I thinkassimilation is one of the worst things...this country is obsessed withassimilation. When I think about you, I will think in Spanish, and ifI were to think of you in English it will not feel the same.
RB: No particular Latino themes, a universal story...
NE: Absolutely, absolutelyEveryone has them, it's not alanguage-bounded concept. You have to be able to accept individuality,that people have different ways and that it's okay.
RB: Tell me what you think is special about The Blue Diner?
NE: A couple of things. It's a Latino community without any boxersin it. We're so used to seeing Latino stories that have the usual suspectsof guns and drugs. Also, we have been put in this little box of what ourstories are. What is special about the film is the story, precisely. It'san attempt to say, "Hey we are like you guys." Mother-daughter, what happenswhen communication breaks down. Let it be language, or tacit communicationor just love or whatever. That might be our strength and our weakness.
RB: You've shown the film in New York, Havana, San Juan...whathas the reaction been?
NE: Overwhelmingly fabulous. In Havana, we had three showingsfor three-thousand people. It sold out. It was very moving to see threethousand people laugh to one's jokes. And they got it. As a writerIhad never done this beforewhen you put something on paper you knowcertain things are going to work really well. Certain things you're nottoo sure. But just that validation that your instinct was right and thatthere are certain things that do work because they do. It's tremendousfeeling. It's also very humbling when it doesn't.
RB: Can you explain how a film produced in the United States bysomeone of Puerto Rican descent can win in the Best Foreign Film categoryin Puerto Rico?
NE: It all comes down to money. Films are defined by funding.A kung fu film produced by Finnish and Spanish money will be a Finnishand Spanish film. In our case it was a film produced in the United Statesentirely with American money. So, in Puerto Rico, films not from LatinAmericameaning the United States or Canadawere foreign.
RB: Okay, so now that you have made this film, what's next?
NE: Even though people say it's three or four parts, it's basicallytwo parts. If you get to get the film done then the real work begins.Up until now it has been relatively easy. We know how to do it. It's fun.This is uncharted territory for me. I can sell anyone anything, I think.But this is pretty big. It's a high price item. We are hoping to get alot of money for it. There are a selective number of buyers. It's notlike everyone is interested. We are selling a difficult product. Becauseit's not traditional, because it's not about boxers. And because it'snot about the barrio and a thousand guns and crime. Muhammed Ali usedto fight with his guard down. I love boxing. I have always fought withmy guard down. I am beginning to realize that in this part I'll have tochange tactics. It's brutal. It's brutal. I'm beginning to think thatthe fight has to be far more aggressive and you got to go at it frontal.That's going to be hard to learn because it's very counterintuitive tome.
RB: You are talking about getting the film exhibited, bringingit to market?
NE: We have a couple of strategies. First, the festival circuit.And we get press and get the film out there. We didn't get into Sundance.We made the short, short short list but we didn't get in. So thatimmediately puts us at a little bit of a disadvantage.
RB: Why didn't the film get it in?
NE: We didn't get in because apparently, it's very political.And we are told we were number 17 out of 16 films in competition. So it'sthis dance... A couple years ago it might have been easier to get in.I'm convinced there's a market for this film. I am. Becausea lot of people who have seen it here in the U.S. say, "Oh my goodness,that's like my mother, that's like my grandmother." I'mnot talking only about Latinos, but immigrants in general.
RB: When will The Blue Diner be shown in the Boston area?
NE: March 29th at the New England Film Festival at the CoolidgeCorner Movie house [in Brookline]
RB: What is that festival?
NE: It's presented by the Boston Film and Video Foundation.This year they are giving the visionary award to Jan...
RB: What's the next project for you?
NE: I have a couple of ideas that I am developing in my head andI have begun to write. I really dig the writing part of it. It'sthe most liberating and cleansing. So I do have a couple of ideas thatare very absurd stories. And I want to push some of the stuff...I learneda lot from this film...what's possible.
RB: Are you inclined to do things in sequence, start to finish?
NE: Uh huh. I am beginning to find out that that's true.Even though I am tickled by these things. I was away over the holidaysand wrote down what I think might be a very interesting script. I feelI have an obligation to see this baby...It's like being a parent.I became a parent at the same time that I was producing this film. I wasoverwhelmed by breast feeding my child...and feeding this crew...it'sso much giving...I feel like it still needs to get out.
RB: What is it like to be a writer/producer? Is it harder?
NE: Co-writer. Jan and I had a unique working relationship. Hewas very generous. We set out the tone from the very beginning and wecollaborated on everything. I was the producer but I was there all thetime. He was the director, but he was there all the time. We co-wrotethis thing, ounce by ounce. On certain occasions the actors would cometo us with questions that we hadn't discussed. There was a lot of improvisation.I was terrified about the [mother-daughter] fight scene. It's a strongscene to pull off. It's very dramatic and it's very emotional. When wethought about it, I cried. When we wrote it, I cried. When I when I firstsaw them rehearsing it, I cried. And I still cry when I see it. It ishard. These are true feelings.
RB: You refer to this as a low-budget film, but you don't havelow-budget actors. Miriam Colon, Lisa Vidal...
NE: Lucky for us, they fell in love with the script. And theybelieved in the project. It sounds cliched. But I'm living proofthat's what happened. When we started writing the film we wrote withMiriam in mind. Thinking it would be a long shot, because after all sheis the doyen of Puerto Rican theater and such a fabulous actress. I shylysent word that had this script and that we wrote it with her in mind.She came to the audition, which actresses of her caliber don't do...shecame to the reading. She walked into the room and she became the character,she became my mother and she became my aunt. She wanted it very badly.The other problemyou have heard this a thousand timesthere are notenough good roles for Latinos out there. Nobody's writing good roles...
RB: Rosario Ferre, Maya Montero, Isabel Allende?
NE: I'm talking about scripts, screenplays. That raises the price.We started out considering optioning a book; the money dictates what youdo. We said the hell with it, let's just write it. Jose, the leading guy,when he came to the set he said, "You know, Nata, I know how to use ninedifferent kinds of firearms...I know how to use the magnum, the uzi"...henamed things I had never heard of. It was a funny and tragic comment.Here he is a very talented actor...
All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.