After six years of what she terms an “uphill struggle,” Latina producer Natatcha Estebanez and partner, director Jan Egleson, have completed their feature-length dramatic film The Blue Diner.
Estebanez and Egleson met while working at WGBH, where their hallway conversations spawned a full-blown collaboration. Their idea was to meld the documentary world that is Estebanez’ forte with the Egleson’s experience in feature filmmaking. They submitted a grant proposal to WGBH for development money 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, House of 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 daughter living in Boston and their ordeal as Elena, the daughter, becomes aphasiac when she mysteriously loses her ability to speak Spanish. Interwoven into the plot are the unexplained appearance of Elena’s boyfriend, Tito’s art at the Fine Arts Museum, and the fried brains recipe of the Blue Diner’s chef, Papo—which bring about the reunion of Elena, her mother Meche, and her language.
Estebanez claims a number of special aspects for this truly bilingual film: "It’s about the Latin community without any boxers in it. We’re so used to seeing Latino stories that have the usual suspects of guns and drugs. Also we have been put in this little box of what our stories are. What is special about the film is the story, precisely. It’s an attempt to 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 was on a dairy farm that used to be a coffee plantation. The town borders the ocean and the mountains. I grew up in the mountains, and I went to rural schools and lived a rural life up until I was ten or eleven years old. At that time my mother thought it would be a good idea to go to San Juan, because education was not great in Vega Baja, and there were only so many cow stories she could tell.
So we moved to San Juan, where she found a job teaching, and I went to a very good private school because of that. San Juan is wonderfully complicated and it has lot of class tensions and racial tensions. Much more than what people imagine. I always had been inclined towards visual arts and visual communication. Very quickly I found out that if I were to stay in Puerto Rico, I would have to console myself with making commercials…you know with beautiful boats and with women in bikinis which I really didn’t want to 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 Pennsylvania—Muhlenberg College. I was the first Puerto Rican woman to attend…it was a culture shock, 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 College—so I went there for about three years. It was a big banquet. It was a feast. Even though I hated the culture—it was the time of the Malvenes [Falkland Islands] War and my mother was flipping out because she thought these things were dangerous—1981 thereabouts. I found that what the museums were offering—a lot of the visual stuff that I had not gotten anywhere—was really 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? It didn’t come natural to me. I knew I liked things, but I wanted to know why. 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 hindsight—what I was struggling with.
I was also struck by how different people look at things differently and how different colors affected people differently. Coming from the Caribbean I was used to bright everything and really alive. And it was a very confusing time for me…a nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican woman lost 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 my little radio every morning to get myself used to the accent. Everything was interrupted because I fell ill with cancer. So I had to be returned to the States to get better. Back at Muhlenberg I finished a semester because that’s what I had left. I applied for another scholarship to go to graduate school at the Annenberg School for Communications in Philadelphia at UPenn…Very heavy on the research but I found a couple of filmmakers were into something new and they changed my life. I went there on full scholarship and from there began to make little films. Went back to Puerto Rico but realized that I couldn’t do what I wanted there.
NE: Again, because of this whole commercial thing. Still in Puerto Rico to make films…it was 95% male-oriented. It’s the sexual politics of working in Puerto Rico. I say this with great contradiction right now because on the one hand you have the first woman governor was just elected, Celia Calderon. She’s incredible. It’s a very strong matriarchal society but in my field the women who work are either the producers who are busting their asses working—getting everybody their coffee and soothing everyone—the real filmmakers…there’s not a lot of women. So I have found much to my regret that home is here because of the opportunity. At least the illusion of opportunity.
RB: After years of doing documentary work at WGBH and Henry Hampton’s Blackside Productions, how did you come to doing a dramatic feature film, The Blue Diner?
NE: The Blue Diner started about six years ago with Jan Eagleson who was a colleague at WGBH (who I met about 8 years ago). I had seen his work and he had seen a couple of the music shows that I had produced. In the corridors we met, we talked, we liked each others’ work and one day he came over to the office and we started toying with the idea of "Hey wouldn’t it be nice to produce a drama that included parts of this documentary world that I knew very well and part of the drama world that he knew so well." And, of course, it would be very diverse and multicultural, and it wouldn’t look like Masterpiece Theater. It would be a different kind of drama, very contemporary drama. We were very excited by this. I said, “Why not?” And documentary could be very tiring and gets a little stale. I was very intrigued with the idea, and we wrote for a grant just for development. And WGBH backed us and thought it was a great idea. And from there it’s been uphill. We both had to take many 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, something with monologues and two cameras…then the more we thought about it, we wanted to conceptualize something that really is a story as opposed to an experimental piece of work.
RB: What was it like to go from film journalism to a drama, a made-up story?
NE: I found there is far more truth in drama than there is in documentary. One of the big lessons for me in this whole experience—doing documentaries you have the illusion that you are after capturing reality. What you end up doing is constructing your perception of what this reality is—whatever it might be. But you always go in and reconstruct. Whereas when you are working with drama, like in the case of The Blue Diner—many of the things I had to sit down and look at my heart—for the scene between the mother and daughter, which had a lot of resonance with my own 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 was a 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 mediator and sometimes you have to be a disciplinarian. All of those things. That applies for documentary and for fiction. And you are always fighting your battles…
RB: What kind of battles?
NE: Battles with everything. When you are making a low-budget film, the odds are against you. Out of twenty-two thousand scripts registered each year, about three hundred get made. We have to deal with Teamsters, we deal with unions—Boston, of course—all those things are a nightmare. You have to deal with schedules, and coordinating everyone and stroking people’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…I said this is too hard. I now I crave it because the creation—we made up everything.
RB: You made me think of that Steve Martin joke, “I started out 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 lot of personal demons with mom in this film. Even though it’s not a very lucrative endeavor, it’s priceless. The first movie my daughter ever 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 my own family there. But I was also trembling because I wanted her to like it. She’s only two and a half…It meant so much to me. This is a 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’s about holding, not assimilating, integrating but not assimilating. I think assimilation is one of the worst things…this country is obsessed with assimilation. When I think about you, I will think in Spanish, and if I were to think of you in English it will not feel the same.
RB: No particular Latino themes, a universal story…
NE: Absolutely, absolutely—Everyone has them, it’s not a language-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 boxers in it. We’re so used to seeing Latino stories that have the usual suspects of guns and drugs. Also, we have been put in this little box of what our stories are. What is special about the film is the story, precisely. It’s an attempt to say, “Hey we are like you guys.” Mother-daughter, what happens when communication breaks down. Let it be language, or tacit communication or just love or whatever. That might be our strength and our weakness.
RB: You’ve shown the film in New York, Havana, San Juan…what has the reaction been?
NE: Overwhelmingly fabulous. In Havana, we had three showings for three-thousand people. It sold out. It was very moving to see three thousand people laugh to one’s jokes. And they got it. As a writer—I had never done this before—when you put something on paper you know certain things are going to work really well. Certain things you’re not too sure. But just that validation that your instinct was right and that there are certain things that do work because they do. It’s tremendous feeling. It’s also very humbling when it doesn’t.
RB: Can you explain how a film produced in the United States by someone of Puerto Rican descent can win in the Best Foreign Film category in 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 Finnish and Spanish film. In our case it was a film produced in the United States entirely with American money. So, in Puerto Rico, films not from Latin America—meaning the United States or Canada—were 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 basically two 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 a lot of money for it. There are a selective number of buyers. It’s not like everyone is interested. We are selling a difficult product. Because it’s not traditional, because it’s not about boxers. And because it’s not about the barrio and a thousand guns and crime. Muhammed Ali used to fight with his guard down. I love boxing. I have always fought with my guard down. I am beginning to realize that in this part I’ll have to change tactics. It’s brutal. It’s brutal. I’m beginning to think that the 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 to me.
RB: You are talking about getting the film exhibited, bringing it 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 that immediately 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’s this 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. Because a 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’m not 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 Coolidge Corner 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 and I have begun to write. I really dig the writing part of it. It’s the most liberating and cleansing. So I do have a couple of ideas that are very absurd stories. And I want to push some of the stuff…I learned a 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 holidays and wrote down what I think might be a very interesting script. I feel I 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 was overwhelmed by breast feeding my child…and feeding this crew…it’s so 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. He was very generous. We set out the tone from the very beginning and we collaborated on everything. I was the producer but I was there all the time. He was the director, but he was there all the time. We co-wrote this thing, ounce by ounce. On certain occasions the actors would come to 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 strong scene to pull off. It’s very dramatic and it’s very emotional. When we thought about it, I cried. When we wrote it, I cried. When I when I first saw them rehearsing it, I cried. And I still cry when I see it. It is hard. These are true feelings.
RB: You refer to this as a low-budget film, but you don’t have low-budget actors. Miriam Colon, Lisa Vidal…
NE: Lucky for us, they fell in love with the script. And they believed in the project. It sounds cliched. But I’m living proof that’s what happened. When we started writing the film we wrote with Miriam in mind. Thinking it would be a long shot, because after all she is the doyen of Puerto Rican theater and such a fabulous actress. I shyly sent 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…she came 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 problem—you have heard this a thousand times—there are not enough 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 you do. 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 nine different kinds of firearms…I know how to use the magnum, the uzi”…he named 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.