Q&A: 'Mi America' Director Robert Fontaine Talks Immigration, New Film
Immigration and violence have all been major themes in the Latino cinema. This time, director and actor Robert Fontaine has captured a new twist on the theme and has made a new movie about hate crimes in small urban communities.
The new movie "Mi America" tells the story of a hate crime that is committed in New York in which five migrant laborers are beaten, shot and then ditched. The film covers a dark part of the American experience but does it in a convincing and tense way.
Latin Post had the chance to speak to Fontaine about his new feature in which he also starred.
Latin Post: What was the inspiration for "Mi America"?
Robert Fontaine: The inspiration was all these stories that my wife was bringing to my attention about the ongoing hate crimes against Hispanics throughout the U.S. Mostly undocumented but also documented people. People live in these small towns in America and even in these big cities like New York. So reading about their plight and also the struggle to try and understand what America means to all of us. It seems to be a country of multicultural or multinational but if you're the wrong color then you don't count.
LP: During the writing project and research, did you speak to any undocumented and documented immigrants?
RF: Sure. There is my neighborhood, I even employ them sometimes for periods so they can renovate my home or I frequent places where they work. They are everywhere. So they all have wonderful stories to tell and I still haven't come across one that was either undereducated or malicious in a way. So they all share some type of hardship story before they got to doing they decided to do in this country.
LP: Was there any story in particular that struck you while writing this film?
RF: There was one particular guy that worked in a restaurant and he told me that he had a masters in philosophy and liberal arts degree and he was from Mexico. And I asked him, 'Well, what are you doing here?' And he said, 'If you look at my Indian face, do you think I would ever get anywhere in my own country?' This opened a door to me that I didn't realized existed in Central or South America that a lot of these people that are coming here are being discriminated against by Hispanics that are white in their own country. That they are being marginalized by the government and their society. So it was a big eye-opener.
LP: After the writing process, what was the biggest challenge in pre-production and how were you able to raise the money to make this film come to life?
RF: It was about eight years in the making. Money in terms of film is very difficult and 90 percent of the time you're chasing down money and 10 percent of the time you're making a movie. For me it was just not giving up and I managed to call my investors at the very same city which I shot the movie in. That was very ironic and it came at the tail end of wanting to put this film into production. I was almost getting to shelve.
LP: What did shooting in New York bring to the experience of making this film?
RF: New York is supposed to lead the world in diversity and tolerance and that's not really the case. Originally I intended to shoot the movie in Brooklyn where I grew up. I was going to shoot it in a small and conservative neighborhood, it's the furthest neighborhood south in Brooklyn. Growing up in the neighborhood, I had the experience of a lot of racism so I am not sure what it actually did but it may bring to life the consciousness of the people that live in the city and all major cities because they have a diversity in ethnicities, so it's not free or devoid of racism, hate crimes or xenophobia.
LP: Can you tell me a little bit about the casting choices?
RF: I have an actor-director approach to my work so if an actor does not have much experience, I try to find a language to communicate. So the auditioning process is very difficult, especially for first timers. And even like the really experienced ones don't really do well in auditions. But if I like someone even if they didn't do so great in their auditions I will work with them. And usually when they can get to a relaxed state, I can get the best work out of them. I did a lot of my casting upstate and the three or four principals in my movie, I cast four when I did a screen test so I brought them along once we went into production. But Hudson Valley, where we actually shot the movie, there is a big film community and lot of actors live in the area. There are a lot of hungry actors and that was a good find for me.
LP: As a writer, director and actor what was the process like and what were the challenges of taking on all these positions?
RF: As a director, I made a promise to myself that I would not act and direct in a movie again because first of all I did that and it was a nightmare. It was very difficult and just to find a rhythm and a pattern and a workflow that would cancel one or the other out was difficult. On my first film I remember that we were almost half through where I finally got the process down. And its hard to be in the scene and be in the moment with you particular scene partner without having the director there and looking and seeing that they're hitting their marks. That was the biggest challenge. The other challenge is that you don't have enough money to work on a project and this project was incredible because it is a $50 million movie done for almost under $1 million. We had hired a lot of inexperienced people and the first two weeks of the project the crew we had was very inexperienced and it caused a lot of problems. So the movie almost didn't get made.
We wanted to hire locally but most of the really experienced people were already hired so we ... waited a few weeks for people to free up.
LP: What is the most rewarding part of having the movie distributed and how has it been to work with Cinema Tropical?
RF: The most rewarding part is that people connect with the film and having someone like Carlos Gutierrez's organization behind the project is like a huge stamp of approval. That means you're quality and his community follows him and they follow Cinema Tropical. And he knows what works and what doesn't work. So that's a huge endorsement. As for distribution, since we decided to do just the minimal release to see how it is received by the public. It's a very exciting and vulnerable time because it's not going to be a film for everyone and anything that has to do with Hispanic tends to be stigmatized or people don't gravitate to it that much. They don't care. But with this and the story, I tended not to be too political. It's really a story that revolves around a hate crime that happens. But it's so layered with social political themes and it's just rewarding enough to see if it gets out there. To see it get out to the public and not just your friends or cast is always exciting.