Orange County inspires new film
Orange County is not mentioned in the closing credits of "Mamitas," but the county played a significant role in the coming-of-age movie, which opens Friday.
Chapman University's film school, where the movie's director, producer, cinematographer and editor met, is located here, and the filmmakers said they enrolled in Chapman because Orange County seemed like a nice place to live.
"Let's face it," said producer Adam Renehan. "Los Angeles is just meaner than Orange County."
Renehan was laughing when he made that statement, but he was serious, and so was director Nicholas Ozeki.
"It was much easier to adjust to life in California by starting in Orange County, and then working our way up to L.A.," the director said.
Renehan moved to the county from a small town in Colorado, a year after the director re-located from Washington, D.C.
While completing their graduate studies at Chapman, Renehan and Ozeki finished a short film (with cinematographer Andrew M. Davis and editor Melissa Brown) that became the theatrical film that opens in The Outlets at Orange. The 31-year-old filmmakers, along with the stars of their movie, EJ Bonilla and Veronica Diaz-Carranza, will conduct a Q&A session after Friday's 7:30 p.m. showing in Orange.
Although neither filmmaker is Hispanic, the movie is set in East L.A., where a bright underachiever (Bonilla) and a bright overachiever (Diaz-Carranza) form a strong friendship. Ozeki wrote the short film while living in Anaheim, where he said he was first exposed to Mexican-American culture.
The filmmakers spent two years raising money to make the movie, and then showed it at a dozen film festivals. After its showing at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, Screen Media Films stepped in to distribute the film.
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: How did you guys find each other at Chapman?
ADAM RENEHAN: Nick was interviewing potential producers for his short film, and we sat down and hit it off.
OCR: Give our readers an idea of what it takes to turn a 2007 short film into a 2012 feature-length film?
NICHOLAS OZEKI: From a financial standpoint, it's always difficult to ask for money for the arts during an economic recession. We had a 24-minute film to show to potential investors, and that's what we did for the next year-and-a-half after we got out of film school. It took that long for us to learn how to sell our film.
OCR: Isn't 24 minutes long for a short film?
OZEKI: It is long for the film festival circuit because it takes up two spots, but it helped us raise money because investors could get a good idea of what the final film would look like.
OCR: Were you encouraged by the reaction to your short film?
OZEKI: The most encouraging thing we kept hearing was that everybody wanted to know what happened next to our characters. The investors were invested in our characters.
OCR: How many of your relatives did you go through in trying to raise the money?
RENEHAN: We're not from wealthy families, so it was more a matter of going to friends, and then to the friends of friends. We went to anyone who had extra money. There were people who we thought we could get money from, and we didn't; and then there were people who we never thought could afford it, and they invested.
OCR: Did you do the filmmaking cliché of maxing out your credit cards?
RENEHAN: We had to raise money to pay those credit card bills.
OCR: So you spent the better part of 2008 and 2009 raising money?
OZEKI: We're still raising money (both men laugh).
OCR: And you made the film in 2010?
OZEKI: Yes, we finally just set a date. We decided to make it on that date regardless of how much we had raised by then. It's funny, but that bit of energy – setting the date – helped us to raise another $100,000.
OCR: What was the budget on this film?
RENEHAN: We'd rather not publish that number, but it was under $500,000. But that figure doesn't include all the free services we received, like the $100,000-$200,000 worth of services we got from the post (production) house. And Chapman gave us a free grip truck to use.
OZEKI: The great thing about Chapman was that part of their pitch to film students was that after you're done with your studies, they will maintain a professional relationship with you, and they really kept their promise.
OCR: Why did you want to tell this particular story?
OZEKI: When I was in film school, I wanted to tell diverse stories. In Southern California, the Mexican-American culture is rich with beautiful stories to tell. But I didn't want to tell the typical Hollywood minority story. Too often, social issues are exploited in these films, and that's where the drama comes from. I wanted to tell real stories with universal appeal and a positive message.
OCR: And that was OK with potential distributors of your film?
RENEHAN: A lot of people in world of film marketing didn't get it.
OZEKI: Even some Hispanic companies didn't get it.
RENEHAN: They don't know how to sell a nice movie like this. It's easier when there are gangs, drugs and violence in it.
OCR: Couldn't you have made this journey a lot easier for yourselves if you had thrown some exploitation in your movie?
OZEKI: We want to set ourselves apart from the norm.
RENEHAN: Some of the studios we talked to only want to make "High School Musical" or "Superbad" when it comes to minorities. It was disheartening at times.
OZEKI: Screen Media got it. They got that what we were putting out a story that Mexican Americans don't see about themselves very often.
OCR: How wide are you distributing this film?
RENEHAN: It'll be 5 to 7 prints the first weekend, and then will get wider based on how it performs. It's just L.A., Ontario and Orange County at first. It's a big break for us to be in the bigger movie theaters because our young audience doesn't go to the Arclight. They go to the big theaters in places like The Block.
OCR: How did your first day of filming go?
OZEKI: Luckily, we had a week of rehearsals to work with the cast because we didn't have access to the locations before filming started.
OCR: Where was the first day of filming?
OZEKI: It was at a convenience store in Echo Park.
OCR: Did it go off without a hitch?
OZEKI: Not exactly. There was a language barrier with the Korean owner of the store, and we couldn't really go over the details in advance. He didn't understand when the grips started climbing up on his roof, and he freaked out. Then he started taking out the trash and we ended up losing the whole scene. So we were down a scene on the first day.
OCR: What happened next?
RENEHAN: The rest of the shoot went pretty well. We even replaced the convenience store scene. We were putting out fires almost every day, but it was great. There was nobody watching over us, but we were prepared for everything. We were really well-trained at Chapman.
OCR: How long was the shoot, and how big was the crew?
OZEKI: We shot in 29 days, and the crew was usually between 25 and 30.
OCR: Were these paid professionals?
RENEHAN: Oh yeah. The minimum, of course, but they were paid.
OCR: Assuming this doesn't turn out to be as big as "The Hunger Games," what do you hope to get out of this experience?
OZEKI: We would love to make some money on this film, but we also want to build on the experience. Our goal has always been to make good movies, get in good festivals, get a good sales agent, get a good distributor and then make it into theaters. Now we'd like to expand into more markets.
OCR: So the battle isn't over on April 27 when you open in Orange County?
RENEHAN: Oh no. We're just creating the campaign. We're trying to create an awareness of the film. And we hope that Hispanics get a chance to see a film about their real lives.
OCR: Is it legitimate that non-Hispanics made a movie like this?
OZEKI: The cast is Hispanic, and we discussed every aspect of the script with them. Their lives are represented in this film. It rings true for Hispanics, but it's also a universal story. You don't have to be Hispanic to tell this story.
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