The LFF is proud to present a conversation with filmmakers Eddie Ruiz (Producer) and Terence Heuston (Writer/Director) to discuss their latest film MADDOGGIN’, a powerful short film (TRT 23:50) which presents a day-in-the-life of two Latino teens in East Los Angeles who are pressured to join the local gang and fight to survive life on the streets. The film stars David Castenada (Drive-By Chronicles, Lie to Me) as Pedro and introduces Leonard Davenport as Ernesto. The film features the cinematography of Director of Photography Daniel Ainsworth. The filmmakers plan to announce their film festival premiere very soon having just completed post-production, but until the world is given the opportunity to see the short film on the big screen, we were honored to catch up with them and chat about their latest filmic creation…as well as have the chance to grab a sneak preview of the film.
An Interview with Eddie Ruiz & Terence Heuston
LFF: Terence and Eddie…The Latino Film Fund is honored to speak with you and to be involved in the smallest way with your picture MADDOGGIN’. What a powerful film you packed into 25 short minutes! We are so excited for the world to see this moving Latino-themed film and we foresee a very successful film festival run for you in the future.
EDDIE: It was a great honor for me, as a Latino, to be accepted for the Fiscal Sponsorship by the LFF. The LFF’s sponsorship was important to use as a tool to raise funds, but also getting your stamp of approval on the project motivated a lot of people on the Eastside to pitch in and help on the project. The LFF was tremendously helpful to us in other, equally important ways. You guys spent a great deal of time educating us about the film permitting and insurance processes which can seem quite daunting when facing it for the first time.
TERENCE: Just being able to mention that the LFF sponsored our project opened up a lot of doors and gave us instant credibility for our little film. When you’re at that vulnerable phase in the filmmaking process, credibility means a great deal. Which is what LFF gave us.
EDDIE: And the follow up and support from LFF has been amazing. It’s like having these fantastic cheerleaders and publicists supporting our film. Including this interview we’re doing right now (Laughs).
LFF: Thank you for being living proof that Latino-themed stories have the potential to break boundaries and also share a universal voice. We’re very proud of your perseverance to see this film through to completion, which is what we look for in the film projects we choose to support. Now….to talk about this little picture…You present extremely challenging themes related to gang life in MADDOGGIN’, specifically how there is a pressure within the Chicano culture to integrate into the “accepted” cultural norm of the neighborhood. Can you enlighten us on the “Cliffs”? Is this gang name a play on words? Or can you tell us about this gang and how the story came about?
Terence: I noticed when doing research that many gang names were associated with geographical landmarks. So, I imagined one gang being based in a hillside neighborhood called the Cliffs and then their rivals would naturally be from a different neighborhood nearby. And I pictured them living in the valley below, so I called them the Flats. I was trying to avoid using real gang names, but I later found out that there were gangs already called the Flats and the Cliffs in L.A., so it was art imitating life imitating art, I guess you could say.
LFF: Very interesting. How would you say this film is breaking stereotypes of how Latinos are normally presented in film?
Terence: That’s something that I struggled with a great deal on “Maddoggin’.” Ultimately, this is a story of kids on the streets being pressured to join the local gang, so we couldn’t shy away from the truthful, negative aspects of that world. But, by definition, a stereotype is an oversimplification. We tried to break stereotypes by telling a truly three-dimensional story, so the kids in the film aren’t violent caricatures but real human beings. Hopefully, as the audience leaves the theatre they identify with the protagonists and think that had they been in their shoes, they very well may have made some of the same poor choices. I hope this story will help viewers empathize more with the plight of these kids instead of fearing them.
Eddie: What intrigued me about the project was it was unlike all the other “gang stories” I had ever seen or worked on, the relationships and challenges facing the kids were so real and honest. A lot of the dialogue that Terence wrote for the film was very similar to conversations my family and friends have had facing the same challenges of people growing up in the city of Boyle Heights. For me, being from that community, telling the story authentically was vital to me and I really wanted the entire community to relate to the story. Therefore, we populated the film with kids from Boyle Heights who have faced many of the same issues as the kids in the film – including one of our two lead actors, Leonard Davenport, whose cousin was shot and killed when he was seventeen after joining a local gang. I have friends and family members who have made some of the same poor choices as the kids in the story, as well as some who have overcome these circumstances. So, I’m speaking from experience rather than intellect. I had to make the choice to get in the bus many times, not just once to be the person that I am now!
LFF: It definitely reminded us a bit of Singleton’s BOYZ N THE HOOD, yet you’ve infused the characters, locations and film grammar with youthful energy…you are undoubtedly bringing us something new. In terms of taking this goal to a higher level, what responsibility do you believe filmmakers have in breaking preconceptions and promoting social change?
Terence: That’s a tough question. I don’t believe I have all the answers. My point of view is more like a doctor, “First do no harm.” Is the story you are telling a positive contribution to this world or a negative one? It would be hard for me to tell a story that I felt was sensationally violent or irredeemable because as a writer/director, you have to live with it for at least two years. From writing, to pre-pro, to production, post, touring with it – I don’t want to be immersed in a story I’m not proud of for that long. Life is too short.
Eddie: I agree with Terence. It’s a very tough question to answer. For me, I choose scripts as an actor/producer according to a story that is about hope and opportunity! Terence and I have had this conversation several times. I think what is important is telling a story you are passionate about and allowing the audience to leave with questions at the end. I know you can’t make everybody happy with your film or its too real for some people, but I think if we can get young Latino audience to stay quiet and watch the entire film and relate to it, that to me, is a huge mission accomplished.
LFF: The LFF is interested in hearing more about how you involved local teens in the pre-production process. How did you go about doing this?
Terence: Because Eddie knows everyone. (Laughs.) Eddie taught Drama at George Washington High School in South Central, so he had a number contacts amongst the theatre teachers in the local high schools, so we met and auditioned kids at a couple of schools in South Central. Another friend of mine introduced me to Ellie Herman, who was a very successful TV writer who decided she’d rather devote her life to teaching kids and is a fantastic teacher at Manuel Hardy High School in South Central. She was kind enough to let me speak to her students and audition them. They even gave me great script notes. One of her students came to observe our shoot and we’ve continued to mentor him. Otherwise, I’ll let Eddie take this since he was responsible for all of it…
Eddie: I give most of my credit to the Debora brothers, Fabian and Dario, for introducing me to The Boyle Heights Tech Center and Homeboy Industries. Joe and Ozzie who run the Tech Center were incredibly generous introducing us to kids, many of whom are at-risk youth. Fabian, besides being one of the foremost muralists and artists in East L.A., also is a drug counselor at Homeboy Industries and an ex-gang member. After he read the script and it really resonated with him, he offered to help us in a myriad of ways from script notes and location scouting, to introducing us to “little homies.” He also created all of the incredible artwork in the film. I went to high school with Dario Debora, who is Fabian’s brother, he also did an amazing job rounding up kids that he mentors through music for us to use in the film and receive notes from. Dario also acted as Music Supervisor on the film, creating a soundtrack that consists entirely of hip-hop music created in East L.A. who are also some of my high school classmates. As a side note, we originally cast one of my former students in the film, but she had to drop out because she didn’t have a social security number. She was brought here at the age of 3. Her mom has been deported. Her brother who is 19 took custody and she lives under his roof with five of her siblings. We were very disappointed there was no legal way for us to work with her.
LFF: What a story about the actress! Fabian Debora’s work is phenomenal in the film. It is clear that art has affected your work as a filmmaker. What other sources have influenced you and the stories you want to tell?
Terence: Fabian’s incredible artwork obviously affected the color palette of the film and the visuals of the film. We chose to saturate the colors and make the color timing look more like one of his East L.A. murals. Daniel Ainsworth, who shot and color corrected the film, crushed a lot of the blacks to get that punchy contrast. If you’re a total film geek, you’ll also notice that when we traveled away from the streets to the sterile “corporate” environment of the dealership, we desaturated the imagery and threw the camera on a tripod.
Eddie: I loved the way that Fabian’s art was incorporated into the storytelling in Maddoggin’. It’s not just a pretty picture in the background, but an essential part of the story. I was never introduced to or noticed much art growing up until I became a professional actor. Once I returned home from training in England, I started really recognizing the tremendous wealth of street art in East Los Angeles. For me, I hope Maddoggin’ will also help kids from the neighborhood recognize the incredible talent in the local community. And not pass by some of the great works of art in East L.A., but really study them.
LFF: The photography really highlights the narrative. It is clean and allows the actors to communicate through the script and acting, rather than overpowering them. Regarding production, how many days did you shoot and where?
Terence: It was an eight-day shoot in Boyle Heights and East L.A. Once again, we got all of our locations through friends of Eddie’s or friends of friends.
Eddie: We were fully permitted through Film LA and insured. We shot under the Sixth Street Bridge next to the L.A. River. A couple of friends’ houses in Boyle Heights, outside a party store on Wabash & Dundas, and one exterior a little closer to Lincoln Heights around eighteenth and Broadway next to the river. We also did a night shoot with a city bus near the Hazard projects.
LFF: Any other crazy stories from set that you want to share?
Eddie: Gangs extras do not show up! We had an overnight shoot that was supposed to be the “gang house” and I had thirty extras confirmed – we only needed eight – and two showed up. I went wandering the streets at 10PM grabbing neighbors and people in parks around Boyle Heights asking if they’d like to be in a movie and stay until 6AM. We were stripping black sweatshirts off of crew members and putting them on people who came in off the street to make them look more “gang.” One local woman I met in the park, Elizabeth Alvarado, ended up getting a line in the film – she was great. We were all so thrilled because she lives in the neighborhood with two kids and tripped onto this project and ended up being so good Terence gave her a line. It all worked out in the end.
Terence: That night took a few years off my life. And Elizabeth was awesome. On a much more serious note, one of our kids who appeared in the film, Irvin Panameno, was shot and killed six weeks after filming. He was just walking to the bus on his way to work at Homeboy Industries. I still have trouble processing that. As I was editing the film with our editor, it was so surreal looking at the footage and knowing the kid was gone. Fabian asked us to put a memorial card devoted to Irvin at the end of the film, so we did. I had the same impulse, but I wasn’t sure if we would be seen as exploiting his death versus recognizing his lost life. It brought up complex moral questions for me.
LFF: What’s next on your plate as filmmakers?
Eddie: As an actor I just finished shooting the pilot as a series regular on “A. Mann’s World” with Don Johnson for NBC. We’re waiting to hear if it gets picked up. I am in conversation with Power 106 to work as a co-host on the Big Boy in the Morning Show and a feature film I produced last summer “The Shifting” will be premiering soon. I am currently shooting a film with Aimee Teegarden (Friday Night Lights) and in conversation for 2 studio pictures.
Terence: I also pay my bills as an actor. I have some commercials running – which is how we paid for the film (thank you Priceline and Honda). I just wrapped up producing the title sequence and a second unit shoot for the HBO film “Cinema Verite” with Diane Lane and Tim Robbins. I also have a feature script that was a second rounder at Austin and did well at the Nicholl Fellowship that I’m trying to get made. I plan on writing more feature scripts throughout the rest of the year. Lastly, I’ve been hired to write animated videos in support of the launch of the new Google Chromebook.
LFF: Congratulations on all of the excellent opportunities you two are pursuing. We are confident that MADDOGGIN’ will help further your careers in film. Does that mean, Eddie, that you can you get us an autograph from Don Johnson? The LFF is a huge fan of Miami Vice. (Smiles.) Lastly, what advice can you offer other filmmakers making Latino-themed films?
Eddie: I know a lot of Latino filmmakers who settle for making ultra-low budget features with budgets that cannot honor the stories they are telling. If you don’t have a lot of capital to make a film, make a great short instead of a stripped down, rushed feature. Keep true to your story. Get great actors.
Terence: I will only say that I think now is the best time ever to be an independent filmmaker. Many people I know get discouraged that studios will only finance comedies and sequels to blockbusters or potential franchises. On the contrary, I see that as leaving the rest of the movie going audience to us. It’s similar to the environment in the late eighties and early nineties where the studios left the adult stories to the indies and there was a wave of artistically and commercially successful independent films. Just look at the Oscars and box office from last year and the number of successful independent films. There are many stories that aren’t being told right now, go out and tell one of them.
LFF: I think that is excellent insight for both new and experienced cinematic storytellers alike. Please keep us updated on the public premiere of the film and we look forward to sharing the news with the LFF community, as well as seeing your next cinematic endeavors unfold.
MADDOGGIN’ is the first film to graduate from the Latino Film Fund Fiscal Sponsorship Program. LFF Community, please keep your eye on MADDOGGIN’. It will be coming to a film festival in your neighborhood soon. For direct festival screenings relations, contact the filmmakers at Terence@TrebuchetFilms.com.
Learn more about the Latino Film Fund’s Fiscal Sponsorship Program:
The Latino Film Fund’s Fiscal Sponsorship (Applications for Grants with Provisions for Sources of Funding) Program serves the independent producers or filmmakers who are seeking funding for Latino-themed projects that represent the organization’s mission statement. The Latino Film Fund will review, select and consequently sponsor film projects, allowing them to apply to grant programs that stipulate in their funding guidelines that the recipient have nonprofit status under 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code. In such cases The Latino Film Fund can use its nonprofit status to receive and administer grants, gifts and donations that are made in the name of the project. Please see the LFF website for more information.