Holding Onto Identity
Written by Amy Souza | Posted by: Anonymous
AS: Where did you get the idea for "The Blue Diner?"
Estébanez: I was working as a series producer on "La Plaza" and Jan had been doing drama forever in the city. I met Jan in the corridors at WGBH, and we liked each others work very much. We said, "Wouldnt it be great to do a drama about nontraditional folks, a whole bunch of Latinos?"
I worked on a documentary back in the 80s called "Whos Cleaning Boston." And you know whos cleaning Boston — Latinos. One of the people in that film was a woman who just broke my heart in pieces. She was a teacher in Colombia and was cleaning here because of language. She served as an inspiration. It became a fusion of ideas. WGBH gave us development money and we always raised just enough to keep us going.
Ive been here 20 years, but Im still Puerto Rican. This issue of identity, of who we are, thats the core of "The Blue Diner" — to lose your language. This whole idea of the melting pot is no longer, to me at least. I want to keep everything. I want to keep it alive and keep it with me. And Jan is really interested in problems with the brain. So the story just came together from those two things.
AS: Was it hard for two people to write one story?
Estébanez: I had never written a feature script. Jan had never collaborated with anyone. We thought we were going to kill each other, so we talked a lot about the writing and how it should happen. It was very metaphysical. But we came to it with a lot of respect, because I think he learned a lot from me and I learned a lot from him.
As we were writing the script, I lost my mother. The script changed dramatically after my mother died. At that point the script was a love story and I came to Jan and said we have to change this, this is shit. We really have to focus on the mother-daughter relationship because thats the story. Writing that part was like an exorcism. The writing allowed me to come to terms with the fighting that went on between me and my mother.
Meche [played by Miriam Colon] is very Puerto Rican, a lot like my mother.
Writing fiction I had to seek for more truth than with documentary. In documentary you fabricate. In drama, you search for the truth. You cannot write good words unless theyre based in truth. And its true what they say, that you should write what you know.
It took 6 years to make this film. In those 6 years, a lot of things happened. I got pregnant, had a daughter. And the script got much better, lots of rewriting and rewriting.
AS: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Estébanez: The biggest challenge was doing so many things at once — writing and producing while breastfeeding my daughter.
We shot in 21 days, which is unheard of. Most films take 50 or 60 days on average. And we had all sorts of problems. Locations that fell through. The MFA had said yes and at the last minute they pulled out. Jennifer Cogswell found the BPL and the Mass
Historical Society [where the Museum scenes were shot]. But all the time while we were writing the script, wed go to the MFA café and just write there. We even blocked scenes out. We had the whole visual image, which was big. I wanted to see this woman [Meche] really small next to all these big portraits. Instead we had to shoot it small. I feel that visually we lost something.
AS: The cast is very strong. Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process?
Estébanez: Casting was one of the parts I enjoyed the most. The jump between imagining this character and meeting them in person was magical. I immediately knew, that is Papo. And this is a better Papo than the Papo I wrote.
Miriam Colon — I always wrote with her in mind, but I thought it was a long shot. I sent word through the casting director in New York. And you know, some actors dont read for parts, they show up and have tea. But the minute she got here she got transformed into Meche in a second. My heart was pumping. She had this old-fashioned countryside demeanor and as she read, I realized, this woman is dying to do this. For me, it was such an honor.
The role of the young woman was very hard to cast. Some of the actresses, their Spanish was not good. At the last minute Lisa Vidal came out of nowhere. The first day Miriam and Lisa read, they loved each other. All of the actors loved the roles.
The guy who played Tito auditioned and said he knew how to use all these different types of firearms. I said "No, no," he said, "Well in case you change your mind." We always see Latinos playing drug dealers and hos. None of those roles has anything to do with being Latino.
There just arent many good roles for Latinos, so we had an overflow of people. It gives me a lot of incentive to write good roles. I dont want to reinforce stereotypes.
AS: Whats different working on a drama compared with documentary?
Estébanez: I find that theres not much of a difference. Production is the same. A feature film is more work, more people. You still have to be a caretaker, make sure everyone is happy. But its basically the same in terms of process. But with storytelling you can have more freedom. Also, my other projects were made for other people. You can still be creative, but when its your own film you can do anything. Its far more liberating.
AS: Is it easy to make films in Boston?
Estébanez: On the one hand I love the people I work with, an incredible community of people. But its not an easy city, unfortunately. We still can work harder at facilitating low budget independent films in this city. If you dont have a lot of money it can be hard.
I do think we can do better.
AS: The film’s colors are very rich. What were you trying to get across with color?
Estébanez: Well, three things come to mind.
First, I wanted to tell a non-stereotypical story shot in a non-stereotypical way. I wanted an elegant, lush, rich look. We should have shot on 16mm or tape and bumped up to 35 but we decided not to. The aesthetics of something are part of the message. And we wanted the look to be strong and evocative. So we shot on 35mm.
Second, Teresa Medina — who is one of the few female DPs in the country — she has an incredible eye. Shes a painter. She made this little film look like a million bucks.
The stock you see — and Jan loves to tell this story — is the leftover stock from Titanic, the film that James Cameron didnt use. So they sold it to us for half price.
And third, Jan is a great director.
AS: Why are independent films important?
Estébanez: The whole concept has changed in the past 5 to 7 years. I have seen more gravity toward more formula, romantic comedy. I feel independent films should say things not usually said. Put people up there not usually up there. And tell unusual stories not usually told.
AS: What now?
Estébanez: Its what happens next that were struggling with. Distribution is new to both of us. We have to reinvent ourselves everyday. The films not done until I put it in theaters, thats how I feel.
Learn more about the film at http://www.bluediner.com