Interviews | Massachusetts | Screenwriting

Holding Onto Identity

1 Apr , 2001  

Written by Amy Souza | Posted by:

'The Blue Diner’s' writer and producer, Natatcha Estébanez sat down with Amy Souza to talk about this inspiring film, which won the Best Film award at this year's New England Film/Video Festival.
When you read the poster for "The Blue Diner," it says it’s a film about memory, food, language, and caskets. The film centers on the relationship between a Puerto Rican mother and daughter, Meche and Elena, (Miriam Colón and Lisa Vidal) living together in Boston. Told in both English and Spanish, "The Blue Diner" includes a memorable cast of characters including Papo (William Marquez), the diner’s owner and Tito (José Yenque), an artist in love with Elena. When Elena mysteriously loses her ability to speak Spanish, everyone has an opinion about why it happened and how she can get her speech back. "The Blue Diner" was written by Natatcha Estébanez and Jan Egleson. Estébanez, an independent producer/writer and the former series producer for WGBH’s "La Plaza," also produced the film. This is her first dramatic feature as a writer/producer. Egleson, the director of the film, is a writer and director for film and television.

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 other’s work very much. We said, "Wouldn’t 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 "Who’s Cleaning Boston." And you know who’s 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.

I’ve been here 20 years, but I’m still Puerto Rican. This issue of identity, of who we are, that’s 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 that’s 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 they’re based in truth. And it’s 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, we’d 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 don’t 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 ho’s. None of those roles has anything to do with being Latino.

There just aren’t many good roles for Latinos, so we had an overflow of people. It gives me a lot of incentive to write good roles. I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes.

AS: What’s different working on a drama compared with documentary?

Estébanez: I find that there’s 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 it’s 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 it’s your own film you can do anything. It’s 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 it’s not an easy city, unfortunately. We still can work harder at facilitating low budget independent films in this city. If you don’t 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. She’s 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 didn’t 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: It’s what happens next that we’re struggling with. Distribution is new to both of us. We have to reinvent ourselves everyday. The film’s not done until I put it in theaters, that’s how I feel.

Learn more about the film at http://www.bluediner.com


Learn more about the film at http://www.bluediner.com