A KNOCKOUT ON RESURRECTION BLVD.
An Interview by Enrique Berumen for BOCA magazine.
In 1968 when Chicano students at East L.A. high schools shouted “Blowouts! Blowouts! In unison with “Chicano Power!” Jesus Salvador Treviño, a recent college grad, was armed and dangerous. His weapon of choice was a Super 8mm camera, with which he was documenting the first days of the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles. Thanks to Treviño’s tenacity and vision, many key moments of the Movimiento were secured on celluloid and witnessed by younger generations of Latinos thirty years later on Public Television in the four-hour documentary CHICANO! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement which Treviño co-produced.
Treviño’s political activism, and keen eye led him to KCET which at that time was trying out a new community based program. Before long he went from production assistant to producer and co-host of what became East L.A’s own “Ahora!”– a live news and public affairs show. Treviño and his team put out 175 live half-hour episodes of Ahora! The episodes covered the destruction and restoration of the Siqueiros mural at Olvera street, police brutality in the barrios, a showcase of local music bands and coverage of the Chicano Moratorium. When the show ended in 1970, Treviño stayed on at KCET as a Chicano affairs correspondent doing news stories as well as documentaries about the Latino community. This work led to the creation of Acción Chicano, a weekly news magazine show which ran for three years.
After a stint with Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, Treviño went cinematic. He wrote and directed the first Mexican-Chicano co-production, “Raices de Sangre” (1977), a story about exploitation of the working class on both sides of the border. He then penned a script on the Alamo affair for American Playhouse, “Seguín” (1980).
During the 1980s, after teaching at colleges throughout the Southwest, he was approached to direct an After School Special for CBS “Gangs” (1988) which went on to garner several international awards as well as earning Treviño the Directors Guild of America Best Director award for daytime drama. Since then, Treviño has been virtually nonstop: working on numerous television dramas such as “NYPD Blue,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Chicago Hope,” and “The Practice,” among others, as well as doing his own projects. I caught up with Jesús Treviño at a coffee shop to talk about his work, past and present, as a director, and now, as supervising producer. His latest project “Resurrection Boulevard,” which premiered on Showtime June 26, 2001. It tells the story of an East L.A. family–the Santiagos–and the hopes ands dreams of three generations of boxers.
BOCA: After filming the student walk-outs in 1968, you were part of a hand-on program at KCET where you did the “Ahora!”show. Can you say that KCET was your film school?
TREVIÑO: Yes, it was my film school. We did daily live half-hour programs direct from East Los Angeles. It was a variety show, kind of magazine format. We did news, public and cultural affairs. I started as a production assistant and before long I was an associate producer and a co-host. That was my baptism by fire.
BOCA: What kind of productions did you do?
TREVIÑO: We did about 175 half-hour programs. We were doing studio, three camera, in-studio documentaries, and of course live broadcast from the community such as the ballet folklórico, protests at the school board, music, visual arts and local news. It was a virtual all-Latino production team.
BOCA: Sounds like there’s a screenplay there.
TREVIÑO: That’s the movie I want to do . I was during this time that the Moratorium and Salazar Inquest happened, and there I was a novice producer at KCET. When the riot happened, KCET had their own ideas on how they wanted to cover it. After a big drama, we finally agreed that I would cover the Salazar Inquest and I would represent the voice of the community.
BOCA: What was it like to go from community based work to network television? More specifically to “Gangs” (1988) which was a commercial breakthrough for you?
TREVIÑO: CBS was interested in doing an After School Special on gangs in the Latino community. Once they got into the material they realized they needed more sensitivity. They started looking for Latino directors and sent me the script. I read it and it was full of stereotypes of Latinos though structurally it was a good script with good drama. I told them I couldn’t direct the film the way it was, and sent them a five page, single-spaced letter explaining to them what was wrong with the script. To my surprise, I got a phone call from the producer who said to me,”We don’t agree with everything you said, but we agree with the bulk of it and we would like to hire you to direct and to work with the writer to rewrite the script , so that it a community point of view.”
BOCA: Did you think you were burning bridges by writing them this letter?
TREVIÑO: I knew they were going to make the film anyway, so I figured, it’s over. I just didn’t feel I was going to compromise my point of view. I knew how Hollywood worked, so I figured that was the end of that. To my surprise they called me and I worked with them. The show was very successful from a community as well as a commercial point of view.
BOCA: At this point you got yourself an agent?
TREVIÑO: Yes, so with an agent and “Gangs” I got more work in Television drama because now I had something to show. The hardest part about breaking into the industry, as a director or a writer, is having a piece to show what you can do. Once you have an agent and three or four programs under your belt, then it’s not so difficult because then you build on it. But getting that first start is difficult.
BOCA: Once your career in television drama took off, how were you able to compromise your politics with the values of the television industry?
TREVIÑO: What you have to understand is that you have to accept television for what it is, and at a certain point I realized that I couldn’t put out my own political point of view if I was marginalized. In order not to be marginalized I needed to be working and learning my craft. You know when you’re doing a show like “Star Trek” it’s usually not very political but it’s a fun show to do. So I’m not beating myself up. It pays the bills and it allows me the freedom to be able to spend time on the personal projects I want to do.
BOCA: It was a very difficult transition then, coming from your background of community-based projects to doing television work to pay the bills?
TREVIÑO: Sure, you’d like there to be programs that reflect the Latino community and you would like to do a Latino show, but the truth of the matter is there hasn’t been too many of them. So I can either bemoan the fact that we don’t have such a program and sit home, or I can go out and direct a “Star Trek” or “Dawson’s Creek,” and say, “Hey, at least I m working and learning my craft and I’m doing good work.” These episodic show may not be Latino shows, but a lot of them are really good shows anyway and I’m proud to direct them.
BOCA: And now we do have a Latino program,”Resurrection Blvd.” How did you cross paths with this project?
TREVIÑO: Well, the creator of the show, Dennis Leoni, had been developing “Resurrection Blvd” for quite a number of years. As I understand it, it had started off as Dennis’ version of “Wonder Years” set in Tucson, Arizona. When he pitched it to Showtime, they suggested he set it in Los Angeles, os he went back and rewrote it and what came out was the pilot for “Resurrection Blvd.” Once he got the green light for making a two-hour pilot, he intereviewed several potential directors and settled on me.
BOCA: What did you like about the script?
TREVIÑO: I loved the script. You know a lot of scripts come across my desk, but of all the scripts that I had read it was one that I felt contained the ingredients for a potential series. The characters were there, the dramatic setting was there. It was effectively put together and I thought the script was something I could really do something with. So, I directed it last summer. The first thing we shot were the fight sequences at the Olympic auditorium and it was pretty dramatic stuff. I knew we had a winner.
BOCA: In terms of social issues how does “Resurrection Blvd.” tackle them?
TREVIÑO: Showtime wanted to address social issues but Dennis and his writing team felt the way they were manifested should come from the characters. he didn’t want to arbitrarily place them as the “social issue of the week.” That’s how it has evolved. For example, in a future episode, the Santiagos run into an undocumented worker who takes refuge in the gym, and he becomes an on-going character for several episodes. We’re going to deal with the whole issue of undocumented persons through that story arch. But again, it’s something that comes out of the lives of these people, the Santiago family. It’s not something that is superimposed on them.
BOCA: It’s more an issue of a certain character.
TREVIÑO: Right, and also evolving from the natural storylines of the series.
BOCA: Besides directing many of this season’s episodes, you are also supervising producer. What do you do when you wear that hat?
TREVIÑO: Well, I’ve been very instrumental in setting the visual look of the series. Early on I approached Showtime and Dennis Leoni with the notion that we should see East Los Angeles in terms of the visuals that America has not seen. So one of the things I instituted was “bumpers”– short scenes, short shots of life in East Los Angeles that we intersperse throughout the one-hour episode to give you a sense that you are there. Many of these bumpers really reflect the life in East Los Angeles: mariachis, people playing soccer, paleteros, fruit vendors, murals, everything that is rich in the life of East Los Angeles.
BOCA: What is the shooting schedule like?
TREVIÑO: We shoot seven days per episode. Four of these days are on the Paramount lot where we have two sound stages, one with the Santiago home and the other with the gym as well as additional sets as needed. Three of the seven days we go out into the community and try to find visually interesting locations that sell the fact that we are in East Los Angeles.
BOCA: So, all the interiors are shot on the lot?
TREVIÑO: For the most part, although occasionally we do shoot interiors in East L.A.
BOCA: Seeing the show, I can’t help but notice that there are so many familiar faces from our community.
TREVIÑO: I try to bring in East L.A. talent like Tierra, the works of the late artist Carlos Almaraz, Rose Portilllo, the East Los Streetscrapers, Ozomatli. I’m trying to make it authentic and real to our lives.
BOCA: Can we say that the genuine East Los flavor comes from you?
TREVIÑO: I grew up there. We film in the streets of Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights where I grew up. One of the challenges for me has been to see East L.A. with more innovative eye and find angles, locations and shots that we might not normally see. For example, in one episode we filmed at Debs Park where you have a view of the L.A. skyline with a lake in front of you. People look at it and say, “Where the hell was that shot at?” Again, all of this is part of finding new and interesting locations to sell the fact that we are in East L.A.
BOCA: What’s the significance of a show like “Resurrection Blvd.?”
TREVIÑO: It’s the first Latino television series on mainstream American television in English. We’re hoping it sets a precedent. We’re hoping the other networks will look at it and say, “There are a lot of interesting stories to be told but there’s also an audience for this kind of material.” We’re also intent on building our own audience and telling our own stories. “Resurrection” is unique.
BOCA: What can we expect from Resurrection in terms of Latino filmmaking?
TREVIÑO: There’s a synergy that is being created where we seeing a lot of other productions as well. You see, “Luminarias” which was independently produced and you see “The Garcia Brothers.” There’s a lot of synergy that’s being created as people begins to see that you can do interesting provocative programming for Latinos involving Latinos. We’re also taking the leadership in creating our own shows. We’re now building our own show runners. People like Dennis Leoni will be able to go forward and now that he’s done a series he can do another one.That’s what we need in the industry, people at the top end of it–show runners, creators, producers–people who can create programming and get things done.
BOCA: And writers?
TREVIÑO: Yes, of course, writers. Latinos have never had a lot of shows on which we can learn how to write or direct or produce. I think that’s beginning to happen. Certainly we don’t want to be pigeon-holed–that we can only do Latino shows. For the last dozen years I have been anything but Latino shows just because there hasn’t been any. I think it’s about honing your craft across the board.
BOCA: DO you have any other projects you are working on?
TREVIÑO: I’m working with Carmona Productions and my own production company, Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. We’re developing a one-hour docu-comedy featuring Culture Clash titled “In Search of Aztlán.” basically, it’s Culture Clash going throughout the Southwest searching for the original homeland of the Aztecas. And, in documentary format, we’re interviewing scholars, archeologists and linguists to try to identify where such a place might actually have been. We’re intercutting the comedy of Culture Clash as they stumble about trying to find their ancient homeland. Next year my book will be out “Eyewitness: A Filmmaker’s Memoir of the Chicano Movement.”
BOCA: And a final word, what’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers out there?
TREVIÑO: Don’t give up. Test the limits. Exceed the limits. Keep pushing for your vision.