Long Road to Resurrection Boulevard
Darrell L. Hope
Photos by Holly Stein
Jesus Trevino directing According to popular mythology, the road to the Promised Land is never an easy one. However, the payoff seems to be that the more arduous the journey, the sweeter the exultation feels once the destination is finally sighted, even if it’s not quite reached. DGA director-member Jesús Salvador Treviño knows a lot about that road as he’s been on it with fellow Latino filmmakers for some time now. But for Treviño, the Promised Land may finally have come into view.
Treviño recently wrapped the Showtime Network two-hour pilot, Resurrection Boulevard, the story of an East Los Angeles Latino family whose travails and triumphs revolve around their community, their interactions and the family business of boxing. Like fellow DGA member, Third Vice President Paris Barclay’s African-American-themed City of Angels, Resurrection Boulevard has the distinction of being the only English-speaking dramatic series to feature a predominantly Latino cast and the first with a Latino presence on both sides of the camera. Because of that fact, the show may be carrying the hopes of an entire community, but that’s a responsibility that Treviño has been waiting years to shoulder.
“As a community, Latinos haven’t had a presence on American television,” said Treviño. “Back in the ’70s we had Chico and the Man ,and A.K.A. Pablo in 1985 and a couple of series that only went one or two episodes. We’ve not had the kind of success that African-American programs have had and haven’t been able to cultivate a strong tradition of directors, writers and producers. Although we do have directors and writers who work mainstream television, in comparison to our numbers and ourpotential, there are very few. I wanted to do this show because we needed a show like this. I hope Resurrection Boulevard will be the beginning of many shows about Latinos on American television and breaks some of those barriers. We’re hoping that down the road we’re going to be able to give opportunities to people who we feel are ready to direct episodic, but haven’t had the opportunity, because at a certain point a show like this has a responsibility to cultivate and create opportunities for Latinos.”
Equally compelling to Treviño was executive producer Dennis Leoni’s pilot script. “When you read a script as a director you ask yourself, “How much can I do with this?’ With some scripts, I’ve known I could take the material only so far without a major rewrite. But some scripts make me think, “This is wonderful, I can really take this far beyond what’s written.’ That’s what I felt about Resurrection Boulevard. The script had a great story, human drama, and arcs showing Latinos as three-dimensional human beings.
“We shot on location in East Los Angeles to maintain the culture and show a world that America hasn’t seen. I was raised in East Los Angeles and found it very interesting to be filming this two-hour movie on the same streets where I used to walk to the corner store to buy the family groceries when I was 9 years old. I know that a lot of the programs that Viacom produces are done in Canada, but clearly you’re not going to find a lot of Latinos in Toronto and you’re also not going to be able to create the feel of the color and the character of East Los Angeles. East Los Angeles is this vital community with a lot of different Latino groups and a lot of different traditions that are mixing, clashing and reshaping. We have a lot of people from the community in the pilot and we hope to continue that tradition in the series. Our goal is to showcase the talent in East Los Angeles as much as the people and the lifestyle. We want to capture the vitality and character of East Los Angeles and do it in a filmic way, instead of a traditional television episodic way.”
The other talents Treviño wants to showcase is that of other Latino DGA members. Realizing that Resurrection Boulevard offered a unique opportunity to get more Latinos behind the camera, he called upon 1st AD Richard Espinosa. “I was fortunate enough to work with Richard in 1988 when we did a movie called Gangs, which won the DGA Award for Daytime Dramatic Series. So I knew him and knew and trusted his abilities. He brought in a team that he had cultivated, 2nd AD Molly Rodriguez and 2nd 2nd AD Marisa Ferrey. Both were new to me but they were just terrific. In fact, one day Richard was sick and Molly had to take over as 1st and she did a terrific job.”
However, Treviño’s inclusion of other Latinos in the project went far beyond his team. “We had a Chilean DP, Andres Garreton, a Latino casting director, Bob Morones, and a Latino wardrobe designer Sylvia Vega Vasquez. We tried to get as many people involved as possible across the board. When it comes to our numbers as represented in the guilds, only two percent of the directing done in American films and television is done by Latinos, one percent of the writing and 31/2 percent of the acting.
“We also had a terrific cast in Tony Plana, Elizabeth Peña and Michael DeLorenzo that people have seen in other shows. And we have up-and-coming actors like Nicholas Gonzales, Marisol Nichols, Ruth Livier and Mauricio Mendoza. Their arcs go from someone very young and still in high school to the boxing brothers, to the older daughter a paralegal in a Beverly Hills law firm. It gives a spread of the kinds of experiences Latinos in America undergo. The series is going to show how we interrelate amongst ourselves and with the outside world. We’re also going to go after some of the social issues one finds in the barrio as they impact on the lives of our characters but we’re not planning to turn into an issue-of-the-week show.”
Trevino talks Another hurdle Treviño had to conquer was the tight schedule. “We shot this in 22 days. We had 31/2 days in the arena and two major fight sequences. I have to really give my thanks to Richard, Molly, Marisa and especially Kevin Donnelly, my UPM/producer, because we synchronized everything so that we would shoot our wide masters on that arena and get all our people in place and within 20 minutes do a complete changeover to a different look for the second fight, shoot those masters and then move in. I chopped it up. The first day was wide shots, the second day was medium close-ups and the third day was in the ring with a handheld camera. It was like clockwork. That was the only way to get it done in such a short of time. Kevin always went out of his way to find options to what I wanted to do. He never said, “It can’t be done,’ he just moved the world around to figure out how it could be done and that made all the difference in the world. When I first looked at the schedule I wondered, “My god, how are we ever going to do this?’ On a limited shoot like this one with all these different obstacles, what you don’t need to be worried about is whether or not your back is covered. Kevin, Richard and the team were always there for me.”
Although Resurrection Boulevard is not ostensibly about boxing, there was enough ring time in the film to make Treviño go through his own version of boot camp for boxing filmmakers. “I did my homework and looked at movies on boxing like Raging Bull. I don’t think the power and realism that they were able to capture in that film will ever be equaled, and with 31/2 days to shoot two boxing matches, clearly I wasn’t going to be able to do that. I would’ve loved to have had two or three days to do camera tests, experiment with different camera speeds and push the envelope more, but that’s something we didn’t have the luxury for. I used a lot of eight-frame and 12-frame printing and other techniques that sold the idea. But if the actors hadn’t been 110% on the button, I would have had my hands tied. Our actors only had about three weeks to train, but we were fortunate to have Jimmy Nickerson, the boxing trainer who worked with Stallone in the Rocky series and trained De Niro for Raging Bull. He did a marvelous job in both training the actors and sharing his experiences with me so that I could get the best of their boxing moves committed to camera in a timely fashion.”
Resurrection Boulevard’s distinctive look is something Treviño attributes to his decade of directing episodic television. “Whenever I get involved with a show I make it a challenge to myself to see what I can learn to make me a better filmmaker. Star Trek: Voyager and Babylon Five taught me a lot about technical things like blue screen. On New York Undercover, NYPD Blue and The Practice, I learned more about legal things and interacted with different actors and gained insights into that. Filming Resurrection Boulevard, there were a number of scenes where I had a lot of people interacting. I opted to shoot it proscenium style, because in the amount of time that I had to shoot it, I knew to do anything other than that would mean that I wouldn’t make the day. It’s a technique that was pioneered on NYPD Blue. The handheld in the ring was for the dramatic effect. It would slow down the excitement of what we were trying to convey if we were doing anything other than handheld. I did a lot of pre-thinking on every single shoot and had each day planned as to what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. Most of the time I didn’t veer too much from that. I’m always open to input from the actors because I don’t believe in setting things in cement. Oftentimes an actor will have an insight into his character that will dictate a direction that I hadn’t thought about and I’ll go with that. It’s important to have that exchange because we’re really after the truth of that character’s arc and achieving the best drama for that particular scene.”
Once photography wrapped on the Resurrection Boulevard pilot, Treviño still found himself intimately involved. “From the beginning, Dennis and I worked closely. I was there for the ADR, the various stages of fine cut with the studio and Viacom and Showtime. I was very involved in the music and the sound mix. I really appreciated Dennis Leoni’s openness to that because there have been situations where it’s been like “You’ve done your job now go away!’ I think this spirit of cooperation reflects that all of us wanted this to be a great series.
“When we finished we had test screenings and the executives at Viacom and Showtime were pleasantly surprised to find that the ratings were very good for this show in an audience that was not just Latino. In fact, there were very few Latinos in the test group. Once they decided to go to series they initially made an agreement for 20 episodes but it’s become 18 because we’ve played with some of the budget and we want to make sure there’s a lot of music and other elements that we need in the project. But still, I would say in terms of a series, this is the biggest commitment to Latino programming in American history.”
Of the 18 episodes slated, Treviño will be directing six. “I’ll probably direct a lot of the first episodes to bring everything up to speed. I want to make sure that the look that I established in the pilot is continued into the series. Once I feel that’s done, I’m going to step back and we’re going to bring in other people.”
Treviño also holds the title of supervising producer and hopes that future directors on the series will be able to feel free to explore. “I know what it’s like to go in and feel that your hands are tied and you have to toe a party line. I don’t want that to happen with our show. I think we need to see each of these hours as a little film. If we give that kind of freedom to the director and say, “Hey, we’re open to your suggestions,’ I’m very confident that the ensemble are going to carry forth their job in terms of conveying the lives of these characters. We can have a little flexibility in how we capture it directorially. I don’t think we need to create a straitjacket for anybody. We get the best work out of ourselves as DGA members by allowing for that creativity. The Guild has always been about creative expression, and I want to make sure that our series has that as well. So I think we’re going to be telling the directors, “Look at the shows we’ve done. We can show you the shows we like more than others, but basically this is going to be about make this a little movie, a little gem and bring us something that’s going to make the series even better.'”
Treviño joined the Guild in 1979 after having completed a docudrama called Seguin for PBS’ American Playhouse and was as active as a Guild member as he had been as a student. “I was part of that unsuccessful lawsuit against Columbia that the women, African-Americans and the Latino Guild members filed. Later on I was involved in the founding of the Latino Committee and was the Chair for about five years. We undertook quite a number of events during that time. But last year I had a really interesting experience serving on the Negotiating Committee for the first time. That was very eye-opening and my respect for the Guild just soared after that experience because I really saw that you have a group of people who come together and just give so unselfishly of themselves to gain things the rest of us are going to benefit from for years to come. They put in long hours and long nights. It was a wonderful experience and I learned so much. I hope to be helpful in the Guild in other ways. I’m active as much as I can be given my schedule. I’d love to do more, but again there’s always a balance.”
Trevino oversees Asked how he finds time to give his energy to both his career and the Guild, Treviño joked, “I don’t sleep very much. But I’ve always had a lot of energy for the things I believe in. We’re really in an exciting period of time right now. The Latino presence in America is finally beginning to be realized, but more importantly there are wonderful technological changes with the advent of digital filming. It’s going to open up a lot of doors for people who’ve been out of the Hollywood system. We’re at a point now where there are people like myself who have penetrated the industry and we’re trying to mentor younger people and create opportunities for others so that they don’t have to go through the obstacles that we went through. And there’s more of an awareness in the industry and more openness. You see it on programs but you also see it on the human level with producers who are willing to interview that extra person who might be a minority and actually consider them even though they might already have someone whom they’ve worked with before.”
Treviño feels that one of the things that made these changes possible is the leadership demonstrated by the DGA. “I must say that I think, under [DGA President] Jack Shea and [National Executive Director] Jay D. Roth’s leadership, there have been some very important steps that have been taken that I’m very happy with. This whole business of renaming the Griffith Award was landmark. I think it really made a statement that this Guild is not just the way it was founded; it’s not just about white men. I think the reason why there are so few Latinos in the Guild has been because of that tradition and because we haven’t had the opportunity. But part of the way you create opportunity is to get a sense that this is your world. When I started as a student activist filmmaker, I never imagined that Hollywood and the Guild were part of my reality. In 1976 I had to go to Mexico to direct my first feature film because I couldn’t get arrested here. I had to go to a foreign land to get my opportunity and at the time I felt like a second-class citizen. Fortunately times have changed.”
After working as a documentary filmmaker, Treviño’s American breakthrough came with his DGA Award-winning movie for television, Gangs. “It got me an agent and more work and I was able to move up the episodic ladder. But the only reason I got to direct Gangs is because it was a Latino-themed story so they were looking for a Latino director. But when they were doing stories that didn’t involve Latinos, they wouldn’t think of coming to me until very recently because that’s not the way the industry worked. I’ve been in situations with studio executives who complimented me on the expertise of Mexican directors like Luis Valdez, Greg Nava and myself. We were all born here! When I tell them the Treviños settled in Texas in the 1700s, before there was a United States, it makes them think. This is what we’re dealing with. But I’m very happy that now there seems to be recognition that not every Latino just crossed over the border. We do have really good skills and stories to tell and we’re a huge market that Hollywood is just beginning to discover.”
While some others might find themselves daunted by social ramifications of carrying the hopes of a community, Treviño is more concerned with making Resurrection Boulevard the best show possible. “We have a lot of great ingredients working in our favor and our goal is to make this great drama. One of the questions that’s been asked of Paris Barclay’s City of Angels is, “Will a mainstream American audience buy an all-black ensemble?’ I think that’s the kind of question people are likely to ask of us about an all-Latino ensemble. And yet when you look at a show like The Sopranos, they don’t ask if an all Italian-American ensemble will work. They just say, “This is great television.’ That’s the approach that we’re taking with Resurrection Boulevard. It’s a story that involves Latinos, but fundamentally it’s good drama, a good story and good television. That’s what we’re striving for and that’s why I think we’re likely to have success.”
Jesús Treviño was also one of the executive producers of the four-part public television documentary, Chicano: A History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement and has written a book called Eyewitness: A Filmmaker’s Memoir of the Chicano Movement that chronicles those events. Resurrection Boulevard premieres on Showtime Networks, Monday, June 26, with the two-hour pilot and the series commences the following Monday.