FLIGHTS OF FANCY (El Lujo de Soñar)

FLIGHTS OF FANCY (El Lujo de Soñar) header image 8

Attaching The Cast

April 25th, 2009 · Backstory, Casting, Development, Financing, Production

Typically, a producer attaches a director to a film project before commencing the casting process, as he or she has a creative say in the selection of actors.  So, beginning in 2007, once the screenplay was fully developed and polished, I set out to find the right director.  At first, I was singularly focused on finding a Latina director for the project.  The search began with the usual suspects, and almost immediately I ran into a number of unexpected blocks.  Some of the directors who I approached were unapproachable despite the lack of directing opportunities available to them.  Getting responses to calls and emails from them directly or from their agents, proved frustratingly futile.  I even had an agent ask me to hold on the line while in the background he hollered toward his assistant and inquired if the agency (a major one) represented any Latina female directors.  The response was a resounding “no!”  Simply out of curiosity, I inquired whether the agency represented any female directors at all, and after a brief pause, he responded, “Probably, but I can’t think of anyone at this time.”  This is probably why the statistics show that women directors are being hired less and less every year—an alarming trend that I was keen on not compounding.

 So, the months began to pass, as I continued my pursuit of a Latina director.  I realized that it was time to start the casting process, so as not to delay moving forward with the project.  I figured that I could attach a few name actors while I simultaneously continued to search for the director.  At about the same time, a small budget, independently produced gem of a film, UNDER THE SAME MOON (La Misma Luna), experienced a spectacular premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, garnering awards and creating tremendous industry buzz.  In fact, it sold for a significant advance to both Fox Searchlight and The Weinstein Company, which partnered together to distribute the film.  While chatting with Rick Ramirez, a Fox executive, about FLIGHTS OF FANCY, he suggested that I contact casting director, Rosalinda Morales, who handled the U.S., casting for UNDER THE SAME MOON (  Rosalinda and I instantly hit it off, and I am happy to report that right after she read the script, she came onboard as the project’s casting director.

I gave Rosalinda my cast wish list, which she carefully reviewed and supplemented with additional recommendations.  The benefit of bringing on a casting director to a film project is that she (casting directors are predominantly women) has an inside track on which talent is available, who is difficult on set, and who represents the actors.  A casting director has spent her career building and nurturing relationships with the talent’s representatives.  In fact, it is a mutually beneficial relationship, as both the talent reps and the casting directors depend on each other to do their jobs well.

Rosalinda began taking the script to agents and managers, who were, for the most part, incredibly receptive to the project.  Within a few months, we had cast a considerable number of roles.  The casting process went relatively smoothly, and we were very fortunate to have enlisted the help and support of many agents and managers.  Really, I can recall having only one very negative experience with an agent at a top agency, who blocked our project from consideration for any of the agency’s clients until we could prove that we had all of our financing in place.

Producing independent cinema is a Catch-22 situation.  In order to raise financing, producers must package their projects in order to attract distribution, which is the only form of collateral to offer potential investors.  This is particularly true of independent filmmaking, so it becomes imperative to present a fully developed script to the talent’s reps in order to inspire them to consider passing the project on to their clients.  So, I am incredibly grateful to all of the agents and managers who have believed in our project from the beginning, recognized its great potential, and generously lent their support.

It took us about a year (from the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2008), for us to complete the casting process.  Serendipitously, we were able to attach most of our first choices for the various roles and to assemble a cast of formidable actors.  Interestingly enough, the last role that we cast was, in fact, the lead role of “Lalo.” 

We needed to cast a Latino actor who was completely fluent in Spanish (the actor could not have the slightest trace of a non-native Spanish speaker accent).  We also needed the actor to be able to play a range of age from late teens to late twenties.  So, given these specific requirements, we were limited in our choices.

However, we struck gold in August of 2008.  We had a young man of Puerto Rican descent come in to audition for us.  He was completely fluent in Spanish, spoke it as a native and with a neutral non-distinct accent, had read the script and told us how passionate he was about the lead role, and was incredibly talented.  Our audition consisted of three scenes—one of which we call the “Obstacle Course” because it has so many beat changes in it that it requires the actor to think on his feet and be able to shift directions emotionally from one moment to the next.  We asked the actor to perform the scene in different ways, and each time, he impressed us more and more.  We called him back for a second audition later that same day and happily realized that we had, in fact, found our “Lalo.”  The actor is Rey Valentin, a highly trained thespian with an impressive growing list of credits, who is a graduate of the prestigious acting program at SUNY Purchase.

More on the casting process, and as it relates to the selection of the director….

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The screenplay, the trip to El Salvador, and two years of development….

August 31st, 2008 · Backstory, Development, El Salvador, The Saca Family

I read the manuscript, which was laden with details.  Ricardo (“Lalo” as he is affectionately known and as he will be referred to in our blogs from here on out) has an encyclopedic mind, recalling details about dates and events in an uncanny fashion.

When next we met, we discussed tackling the development of a screenplay in a way that would tell a very honest and human story.  We knew that we couldn’t tell a story that robbed Lalo’s character of all humanity, making him so noble and kind so as to not have any frailties.  When I asked Lalo what his defects were, he raised his eyes toward Heaven, lost in thought…. Until, that is, Nidia piped up with a witty retort, “Oh no, Diana, Lalo is perfect!”

A few moments later, Lalo, who had managed to come up with a modest list of personal defects, inquired whether I was a writer and stated that he wanted me to tackle writing the screenplay.  I gladly accepted the offer, we quickly struck a deal, and then we scheduled a number of meetings in order for me to interview him at length.  In fact, for the next few weeks, we spent close to 25 hours discussing his life, his family, his dreams, and his life-long journey to becoming a doctor.

I spent an additional 25 hours or so transcribing the tapes and then a couple of weeks organizing all of the information, including annotations from the manuscript of Lalo’s memoirs.   Eight weeks later, I submitted a 70+-page step outline for the script, which broke down the plot scene-by-scene, and then I spent another 4 weeks writing the first draft after that.

After Lalo read the first draft, he called and asked for a meeting to discuss the project.  He sounded so serious that I was instantly concerned that somehow I had completely missed the mark in relating his life story.  As our camaraderie had grown, I had forgotten how intense Lalo can be when he is concerned or deep in thought.  With trepidation, I drove out to his home for our next meeting.

Lalo sat in front of me with what appeared to be a scowl on his face.  And when he finally spoke, he said he had some comments about the screenplay, which were these: I had used a couple of medical terms incorrectly, and I had reversed the order of a couple of incidents in his life.  That was it!  That was the extent of his feedback.  Otherwise, he was very happy with the script and felt that it not only captured his life but also conveyed his essence.  I told him and his wife, Nidia, that I would continue rewriting the script, as the best kind of storytelling, in my opinion, is found in the rewriting process.

For the next few months, I rewrote and polished the script several times, streamlining the storyline and delving deeper and deeper into the psychology of Lalo’s character.  I also focused on the emotional resonance of every moment in every scene, always asking myself how it all related back to the theme of the script and challenging myself to be more visual.

Gradually, I also began shifting my focus on producing the film.  In August of 2006, we traveled to El Salvador for a 5-day trip that ended up being a whirlwind of business meetings.  The press and most of the entrepreneurs with whom we met to discuss our production needs and the possibility of filming part of the movie in El Salvador, greeted us very warmly.

We also had a chance to visit Usulután, the small tropical city that is the birthplace of Lalo and his brothers, including Salvadoran President Tony Saca.  Their childhood home is now a shoe store located on a busy commercial street.  We were allowed to explore the premises and had to climb over a number of boxes to get to the steps that led to the rooftop, where Lalo and his brothers spent many hours playing.  Lalo was surprised and touched when he discovered that the tile floor in what was once his childhood bedroom remained intact 40+ years later.

For the rest of our time in El Salvador, we met with a number of the most successful businessmen, most of who offered to help us make the film.  Many of them, in fact, later provided us with seed money that allowed us to hire our casting director and our co-producer/Unit Production Manager.  We will always be grateful to them for their generosity.

It quickly became apparent to us that for the Salvadoran community, FLIGHTS OF FANCY is a project dear to its heart.  Our film is an opportunity to show another side of this beautiful and lush country and its hardworking, warm, and friendly people.

Toward the end of the trip, we spent an evening with President Saca and First Lady Ligia Saca, at their family home, meeting and greeting extended family members.  To our delight, we were served “pupusas,” one of my favorite delectables from El Salvador.  The night was capped off with a conversation with President Saca over the storyline of the script and our production plans.  President Saca was concerned about how we intended to depict El Salvador and asked whether or not we were going to address the civil war that ravaged the Central American country during the 80s—the period that is covered in the screenplay.  We assuaged his concerns by explaining that by the time of the civil unrest, Lalo was already living in the U.S.  Besides, it is not our intention to make this a political film but rather to relate a universal theme in the story of one man’s journey to fulfill his dreams.

It has been two years since we visited El Salvador, and in that time, the project has progressed by leaps and bounds.  I have continued rewriting and polishing the script (we are currently on draft 10, while working on the final polish with the director’s input), completed the casting process, locked in the director and the cinematographer, and are now completely focused on the raising of financing….

Next: The casting process and finding the right director.

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The Project is Born

July 4th, 2008 · Backstory, Development, Key Team, The Saca Family

When I visited Ricardo and Nidia Saca in their beautiful home in Southern California for the first time, my intention was simply to explore the possibility that there existed an idea with great potential for becoming a terrific film.  While the idea is not what matters in the long run (rather it is its execution that makes all of the difference), it is, nonetheless, a complex process to mold real-life stories into 2-hour cinematic genius.

My first impression upon meeting Ricardo was that he was intense and somewhat guarded.  I cannot blame him, as he was meeting a complete stranger to whom he was considering entrusting his life story.  However, within a few minutes and after some perfunctory introductions, I found myself sitting on his plush sofa in the living room, holding the manuscript of his memoirs, while he rushed around the house grunting under his breath as he passed me by that he was in the process of printing something.

A few moments later, he appeared with a copy of a screenplay titled, ILLEGAL CROSSING, which was an adaptation of the manuscript that sat on my lap.  Ricardo looked at me with curiosity and asked, “So, what do you think?”  Never mind that he had only now given me the screenplay and that I had been at his house for all of 10 minutes.  He wanted to know what I thought of the manuscript, and I considered quipping that the cover page looked very pretty, but I sensed that this was not the appropriate time for joking.

Ricardo’s wife, Nidia, arrived home, apologized for not having been there in time to greet me, scolded Ricardo for not having offered me anything to drink, rushed around the house for a few minutes, and then finally joined us.  Nidia is a very astute and often funny person, who is Ricardo’s Rock of Gibraltar.  While he may be king in his castle, there is no doubt that it’s the queen who runs the show.

Ricardo has a tendency to hold an intense scowl on his face when he is deep in thought, which can often be disconcerting, giving one the impression that he is dissatisfied with something one has said or done.  In reality, he is very open and affable and when one gets to know him, one realizes that he is as human as anyone else.

Which is how we progressed into a discussion of the potential for turning his life-story into a film.  Over dinner that included platanos fritos (fried plaintains), we talked about Ricardo’s close relationship with his younger brother, Tony, the current President of El Salvador.  Ricardo embodies the American Dream while President Saca embodies the Salvadoran Dream.  I very quickly became convinced that there was indeed a story to be told cinematically, but I wasn’t sure whose.  This was in March of 2006, and President Saca’s term had only recently begun.  Ricardo’s admiration for his younger brother’s success often pulled the focus of the story away from him, re-directing it toward Tony.

I considered the possibility that the film could be about the two brothers, but that eventually would prove not to be the best creative path to take.  Regardless, at the time, I had not yet read the manuscript or its screenplay adaptation, so this was an opportunity for us to simply get to know each other.

One amusing anecdote about that evening is that I wondered who had written the manuscript and the screenplay.  Ricardo told me that he had worked with a journalist on the manuscript of his memoirs.  However, when it came to the screenplay, he had had no connections to anyone in Hollywood, so he bought himself the book, Screenwriting for Dummies, and read through it.  Somewhere in this bible of screenwriting brilliance, there is mention of a ghostwriting service available to those who want to contract a screenwriter as a writer-for-hire and own the copyright of the work that is created.

Ricardo found himself a ghost screenwriter via this service, who adapted the finished manuscript into a screenplay.  The writer was paid an hourly rate or a rate per page–something like that–and a few weeks later, Ricardo was in possession of a finished script.

I like sharing this story not just because it shows Ricardo’s innocence about how screenplays are developed and written and how the film industry works–why would he know, he is a fantastic internist–but because it reflects how he thinks.  Ricardo is very methodical about breaking down tasks into all of their necessary steps and absolutely driven to complete each one of them, in order to achieve his goals.  This trait of his is precisely why his life story is so remarkably inspiring and engaging.  The fact is that he would not be a doctor today, if he were not completely determined to see all of his dreams to fruition.

Next up, the screenplay and the manuscript, oh my….


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How we started and how the story goes

May 31st, 2008 · Backstory

Back in March of 2006, I met with Ricardo E. (“Lalo”) Saca and his wife, Nidia Saca, to discuss the possibility of producing a feature film based on his life story. Lalo has the most remarkable rags-to-riches. American Dream life story. 

Born and raised in Usulután, El Salvador, Lalo dreamt of becoming a doctor ever since he was a young boy. And his parents, who were not highly educated themselves, eventually embraced this ambition nonetheless. Tragically, when the family was wiped out financially, Lalo’s hopes of achieving his dreams were dashed in the process.

By the time he was 19, Lalo set off to create his own destiny, sneaking across the U.S./Mexico border illegally and unable to speak a word of English. For the next 11 years, Lalo toiled at various jobs, many of which he held down simultaneously. He sent “remesas” home every month (about $200), to help keep his family solvent and his younger brother, Tony, in school. While he worked, he also studied feverishly, first learning ESL (English as a Second Language), then attending community college, transferring to a 4-year university, and then medical school.

It’s particularly inspiring that he achieved this kind of academic success in such a brief period of time because in the U.S., in order to attend medical school, one must first earn a college degree in a related field (and that entails 4 years of study). Then come another 4 years of medical school. That’s 8 years of study, not including additional specialization and training. Thus, the fact that Lalo was able to graduate from medical school only 11 years after arriving in the U.S., means that he was just 3 years behind those who were born and raised in the U.S.

All those years of working several jobs at time also paid off for his brother, Tony, who went onto have a stellar career in sports broadcasting, eventually launching a successful media company that started with the purchase of one small radio station. Today, that brother is President Tony Saca, the head of state of his beloved El Salvador.

When President Tony was running for office, he spoke often about his debt of gratitude toward his older brother, Lalo, for having sacrificed himself so much to help support the family. The press both in El Salvador and in the U.S. picked up the lead on this human-interest story and the rest is history….

Next up, how the first meeting went and how the actual film project was born….

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