The success of superhero movies like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have proven there is a growing interest in bringing more diversity to the genre. Ben Hernandez Bray’s El Chicano is also a superhero movie in some ways, as the title character is a mythical vigilante ala The Punisher, but one specifically set up in El Barrio of Los Angeles.
The movie stars versatile actor Raul Castillo (We the Animals) as an L.A. detective named Diego, who is investigating a mass gangland murder in his community. Years earlier, Diego lost his brother Pedro (also played by Castillo) to gang violence, but since his childhood, he has heard myths about the Mexican vigilante that protects the people from gang violence. He wonders whether Pedro may have been El Chicano and wonders if he meant to take on the role.
A long-time actor and stunt coordinator, Bray brought in his frequent collaborator, director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces), to help work on the script and produce the film, which also stars George Lopez, David Castañeda and Jose Pablo Cantillo.
As The Beat learned when we spoke with Bray and Carnahan last week, El Chicano was a very personal film for Bray, which you can learn more about in the interview below.
THE BEAT: I think I read that you did second unit on one of Joe’s movies, Ben, on The Grey, I think. How did this come together that you co-wrote this movie with Joe producing?
BEN HERNANDEZ BRAY: It definitely was a process and a journey. The initial idea came from losing a brother to gang violence over ten years ago and started writing a memoir about Diaz in a moment of therapy of dealing with his death and what my mother, brothers and sisters were going through. I hung onto it and started turning it into script form and was of course working with Joe back and forth throughout the years. About four years, I unfortunately lost a daughter who passed away and Joe came to me and said, “Hey, listen. You dedicated this to your brother. I think it’s time to dedicate it to your daughter also.” I found myself, after taking care of my family, going to New York and writing these crazy 185 pages of good, bad, ugly. Brought it back down to L.A. with Joe, who is just obviously a brilliant screenwriter, just dissected it and started pulling what we thought was important and poignant. He had a place outside of Palm Springs and roughly for about four weeks, we hugged it out, we cried, took tequila shots, and we got it down to 125 pages. There we were with this first-time script of this superhero.
THE BEAT: Joe, did you know what had happened with Ben’s brother while you were making movies with him?
JOE CARNAHAN: Yeah, we were on Smokin’ Aces when Craig died, when he lost his brother. For years, when are we gonna have a Latino superhero? When do we get our Batman? When do we get our Spider-Man? When do we get this and that? There have been characters like Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider, was written as a Latino but Nic Cage played him, and there’s part and parcel the problem in Hollywood. It’s like you have this character who is intended to be Latino or Hispanic, and they can’t do it, because of this idiotic metric system they follow, which is like, “It’s gotta be this…” or whatever evaluation you have. It’s like, “If you can get a Caucasian influence in El Chicano,” and I made a joke with them saying, “Should we make it El Caucasian? I don’t know what the f*ck you want us to do here.” Ben and I, having worked together for so many years, having a shorthand, and then the script-writing process was that different. For Ben, that was a brand-new thing, but because he was drawing on this reservoir of very personal things to him that it made it really powerful. I think that power and where the gravitas of where that story comes from, it’s all due respect and credit to Ben, because once you have the raw materials like that, they already have their own energy and their own dynamic force to reconstitute that stuff. What it is is a genre film, brother. It’s meant to be a populous piece of filmmaking that we want as broad an audience to enjoy as we possibly can. But yeah, he had been talking about this for years and was famous for saying, “I don’t identify with a white billionaire in a cave. I just don’t. I want to see our faces up there.”
THE BEAT: Joe, you’ve made movies about police officers and movies set in the world of crime, and the movie feels pretty well balanced and authentic on both sides. Can you talk about having Diego being a police detective and that being a big part of the story?
BEN: Yeah, we had this idea that Joe had to make it somewhat of a procedural in the beginning. Also, what I was dealing with as a young kid growing up… you have to remember that each one of these characters in the storyline itself is something that was obviously related to my life, my childhood and also my young adult life. And so it was important to tell that part of the story. It’s funny. The Captain Gomez character is really based on this police officer named Officer Pavone, who was this Italian-Mexican guy that used to catch me ditching when I was in high school. There were times when he would either give me this speech and let me go back to school or I’d go down to juvie and my mother would pick me up. I think it was really important to tell those pieces of the story also.
THE BEAT: Joe, were you able to bring some of your own experiences hanging with law enforcement into this as well?
JOE: Oh, yeah, man. A lot of that stuff was very organic to that world, and I’ve known cops like the guy George Lopez played. We don’t talk about J.P Cantillo, Jose Pablo Cantillo, who is so good in the movie, and he’s such a great traditionally thankless role as the partner, but he’s so good, and you feel it when you lose him in the movie. I know guys like that, and Ben knows guys like that, so there was a veracity, a verisimilitude, that I thought was important.
THE BEAT: I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t recognize George Lopez, because I knew he was in the movie…
JOE: No, brother, that’s what we want. Listen, we didn’t want you to recognize George right away, and Ben went to great lengths to bury George’s naturally comedic persona in the Gomez part. He really wanted that more subdued, Edward James Olmos way of approaching that. What you get is that George is a low simmering energy and tension that he brings to every scene and no more so is that evident than the scene where he kind of confronts Raul’s character after the assault in the nightclub, and you [wonder] “What does he know? What is he aware of? What is not aware of?” It’s a really great, tense scene. Listen, you got two really great actors working that scene, but I think in particular it’s George’s kind of instigating and his very subtle agitating in that scene that makes it really great.
THE BEAT: Raul is a pretty amazing piece of casting, too. I’ve seen him stuff for a long time, but over the last year after We the Animals, people have started noticing him. Had you guys already cast him before that was at Sundance?
JOE: Listen, Ben was very insistent on Raul from jump, and we never waivered in that position. Ultimately, as I mentioned, the traditional studio structure and hierarchy would be like, “Well, Raul Castillo is not somebody that we can hang a movie on.” I beg to differ. Ben begs to differ, and the movie is proof to the contrary, because he’s remarkable in it, and he carries it. That’s direct testament to how talented he is, and also to Ben’s belief in him.
THE BEAT: Going back a little bit, is “El Chicano” a real part of Mexican gang lore or is that something you made up for the movie?
BEN: The idea of it strictly came from the fact which is an unfortunate statistic with Latino families that I had a mother and grandmother that raised me. My father was never around, and I always felt like when my brother passed away, I thought, “My God, what if my Dad was around?” So creating this El Chicano character was really a theme of a metaphor of not having a father. That’s where that came from.
THE BEAT: Gotcha. I literally saw La Llorona two days earlier, so I’ll believe anything at this point. I had no knowledge of what was true lore and what was just something made up for the movies? [Both guys laugh on hearing this]
JOE: I love it! Good! We’ll take it, bro.
THE BEAT: You mentioned earlier how hard it would be to make this movie through a studio, although Latino audiences make a huge percentage of moviegoers, so how was it making a movie like this independently?
JOE: I think you hit the core of something, and we’ve been talking about this all morning. You got 18% of the population is Latino, less than 3% of the Latino roles in Hollywood are speaking roles. You’ve got one in four movie tickets in North America are a Latino audience member, and in a genre film, you’re talking nearly 50% of the tickets. A genre film like El Chicano are purchased by a LatinX or Hispanic [moviegoer]… so you’re not going to create content for that demographic? You’re not going to curate content for that moviegoing populace? That seems to me like a wildly-missed opportunity. I think that’s just through a business lens, Ben and I both understood that, and then when you have – even in the wake of Black Panther coming out and crushing, and Crazy Rich Asians coming out and crushing – there was still this reticence about the movie, which I couldn’t really put my finger on, because we all acknowledged that the movie was really good. That it wasn’t like we were asking for charity. “Oh please, we need you…” But it’s so funny. Olu, who is an old assistant of mine who is now a really great filmmaker in his own right – he’s Nigerian/American, so his friends told him after Black Panther did the numbers it did, he’s like, “Oh, this means The Avengers is gonna do even more” and the Avengers didn’t do more. [Note: This interview was done before Avengers: Endgame made even more than both of those. ] Olu at the time was like, “You don’t get it, man. You don’t get what the African-American community does when they really get behind and rally behind a film. They show up. They support the hell of their artists and filmmakers.” I think that’s fantastic, and if we got a fraction of that love and support on something like El Chicano, we’re good to go, man. We can spin a universe out of this, and give ourselves the ability to make other films. Ben said, “There’s so many stories in the Latino community that are not told, that deserve to be told, that are waiting to be told.” So it will be interesting to be able to have a hand in that.
BEN: Exactly. This is our time. We didn’t time this out, but it is our time, and we’re just looking forward to… hopefully, this is the beginning of something vastly beautiful about storytelling throughout the Latino community.
THE BEAT: As a first-time filmmaker trying to put together a mostly Latino cast and crew, was that also hard to do or did you have a database of people you knew you were gonna call upon?
BEN: Well, I tell you, I had a wishlist. I grew up and we had three different generations going on in this all-Latino cast, and I grew up watching Sal Lopez, George Lopez, Marco Rodriguez – a lot of these guys came originally from the Nosotros Theater, which is run by Luis Aldez, so I was a huge fan for a long time, and then directing episodic television, working with Andy Garcia and everybody else, it was a blessing. And then when you go through independent financing, that’s the advantage you have to be a little bit more creative and have your vision. Really, after fighting for a while and not having to fight and just get who you want, and it was amazing. It was wonderful.
THE BEAT: Joe, I know we need to wrap-up, but you have Boss Level coming up and then you go into The Raid. Is Boss Level still coming out this year?
JOE: I don’t know, Ed, but I can tell you hand on heart that I think it’s my best film. I think it’s a dynamite movie, and Frank Grillo, it’s a bust-out big moviestar role for him. Frank and I both got the most amazing phone calls from Mel Gibson, who saw the film a couple days ago and flipped out in the best way. You always want those wildly enthusiastic phone calls that you know are sincere and genuine, so it was really great to get that. So yeah, I’m excited and hopefully we go into The Raid here very shortly, and we’re shooting sometime this summer.
THE BEAT: I’m really looking forward to see what you and Frank do with your new production company? I think people loved Frank in The Grey, and it helped lead up to his appearance in the Marvel movies, so I’m glad you’re doing more stuff.
JOE: Yeah, with War Party, Wheelman, Fight World, El Chicano, Boss Level — we’ve really been very fortunate. We’re psyched.
El Chicano opens nationwide on Friday, May 3.