Interview: Award-Winning Filmmaker Alonzo Alcaraz

If you attended this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival you probably remember the comedy short ‘Albert’ made by Chicago’s very own Alonzo Alcaraz. A miserable Albert goes to his rico suave friends to try and move on from his recent heartbreak. Viewers follow Albert in a series of hilarious and reckless outings in the city and discover that the answer to his depression might be right under his nose. Alcaraz’s film was given the Audience Choice Award from fest goers. Things have been going pretty well for Alcaraz. What’s next for the director, actor, producer and photographer you say? That is exactly what I wanted to know as well. I sat down to chat with Alcaraz and this is what he had to say…

Congratulations on your win! Where were you and what were you doing when you heard the news?

So…funny story because a friend of mine who is an actress sent me a facebook message saying, “Congratulations!” I said, “Congratulations for what?” She’s like, “You didn’t hear?” I said, “No.” So she tells me, “Yeah, your film won!” I go, “Really?” I thought they would let me know first, you know, that the Chicago Latino Film Festival would send me an email or something. So it winds up that the Chicago Latino Film Fest sent out an eblast to all the subscribers and I’m not a subscriber for whatever reason. So everyone else ended up finding out before I did, and as soon as I got notified I called them up and said, “Hey is it true?” They go, “Yeah!” I said, “Ok cool.” It was nice to hear about it even though I heard it through a third source. It was a nice surprise because I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t make films and none of my art is to get any kind of accolades or recognition, it’s really about wanting to do it. Hearing about that is a nice surprise and it’s a good marketing card now. I can claim I’m an award winning filmmaker and I joke with people about it. I’m like, “I hope I don’t come off as arrogant or anything, but I’m an award winning filmmaker now so respect my work!” I guess it does mean something to people, because of that, I’ve gotten contacted by a film festival in Argentina that wants to show my film in the fall. I’ve gotten contacted by people in the business that wanna work with me and it’s opening more doors.

What would you say is the biggest difference or challenge in filmmaking versus theatre?

Let’s see…that’s a really good question. There are a lot of challenges. I think the biggest one is figuring out what your vision is and sticking to it, because a lot changes. Just like with theater, you have to depend on other people’s work and contributions. But I think with filmmaking, pre-production is the most important aspect. If you don’t get it right and if you don’t account for every single possibility, it will never get done. I’ve learned my lesson because I’ve been involved with productions, I’ve screenwritten and I produced other films and I was part of a team. ‘Albert’ is me, myself, and I. The character Albert is actually me in real life and this is my meat project. This is me to the world about myself and the way I handle adversity. I came from a situation where I had some challenges getting a previous production done but I overcame them and I figured out how to make this one happen. It took a lot of realization of what my obstacles were and surrounding myself with the right people because that’s just as important. To have supportive people that believe in your vision, people that want to do the same thing you do and are willing to do what needs to get done.

As a writer who writes for plays and movies, how do you decide what script needs to be shown in a movie theater rather than the theater?

Well that’s really decided from the get go. I was involved with sketch and theater in the early part of my career. My sole focus now is screenplays for film, so everything I do now is intended to be on camera. Although there’s stuff that I always think about like, “Oh, this would be a cool play.” It just depends on how ambitious a project is. Even for this short film, I shot in seven different locations, I incorporated montages, and the production value for being a short film was ambitious. So I don’t think something like that could be translated into something for theater because there are so many moving parts. Theater is more simplified. You’re grounded in a more visible reality. My creative vision for film is to be as ambitious as possible, within realistic terms. I would love to get a shot of someone jumping off the Sears Tower in a parachute but I can’t do that. Whatever is in my means that I can shoot and I have access to.

What sort of films inspired you in making ‘Albert?’

I always tell people ‘Albert’ to me is a combination of two different comedies: ‘Swingers’ and ‘The Hangover’. When ‘Swingers’ came out, it really inspired me because it’s a look at the reality of relationships sometimes and how people can’t handle break ups. How they obsess over people, the things they do to come to terms with being single and then you have that Vince Vaughn character. That crazy dude who is always chasing women and is on this non-stop chase because he needs validation for that. Those two characters are really inspiring because as a guy, relationships are important for me and whenever I’m not in a relationship I see the good, the bad, and the ugly of being in a relationship. I think guys are very much like those characters. Some are very much into relationships and want to be monogamous and then there’s the opposite: those guys that are (for lack of better wording) cavemen. Like hunter gatherers, and that’s a real philosophy with guys. When I was writing ‘Albert’, the Albert character was based off of me and how I view relationships. The Lex character is based off a couple of friends that I know that even to this day their mentality is kind of sad and you know, not to place judgement on them because they’re actually good guys, they just have this tunnel vision when it comes to relationships, intimacy and all that stuff. These are the inspirations. With ‘The Hangover,’ I love over the top physical comedy. I love the stuff that they did in the original movie. It’s kinda cool to see those moments play out on screen. I would love to have my take on that and so that was kind of a little taste of both.

When making a comedy, how do your jokes or funny moments come to you?

As far as the comedy, part of it is the writing, there’s a pacing when it comes to comedy. They say comedy is the hardest genre to pull off because it’s very subjective and you can’t make people laugh all the time. There might be people that don’t like ‘Albert’ because of the language and the subject matter but I wanted to try and make it as universal as possible. So the comedy came from real life situations, stuff that happened in the movie, either I went through, was a witness to it or I know somebody that went through that. To me nothing was made up. Somebody got drunk and wound up waking up in an alley with a homeless guy peeing next to him. It’s stuff that I’ve seen happen. I’ve seen people get so wasted and do the silliest things. That’s the written part of it. That’s the screenplay part of it. The film comedy comes from working with really amazing actors that are good improvisers. Eddie Martinez who’s ‘Albert’ and all four of the main guys, they are all improvisers. What we would do is we would look at the script, we would rehearse it out, and walk it out. We figure out, “Ok this sounds funny…now let’s make it physically funny. So let’s incorporate movement, let’s incorporate body language.” I would let them play with it, I would let them play with the script. I’d say, “Alright give me your take. How would you as your character react to that situation? Let’s make it as real as possible.” They did that and I mean they made me look really good because these guys are so fun. I have to give them some credit because a lot of it was improvised. They came up with some funny one liners that weren’t in the script. I would let the camera roll and there’s that extra moment that really made the scene funny.

What do you hope viewers get from Albert’s story?

Well I joke that my movies have zero redeeming value, no social commentary, it’s just plain fun and entertainment. But, at the base of these stories is a relationship story and to me that’s the main thing. To me it’s a commentary on relationships. We idealize people sometimes and sometimes things don’t work out out. Sometimes I think we just have to be cognizant that whatever makes us happy is the most important thing. Personal happiness is not doing what makes everybody else happy. You know there’s a journey that goes along with these stories. You start off here, Albert was really low and heartbroken, he had just gotten out of a long term relationship. He was coping with being single, he encountered these crazy moments with the friends that then realized it really wasn’t worth it. The chase wasn’t important to him, it was about finding that one person to be comfortable with, be himself with…and he did. By coincidence. Obviously with the short film, the journey was very microscopic, but if it was full length feature there would be a much longer character arch for him. I wanted to show at least with these moments of him getting out of a relationship, being single, going through crazy moments, meeting somebody, crossing paths with that person, not figuring out if there’s a real connection or not, misunderstanding the connection and that in the end that there was a real connection. That they had something that they were gonna start to pursue. If there’s a message…there’s that. People have to focus on their personal happiness and move on.

Is there any director or actor you look up to in particular that has influenced you?

I mean I love comedy because that’s what I started off with. I started with Second City and sketch, went to Salsation Theater Co. so I was always involved in theater and sketch. As far as film directors, I appreciate anybody that’s a visionary. People like Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, but those aren’t comedy filmmakers but this is their look, this is their movie, they have a stamp on their book. Whereas with comedy, who I really like is Adam McKay, who directed one of my favorite movies ‘Anchorman.’ He works with the same people. They all work with the same people because they all have really good chemistry and I admire that. I see why they do that now because when you find the right people to work with, you wanna continue to work with them all the time.

Like Quentin Tarantino?

Yeah, I love Tarantino, and Tarantino is very unique in his vision. He collaborates with the same people and he gets good stuff out of them so why change the formula? That’s the thing I appreciate about those types of directors. As far as a directing style, I’ve just kinda created mine as I go along. It’s very organic I’m not a micromanager. On my sets everyone is a collaborator. I don’t dismiss anybody’s ideas because they don’t belong in that department. I’ve had the sound guy suggest something that came out really funny because again, we’re all collaborators. We’re all working towards the same thing. As far as directing and filmmaking that’s sort of the style and vision.

Is there any piece of advice you would give to young filmmakers or actors that you wish could have been given to you?

You know, I can’t claim to give people advice, because I think the thing about filmmaking is you have to find your own voice in it. Sometimes that means going through certain situations and I feel fortunate that whatever I’ve gone through, whether it’s a high or low I’ve come out a better person because of it. So learn as much as you can, be as receptive to other people’s advice but at the same time figure out what your vision is. It may not happen right away, sometimes it takes a while to really figure out what your voice is,  figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. We’re in a day and age where there is no right answer on how to make a film because it’s so open. The technology and flexibility, the traditional rules of filmmaking are thrown out the window. I don’t have a film degree. I think it’s valuable to have one, there’s a lot of technical stuff that I don’t know about filmmaking that I wish I did. But at the end of the day, it’s about what your motivation is. What drives you? What do you wanna do in this industry? Learn as much as you can, surround yourself with positive people, and eliminate any negativity. When people throw negativity in your face just let it roll off your shoulders or let it motivate you. That’s what’s happened to me. I love the word “no.” Tell me the word “no” and you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna smile and say, “You’re wrong and I’m gonna prove it to you within fifteen minutes.” Not everyone is strong about those kinds of things but, at the end of the day it’s just figuring out your vision and owning your craft by surrounding yourself with positive people.

What should we be expecting from you in the future? Any other awards headed your way?

 I’d like an award that’s worth some money so I can fund my next movie! I’d pawn off that award in a second if I had ten grand…Just kidding. Umm, no. I’ve got a lot of stuff lined up. I’ve already finished the sequel to ‘Albert’, which is called ‘Lex.’ It’s (part of) a trilogy. I’m working on the third part, so I was trying to come up with ideas. I would love to start off at a funeral. I want death somewhere in these movies. I want somebody to die. I’m obsessed with somebody dying. So yeah, I’m working on a third story. More than that is, I’ve already written a feature length movie called ‘One Night Stand.’ We’re looking to get it done by the fall or the end of the year so we can maybe have it in next year’s Latino Film Fest, which would be great. We just wanna keep the work going. As a matter of fact, I’m actually a part of this collective for screenwriters called Chicago Latino Film Tank. What we do is we get together once a month and we have script readings, we talk about what we are doing because we want to support each other. So if I’m working on a film and they help me out, I’m gonna return the favor whether it’s giving them advice, helping on set, marketing, writing or whatever it is. We are really trying to cement something in Chicago because there’s a lot of talent. Unfortunately, when people start to grow and get nurtured they move out to L.A. That’s what always happens. So what we want to do is keep the talent in house because it’s important to have Latino content creators that are gonna give Latino actors different, non-traditional roles. That’s been part of my motivation as a filmmaker as well, to make movies that we don’t traditionally get cast in because as an actor, I was getting called in for a waiter, a gardener, thug or gangbanger. In the films that I did, a lot of the actors were Latino but we didn’t reference them to being Latino. They were just regular guys that happened to be Latino. We wanna create these stories that encompass a Latino based world but don’t make reference to it because we don’t have to. Our reality is everyone else’s reality. Black, White, Chinese, whatever it is. So those are the things that we’re working on. Not just my projects, but just as a collective, to bring consciousness to what we are doing. If there’s any recognition for our projects that brings dollars from L.A. to fund other movies.. that would be the dream. The dream would be to sustain ourselves 100%, doing what we do, writing, directing, producing, acting here in the city and just continue to work.