Imagine you’re a guidance counselor working in a city where your life consists of teaching elementary students how to beat the odds in their community to achieve success. Your typical day involves going into classrooms and teaching kids to cope with their environmental pressures and helping them to use social skills to articulate their ideas, goals and fears. Sometimes you have that devastating call, and you find out one of the students took off with some gang, or got a girl pregnant, or one of their parents was killed by a hit and run over the weekend. It’s constant problem solving, and you always have to figure out new ways to keep the kids focused on education. In a time when social media is used more than ever to promote entertainment, preaching the importance of education is not a cool thing to do.
That was my life, until one day something struck me like a lightning bolt. I found myself observing some students during recess, and I realized that many of them looked like miniature versions of famous people, like Britney or The Rock. They were trying to emulate people who had nothing in common with their lives or their issues. These kids didn’t look up to people in their community. They wanted to be like the stars they saw in movies.
At that moment, an inner voice immediately shouted “You have to write a script about these kids! Make them heroes in their reality, and show them they have the power to guide their own future.” What a great idea! I can write a script that serves Latinos and inner-city kids. Gosh, how do I do that?
Step One: Start writing. I checked out a few books by Syd Field from the library, and I read them from cover to cover. Being an inner-city kid myself, I began writing down everything I could think of that had affected my life through the years. I wrote about my students, my friends, my childhood, my teachers, my first love, my greatest wishes and my biggest fears. I named my script Go For It!. Though I didn’t know it in 2002, that the title was going to be my own anthem during my quest to get the movie made.
Step Two: Take the plunge and move to LA. I was certain I’d able to convince a producer to finance the project, so I packed my car with my clothes and my laptop, and with my dog Hopi seated to my right, I was off to Cali. Here is where all hell breaks loose. At first I didn’t have a job, and Hopi and I were staying in a friend’s attic. I didn’t know anyone at first, but I began to play the never ending game of networking. I quickly learned that people in Hollywood are products, not selfless saints with valuable contributions to offer society. I heard a lot of discouraging things, from “You’re a clueless dreamer. Nobody wants to save the world around here!” to “Latino films don’t make money. We’re here to make money, and lots of it!”
No one seemed to understand that Go For It! was a hip hop film with an inspirational message. After months of dealing with rejection and having to constantly refuse suggestions that I make my characters non-minorities, I came across the film Bread and Roses, directed by Ken Loach, which inspired me beyond my comprehension. Hallelujah! This was a movie that seemed to embody everything that I had in mind for Go For It!. It had heart, power, passion, harsh reality and hope all in one. I had to contact Ken Loach and get him to direct Go For It!.
I e-mailed Ken Loach’s production company in London. I even sent him a picture scrapbook I put together after hearing Catherine Hardwicke speak about how she went about raising money for her debut film, Thirteen. Two weeks later I got a phone call at the crack of dawn. It was Ken Loach’s assistant, calling from London. My eyes popped out of my head. I jumped up out from under my covers and immediately began to stutter. “Did-did-did-did Ken talk about wanting to direct it? Because if he does, I-I-I promise I’ll find funding, and I’ll produce whatever I can before he gets here.” I just knew he was going to say yes, and then all the stress I’d been dealing with would be lifted off my shoulders.
Then I heard something that would change my life forever: “Ken wanted me to tell you that you have to direct it. You already have the vision, and your message needs to be shared. Nobody can create the passion that you have for this project. You can do it.”
I thought I was in a bad dream. I’d never expected to hear that Ken Loach wanted me to direct Go For It!. I quickly began to make excuses, pointing out that my background was in educational psychology, and that I didn’t know a thing about making movies, nor did I watch them that much. Ken’s assistant cut me in my tracks and told me that none of that matters. What’s important is the drive, the passion, the vision. “The hardest part of making a film is finding funding,” he said, “and if you can do that, everything will eventually fall into place.”
He spent 40 minutes coaching me on the simple things Ken does that seem instinctual. The fact that Ken respected my story meant everything to me, so I had to listen, even though I was dumbfounded. To this day, I can still remember how I felt. As I hung up the phone I felt so scared. I broke down crying, thinking I’d gotten myself into a wild goose chase, chasing a dream that I had never even wanted. After I calmed down, I called my husband Sid at work and told him that I was going to direct Go For It! myself. I would do it on a super-low budget, El Mariachi-style.
I flipped the switch that day, and I never looked back. I gussied up my resume and stood in front of the elevators at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Eventually I found a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, since I knew it would let me make more money and bank it while I began producing my film.
Sid took a second job and figured out ways he could help me cut costs, like shooting on the RED camera. He taught himself the post-production workflow so we could do everything from home. I watched movies day and night for a few years and listened to numerous director commentaries. I began to gather visual inspiration for my scenes. I spent two years searching on MySpace for original music that could license for super cheap for use in the dance numbers. It was five years before we saved enough money that I could begin casting.
We shot the film in 19 days, across two cities with 20 locations, 17 dancers, four choreographers and lots of extras. It was my obsession to make a difference in the world through a movie. Looking back, I really never expected it to be so hard and to take so long. My ultimate goal was theatrical distribution, and even though Sid and I both knew my dream was elusive, I didn’t let anything deter me. I was seeing films with big-name actors go to top festivals and not get distribution deals. Again, I began to hear “Latino films don’t make money! Be grateful if you go straight to DVD and make your money back.”
I submitted my films to festivals, and I went the festivals myself as often as I could afford to, and I spent hours using social media to get festivalgoers to see my film. We began selling out screenings and winning Audience Awards. Yes, a Latino film! As I write this with tears welling up and a lump in my throat, I am proud to say that I am an indie moviemaker, and I followed the path of least resistance. Go For It!‘s theatrical release was a success, and it comes out on DVD today, September 27th. As fate would have it, I became my own testimonial for the message in my movie. I went for it, and so should you. If you don’t let society talk you out of dreaming, you will reach your destination, no matter what the obstacles are. Go for it!
For more information on Go For It!, visit GoForItMovie.com.