Evergreen comedies ready to be adapted into any language or cultural worldview, horror movies shot in South America with American stars, or a Mexican comedy about homophobia that breaks box-office records; these are milestones that have shaped the rise of Chilewood, the colloquial named given to the empire that director Nicolas López and his team have built.
López, a self-made indie mogul who didn’t go to film school, has expanded the DIY model of his early works (he has directed 10 features to date), and gone a step further than just producing his project independently by setting up a mini studio, Sobras, that’s in charge of the means of production from development to marketing. Small budgets and large profits have been the norm for López and Sobras. The secret, his focused on making films for the masses that stand out because of their clever plots and witty dialogue than the resources used to make them.
Do It Like an Hombre (Hazlo Como Hombre), his latest controversial comedy, became the third highest-grossing film in the history of Mexican cinema and has earned $2.4 million in American cinemas since its opening over Labor Day Weekend. First Eli Roth, one of his biggest supporters, opened doors for López to enter the English-language market with projects like Aftershock and Knock Knock, and now with the help of distributor Pantelion, the Chilean visionary is solidifying his presence in Latin America and with Spanish-speaking audiences in the US. MovieMaker talked to López about how skipped the Hollywood roadblocks and built an alternative on his own terms.
Carlos Aguilar (MovieMaker): Do It Like an Hombre is thematically controversial. Why was this a topic you wanted to approach through comedy?
Nicolás López: The idea of having the possibility to make a movie has to do with being able to tell stories that other people are not telling. In a way there are a lot of themes that contemporary American comedy can’t touch because they are very politically incorrect. In this case what I wanted to do was to make a comedy about homophobia that I don’t think could have been made in the United States. It’s a comedy where we brutally make fun of homophobia and machismo. We create a mirror to bring homophobes out of the closet, especially those who are homophobic because of their upbringing.
MM: This is also your first film in Mexico. Why did you want to tackle the Mexican market?
NL: My relationship with Mexico started because there was a Mexican remake of Que Pena Tu Vida and then a remake of Sin Filtro. This was a chance to make an original movie directly made for the Mexican market. It was also done thinking about the world market. In a way Mexican Spanish is the one that travels the best to other markets and has given us the opportunity to open the film in a massive way in the US and other parts of Latin America.
MM: Unlike a lot of the Latin American content that we see at festivals, your production company Sobras makes much more accessible and mainstream projects.
NL: I’m interested in making the kind of movies that I grew up with. I’m interested in making entertaining cinema that moves people through comedy or horror. It makes you scream and/or laugh, but within that there is also room for emotions and for reflecting. If you have the possibility to use cinema as a way to tell a story, there is also a chance to touch on subjects that are not being discussed in American cinema, which is the one that we see the most. In Sobras, my studio, most of the people that work for us are under contract and we are sort of obligated to make movies.
We are making between four and five movies per year, from large productions, to medium size films, to really low-budget projects, such as Madre by Aaron Burns, which just premiered on Netflix and is a thriller. We also have El Habitante, which is a horror film Guillermo Almoedo, who is the co-writer of Do It Like an Hombre. And another comedy we just premiered is called Una Familia Feliz. The world has changed and globalization has allowed us to make different types of films. Hollywood’s biggest problem is that people love to talk about making movies, but very few actually make movies. The development process for a film could take up to four or five years. On the other hand, we prefer finding a way to make the film and tell that story any way we can.
MM: How does the studio work day to day? Tell me about the production model and the process to work on so many projects at the same time.
NL: It’s insane because we are not that many people. We always have things that are in development and we live by the philosophy that the stupidest idea is the one that always wins. In a way that’s what happened with Sin Filtro, my previous work, which was a movie shot in 12 days. We shot it in my house, inside the studio, and in a park near by house. The film ended up grossing nearly $6 million and is currently being adapted in 11 countries including China. We believe in fighting for an idea. If the idea is good enough we give it our all and we find the way to make it possible.
The actual location of the studio is very funny. We bought a building and in that building we have the production company and also apartments. I live in that building. Friends of mine that are writers, my screenwriters, actors, and other members of the team also live in the building. We also have other apartments we rent, and many times we use those very same apartments as movie sets. A big part of Do It Like an Hombre was shot in that building. We jokingly call it “walking distance filmmaking” because there is never a location that is too far to walk to. That allows us to cut costs, shoot fast, and above all make sure the movies exist.
MM: Since you have this moviemaking infrastructure and you have available talent and sets at the tip of your fingers, are there any disadvantages to this model?
NL: The biggest disadvantage has to do with ambition. For me problems don’t exist. Each problem is a way to arrive at a solution. With each movie we realize that we need less superficial things to tell the stories. We know that the only way to be an alternative to Hollywood that is commercial and that works is to make movies that have emotions and that the audience can identify with. Nothing can win against emotion and identification. In every country, whether it’s France, Italy, Spain, or Mexico, each year there is always a local film that through comedy manages to beat a giant spectacle movie with millions in VFX. It’s wonderful for me to think that Do It Like an Hombre has grossed three times more than Dunkirk at the Mexican box-office or two times more than Baby Driver even though it’s a movie made for a tiny fraction of their budgets. Emotion connects with people.
MM: Has having this setup allowed you to make movies you couldn’t have made in another system?
NL: 100 percent. After having many failed experiences with Hollywood I realized that the most important thing is to just tell the story and for the movie to exist and that regardless of whether it has subtitles or not it can be seen anywhere. A movie will beat a screenplay. You can make a movie for almost nothing. You can find the way to make a movie for $200,000 that someone else makes for $10 million. What this system gives us is the freedom of trial and error. Directing is like going to the gym. It’s not enough to go to the gym once every two months. You have to go as many days as possible. Directing is a muscle that you have to train. In Sobras, the production company, there are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, and of course, Chileans and Mexicans. The Internet has also given Latinos the possibility to unite and to use the intelligence and talents of people who grew up without formally studying film or going to film school. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t go to school for anything. I’m relatively an ignorant person.
MM: Since you mentioned it, what are your views on film schools, which can be very costly and don’t guarantee any success?
NL: They can teach you where to put periods, commas, and accents, so that you don’t have grammar or spelling mistakes, but no one can teach you how to write. It’s difficult to find your voice through a traditional educational system. They can give you technical tools, but we also live in the age of video tutorials and in a world in which any person with an iPhone has a better camera than anything I ever had when I was starting out. Ultimately, people who complain they can’t make their movies say that because they are not making the movies they can make. I believe more in “possible cinema” than in “probable cinema.” “Probable cinema” is that which probably won’t happen, and “possible cinema” is the one that says, “Well, I have two friends, an iPhone, and a microphone, let’s make a movie.” There is no better film school than making movies and failing at making them. If there is something I’ve done plenty of in my career is—and I’m 34 and I’ve made 10 features and produced over 30—failing continuously and within those failures I’ve found the successes.
MM: Has there been people in the industry that didn’t believe what you are doing was possible in Latin America?
NL: Everything I do is born out of impossibility. There are people who don’t believe in the project and in what I’m doing, but that’s what happens to any person that wants to make movies. You have to understand that your biggest fan has to be yourself. You have to be very humble and understand each failure, of which I’ve had many, as a learning experience. Usually what’s done in Latin America are art house films that are supported by government funds, and if you want to make a comedy or a horror movie people don’t think that’s common or normal, so it’s much more difficult finding support because it’s outside of the norm. Having said that, I still always wanted to make the type of movies I wanted to make,
MM: How did Eli Roth become one of your biggest allies and did that change your career and the way you make movies?
NL: Eli saw my first movie Promedio rojo and he showed it to Tarantino. Tarantino said it was the funniest movie of the year and of course that changed my career. Hollywood was interested. Managers, lawyers, agents, all that shit, and what ended up happening was nothing. Then I made the Que Pena Tu Vida trilogy, which were very small movies that we made for no money and that still looked good, because we were some of the first to shoot with DSLRs like the Cannon 7D or a Cannon 5D. Nobody was doing that at the time. This was before many documentaries were using it. I think we were the first ones in the world to open a movie shot on DSLR in theaters.
Eli liked them a lot and from that point forward we thought, “Why don’t we use this way of making movies in a very indie way but exchanging Spanish for English and thinking of the global market.” We made a lot of movies in a very short time. We made Aftershock, which I directed and Eli starred in. We filmed the whole thing in Chile. We created our little Weta and started making our VFX, that’s when we got the building to be able to make out movies. We handle everything, from the idea to the DVD release. We do it all internally, including the marketing campaign.
Following Aftershock we made The Green Inferno, which we shot in New York, in Chile, and in the Amazon. Then came Knock Knock with Keanu Reeves, where the whole story takes place in Los Angeles, but we shot in Chile. After that we made The Stranger, which is a much smaller movie, directed by Guillermo Amoedo and shot in Chile in English.
But what I’m realizing is that my native language, Spanish, has the ability to open a lot of doors. That’s why we are working on a new project with Sobras, which is called Purgatorio and that will be our own little Blumhouse to be able to make genre films with Latin American content or elements, whether it’s the director, the talent, or the story. Its purpose is to open the door to new talents. We have already made two movies through Purgatorio, El Habitante, which is premiering at Sitges Film Festival in Barcelona and Madre by Aaron Burns, which premiered at SXSW this year and is now on Netflix.
MM: Would you advice filmmakers to follow the path that you have carved for yourself? Or would you advice against it?
NL: There is nothing worse than giving advice, but I think what’s interesting about me is that I make movies that are a completely independent where we don’t have to answer to anybody. We make it all in a very anarchic way but always hoping to make movies that can connect with the largest amount of people possible. That’s what cinema is to me. Cinema is a church. It’s a meeting point. Seeing a movie theater packed with people laughing is a dream come true. As long as there are movie theaters I will continue to make movies for those movie theaters. I also hope that we can fill up those movie theaters as much as possible. When a movie works, you realize that maybe you are not that crazy. When that happens you know if wasn’t just an illusion but that there was an audience interested in hearing that story.
MM: Could Sobras ever be replicated in another part of the world?
NL: No, I think there is an ecosystem with specific conditions that emerged organically for us. However, what I always tried to imitate were the structure of art and cultural collectives that I think are wonderful. From Warhols’s The Factory to Peter Jackson’s Weta in New Zealand, or what Lars von Trier does with Zentropa or Luc Besson with EuropaCorp. These are people that brought together the best talents in their culture and got involved in international distribution. Of course, they often make films in English, which is sort of like the universal language of cinema. I have to fight a lot of battles. For starters I’m Latino, besides being Latino I’m specifically from South America, and on top of that I speak Chilean Spanish, which is not a version of Spanish that is easily understood in the region. I’ve tried to use all these disadvantages in my favor rather than against me. The movies we make in Chile we make thinking in the Chilean market and we think that they might be good for remakes and that my version will end up being watched on Netflix. Now that we started this relationship with Mexico we think that through Mexico we can open doors all across Latin America and the US.
Hazlo Como Hombre opened in theaters September 1, courtesy of Pantelion Films.