To B or Not to B?
That is the question for El Paso director Cesar Alejandro, whose low-budget action flicks haven’t made him a hit in Hollywood—not yet, anyway.
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WE’RE ABOUT TO DO SOMETHING you’ve never seen before,” chuckles director Cesar Alejandro one bright morning in El Paso. After he calls for acción, two gangster types come walking out of a mansion, one of them in control and dressed impeccably, the other a standard-issue goon. They talk heatedly in Spanish about wiping out a rival. The scene ends, and the camera shuts off for a few minutes. Then the scene is repeated, with another boss but the same goon—only in English.
For the next few weeks, Alejandro will continue shooting two similar but different movies in two different languages. Having made his name as an actor-director-producer of low-budget Spanish-language action films popular in Mexico and the Southwest, the 37-year-old is trying to ease into a larger field by going bilingual. He’s the only filmmaker in America working this way, and no matter what you say about his “enchilada westerns,” as one of his friends calls his flicks, they have the genuine flavor of the Tex-Mex border.
Alejandro’s latest project, Down for the Barrio (in Spanish, La Pistola Humeante, or “The Smoking Gun”), is his boldest attempt thus far at penetrating the American market. A cautionary tale about gang life, it is the first movie he’s shot on 35mm film rather than on video-quality 16mm. He had a bigger if still measly budget to work with—$350,000, mostly raised from investors, as opposed to his usual $70,000 to $90,000. And more money meant he could splurge on a real actor, Tony Plana (One Good Cop, Nixon), to supplement the usual cadre of friends who work for free, including Little Joe, the godfather of tejano music, and country singer Johnny Rodriguez. These improvements easily provide enough juice to make the film a Spanish-language hit, but Alejandro needs more than that: He needs English-language theatrical distribution. He hoped to get it in late February by entering Down for the Barrio at the American Film Market in Los Angeles, where he passed out two-minute promos. Ten distributors asked for copies of the movie, he says, and two are very interested, so right now he’s playing the waiting game. If nobody bites, he’ll distribute it himself—but perish the thought. “This one has such a good look,” he told me, “that I do not accept the possibility we will not be picked up.”
That’s Cesar Alejandro: smooth, cocky, ambitious, never-say-die. “Oh, he’s really a persistent guy,” says Jonathan King, the director of creative affairs for Miramax Films, one of the distributors Alejandro is wooing. “What he does now is comparable to what [B-movie legend] Roger Corman used to do, which is pump ’em out and work so much you get your technique down. The question becomes, Can you do any more than that? Francis Coppola and Jonathan Demme made movies for Corman and eventually had what it took to go farther, but a lot of others didn’t.”
So will Alejandro be the next Corman—or the next Ed Wood, the fifties cult director who was everyone’s favorite bad filmmaker, a guy who consistently took a lemon and made not lemonade but a bigger lemon? Time will tell, but two things are working in his favor. One is the rapid rise of Robert Rodriguez, the young Austinite who directed El Mariachi, a rousing, bigger-than-life homage to the Mexican action genre; its unimaginable success—it cost $7,000 to make and grossed more than $2 million—won him a multi-picture studio deal. Alejandro, who admires Rodriguez more for that accomplishment than for his art, could well capitalize on Hollywood’s tendency to clone box-office smashes on the cheap.
A second reason for Alejandro to be optimistic is that the days are nearly gone when white Tinseltown types were the creative forces behind minority films. Recent Hispanic movies like My Family, Mi Familia—which generated great buzz and modest profits—rely heavily on Hispanic talent behind the camera as well as in front. Alejandro figures that trend will make things easier for him. “I think the main selling point to the industry will be that it’s a movie written by Hispanics, directed by Hispanics, produced by Hispanics, and acted mostly by Hispanics.” Then there’s the message of Alejandro’s film. “This vicious cycle of ‘my brother was in a gang, my father was in a gang, I’ll be in a gang’ has to be stopped,” he says. “I think the theme of stopping it will attract a lot of Hispanic people.”
Alejandro never meant for the action market to be more than a stepping stone. In America today, B-movies rarely even get theatrical releases; they typically go straight to video and only earn money in the long haul. And in Mexico they’re even less of a prestige item. They first surfaced there in the early seventies, when the Mexican middle class deserted the national cinema in favor of American productions. The cheap videohomes, as they’re called, were and still are the only homegrown movies able to turn a profit (though they’ve been hurt recently by the peso devaluation and bootleggers who duplicate the films and distribute them illegally). Yet since most scenes are done in one take, they can be so amateurish that they’re unintentionally funny. With little money for special effects, the “action” is often implied as much as it’s actually executed. The plots typically involve drug running, gang activity, police shoot-outs, illegal-alien bashing, and weapons smuggling—sometimes all at once—with enough clothed sexuality to make them simultaneously chaste and lurid. Nobody watches them except the Spanish-speaking working class on both sides of the border. “They’re important for the way they reflect contemporary Mexican culture,” notes Carl J. Mora, the author of Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896—1988, “but they’re pretty schlocky.”
Exactly. Seen in the U.S. on the Telemundo and Univision Spanish-language TV networks as well as on video, they’re definitely an acquired taste. I enjoy them because, like The Trip and other Corman films of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, they’re absolutely up-to-date in their references to pop culture and social and political issues. After all, they’re shot in two weeks, so they can respond quickly to current trends and events.
While Alejandro’s movies can be sluggishly paced, his sharp visual sense ranks him among the best of the B bunch. He’s also a gifted actor with an uncanny ability to look different in each movie. But the main reason he has made a name for himself may be that he’s the only American (albeit a naturalized citizen) with a track record in the genre. He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to a meat-packer father who resented his son’s decision to enter the arts rather than take over the family business. As a teen, Cesar went to Mexico’s national poetry-reading championships twice, studied acting, and won some minor TV roles. In 1981 he moved to El Paso, where he served four and a half years in the U.S. Army so he could learn English.
After taking more acting classes and working in small stage productions in El Paso, he moved to New York City. In 1989 he signed a recording contract with a Mexico City label and returned to Texas so he’d have quick access to both sides of the border. But the deal went sour, and Alejandro ended up stranded in El Paso with his wife, Laura Rojo De Zamora, and their three young kids. Broke and dejected, he accepted a part in his first videohome in 1990. Five films later, he began producing the movies, then directing them. In 1992 he and Laura formed their own film company, Peliculas Alexandria (Alexandria Films). “My name as an actor was so bankable in that market,” he says, “that I could ask distributors for advances to shoot the movies.”
In 1994, with an eye to bigger things, Alejandro released his first film in both Spanish and English, Loteria Mortal/Fatal Lottery. But the turning point came the next year with Ranger III: 187 Ley de la Muerte/187 Deadly Law, a film inspired by the controversial California statute that refuses social services to illegal immigrants. The English-language version, which starred Little Joe in his film debut as the bandito out to kill the politician sponsoring the law and Alejandro as the Texas Ranger who must protect him, stressed the politics; the Spanish cut emphasized the fast, violent action. That plot dichotomy, which is now a staple of Alejandro’s bilingual films, was designed to please Mexican distributors who complained that he wasn’t offering enough sex, drugs, and violence, and it has worked better than he could have imagined: Since he has gone bilingual, the revenues generated by his films have increased by 30 percent. His English-language distributor, selling his videos country by country, brings in an average of $60,000 per film, while his Spanish-language distributor collects another $25,000 or so in Mexico and the U.S.
This time around, as Alejandro attempts his biggest crossover with Down for the Barrio, the Spanish-language audience is less important. That’s why he shot the Spanish scenes first—they served as a “rehearsal” for cast and crew before doing the English-language version. “This is not an action movie, but a drama with action,” he insists. Yet whatever it is, it’s still as much an example of filmmaking-on-the-run as any of Alejandro’s past efforts. Take his set and casting decisions. The west El Paso mansion occupied in the movie by Mr. D, whose drugs the gang members distribute, belongs to Puerto Rican psychiatrist and sometime salsa singer Marcelo Rodriguez Chevres; after talking Rodriguez Chevres into letting him use it, he cast him as the Spanish-language Mr. D—and got use of his Dodge Viper RT10 as well. Likewise, when the Hispanic actress playing one of Mr. D’s molls had to go downtown to appear in court, Alejandro simply replaced her with the Anglo moll. Some of the Anglo actors who appear in the Spanish version can’t even speak the language; they recited their lines phonetically. And when certified stars Willie Nelson and Elizabeth Pena told Alejandro at the last minute that they couldn’t join the cast, he shrank their parts and gave them to two novices.
It ain’t Hollywood, but no matter. “This business is like the lottery; to win you have to keep hoping,” Alejandro explains. “You do that every time you buy a lottery ticket. When we work at this, it’s like we’re buying more tickets. I’m doing the most I can with very little money. What really counts is tenacity. If you don’t have that much talent or budget, but you are willing to stick by it and keep getting better at what you do . . .” It’s hard to tell from his border movies what he might do with a real budget, but Cesar Alejandro dreams the dream as sincerely as anyone. And if he gets lucky, he can say he did it the hard way.