'Travel' puts human face on hot button election issue


Tribeca "Travel: " At a time when illegal immigration is a hot button issue for many U.S. voters, it's the subject of a hit Colombian movie that's set in New York and will have its North American premiere April 26 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Directed by Simon Brand, who started out making music videos about 20 years ago in Bogota at the age of 17, "Paraiso Travel" doesn't make any kind of political argument about illegal immigration. What it does do is put a human face on the millions of anonymous illegals now living in the U.S. The film is actually a powerful love story told from the illegals' point of view, something Americans really haven't been exposed to before.

Written by Jorge Franco and Juan Rendon, "Travel" is based on Franco's 2001 novel. It was produced by Santiago Diaz, Juan Rendon, Alex Pereira and Isaac Lee and executive produced by Jonathan Sanger, Ed Elbert, Sarah Black and Jorge Perez. "Travel" is the second feature film directed by Brand (his first name, by the way, is pronounced See-MOAN not SIGH-min). He's made 100-plus music videos and some 150 commercials over the years, winning MTV, Clio and other awards. Brand's feature directorial debut came in 2006 with the thriller "Unknown," starring James Caviezel and Gregg Kinnear.

"Travel," a Spanish language romantic drama with English subtitles, stars Aldemar Correa as Marlon, a young man living a comfortable life in Medelin until his rebellious young girlfriend Reina (Angelica Blandon) entices him to flee with her to America via an illegal immigration network that moves them through Guatemala and Mexico. After putting their lives on the line to get there, they wind up in New York on the streets of Jackson Heights, Queens where Marlon almost immediately has a run-in with the police. But after running away from the cops, Marlon can't find his way back to the hostel where he and Reina were staying. As one thing leads to another, he starts a new life for himself working for little money in a fast food restaurant and sleeping in the rundown apartment of a character played by John Leguizamo, who rents beds out to illegals working day and night shifts because they're never there at the same time.

"I'm very excited," Brand told me about having his film playing at Tribeca. "The movie was a big success in Columbia. It was one of the top two grossing films of all time (there). More importantly, this is a movie that people in the U.S. need to see because it addresses one of the many stories that some of these 30 or 40 million people (who are in the U.S. illegally) go through. A lot of people have been scrambling to find a way to communicate and to get to that audience. This is a very moving story. In some of the screenings we did while we were editing we had a lot of people (seeing the film) that went through that (perilous illegal route into the U.S.) and after the movie was over they were crying and telling me, 'I came here for a girl that I loved' and they were very moved by the film.

"There was a great article in Time Magazine a few weeks back about the movie and they were saying how a lot of political commentators on the news should see this film. I think it's because after they see the film a lot of Americans actually realize what these people go through. It changes their perspective on some of the people that they see (doing) valet parking or in restaurants and car washes. If it can do that, then I think we made a point. The movie doesn't try to make any political statements or try to be preachy. It basically tells a very human and real story within the context of the immigration situation."

The film's domestic rights are still available and Brand and his team from Paraiso Pictures and Grand Illusions Entertainment are hoping the film's exposure at Tribeca -- there are press and industry screenings April 26 and 29 and public screenings April 26, 27 & 28 and May 1 & 3 -- will help it connect with a distributor. "I really hope," Brand said, "that it's a distributor that 'gets' the film and appreciates it and knows how to market it."

When I asked Brand about the film's origins, he replied, "I always wanted to tell this story. There's around 30 to 40 million immigrants in the U.S. and that's a big, big number. I'm an immigrant, myself. I came to the U.S. when I was 20 years old, about 17 years ago, and there's a culture shock that you experience once you get to the U.S. wherever you come from. There was always an immigration issue, but it wasn't as big as it is right now. This movie's a love story, but it deals with the whole context of immigration. I stayed (in the U.S. originally) because of a woman so I kind of felt identified with the main character throughout the whole story. It's a coming of age story about a kid who basically transforms into a man in front of our eyes, but it deals with the whole immigration issue.

"I tried to do it in a very authentic and legitimate way. There's a real sense of conveying what really goes on in the borders. People think that it's just the border between Mexico and the U.S., but they don't realize that most of these people have to go through all of Central America and some of them even through South America, itself, to get to the U.S. A lot of friends of mine who live in the U.S. didn't even realize that you needed a visa to go into the U.S. They don't know the hurdles that most people have to go through in order to come into the U.S. and have the opportunity of a new life. We tried to stay as loyal to the book as possible. I met with (the novelist) Jorge Franco. He went to film school, himself, and we had the opportunity to work with him on the whole adaptation process."

In adapting books to the screen, filmmakers typically run into all sorts of challenges in terms of making long novels with multiple subplots and lots of characters work as shorter movies. "Adapting a book is very difficult in itself," he agreed. "I think in this case the book is written in a very cinematic way so that helped a lot. Jorge Franco always said that this is a movie about supporting roles. They actually bring in the light and the color to the movie. There are some very interesting characters.

"All the stories in the book (like) the way they cross the border and all the experiences that they go through, it's not one specific true story but it is all based on true stories. We tried to update and make this more relevant to what's going on today in Jackson Heights in Queens. In other words, seven years ago maybe the whole block was Colombian and the whole town was full of Colombian immigrants. Right now half of them are Mexicans. So one of the girls (in the film) we made her nationality Mexican. We tried to keep that narrative structure that the book has, which is going back and forth and having two parallel stories (in Queens now and Colombia then) that go together, but one of them is in the past tense."

Asked about shooting the film, Brand explained, "In any independent film you're dealing with a smaller budget (and) that's always difficult and always represents a big challenge. But I think the biggest challenge in the whole process was the casting. I was trying to get very fresh talent that wasn't (well known). Since most of the television work (for Hispanic actors) is novellas or soap operas and there's a lot of overacting when they're doing novellas. I wanted to get all fresh talent that comes from theater and that comes from the street and that has that real experience. I think that was the biggest challenge to find characters that are believable, that are actually from Medelin from Colombia and that have sort of the same lifestyles that the main characters have.

"Now once we came to shooting that was another issue because most of the interiors were shot (for budget reasons) in Colombia. And all the (non-New York exteriors were shot in) Colombia, too. I think it's the first time that we actually shot Colombia for Mexico and the not the other away around. All the parts in Texas, Mexico, Guatemala, all of that was shot in Colombia, but based on a lot of investigation, a lot of documents and a lot of legitimate references."

How did they work in New York? "We had permits for most of the (New York shooting)," he said, "and the community was extremely supportive. They know the book and they were very excited that we were actually shooting a film version of the book. Everybody was supercooperative. The only (problem) we had was that it was extremely cold. It was freezing. We had to eliminate some of the passages (in the book) that had to be summer because we couldn't shoot summer because it was freezing outside. We shot a couple of scenes in December and we came back in January. Very cold.

"We shot for about 40 days altogether. My first movie, 'Unknown,' we shot in 20 days, so actually I had double the time. And, more importantly, I had (time) to rehearse with the actors. So it was something that I was very grateful for -- that we actually had time to rehearse -- so that when we came to shooting it it was just a matter of putting lights and cameras and setting up the scene."

I told Brand that every filmmaker I talk to seems to have a different point of view about whether it's a good idea or not to rehearse and I asked him why he likes to do it. "First of all, because it creates an immense bond between the director and the actor," he replied. "And more importantly it gives you time to experiment. I think an actor has many options and many choices as to where they want to take the character. With rehearsal you actually have that time to experiment and to figure out (how to do a scene best). And on the other hand, the script is so encrypted in their minds and they have it so well managed that you can take it wherever you want to take it when you're shooting it.

"It's almost like an automatic experience because they have it so encrypted in their minds that you just become a controller of it and you take it in the direction you want to take it. When you don't rehearse, which was the experience that I had on the first film, there's so many ways that you can go and when you're shooting a low budget film it actually takes a lot of your time and it definitely affects the end product."

Does Brand's early training shooting music videos and commercials in Colombia affect how he directs features today? "Even though shooting the music videos and commercials was kind of my film school, I knew that when I got into features I had to take a step back and figure out how to deal with actors," he told me. "When you're doing a commercial or music videos you're dealing with talent and models and people who don't need any emotional motivation. There's no depth in that. When you're shooting film it's completely different. I wanted to take a lot of acting classes and I actually did to know what it feels like to be in the shoes of an actor.

"I think right now I'm a better actor director than I'm a visual storyteller for commercials. What that (early training) gave me was the experience and the confidence to be on a set and to know exactly the roles of the people. A lot of first time feature filmmakers don't have that experience on set and I had that experience and I think that gave me the confidence to actually concentrate on working with the actors."

It wasn't easy starting a film career in Bogota: "I was 17 years old and it was a time when MTV was a very young channel. I've always been a music lover. I'm sure you can tell by the soundtrack of the film. I started working in radio. I was a DJ in radio and I knew a lot of the bands and one of the local bands who was having success wanted to do a music video and there weren't many people doing them. I had so much fun doing it, you know, with very, very little money. We actually had all the resources from the university. We borrowed the cameras and the editing (equipment). We had so much fun and I was so influenced (by the experience) that I thought to myself, 'That's what I want to do for the rest of my life.' I was always very into filmmaking. I was always very passionate about it. The first time I saw Stanley Kubrick's 'Clockwork Orange' that was the trigger that made me want to get into film when I was like 13 years old."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Jan. 17, 1991's column: "At a time when the world's focus is on bombs and war, Hollywood has bombs of another sort on its mind. After all, more than a few movie bombs exploded at boxoffices during the period from last Thanksgiving through New Year's.

"Calculating what the real loss is to the studios involved is more complicated than one might think at first. On the face of it, when a big movie fails at the boxoffice the loss to its studio should be the cost of making and marketing that film minus its domestic and foreign theatrical rentals and revenues from all ancillary markets.

"There is, however, another less obvious element of that equation that ought to be -- but typically isn't -- considered, as well. Those same high-profile films that strike out with moviegoers and critics have, prior to their release, been highly visible studio assets for a cycle of two or more years beginning with their production announcements and ending with their release to theaters.

"Over that period of time, such films are valuable pieces of studio property. For one thing, Wall Street analysts in projecting a studio's future revenues will almost certainly have regarded such projects with more reverence and enthusiasm than they have for them after they've opened. The fact is that Wall Street is almost always a sucker for high-profile movies with superstars and distinguished directors.

"Such films are trumpeted well ahead of starting production by Hollywood's sophisticated marketing machinery. High-profile projects become studio assets whose worth continues to be inflated as big name stars and filmmakers become attached to them. Typically, the bigger such projects are, the longer period of time it takes to bring them to the screen. Over the course of several years' time, a studio builds Wall Street's awareness of such projects and the extensive plans for their production and distribution. In the pre-recession stock market, a bullish view by analysts regarding the prospects for a high profile project would certainly have been helpful to any publicly traded film company ..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.