Here we were lucky enough to interview Judith Escalona, the filmmaker behind the award winning movie – BX3M.
• Hi Judith, many thanks for your time and for joining us in the Green Room! We loved the tone to BX3M – a kind of gritty Bronx feel to it, what made you decide to make this movie and how much of your time living in this part of New York was poured into it?
Thank you for inviting me to the Green Room! First thing to get is that The Bronx was never just the gritty place it became to be known as. Only certain areas of the Bronx were blighted––beginning in the 1970s when, if one recalls, New York City went bankrupt. Other sections of the city were also devastated by the fiscal crisis. The great Central Park, for example, located in Manhattan was just as “gritty” as Crotona Park in The Bronx during that decade. Other cities in the U.S. also suffered an economic downturn. The Bronx did, however, become the symbol of urban blight for the entire country. It was, of course, the poor and working-class areas of the borough that suffered most during the economic downturn. Those areas experienced a major decline in city services. There were high crime rates, political corruption, drug use, etc. It hadn’t always been that way.
The Bronx I grew up in was a beautiful working-class neighborhood of rowhouses, most of them privately-owned by the people who lived in them. Our three-story rowhouse was jointly owned by my mother and two of her sisters who had their husbands agree to this early kind of coop. I grew up surrounded by family and neighborhood friends. Our block on Bryant Avenue was really special because the road was paved in red brick and although it made roller-skating a little problematic, causing us kids on metal skates to rattle along from brick to brick, it stood out from the other blocks and was quite beautiful. Our family doctor made house calls and had his office in a nicely appointed apartment building at the corner. This was my world before the city’s economic crisis devastated The Bronx and nearly cost my parents their lives. (The Public Broadcasting System asked me to write about those years for their Latino Americans television series. Here’s the link in case folks are interested, http://www.pbs.org/latino-americans/en/blog/2013/08/29/History-Written-Faces/ )
The disintegration of the neighborhood was a slow process that culminated in the total ruin of the blocks surrounding us and, ultimately, the destruction of ours. That’s probably why BX3M has such an authentic feel to it, I think––because it was a reality lived by me and others like me who experienced the loss of the neighborhood they once knew. Sure people grow up and move away from home, but this was a different kind of American Graffiti. People in these Bronx neighborhoods weren’t escaping small-town boredom or banalities, they were leaving because their lives and their children’s lives were at risk.
I never liked visiting The Bronx once I left for college and, actually, avoided going there as much as possible after my parents moved to the suburbs of Long Island. Making BX3M was a great experience because it took me back to those painful years and allowed me to discover a new Bronx that had been rebuilt. The opening scene of BX3M where Michael and his friend Pus-head are getting high was supposed to have been filmed in one of the burnt-out buildings now iconic of The Bronx. Michael and Pus-head were supposed to rush out of the building by climbing through a broken window on to the rubble of bricks and steel from demolished buildings then part ways. We were unable to locate any area resembling that. I was disappointed as a filmmaker but happy as a former Bronxite. The Bronx was making a comeback. In retrospect, directing BX3M was a way of moving on––of putting the past behind me. I am not that Judith Escalona any longer, and haven’t been for quite some time, that became very clear after making this film.
Most importantly I chose to make BX3M over other screenplays because I wanted to challenge the prevailing view of Latinos who lived during that period and contest the narratives that continue to reinforce those stereotypes both in the U.S. where they originate and worldwide where they are consumed as reality.
• Such a great cast of young talent in this film, is it possible to explain what you were looking for?
I personally cast the film, occasionally consulting with my producers and director of photography. I was looking for a certain look and skill in acting. More than anything else, the actors had to show emotional range and a willingness to work long and at times grueling hours. They had to have a strong intuitive sense for the characters they were playing, a certain empathy and understanding of the community––which they all did. I guess I was lucky.
• There is a really interesting line on your bio that I read “The film presents an aspect of inner-city life generally overlooked in pursuit of the sensational”, can you tell us a little more about what you were trying to not show?
Maria and Mona are the Sotomayors of the inner city. I am referring to the current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who was born and raised in the South Bronx, in the inner city. Having a Latina sitting on the bench of our highest court makes it easier for me to describe who these adolescent characters are in BX3M. They are growing up under very difficult circumstances but not succumbing to them. Those circumstances are the drugs and violence surrounding and even invading their daily lives.
The “sensational” are the typical inner-city scenes of drug dealing, getting high, sex, fights, robberies, shootings, and police raids–– whatever comes to mind when one thinks of the inner city or the ghetto. The cinema and television have imprinted those images and stories in our brains. It is an intensified, dramatized reality that does or may exist in some form, but honestly, I lived through those times and must have witnessed only two or three incidents consistent with those stereotypical, now iconic, images of the inner city. The drama of attending school or holding a job does not stir our writers and directors’ imaginations as much. Ask Ken Loach, he knows what I mean!
• Can you tell us about working with your cinematographer – Tadeusz Ciesielski – and why you decided he was the person you wanted for BX3M?
Tadeusz or Ted as we call him was my dream Director of Photography. I had looked at several reels and was unhappy with them mainly because most of the work seemed commercial, overlit and unimaginative. I wanted a cinematographer who was intelligent, versatile, and familiar with a variety of filmmaking traditions. At the time, I was also looking for someone who had trained in celluloid filmmaking because my experience was that they knew how to light better. I kept asking around for anyone who knew a really fine cinematographer when I received a DVD of a beautifully shot film from a former student. I wondered if I could find that cinematographer. At about the same time a colleague mentioned a cinematographer who “really loved film” ––her words. I showed her the DVD cover and asked if he was as good as the cinematographer of this film. It was Ted whose work I was admiring and my colleague was describing! We met and got along perfectly. He is wonderful to work with. Intelligent, thoughtful, and versatile. Besides being a cinematographer, Ted is also an engineer and actually designed and built a car mount for us to use. How cool is that?!!! He was always willing to go that extra mile to get a shot or light a scene.
• When you were writing how do you bring all of the elements together with all of the characters involved in the movie – and their individual story arcs – how difficult was it?
Writing for me flows quite easily. I start with a strong sense of story that grows out of something that inspires me, a person, place or incident. I then begin generating scenes, the characters involved and their actions or dialogue within those scenes till I reach the end. Structure for me is most important but so far it seems to come together organically. Generally, I know intuitively the story I want to tell and the characters who inhabit the world of that story.
• So you’ve decided that you’re making this film and you’re the producer, writer, editor and director: how on earth are you planning each shooting day, is there an actual process?
I worked with two producers who handled the day to day operations while I focused on directing. I explained to them that BX3M would only get done if they made it happen. I had written the script, worked on the casting and hiring of the crew with my producers. I was covering all the costs. It was up to them to bring the project to fruition by scheduling the shoots, contacting the actors, making all the arrangements pertaining to locations, wardrobe, craft services, etc.
They did a remarkable job considering we only shot on weekends and that it took nearly a year to complete the shooting. I was also caring for my mother at the time who had Alzheimer’s Disease. My producers would help with her care as well if a shoot ran late. After we shot the film, we didn’t have any money to pay an editor so I wound up editing the film myself, periodically showing it to Ted, my producers, and friends. Looking back, it’s quite amazing the film got done––scary, actually.
• Can you tell us about why it was so important to be part of The Puerto Rico and the American Dream (www.PRdream.com) project? *
Puerto Rico and the American Dream/PRdream.com sponsored BX3M. The organization provided an office for our production team. It also offered its gallery space for casting and rehearsals. Full disclosure, I am the founder and Executive Director of PRdream.com which is a cultural NGO focusing on the Puerto Rican/Latino experience in the U.S. and the island of Puerto Rico. The website is actually the oldest Latino website of its kind worldwide, including Spain and Latin America. It needs to be upgraded but it stands as a website of the first iteration of the web and an irrefutable claim to cyberspace for our people.
PRdream.com’s mission “to empower community through technology,” is perhaps a little dated now but in 1998 it was electrifying, given the new media work we were doing in Spanish Harlem. The organization also gave our film project credibility and a strong community link. So many people turned out to support us in getting BX3M done. Locations, food, the limousine, and extras are just some of their contributions. All of this grew out of PRdream.com.
• How important is it for others to share their ideas or suggestions with you?
It’s very important for me to hear the ideas and suggestions of those I am working with. Filmmaking is a collaborative process with one central focus which is the director’s vision. I usually have my perspective on an issue or subject but conscientiously mull over what is suggested before making a decision.
* Judith is also the Executive Director and Founder of Puerto Rico and the American Dream the 21-year-old, award-winning website on the history, culture and politics of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Interviewer: Steve Grossmith
Guests: Judith Escalona