Adam Interviews the Writer/Director of El Chicano Ben Hernandez Bray. The Superhero film recently made its World Premiere at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Our coverage of El Chicano is just beginning. Earlier we had our review of the film that just made its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday. Tomorrow we’ll have an interview with Producer and Co-Writer Joe Carnahan. Look for further coverage as the film is released in theaters in the coming months as we here at The Movie Isle feel El Chicano doesn’t just kick ass (which it does by the metric ton) but is a personal heartfelt story told by a new voice that deserves a spotlight.
First up is our in-depth interview we did with the Creator of El Chicano, Writer/Director Ben Hernandez Bray. Bray has worked as a Stunt Man and Stunt Coordinator for well over 20 years with credits in movies like Star Trek (2009), The Grey, and Jack Reacher. In the last decade, he’s made the transition from Stunt Coordinator to Second Unit Director to Director working on Popular TV Shows such as Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. Now, El Chicano has Bray taking the director’s chair for his Feature Film Debut. I sat with Bray to discuss the creation of the character El Chicano and what I’m dubbing the East Los-verse. Bray spoke to how deeply personal the writing and directing of El Chicano was, how it took well over a decade for it to come to fruition, and a host of other great details.
Enough from me, let’s get to the interview:
Adam: After watching it, the only regret was that I didn’t get to see it on the super big screen, but what I understand that you guys are … releasing this theatrically, correct?
Ben: Yes, we are. … And I love that’s been the response, bro. I think that few other critics have seen it and they’ve said the same thing. The only regret is that they wish they’ve seen it on a big screen. It is phenomenal on the big screen and the composer and all the effects, all the sound that is put into it. It bleeds in the big time trajectory because it is fantastic. Thank you so much for that and that’s what it was. That whole movie, it just came from my heart … The whole backstory, the whole deal. I appreciate it.
Adam: That’s what I wanted to open up with is how did El Chicano to come to fruition? Was it something that you presented to Joe [Carnahan, producer, and co-writer of El Chicano] and War Party [The Production Company owned by Carnahan and actor Frank Grillo]? Or did they come to you and ask you if you had something you wanted to develop? How did that eventually play out?
Ben: You know what. It’s crazy. I’ve known Joe, God, going on … 18 years.
Adam: You were literally on the ground floor with him [Carnahan] doing stunt work.
Ben: Yeah it started out, you know with Joe, we had this working relationship and friendship, and now we are best friends. It was funny, I initially had this idea came about. I, unfortunately, had my youngest brother passed away about 12 years ago. He got caught up in the streets and I lost him to the streets, unfortunately, and that was the initial point of how this [all] even started. I had gone through a really hard time with his death. I was very angry, very upset, and more so I think because of how it affected the whole family. My mother, in particular, and my brothers and sisters. There was a total of 6 of us … It was hard, ’cause we all grew up in a rough neighborhood but under the same roof. The thing that I couldn’t wrap my head around was the fact that we all grew up in the same neighborhood, the same house, had the same values. It was my mother, my grandmother, my grandmother raised us. We were very fortunate. We got out of the neighborhood. My brother really embraced that life. He loved it. I think now when I look back it was the fact that even if you’re blood, everybody’s different. Everybody views things differently. For him, where I just didn’t want that life at a very young age, he did, and so we lost him. It’s funny, I don’t know how it happened. It was more of an instinctual thing. I just started writing a memoir.
Adam: Memoir or Script?
Ben: Putting it on paper, just my thoughts and my feelings about him passing, all the emotions I was going through, what my mother was going through when she had to bury her youngest son, what my brothers and sisters were going through. I just kept writing. It was almost like a journal … While that was happening, I was coming up in the business as a Stuntman, more so as a Stunt Coordinator and Second-Unit Director. I started combining what I was doing for a living for what I was putting on paper, and I started creating this story in script form, roughly.
Ben: As time went on, I just kept developing the story, and developing it as I kept coming up in the business. I had an unfortunate situation, it’s been about 3 years, we lost a daughter. My wife and I.
Adam: Oh gosh.
Ben: Yeah, here I was sitting here with the fact that I lost a brother beforehand and now my girl. It was tough. It was tough … At this point, I had already been talking to Joe about this story. He was very interested in it. In the middle of him doing The A-Team, and Smokin’ Aces, and The Grey, he said, “Man, just keep writing it. Once you’ve got something solid, let’s sit down and talk about it.”
When she passed, her name was Isabella … it was tough and Joe knew what I was going through, I needed to take some time off once I took care of the family. Joe was, God bless him, he was like, “I know this is gonna sound really fucking crazy, bro, but I can’t think of anything other than how much you love your family and you love this business more than you continue to write and develop this story about your brother, and maybe it’s time to take some time off, you know, and dedicate this story, this script, to your brother and your daughter.” It hid a chord in me.
I had a buddy who lived out in New York. This guy named Greg Harris, stunt guy, who had an apartment out in the Financial District, and I called him up and asked him if his place was available, and it usually was cause he was always out of town working in the west. He said it’s open for the next couple of months. I spent 4 weeks in New York. In the dark. In a 700 square foot apartment and I wrote every day for 4 weeks and I finished it. It was 188 pages, but I finished it. Good, bad, ugly, it was done. I had everything on paper.
Came back home, presented it to Joe, and Joe was like, “It’s all there.” Even though it was a script form, it was still more of a memoir, but it was all there. He loved it. The next step, a couple weeks after that, we went to Palm Springs, he had a place outside of Palm Springs … We took off for 2 weeks, brother. We laughed, we cried, we did tequila shots, hugged it out, and we wrote a solid 128 pages … When the smoke cleared and we turned down the lights, it was a very surreal moment. We were looking at each other across the room going like, “I think we’ve got something really special here that we’ve put together.”
That’s what started. We wrote this thing. We started shopping around and we were definitely starting to get some traction on it. We realized as much as I was emotionally attached to it because it represented my family, where I grew up, and this whole idea of a superhero theme, meaning El Chicano was just a metaphor for not having a father.
That’s where that idea came from because I always felt like when Craig [Hernandez Bray’s Brother]. When Craig passed away, I was lucky I had mentors in my life and so did my brothers and sisters. They always had someone to look up to, other than our mother and grandmother, outside of the family. We felt like Craig didn’t really have that and I think it was because he was out on the streets so much. I always questioned/wondered if our father was around, would that have been enough for him to be alive today. Maybe he would’ve made different choices in his life.
That’s how the EC [El Chicano] character came to fruition. It was a metaphor for not having a dad. Somebody there to teach you right from wrong, to protect you, to protect the place you lived, your family, and was a guide, even if it was a spiritual guide. Somebody that … Guides you in understanding what’s right and wrong, and learn from your mistakes, a little bit of trial and error.
After we had put it together, we started shopping around. We got Lorenzo Bonaventura [Producer of not only El Chicano but Transformers, G.I. Joe] got involved … Sure, there’s the studio route, but we felt it was so special that we wanted to own it, you know? We wanted to own the IP, we wanted to own the name.
Joe had some connects out in Calgary; I put a Lookbook together of all the visuals and the colors and textures and tones, or what I felt the film and the story was about. I had my son and my stunt team come together, and we put a previs of that … You know the scene in the bar where we first reveal the present day El Chicano?
Adam: Yeah, towards the middle third of the film?
Ben: Yeah, so I actually shot a Pre-Viz of rehearsal of that with AfterEffects. That’s what we put together to present to the investors in Calgary. Then that was it.
We had a budget of, I think … 6.5 or 7.5 million, and that’s what started. … We shot 19 days in Calgary and we did about 5/6 day in East LA [Pickups & additional Photography] … The last day of shooting, it was part of the end scene you see in the film, that was done for nothing. One of the stunt guys got in his truck, we loaded the bike up, I flew Raúl [Castillo, the lead of El Chicano] out from New York, and had all the stunt team, all the guys I’ve known for almost 30 years, including both my sons that are in the movie. We just went out and shot gorilla style for 16 hours.
The Pre-Viz/Proof of Concept that Ben was speaking about is right here for your viewing pleasure. Trust me, this is just a taste of the badassery that you’re in store for.
Ben: I had Jason Hallman, my editor, just an amazing human being, out there helping us to reference and just keep track of everything. Joe came out there to watch.
Everything was meant to be. It was supposed to end that way. I truly believe that. It’s been a good fight, from the beginning, the middle and the end, I’ll tell you that much.
Adam: Absolutely. By the way, this film looks like a 30-50 million dollar movie.
Ben: Ah, thank you.
Adam: It’s polished, it’s tight, you mentioned your editor Jason Hallman [Hellman edited the amazing and underrated Déjà vu] … What I loved so much about the film was how you were able to maintain this … origin story but it’s told as a Detective/Mystery, which is something I’ve never seen before in a superhero movie. We’ve got what, how many Batman’s? And they’ve never used that kind of [storytelling] trope.
Ben: Yeah, exactly, brother. What I wanted to do is really 3 layers. It’s this origin story and you’ve got this procedural thing going on with the other element. Also, this kind of grounded story about family, about relationships, and really delve into that. Listen, I’m a fan of Batman. When he’s a little boy, when he’s a child, and he sees his parents are killed, I want to see more of that story. I want to be able to experience the healing part of that story, instead of just like, okay, he’s out to avenge and find who did this and also protect Gotham City and the city itself so it doesn’t happen. So no one else has to ever deal with what he dealt with as a child, you know? I wanted to be more in depth.
Adam: Absolutely. The procedural leads into that, which I find so beautiful. It really reminded me of … Narc [a film directed by Producer Joe Carnahan], and how the case isn’t just a case, it’s also this emotional journey that they go on, because he doesn’t really know his brother, and he has this image of him.
Adam: What so beautiful about the film, and it was something that I really wanted to ask you about was there are these cultural touchstones that if you’re not Latino you’re not going to really understand.
Adam: But if you’re Latino, it hits you right in the chest because it’s something that you’ve never seen before on screen. Like there are things with the flashback and how important boxing was even though boxing is never really mentioned, it’s glimpsed upon and that’s something that’s like my grandfather [PERSONAL NOTE: I am part Latino, my Grandfather was Mexican American who died back in 2001] I mean he was into boxing and if you wanted to solve problems you got into the ring, you sparred.
Ben: Very cool. I’m so glad you caught that, yeah. It is a cultural crema with that. It was like anywhere in the neighborhood if you lived in the Valley [re The San Fernando Valley] where there was always a gym or there was a Boys’ Club of America or a teen center, and there was always a ring, and there was always gloves. There was always gloves laying around the gym. Kids would get out there and box. I mean, that’s what we did, you know?
Ben: If there was an issue we stopped. They’d throw you in the ring and tie up the gloves.
Adam: Exactly. Things like the way that you use Aztec symbolism and how it’s never really explained, but it’s shown.
Adam: Things like … one of my favorite characters was Jesus, the old Vato that has knowledge about everything and he’s not just the wise wizard but he’s a little politicized. He’s like an old-school Vato from the 70s that things meant something to him and he tries to watch out for the barrio but he knows that his time has passed and he just has to wait. I mean, all these little touches.
Adam: Even like Shotgun’s [the primary villain of El Chicano] what made me smile was when we see Shotgun as an adult that two-tone hair, the blond on top and the fade. I was like, you’ve known dudes like that in the barrio. You know those guys, those visuals, those touchstones.
Ben: Yes … You know people, I’ve been questioned whether I mean you have all the elements. Every layer is there. How, how did you think of it? I lived it. I lived it. You know I grew up in the San Fernando Valley … So all of these characters, every single character you see in the film from Vanessa to Susanna to Thomas, it’s based on my life. Vanessa [played by Aimee Garcia] she’s just based on my wife.
Bravo reminds me of this kid Miguel that was a homie of mine that I grew up on the streets with. So every single one of those characters and all those new ones that were like, you would walk into your homeboy’s house and your house and your mother was making tortillas and when you were in there it was like you saw symbolism, you know little things of that nobody really talked about it. And I felt like even within the story, for me, I hate when they have to explain these moments, its not so much in the narrative but with dialog … you have to have all this exposition to explain, “oh well this is what this means. This is what that means.” I don’t want to fucking hold audience’s hands to do it. They’ll get it. They may see it, especially the Latin community. But also, I think even just a regular audience with all different ethnicities understand what that is, you know?
Adam: Yeah, no absolutely. And how did you manage to relay that to not just your actors but to the department heads to make sure that they were doing things right because when you walk into Jesus’ [played by Marco Rodriguez] apartment, it’s just layered in a way that you can tell somebody’s lived there and lived there for a long time. And it’s not just layered from layers of shit there. How did you navigate that with the department heads?
Ben: Especially because all that was shot in Calgary.
Ben: You know what we did, is Amy Brewster [Production Designer of El Chicano]. She was fantastic and had an amazing team. Amy came out to Los Angeles, flew out here. It was me, Amy, I had Edgar Hernandez, a good friend of mine who is an Ex-Gang Member and had access to all these areas in East LA, like Boyle Heights.
So we got everybody together and we got to visit some of these [housing] complexes, out in Boyle Heights. I had Amy look at some of these apartments, some of the houses. So, she got the textures, the colors and you walked in and you saw … the Santa Maria and the candles and the crosses and everything. She said, “I have to do justice to this script”. They go, “All you need to do is see this for yourself in realtime and you’ll get it”.
She got it. Once she walked into the projects in Boyle Heights and where some of the oldest Vato Loco Mexican gangs were since like late 50s early 60s and we were able to walk into some of these homes and she was able to get all these visual examples of the essence or of the tone, how they lived … That’s how we were able to interpret that. And she took all that back, God bless her, to Calgary and killed it
Adam: When people see this, they’re going to have a strong reaction. I mean it feels like it was built that way.
Ben: It was … What I’m hoping is that there is a clear understanding of the message in the story when they see the movie. You know it’s not just some gangster.
Adam: Yeah, it’s not.
Ben: What is important to me is to also expose every single element of the streets, especially the Chicano Streets. And the reality is, is I’m not trying to glorify it. But the reality is it’s out there. So, as much as you see Emilio Rivera playing this hardcore gangster who’s running speed in the early 90s, there’s also a school teacher who’s in love with a police officer and they both happen to be Latino. And that’s important. You know there’s a balance there.
Adam: Oh, absolutely. The perfect example of it is your very smart casting of George Lopez as Captain Gomez. Maybe you could talk a little bit how he’s not your typical police officer in a kind film. He has a level of tough love but he’s never what I like to describe as that Fascist Supercop.
Adam: He has a level of contemplation about him which I found super refreshing.
Adam: How did you approach writing that character because it’s so easy to write the flip side of it which is like the “Yelling Captain” but he’s so not that?
Ben: No, and you know what? Believe it or not, it’s for me, that wasn’t complicated at all. What it was is, again, to the fact it’s all relatable to my life growing up in the Barrio. But it was like what I did to really approach that character with Captain Gomez was the fact that the key was he never forgot where he came from. He grew up on the same streets, the same Barrio, same homes.
It’s the same cycle, right? It’s like Captain Gomez but now here’s Detective Hernandez who’s basically trying to fill his boots. So, I approached that no matter how he did things by the book and how he was raised in the same neighborhood, graduated high school, went to the military, he did the right things.
Ben: But never forgot where he came from. It wasn’t just the fact that he was a cop, whether it is a Sargent or a Captain. There was also this part of him that never left of where he came from.
That was the key and that was the thing I kept telling George. No matter how hardcore, you’re by the book and right is right and wrong is wrong, there’s also this kind of open space in your heart, in your mind. If you were raised in the same era then you know whatever you were dealing with whether it be negative or positive, this next generation’s doing the same.
So, that was the key for me in developing that character. When I talked to George about it, he got it. The reason why I was able to get George, and he was my first pick, was because George grew up in the same neighborhood as me, literally grew up in the same neighborhood. He’s from San Fernando Valley. I think he even worked in Van Nuys. I lived in Van Nuys. So, there was a connection. When he read the script he said, “Man, I know every one of these Vatos.” I go, “I know, bro.” He got it. There’s this human side of him [Captain Gomez]. But at the same time, there is this “this is my responsibility as a police officer.” That’s what I kept thinking as we were writing the script.
Adam: Absolutely. He’s [Lopez] really great. I love the fact that people are going to go in with an expectation from him and they’re just going to be totally blown away by his work.
Ben: Totally. I mean, the screenings that we’ve had with some of the buyers, they go, “I know that’s George … I know its George, but is that a new George Lopez?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, man”. It’s like the old saying is most comics, they have a dark side to them. And he had a rough upbringing. His father wasn’t around and his grandparents were the ones who raised him and growing up in San Fernando … that’s a rough area.
Adam: It is. No, it definitely is. I grew up in Sylmar.
Ben: Wow, my wife’s from Sylmar.
Adam: Oh, really?
Ben: Yeah, man.
Adam: Oh, man. Yeah. Sylmar, Pacoima, that’s where I grew up. That’s where my family’s from.
Ben: Growing up in the hood and growing as a ghetto kid up in the street, it was like, yeah, it’s cool to watch Spider-Man. It was cool to watch Batman but it felt like those were other people’s Superheroes.
We need somebody that we can recognize ourselves in. When we look into their eyes, they are our eyes. Creating this character was like, “what if we have a Superhero from the hood? How cool would that be?” Something that we could literally call our own. But at the same time, it had a universal message and every ethnicity could embrace it. It’s been a real blessing. It’s been a hell of a journey.
Adam: Absolutely. I can only imagine. I mean, literally 12 years in the making and it shows the layers and how much passion is on screen. I think it’s going to translate into audience connection.