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Don’t Let Me Drown’ At Latino Film Festival

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Aired 3/12/10

Director Cruz Angeles and actress Yareli Arizmendi join us to talk about their film "Don't Let Me Drown," which is screening at this year's San Diego Latino Film Festival. It's about a clandestine love between two teenagers and is being touted as one of the best film portraits of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11.

Actors E.J. Bonilla (L) and Gleendilys Inoa in a scene from Cruz Angeles' "Don't Let Me Drown".
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Above: Actors E.J. Bonilla (L) and Gleendilys Inoa in a scene from Cruz Angeles' "Don't Let Me Drown".

"Don't Let Me Drown" screens tonight at 8pm at Ultrastar Mission Valley Cinema on Hazard Rd. The San Diego Latino Film Festival begins today and runs through March 21st.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego Latino Film Festival gets underway tonight in Mission Valley. It's the 17th year of the festival, and it’s grown over the years to encompass films from all over Latin and Central and South America, as well as the U.S. and Spain. One of the films kicking off the festival is a coming-of-age love story set in New York just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It's called "Don't Let Me Drown,” and it’s a pleasure to welcome its director, Cruz Angeles to These Days. And welcome, Cruz.

CRUZ ANGELES (Film Director): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Yareli Arizmendi is one of the stars of the film. She is also the co-writer, with her husband, of the 2004 film, “A Day Without a Mexican.” Yareli, welcome.

YARELI ARIZMENDI (Actress/Writer): Hi. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Cruz, where did the idea come from for “Don’t Let Me Drown?”

ANGELES: Well, I think the script – the screenplay was written by my wife and I and we started talking about, I guess, how the tension in New York right after 9/11 was very similar to the tension that the environ – I guess, the hostile environment that we both grew up in during the eighties because we both grew up in environments that were plagued by drugs and gang violence, which I feel is more of a – like it’s a domestic form of terrorism, you know, where you’re constantly watching your back because you don’t know what’s going to go down. And it certainly felt that way right after 9/11. It was a complication of sorts. You know, there was lot of fear, anger, grief, and we started talking about how when we were kids and were trying to escape the madness, you know, the gunshots or the ambulance, you know, or the helicopter that would, every other day, pass by, you know, the neighborhood to light up the streets, was – there was a similarity in – in what happened to us when we were young kids and what was going on in – right after September 11th in New York because there was a lot of F-16 fighter jets and helicopters and something…

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah. Yeah.

ANGELES: …and all that tension and fear, and we started talking about how the only thing that would help us kind of forget and escape for just a second all the chaos was falling in love or daydreaming about that boy or girl you had a crush on.

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

ANGELES: And so we decided to try to, you know, write a love story, coming of age love story, set one month right after 9/11 when – where, you know, a time when these two families are being directly affected by – by the aftermath.

CAVANAUGH: And your two main characters, Lalo and Stefanie , because of that environment, are – their homes, their neighborhoods, are all of a sudden hostile territory.

ANGELES: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, what does the – “Don’t Let Me Drown,” what does the title refer to?

ANGELES: Well, we were working with this whole idea of feeling like the walls are coming in on you and there’s too much weight to deal with and there’s a sense of feeling like you’re being suffocated, you know, emotionally, psychologically but environmentally as well. And this idea of just like, you know, these two kids who feel like the world is sort of – their world, their city, is drowning, and their households are under a enormous amount of stress dealing with grief, and they’re able to keep each other’s heads above water.

CAVANAUGH: To reach out for each other…

ANGELES: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …as they’re going down.

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

ANGELES: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: You know, in many ways, it’s kind of – it’s a little bit like a “Romeo and Juliet” story. There’s not a family feud going on but there are other reasons that the parents are opposed to this relationship. And, Yareli, you play Lalo’s mother. Why is your character opposed to this relationship?

ARIZMENDI: Well, there’s tremendous misconceptions, you know, between different Latino groups. Usually we make the mistake of speaking of Latino as one big block of, you know, Latino people that think alike. But it’s very divided and there’s tremendous misconceptions between the Mexicans and the Dominicans and the Puerto Ricans and the Cubans under this, you know – so that tension is definitely reflected, you know, in the film, which is one of the reasons why I love the characters that are – you know, that were drawn by Cruz and Maria because it’s just – it rings so, so true. You know, again, these are misconceptions…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARIZMENDI: …and ideas of why you wouldn’t want your child to be going out with a Dominican girl and, you know, and the tension of just day-to-day life, of survival in New York, you know, that you have the mindset of, oh, you know, of course you’re, you know, if you go out with her one night, you – you know, you’re going to get her pregnant and then…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ARIZMENDI: …oh, my God. And you’re like, well, what kind of way of thinking about love and thinking about the child that you have in front of you is this? And there’s a lot of love. It’s not – it’s misconceptions that are not malevolent. You know what I’m saying? It’s not just a…

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah, yeah.

ARIZMENDI: …malicious thing. It’s just – it’s life.

CAVANAUGH: You…

ARIZMENDI: And I think that that is one of the tremendous strengths of the film, that you are seeing, you are hearing these very real people that you know or perhaps that you are, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Yareli, tell us about your character. What is she up against?

ARIZMENDI: She is up against the rent of – You know, it’s due every month. You know, it’s kind of the counting of the pennies and the, you know, is there enough money for food? Is there enough, you know, is my husband ill and sick? Or what, you know, because all I – you don’t see him as much but you see him come into the house and just be very exhausted and tired and coughing and you’re like, you know, is something wrong with this man? And even if it is, he’s got to go back to work, you know what I’m saying? Because we really need…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARIZMENDI: …to make the rent.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARIZMENDI: And, you know, and Lalo, is he going to school? Is he making it, you know, is he getting there? Is – is – you – it’s the day-to-day, you know, just how do you make a household work on whatever, you know, amount of money you have or don’t have. And how are you going to navigate reality, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARIZMENDI: So it’s a very immediate and day-to-day consideration based in absolute love and care.

CAVANAUGH: Now, your son, Lalo, in the movie, keeps saying you’re OD. What does that mean?

ARIZMENDI: You’re so OD. I love that expression. It’s – I mean, it’s – I mean, it’s over the top, it’s you’re so – The mother, herself, is not understanding what it means, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ARIZMENDI: …what I’m saying. It’s that language, it’s that gap that happens between parents and their children that is like what is this? I mean, is that what you learn from these people, these Domicans? Or who taught you that? What is that, you know. And it’s – it is very – I think, again, that reflects a very real moment of not Latinos but just a mother and a son.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARIZMENDI: You know, like, you know, talk to me like you’re supposed to talk to me, use the correct language because I’m not getting you.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARIZMENDI: You know, so it’s just – it’s a beautiful moment like that, details put in the script that were fantastic.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, Cruz.

ARIZMENDI: Yeah.

ANGELES: Well, it’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, New York, youth, you know, hip-hop slang, which, you know, I gather that it’s – it was probably taken from, you know, an overdose?

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

ANGELES: So you’re overdoing it.

CAVANAUGH: You’re overdoing it.

ANGELES: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: You’re overly dramatic, something like that.

ANGELES: Yeah.

ARIZMENDI: Yes.

ANGELES: So when something is OD, it’s just messed up, it’s bad, it’s exaggerated, it’s wrong.

CAVANAUGH: How did you get that dialogue?

ANGELES: From hearing young people on the subway, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Just – just listening, huh?

ANGELES: Yeah. I mean, it’s – When I heard it, you know, I was like, my God, that’s really fun – I mean, I sort of right away, OD, okay, well, you know, if somebody OD’d…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

ANGELES: …they over did it, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Overdid it. Exactly.

ANGELES: So…

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with director Cruz Angeles and one of the stars of the film, Yareli Arizmendi, and we’re talking about the film, “Don’t Let Me Drown,” which is one of the films kicking off the San Diego Latino Film Festival tonight. And let me ask you, Cruz, it’s not just the background of 9/11, that’s not just the background of the lives of your characters but 9/11 really deeply affects each of these families. Tell us how it affects Lalo’s family.

ANGELES: Well, Lalo’s father, Ramon, played by the incredible Damián Alcázar, was working in the towers as a like custodian, like, you know, he was cleaning up the building. And he lost his job that day, like many, many, you know, immigrant workers who worked those buildings did. And they didn’t know where, you know, where else to go and he was recruited as a day laborer, as many immigrant workers were right after 9/11, to do the clean-up job in the perimeter of Ground Zero. So all these buildings that didn’t have like a lot of structural damage had, you know, their windows blown out and…

CAVANAUGH: Tons of debris.

ANGELES: …debris and soot. And some of them even were burned. And so Ramon has been hired to work in those buildings cleaning up the job. But the problem with the way this was done is that the city contracted a contractor, the contractor, you know, hired a subcontractor and that subcontractor hired somebody else and then they hired these workers.

ARIZMENDI: Right.

ANGELES: And they paid them in cash. And so, you know, Ramon is a story that at the time when we started writing the script, it was kind of an invisible story. You couldn’t find anything on the internet. And I found out about it by being there in Ground Zero, by – because I was there. I was working with young people and they were doing a video on what happened to their city and then I was also, at the same time, teaching a group of homeless men at a shelter, photography, and all they wanted to do was go back to, you know, Ground Zero. And by being there, you know, almost every week, I sort of uncovered – because I met a young person who I used to work with who was recruited to work there and he told me about this. And then I found out there was two organizations, an Asian-Latino-American workers’ organization that were trying to organize these workers but, you know, all the work, all the extras that you see in the film, except for two actors and Damián, are men and women who were working the clean-up, who were actually there during – right after 9/11 were working the clean-up. And some of them are sick and they’ve…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ANGELES: …lost some of their members for the same reason some of these firemen have died of their lungs collapsing or lung cancer or leukemia or, you know, there’s a lot of policemen and firemen that – whose stories have been told…

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely.

ANGELES: …in the New York press and so there’s a lot of these workers that are going through the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: And in the movie, Lalo’s girlfriend Stefanie, her family was personally devastated by 9/11.

ANGELES: Yeah. They – What happened in Stefanie’s family, you know, you know, while one family’s dealing with economic, you know, struggles and Ramon, you know, slowly becoming sick, the other family’s like literally – they lost somebody. They lost the older, you know, daughter who was sort of like the anchor in that family. You know, she was the one who, despite all the odds, went to college, got the good job, you know, at, you know, one of these investment firms, just a entry level job but still she was working there and they were very proud of her, and then they lose her. And consequently, like because she was kind of like their – the family gem, the father doesn’t know how to deal with it and he gets sort of stuck in this stage of grief, of anger where he’s bottling up all this resentment and anger and he’s not – I guess it’s a comment on masculinity, he’s not able to really deal…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ANGELES: …with grief openly and because of that he’s created a hostile environment for his daughter and his wife.

CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from your film, “Don’t Let Me Drown.” This is Lalo and Stefanie and they’re talking about Stefanie ’s sister. Earlier in the film, Lalo made the mistake of saying he was tired of hearing about 9/11 before he knew about Stefanie’s sister dying in the towers, and now he’s apologizing for that.

(audio of clip from the film “Don’t Let Me Drown”)

CAVANAUGH: The silences play such a role in that clip from “Don’t Let Me Drown,” a movie. And the director, Cruz Angeles, is here with me and on the phone, Yareli Arizmendi, one of the stars of the movie. I’m wondering, there’s – talking about the silences, there’s a great scene in the beginning of the movie. Lalo’s father comes home after a really hard day at work, his wife, Yareli, is running him a bath, he can barely breathe, his back is sore, and Lalo bends down, unties his father’s shoes, takes them off, there’s no dialogue. The gesture says so much about these two characters and I wonder, Cruz, how do you write a scene like that?

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

ANGELES: Well, I’m more – When I’m writing a film or when I’m directing a film, I don’t go and watch other films. I like looking through photography books and I’m a big art history kind of buff, you know, and took an art history class in high school in Los Angeles that really changed my life. And so I know that sometimes an image just says it all. And, I mean, it’s not always easy to come up with that image that says it all but I’m always trying to think of what is – the visceral says more than the dialogue. And so if I could say that through a action or a gesture or a look – and that’s why there’s a lot of silences in this – silence in this previous conversation that we just heard because I feel like it’s – the scene is less about – it’s less about, you know, what the characters are saying but that, you know, that there’s an affection that’s not being spoken about, you know, and that this boy cares about her well being and that she’s seen that. And I think with Ramon, it’s, you know, it’s, I mean, it’s family. You know, it’s father – it’s a father and son story but is also a mother and son story and like what – And the movie deals a lot with, I think, with, you know, how a family, how parents are responsible for the way a young person acts and reacts to things in the outside world.

CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of family, you wrote this script with your wife, Maria, is…?

ANGELES: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: How – Talk about your writing process. How does that work?

ANGELES: Oh, just like the marriage. There’s good times and bad. Well, I think, you know, the writing process was relatively smooth because I felt like, you know, and this is the most important thing about writing is that we really connected to the theme that, you know, love and laughter are good medicines for survival and hard times. And so for us, it – the writing the script was kind of a, you know, therapeutic kind of, you know, medicine for us to be able to escape the climate. You know, this was in 2002, 2003 when we were like, you know, thinking of going to war and – and so we just – we were tired of reading the paper and reading the bad news and I think it was a good way for us to escape. But, you know, in general, the process was like, you know, we outlined the script and talked about when you have very clear sense of the character, who the characters were and then, you know, I would write a scene and then she would rewrite it and then we would argue about it and come to a consensus.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Yareli, I don’t want to leave this because you and your husband also work together. You worked on the 2004 film, “A Day Without a Mexican.”

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have any insights on how it is to write with your husband, with your married partner?

ARIZMENDI: Yeah, it’s exactly like Cruz is saying. I had more of a – We would talk about the scene that we wanted to write and then I would be the one writing it and, you know, just going off into my own world, and he would be circling around me. And I am like, just stop it, you know what I’m saying. I’m not going to show you anything until it’s done or whatever. It’s like, well, I just – So it was kind of like this anguish of like what are you – you know, you’re kind of taking this hostage, this is not yours, this is like – Hey, it’s – I’m trying to just shape it so that you can see it. So, I mean, half the time you’re arguing and wasting this energy that you feel like it’s a wasted energy but it’s not. It all goes into the building of this piece, you know, that you’re building together. It’s very funny when you think of all of those, you know, discussions that would mean nothing to other people because they kind of – it starts taking on a language of its own. You know…

CAVANAUGH: So there really is no wasted energy.

ARIZMENDI: No.

ANGELES: No.

ARIZMENDI: No, I mean, it’s kind of – You have to go through it. There’s no easy shortcut. You know, it’s not clean.

ANGELES: But you have to enjoy it.

ARIZMENDI: Yeah, you’ve got to love it.

ANGELES: Even when it’s bad, even when the arguments are happening, I think Maria and I enjoyed it.

ARIZMENDI: Yeah. You know, you gotta stop and say, isn’t this incredible? I mean, we’re creating something…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ARIZMENDI: …out of just ideas. You know, they came into your mind and then you’re shaping them and it’s just very active, you know, the process of giving life to this idea that was so abstract at some point, you know.

ANGELES: There’s also something romantic about being able to have an intellectual like argument with your loved one, you know?

ARIZMENDI: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ANGELES: And she’s like, you know, it just – it makes it more interesting.

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Cruz. I know that you’re originally from Los Angeles. And you – isn’t New York basically, your base of operations now?

ANGELES: Yeah, for the last 12 years or something.

CAVANAUGH: And you shot this movie, it’s an independent film and you shot it New York. Tell us what that was like.

ANGELES: It was rough. I think when Yarrelli came it it was a smooth ride but the first few – first few weeks were rough. We were shooting at a time when there was a imminent writers’ strike.

ARIZMENDI: Umm-hmm.

ANGELES: And so a lot of productions that were, you know, supposed to happen later in the fall got pushed, you know, earlier.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

ANGELES: And so it was hard when it came down to us, you know, trying to find a crew, we, you know, we were dealing with, you know, whatever was left and so it was really difficult to find – And I feel blessed that I found – creatively found the right people, like our DP was incredible and our Production Designer was incredible. And so, you know, and it’s really important telling the story. But it was just difficult because, you know, when you have – when there’s scarcity in crew and you have a small budget, you know, it’s hard to negotiate and so some of the money that we could’ve had to do more creative stuff, covering the, you know, in coverage and actually shooting the film, we had to spend on personnel that, you know, that was a little bit more expensive because the demand was high. And…

CAVANAUGH: Did you learn things for your next film?

ANGELES: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, time is always a issue with a independent film. You know, you sit down with your DP and you create this shot list, you know, and…

CAVANAUGH: And your DP is…?

ANGELES: Chad Davidson.

CAVANAUGH: No, no, I mean what does DP mean?

ANGELES: Director of Photography. Sorry.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

ANGELES: Cinematographer. The guy who shoots the film.

ARIZMENDI: OD, DP.

ANGELES: Yeah, Director of Photography and I will sit down and just figure out where we’re going to place the camera, how many shots are going to, you know, cover each scene and then, you know, you go in with this wonderful idea of how you’re going to cover the scene and then you get to the set and Murphy’s Law is in effect, problems happen, the schedules change, you lose time, and then you’re left with your Assistant Director telling you you have one hour to shoot the scene.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ANGELES: And you have seven shots on the list and each shot usually takes, if you’re fast, if you have a fast crew, each shot takes about 30 minutes to execute from start to finish, so then, you know, Chad and I, the Director of Photography, we would have to like, you know, stand in the corner and be like, okay, what is the one—the one—shot that would say it all? And we had to do that a lot on this film.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ANGELES: We would have to figure out the one-er. And sometimes they worked beautifully and I think it was a blessing but sometimes it was not, you know, and some of the stuff ended up on the editing room floor because, you know, rhythm is really important in film and if you only get one shot and you don’t get other coverage then you’re sitting there watching a, you know, three-minute shot that should – in a scene that should be two minutes. And if you had coverage, you’d be able to edit down. Fortunately, we got into a rhythm right when we went into the Mexican household and Yareli, I don’t think she ever – she ever experienced that, you know…

ARIZMENDI: No.

ANGELES: …the harder…

CAVANAUGH: We’re just about out of time. I want to let everybody know, of course, that this film, as I said, is one of the films opening the San Diego Latino Film Festival. When will it be in theaters, Cruz?

ANGELES: We’re planning on releasing it late in the spring, early summer. We’re still trying to get dates. And it should be, you know, available in the fall, you know, on TV and DVD. I just can’t tell you where. We’re closing those contracts right now so…

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

ANGELES: …I can’t tell you exactly where.

CAVANAUGH: Well, keep your eyes open on your DVD file and on cable television…

ANGELES: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …and in theaters.

ANGELES: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: “Don’t Let Me Drown” is the name of the movie but it is also screening tonight at 8:00 p.m. at Ultrastar Mission Valley Cinema on Hazard Road. The San Diego Latino Film Festival begins today, it runs through March 21st. You can go to sdlatinofilm.com for more information. And Cruz Angeles, Yareli Arizmendi, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ARIZMENDI: Thank you.

ANGELES: Thank you, and come and see the movie.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to post a comment about this segment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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