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Shooting in Tijuana

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Los Angeles is a giant when it comes to making movies.

Here in San Diego and Tijuana, we’re stuck under the huge shadow of L.A. It’s hard to compete with Hollywood. But think about it: the border has good bones for eventually becoming a film mecca. It’s one, big, super diverse place that offers access to two really different backdrops. Plus, shooting a film in Mexico is a lot cheaper. And there’s not as much red tape when it comes to permits.

Unfortunately, though, a lot of large-scale production companies only think about the border when they’re thinking about movies or TV shows about narcos and drugs.

Lots of filmmakers only see the Mexico-U.S. border as a backdrop for stories about drug cartel violence. It’s become such a trope that “narco-fatigue” is a term now. Folks are exhausted by news and pop culture focused on the drug trade in Mexico. Yeah, it’s a huge issue here, but it’s just way over done.

Locally, though, some filmmakers like Omar Lopex are using the border to their advantage, making movies that have nothing to do with narcos.

And that trend is starting to pick up some steam thanks to efforts by local film groups that are working hard to boost filmmaking in our binational region.

Today, a story about filming across borders.

Only here will you find filmmakers in San Diego and Tijuana using the border as a valuable resource instead of a janky prop.

Show transcript

Los Angeles is a giant when it comes to making movies.

Here in San Diego and Tijuana, we’re stuck under the huge shadow of L.A. It’s hard to compete with Hollywood unless you’re like Canada or New Mexico, two places that have aggressively -- and successfully -- gone after the film industry by luring production companies with big tax breaks and other financial incentives.

But think about it -- the border has good bones for eventually becoming a film mecca.

It’s one, big, super diverse place that offers access to two really different backdrops. Plus, shooting a film in Mexico is a lot cheaper. And there’s not as much red tape when it comes to permits.

Unfortunately, though, a lot of large-scale production companies only think about the border when they’re thinking about movies or TV shows about narcos and drugs.

Case and point: Netflix’s new series named “Tijuana”:

Clip 1 from Tijuana Netflix TV show
https://www.netflix.com/title/80241474

Lots of filmmakers only see the Mexico-U.S. border as a backdrop for stories about drug cartel violence. It’s become such a trope that “narco-fatigue” is a term now. Folks are exhausted by news and pop culture about the drug trade in Mexico. Yeah, it’s a huge issue here, but it’s just way over done.

Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 2 | 20:21 - 20:29
You're either a Zombie, a prostitute, a migrant or a narco, you know, those are the roles -- or dead body, you know. .

Locally, though, some filmmakers like Omar Lopex are using the border to their advantage, making movies that have nothing to do with narcos.

And that trend is starting to pick up some steam thanks to efforts by local film groups that are working hard to boost filmmaking in our binational region.

Jodi Interview Clip 3 (35:03 - 35:31)
So hopefully that helps ----- create more of a cross border collaboration. If we can get through the mental border , if we can go, okay, it's okay to go down to Mexico and I'm going to survive. Um, I think there'll be a lot more collaboration, but that that border can, can really shut people down

I’m Alan Lilienthal and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere's busiest border crossing.

Today, a story about filming across borders.

Only here will you find filmmakers in San Diego and Tijuana using the border as a valuable resource instead of a janky prop.

More after the break.

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Omar Explaining Lenses Clip 4 Nat Sound (01:00 - 1:23)
Okay. [Camera sound)

Omar Lopex is shooting on an old 16 millimeter analog film camera.

We’re at a soccer field in a quiet neighborhood of Tijuana called Colonia Lázaro Cárdenas.

Inside VW Bug Clip 5 : (00:41 - :53)
Alan: Is that your film camera. This one? Yeah. 35 or 16. Really cool. What are you going to process and all that? Oh, it's just about photo camp. up in Burbank.

Omar and his crew have shot a lot at this location, using the nearby staircase, hill and canyon as sets for their film, which takes place in a fantastical universe where only women exist.

Omar is already done with the actors and the bigger shoots. Today, he and his stunt driver are out getting some b-roll and other behind-the-scenes footage they need.

Omar Discussing Shots Clip 6 (05:14 - 5:22)
Omar: we're going to take his bug and do some shots over here on the hill in the canyon. Yeah. Beautiful. Red Bug over there.
Omar Discussing Shots Clip 7 (04:55 - 5:06)
….you know, if it has wheels, he can drive it. He can crash it. Flip it.
Omar Discussing Shots Clip 8 (05:27 - 5:42)
Omar: we're going to go down the hill, uh, and I'm gonna ride on top of the, the hood of the car and then do some closeups, like while it's driving down the hill and then down at the bottom of the canyon. I'm gonna drive behind him and, uh, and get shot at him driving through the neighborhood.

The road they’re filming is winedy and peppered with houses that seem to be just barely clinging to the cliff.

Clip 9 Natsound of camera or Omar shooting the scene

After Omar gets the first shot, we head to a convenience store at the bottom of the canyon so he can get the next shot.

Omar Prepares Camera Clip 10 (00:00 - :16)
so this is the hood mount to uh, to put the camera to like right on top of the hood. And I'm going to follow him when he drives and get a shot of the car driving through the neighborhood.

Music bump

This is Omar’s first-ever feature length film. And there was never any question about where he was going to shoot it.

There’s really no other place he’d rather be making a movie than here in Tijuana.

Omar Prepares Camera Clip 11 (06:01 - 6;16)
Omar: it's a different way of life here, you know, it's not so many rules and restrictions and I think people are just a lot more willing to that sort of, you know, like let's, let's do something, let's get this done. So to spirit spills out into everything else.
Omar Prepares Camera Clip 12 (08:05 - 8:18)
Rooster Crows. Omar: feels weird to like be down here like so few. Such a small crew. I Miss my actors
Clip 13 Natsound:Rooster Crows.

Fade to silence

Omar was a visual artist for years before he decided that making movies is what he wants to do. He grew up in San Diego, but both his parents are from Mexico, so growing up he spent a lot of time in Tijuana, hanging out with his grandma. That’s why he feels so at-home here.

When Omar did make that switch from art to film, he says he used the city of Tijuana as the starting point for his first full-length movie.

He says the city and all its quirks and problems, tenacity and hidden beauty inspired the entire plot of his film. And Tijuana also allowed him to overcome financial and bureaucratic obstacles, too.

Back in our studio in San Diego, Omar explained just how big of a role TJ has played in his movie.

Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 14 (07:56 - 9:31)
Shooting in Tj is a dream. Uh, especially for someone with no budget and no permit. It feels like a city. Uh, and this is kind of like painting with a broad brush. Like it's mad, it's a magical city, but, but really people want to do things, if that makes sense. Like their game, their game for stuff. So all the, all the time, you know, we're shooting in, in the street, we can't block off streets. We didn't pay for permits and things are, so we have to wait for cars to be out of the way or people to be out of the way. And we want to be really polite about it cause we're showing up and just like suburban neighborhoods, you know, we're small crew, but we're just really just showing up and you know, these people shouldn't have to, you know, move their whole lives for, for our shoot. And you know, sometimes we'll be standing there waiting like, or this one time of waiting like five minutes longer because we couldn't get these people out of the back of a shot. And this woman who worked at a store right there was watching this and she came up and said, are you guys shooting the movie? Said, yeah. Says, well, these people are in your way, Huh? Yeah, but you know, what do you, no, no, no. Hold on. Hey, I shouldn't have moved me over here. You know, away she went and she was like, are, you know, like our traffic control? And she had no Jenn, nothing get out of it. She didn't have visited interested in it other than, you know, she, she saw someone trying to do something creative and, and said, you know, I, you know, she was for it.

TJ NAT SOUND

For those who’ve never been to Tijuana, I should probably take a minute to try to describe it. It’s a mishmash of everything. You’ve got shacks and shanty towns in some parts, and million dollar mansions in others. You’ve got the beach. The desert. And sparkling new skyscrapers next to shells of skyscrapers that were only ever half built.

Overall, the city looks somehow both post-apocalyptic but also futuristic at the same time. In many ways, it’s still stuck in the past, with chickens running around on dirt roads that cut across the hillsides and apron-wearing abuelas.

But the border city also gives us a glimpse of the future with its digital billboards, genre-defying architecture and collision of world cultures.

Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 17 (03:55 - 4:24)
Omar: it's sort of like a ready made set, you know, the whole, if you get out of the touristy areas, which is the parts that I'm more interested in, like the suburbs, uh, everything's ready made. You can put your camera anywhere you want, you know, without a script and just like start shooting that and something will happen. Uh, and that was a, a large part of the idea of why I wanted to shoot down there. Um, it's just, it's a fantastic place, you know
Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 18 (02:57 - 3:47)
Omar: I feel more like Tijuana's is like, uh, it's like a place, kind of like a freedom, you know? I was thinking about the border wall the other day and, you know, it's kind of like, for me, I'm very, very lucky, uh, with my citizenship and it's sort of like the flip side of the coin instead of keeping Mexicans out of America, it kind of keeps America out of Mexico for me. Uh, like, I don't know about you, but like when I cross I feel really good and like my phone doesn't work so no one can get ahold of me and like, my chest feels bigger than my legs feel stronger. Uh, yeah, there's twice as much smog and smoke, but I still like, I breathe better. I just feel good. Um, I think it's because I feel like Tijuana is like that. It's like the, it's like freedom from everything that's over here.
Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 19 (02:37 - 2:47)
Omar: I feel very comfortable. I like it. Um, it's like, uh, like, uh, you know, it's a break from the straight lines and things in like San Diego.
Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 20 (15:01 - 15:11)
Omar: You know, I could never shoot this film in San Diego. It would never look the right way. Um, that that's, you know, that's the biggest difference.

Things just work differently in Tijuana. It’s not pure anarchy, you can’t get away with everything. But you can get away with lots of things you could never do in the U.S.

Like, for instance, writing your own permit for pyrotechnics like Omar did one day when he needed to blow something up for his film.

Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 21 (17:13 - 17:54)
Omar: I have a picture of it on Instagram. It was a, it was a handwritten piece of paper that my producer wrote. We are going to be here this day at this time. Do you mean pyrotechnics? It was just sort of like letting them know that, you know, if you see explosions here, it's not, you know, criminal, you know, someone blowing stuff up, but we didn't pay for it or anything and it works perfectly fine. Yeah. Yeah. The caveat was the guy, you know, the cop that stamped it and stuff said, okay, this is not a permit. So if cops show up, which they did, if cops show up, you know, and you show them this, this isn't like a guarantee. It's not like a permit. It's, you know, it's something, but I can't guarantee you that. It's fine. Cops didn't even stop. They just drove by.

Omar is not on a crusade to get a bunch of filmmakers to think about recasting Tijuana as more than a city filled with drug cartels and violence. In fact, there is lots of violence and murders in his own movie, but the violence is not connected to Tijuana or the drug war in any way.

He just knew he wanted to avoid addressing the border, immigration, narcos and prostitution in his film. He’s got “Narco fatigue” just like lots of people here who are tired of those tropes when it comes to movies and television shows set in Tijuana.

Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 22 (30:20 - 30:31)
Omar: it was more just like that fatigue is, there's other stuff, you know, I can, if I made an a narco movie, it just be one of another hundred narco movies.
Omar Lopex Studio Interview Clip 23 (19:56 - 20:29)
…., all of my actors, you know, they, they all work as extras in, in those things. And um, it's sort of Nice in this movie that they get like bigger roles because they're always either. Yeah. You're either a Zombie, a prostitute, a migrant or a narco, you know, those are the roles or dead body did by, you know,

Right now, though, Omar is mostly the exception, not the rule.

While there are some smaller and a few bigger production companies working on projects here, most folks in the local film industry agree that there’s not nearly enough films being shot in Tijuana and San Diego.

That’s why two local film groups are working hard to boost the profile of the film scene at the border.

More on that when we come back.

Midroll Ad

Jodi Cilley (silly) is a film educator and producer who, years ago, launched the industry group Film Consortium San Diego. She also produces the annual San Diego Film Awards.

And, full disclosure here by the way, Jodi does some contract work for KPBS and helps the station find new film and podcast projects.

Jodi is a huge promoter of the San Diego film scene. But, somewhat ironically, she actually lives in Tijuana.

That’s part of why she sees the border as one big region perfect for making movies and TV.

Right now, though, the two sides don’t talk very much.

She says the San Diego Film Consortium is working to help bridge that gap.

Jodi Interview Clip 25 (26:58 - 27:07)
Jodi: we've expanded our film consortium to include films from Tijuana and to in Baja in to encourage this cross border collaboration.
Jodi Interview Clip 26 (40:32 - 41:18)
Jodi: I always joke like film consortium south or phone consortium Tijuana. But I could, you know, I could see this be a really great generator of content and uh, and I'm a great, are a big resource of, uh, for casting crew and locations. We, what we've done in San Diego has grown our database out really deeply. Like we've got no hundreds and hundreds of people that we have in our database of local filmmakers. And I want to do the same thing down here. I want to be able to grow our resources list in our database of cast and crew that we can access and reach out to down here in Tijuana. I'm to the point where we can offer that to people that come to town and, you know, want to film something here.
Jodi Interview Clip 27 (37:32 - 37:54)
that to me, uh, is, is the epitome of it to me to feel comfortable and say, okay, I can connect all the resources in San Diego to a TJ filmmaker and a TJ filmmaker can connect me with all the resources they have down here for crew and maybe local cast that I don't necessarily have access to. Um, I see that as a big step forward for us actually start making films on both sides of the border.

Money is always the big challenge when it comes to making movies. It’s hard to get it. She says Tijuana can help with that.

Jodi Interview Clip 28 (42:13 - 43:00)
It's significantly cheaper to do just about anything down here. But I also think, you know, we need to grow the, the access to the resources. Like, how do I, if someone were to come down here and want to film something where, where's the crew that I can just go and talk to you and that they're ready and the cast and you know, do we have a list of locations that we, that we've already vetted that, you know, they're film friendly and affordable and uh, catering and you know, all of that. So really it's the growth of the network that can be mobilized to produce something from, you know, if someone were to want to film on this side of the border.
Jodi Interview Clip 29 (27:52 - 28:32)
Like shooting something down here is amazing in terms of your access to resources and, uh, food, you know, locations, everything is significantly cheaper and you get these, I mean, it looks like a movie set. You've got these million dollar movie sets every direction. You look down here from Zombie apocalypse to, to just like super rich, you know, mansions to casinos and stuff out of the eighties and nineties that doesn't exist in the u s anymore exists here all over the place. Internet, cafes,

But if it’s soooo great and cheap to film south of the border, then why aren’t more production companies north of the border doing it already?

The film business in Tijuana has ebbed and flowed over the years.

Famously, most of “The Titanic” was shot at an oceanfront movie studio south of Rosarito. And there’s been a few other big one-off productions like episodes of the television shows “Charley’s Angels” and, more recently, “Fear The Walking Dead.”

And in the past few years, Netflix has been doing more and more work in Baja and Tijuana. Director René Bueno is currently working on “Tijuana, I Love You,” a film made up of seven stories about different sins shot here in TJ.

But crossing the border is still a huge leap for a lot of movie makers. Jodi says it can be a hard obstacle for outsiders to overcome.

Jodi Interview Clip 30 (28:54 - 29:20)
Jodi: that wall is very mental. You know, it's physical, but it's very mental and I think it, it keeps people in the u.s….it bothered his, bothered me for years, but it keeps people in the u s in any industry from considering the opportunities that are there on the other side as something they can access. Um, but yeah, there is, there's more and more and it's something we're working really hard to push

Music bump

Clip 31: Nats of San Diego latino Film Festival https://www.kpbs.org/news/2019/mar/13/san-diego-latino-film-festival-wants-build-bridges/


Moisés Esparza watches a lot of Latinx films -- in part because he’s the exhibitions manager for the Media Arts Center. So, it’s his job to find films for the annual San Diego Latino Film Festival and the dozens of other film events the center puts on throughout the year.
But Moisés watches a lot of movies made in Mexico for another reason. He’s undocumented. And that means he isn’t allowed to travel back to Mexico where he was born and lived until he was 6.
He says watching Mexican films is how he connects with the culture he’s been cut off from by the border wall.
Moises Clip 32 (12:41 - 14:00)
Moises: so in a way, I've used Latino film, specifically Mexican film, to feel connected to, to a place that's in many ways, in many ways forbidden. Um, and the last, you know, before crossing over the last place I was, was in Tijuana. So I have memory that's in a way, um, undermined by the films that I'm seeing now. And I liked that it is undermined because it, I associate my time in Tijuana with a very intense transition period in my life, even though I was very young, but I knew the magnitude of the journey my family undertook to get there. And the journey that awaited for us in the other side. So my memory of Tijuana I think is, is a challenging one and one that's not necessarily fair to, to the city. Um, so through my exposure to local films, I've come to appreciate Tijuana for all its beauty really. And, um, I've really come to respect all the artists that are, that are working there. All the filmmakers.
Moises says when he watches films set in Mexico or about Mexico, he gets emotional.
Moises Clip 33 (14:40 - 15:56)
Moises: I feel nostalgic, which is a weird way to feel for a place where I feel like I didn't spend a lot of time in my in, but nostalgia is really prevalent when I watch these movies, even when they're filmed in states and cities and locales that I've never visited or have a very, um, undeveloped understanding of. I feel like as for Lauren, I think if that's a word I feel like I like, like I, I, I, I really miss it. Um, so it, it, it's a bit bittersweet. Uh, but I'm pleased that through cinema I'm able to maintain a connection. And I don't think it's a, it's a superficial one, um, because the films that I see through the call for entries of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, um, or through my own, um, or moves that I, I seek out and independently are all done with such craft and care and an authenticity that I feel like it allows me to create a pretty substantial connection with Mexico.
Moises Clip 34 (16:14 - 16:58)
Moises: But then there's the emotional weight of reconnecting with family that I haven't been able to see in, I guess now it's 22 years maybe. Well, so yeah, it's a, it, it's a tough reality, but I think about, uh, all the opportunities that I've had being in the United States, so I'm grateful. Uh, but it does feel a bit, I guess my identity feels almost like a Tijuana identity where it's us and also Mexico and I feel like I'm U.S. And also Mexico because I think I'm, I'm, I'm just kind of stuck in the middle.
Moises Clip 35 (17:02 - 17:34)
Moises: it's frustrating for sure and long as they think about what type of person I would be or what experiences I've missed out on, because I feel almost in a sense, marooned from my Mexican identity, because I can't physically be there. And I think the setting and location are so important to, to, to understanding, you know, uh, of, of a place obviously. Um, so yeah, I feel it's frustrating for sure.
Music bump
Moises says there are some really great movies being made in the border region. But just like indie films everywhere, it can be hard for filmmakers to get distribution deals or otherwise find an audience.
That’s why the Media Arts Center has taken on the role of helping boost the border film scene.
The annual film festival they produce includes a night dedicated to showcasing movies made by locals from both sides of the border.
Moises Clip 36 (23:47 - 24:55)
….we have designated Frontera day, which is the Monday of the festival and one of the most impressive and also, um, enlightening aspects of my job is being there on that day. Because you got to see these filmmakers in dialogue not only with the audience but also also with each other. And you can get a sense that the audience really appreciates, um, not only seeing their respective, uh, city onscreen, but also how these filmmakers are addressing issues that they wish that the audience wishes would be addressed almost on a more grander scale by, by media in a sense.
Moises Clip 37 (09:27)
Moises: there's a sense of responsibility and month you want to, filmmakers, I've had the pleasure of meeting, um, a substantial amount of them and they respect Tijuana so much that they don't want it to be defined and very derivative forms. They don't want it to be defined by a place where violence is supreme or a place that's unlovable. What they want to do is make it apparent that Tijuana is a place where art thrives in that art is deeply connected to the struggle of it being a border city
And as someone who’s seen a lot of films made right here at the border, Moises has spotted some commonalities and trends.
He says filmmakers in San Diego and Tijuana often address issues that a binational audience understands and cares about. It’s a perspective not often depicted on screen. And with increased interest in the border and Latinx issues, Moises says he expects a big uptick in demand for movies made at the border in coming years.
*****Moises Clip 38 (32:35 - 33:34)
…...I think what I've seen is only the beginning of what I think is going to be a huge boom of films being created in Tijuana the next coming years. I think we're on the verge of a movement here and I think the, the individuals who, the filmmakers who have been on the ground making films with permits without permits on the weekends at night after their actual jobs, I think they are going to be sort of the grandfathers, the grandmothers of a larger cinematic movement that's going to, to start in Tijuana.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast, a story about a deportee whose love of lowrider cars helped him find his way in Tijuana.

Adrian Clip 6 (09:14 - 9:47)
without the lowriding community here, uh, I would feel a little lost….

Only here in a border town can you find such a crucial lowrider culture on both sides of the wall.

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Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.