‘El Doctor‘ begins in an Arizona Home Depot parking lot, where a married couple – Andrew and Jen – hires undocumented day laborer Carlos and his buddy to repair their deck. As Carlos washes up in the family’s bathroom, 7-yr-old Jonah interrupts him. A tragedy of errors puts Carlos’s and Andrew’s lives at risk, leaving everyone caught between their individual consciences and the law.
Executive producer/writer/actress Jude Roth talks to LPB about the making of her captivating short film that humanizes the immigration debate. The now award-winning film has screened nationally and internationally and at several Oscar-qualifying festivals including Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest, and Guanajuato International Film Festival. ‘El Doctor’ was subsequently archived in the most prestigious art institute in Mexico, El Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía. For more information about ‘El Doctor’, please visit: http://lpbp.org/ElDoctor.php.
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El Doctor provides a human face to the immigration debate. What inspired you to tell the story?
In 2010, a couple of experiences inspired me to write a screenplay that would try to put a human face on the immigration debate, specifically by exploring a personal situation set against the political backdrop of the times. The first experience was when I heard a story segment on NPR about Arizona Senate Bill (SB) 1070, which was then being debated in that state and getting a lot of heated attention around the country. In part of the segment, a farmer shared about how it was close to impossible for him to keep his farm afloat financially those days because he was afraid to hire undocumented immigrants. He talked about posting ads for help but he was desperate because no “legal” American would take the job given that he couldn’t afford to pay enough.
Shortly after, a friend and filmmaker John Warren showed me a rough cut of his experimental documentary called ‘Sunset’, which captures the wide range of socio-economic differences among people from one end of Sunset Boulevard that starts at the Pacific Ocean to the heart of downtown Los Angeles. On the east side of LA, the camera lands on several day laborers outside Home Depot, tired and slumped on milk crates. They didn’t looked thrilled to be there, or well taken care of, and it struck me – not for the first time but the hardest – that most immigrants historically and today don’t want to leave their homes because they’re having such a great time there. They probably leave because they’re desperate for better, safer times for them and their families. I recognize there are criminals among immigrant demographics, and that certain aspects of SB 1070 try to address that. But there are criminals among all demographics. And laws, such as SB 1070, that seem to treat undocumented immigrants overwhelmingly as societal pariahs don’t fit with my hope of what America could and should be.
Seeing the day laborers in John’s film spurred me on to write about the immigration issue from an undocumented day laborer’s perspective as best I could.
El Doctor premiered last week on the PBS Online Film Festival. Tell us about the journey of the film.
After finishing the script, I reached out to a generous and enthusiastic producer named Gabrielle
Glenn to see if she’d come on board. At the same time I was referred to another passionate producer named Kenny Reyes, and the two of them decided to co-produce. But we ran into some casting obstacles, pre-production got delayed, and I decided to shelve the project.
Then in the fall of 2012, I realized I was constantly thinking about ‘El Doctor’, that I felt irresponsible for not putting it out, and decided to produce it myself – well, with a lot of help from friends, family and friends of family who donated money through Indiegogo.
Immediately after deciding to produce it, I asked the gifted team of director Heather de Michele and cinematographer Robert Webb to come on board. The two had shot a different short I’d written in 2010 and I’d become a huge admirer. After Heather realized I might be a little overwhelmed, given I’d never produced a film before, she suggested I bring on Reena Dutt who’d worked with Heather and Rob on numerous projects in the past. And Reena’s passion for telling stories with a conscience made her that much more of a perfect fit.
The dream team of those three helped bring everything else together – often beyond their main roles: from Rob introducing us to the talented Luis Deveze who plays the central figure of “Carlos,” the day laborer; to Reena calling on trusted colleagues to help as production assistants, translators, audition readers, and set photographers; to Heather performing magic when, the day before Thanksgiving (and just days before production), we lost one of our key actresses to a feature film that could pay her and Heather pulled the phenomenal Sarah Lilly out of her hat. Any speed bump we hit, we got over as a team, sharing strengths, ideas, and solutions.
Even as important as the story was for me to tell, I was doubtful I’d have much luck getting it into festivals. And so leading up to filming and right through production, I shied away from the idea of spending the money and time submitting to festivals. But soon enough I realized being shy was selfish – the project wasn’t about me – it was about everyone else who’d given his or her time, money, and talent to it, and anyone the story might help, so I’d better buck up.
The journey of submitting to festivals began, which is a whole other production. And if your project’s lucky enough to get into a festival, that’s another whole production of meeting exhibition requirements and producing the necessary collateral marketing material. Of course I’m relieved I got out of my own way and grateful for the 14 festivals that invited ‘El Doctor’ to screen.
Also, as I mentioned above, many people helped out above and beyond with getting this project into production; and likewise, after post-production was complete, Luis Deveze translated the film into Spanish so we could have a Spanish-subtitled version and he pointed me toward festivals he thought ‘El Doctor’ might be welcomed in. As a result, the film was invited to open the Riverside International Film Festival where it won best drama short, and screened to thousands at the Guanajuato International Film Festival, in Switzerland, and at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival – which is where it was brought to the attention of Latino Public Broadcasting and PBS.
Was it always your intention to produce the film as a short? Why did you decide to tackle the issue of immigration through a drama and use fiction as a way of telling the story?
It was always my intention to write a short because the way the story took shape in my mind seemed more contained and compact than a feature. Initially I didn’t intend to produce ‘El Doctor’ myself, so I’m glad I wrote it as a short given that I wouldn’t have been ready to take it on as a feature at that point.
And the reason I decided to tackle the issue of immigration through drama and the use of fiction is because I’m not that good of a non-fiction writer. I get inspired by non-fiction writing, filmmaking, and reporting but I’ve always been drawn to taking “facts” of life and weaving them into the emotional realities of characters. In fiction I think every character counts in a way that’s different from non-fiction; because fiction is a kind of “lie,” untethered to “he said/she said” accounts, and I don’t have to be so attached to outcomes, I feel more free to develop every character around a universal need, which can be inspiring and uniting. For instance, though the wife in ‘El Doctor’ is easy to hate, as I was writing her, she was somewhat sympathetic in my mind because I could imagine the state of terror she lived with that would make her so reactive; I felt for her even while I felt and routed for the day laborer. I thought there might be a clue to finding peace around this immigration issue in exposing her because she symbolizes some of the fear that seems to fuel a lot of rage around the topic. That’s clearly a lot to hope for from an 11-minute film but…
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
With all the editing of the movie, festival screenings, and testing of DVDs and exhibition copies, I’ve seen ‘El Doctor’ probably two hundred times so I know exactly what’s going to happen, how it happens, and when. But every time Luis as “Carlos” says “Soy doctor,” tears well up. When I lived in NYC in the 80s and 90s, almost every cab driver I rode with was from either Russia or somewhere in Eastern Europe. And as I found, most had been doctors, scientists, teachers, and businessmen. That doesn’t mean if they had previously washed dishes at a Moscow restaurant their stories wouldn’t matter. But I was constantly reminded not to assume I knew anything about anyone and the shoes they’ve walked in. And why.
You wear many hats in this film – writer, producer and actor. Was it difficult to balance the different roles
The most difficult part of the balancing act was to stop trying to balance. As we neared production and all the elements were in place, Reena encouraged me to stop producing, let her take over, and “just” be an actor. She was absolutely right, and it was absolutely hard to do. In part because I’d been going a mile a minute as producer for several months and to come to a hard stop was challenging. But Reena’s such a pro that turning it over to her was a relief. And on set, she was the graceful and skilled presence that made everything flow. As a writer on set, I loved it. I enjoy rewriting so if some dialogue needed adjusting, Heather and I would discuss it and find creative solutions in the moment.
Short films typically have a very limiting budget; did you face any challenges because of this? Would you have done anything different provided you had a greater budget?
If I’d had a greater budget, I would have shot four days instead of two. I love the film we came out with but we seriously hustled and I would’ve preferred more breathing room, which might have given us some more footage options. But I know we would have needed a much greater budget for me to nab the in-demand and talented crew and cast two weekends in a row.
What advice do you have for any aspiring filmmakers who are trying to produce a narrative short?
Work with people who are passionate about what you’re doing and with those who have more experience than you but will help guide you. And be discerning – don’t give over your vision just to get the project done. Be open to advice but trust your instincts. Go through a thorough development process of the script. Make sure you, your director, and your DP are all on the same page about the project’s tone, look, and feel. Pay attention to any contrasting points of view early on and then figure out if there’s a problem in the script (i.e., is the script’s tone unclear, are the characters developed enough) or do you think you’re making a short ‘Iron Man 3′ while your director think she’s making ‘The Bourne Legacy’?
Also, make sure you or another producer on the project likes paperwork because there’s a lot of it. And have your actors sign release forms at least a week prior to getting on set.
Lastly, budget for film festival submissions, collateral marketing material, and exhibition copies.
How do you hope your film will contribute to the current rhetoric on immigration in the United States today?
I know there’s a large number of viewers who share the film’s sentiment but I’m hoping those who aren’t inherently sympathetic to its point of view will watch ‘El Doctor’ and be inspired to consider that there’s more to the story than they might have previously considered – and then be willing to talk about it openly.
And my greatest hope, if I can dream ridiculously big and unrealistically… is that ‘El Doctor’ gets used in classrooms and in Congress to kickstart dialogues that explore how the nature of fear of losing what we have and not getting what we want makes human beings short sighted, rigid, and angry. Whereas trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes makes us all brothers and sisters.
Why is public media the best place for you film?
Public media creates a space for stories about all manner of life events, people, and situations; it’s the most open-minded forum I can imagine and the topic of immigration is in desperate need of open minds.
Can you tell us about any future projects you’re working on?
I’m currently producing my feature-length psychological thriller ‘The Claim’ with director and co-producer Devi Brulé, producing my webseries ‘Rent-a-Mom’, and writing a romantic drama.