I’d known I wanted to make a feature film for a long time. Before starting college, I made a plan that detailed exactly what classes I would take and when I would take them so that I could make sure to have a chunk of time off to make a film. My freshman year, I began reading books on screenwriting and workshopped several different ideas. But nothing stuck. Finally, during spring break of my sophomore year, I cranked out an outline for a post-apocalyptic scifi film. It needed work, but I liked the direction it was heading.
The problem was that it would be impossible to film on a small budget. So I put the concept on hold and searched for another. I had been toying with the idea of making a film about a young woman who had her whole life planned out for her on notecards by her father. It was a film about parenting and learning how much control you can have over your life.
I'd originally figured I would make it much later, when I had my own experiences to reflect on. But I needed an idea, so I ran with it. Sure enough, it was cliché and boring. However, I did find one thing I liked about it: Franky. He was a side character who was an undocumented immigrant, unable to plan anything about his life. So I decided to make the film about him. The young woman from the previous film idea became the supporting character, Brit. And this just story took off.
For one, I had many resources to draw upon—from stories I’d heard while growing up in the Rio Grande Valley to many existing stories and films on the struggles of being an undocumented immigrant. But more importantly, this story meant something to me. It mattered. It was a topic I was passionate about, that I felt I had to tell. That is a big part of what made the project possible: everyone in the cast and crew believed in the story.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. When making a film, there is one thing that is inevitable: everyday, something incredible is going to happen that is better than you ever could have hoped, and everyday, something absolutely terrible is going to happen that makes you wonder if it is all going to fall apart. I try to measure a day’s success by it’s highlights. But if the bad event for the day happened later than the good one, I'd definitely lose sleep.
When you are shooting for 12 hours a day and have a 30 minute lunch, 30 minute dinner, 30 minutes or more of travel time, and a few hours of production meetings, there isn’t time to waste staying up all night worrying. But when one of your most important actors drops out a week before he is scheduled to start filming, or when you arrive at a studio and the door you were planning to use is cemented shut, it isn’t possible to get a good night’s rest—not when you really care about what you are doing. Because we all cared so much though, we moved mountains, literally.
To get into the cemented studio, we demolished a wall. To find a replacement actor, we sent a casting call to every single actor in Texas. And all of that was being accomplished simultaneous to us filming the scenes we somehow managed to be prepared for ahead of time. It wasn’t happening in parallel but literally by the same people at the same time as we were shooting.
I knew I was crazy for wanting to do this. Only after doing it did I realize that I was actually insane. We made a film that takes place in two countries, is bilingual, has a train scene and a sewer scene, and did it all for almost no money and with almost no sleep. But dang was it worth it.
Early on, we were in a bit of a predicament. It didn’t look like we’d be able to secure our locations on time and pull together all the resources necessary. Someone in the crew asked me if I had a plan B. I told him what I told the cast and crew every time our prospects didn’t look too good: we aren’t going to make a backup plan, because we don’t need one. We are going to push forward and do whatever it takes. If we run forward at full speed, with determination, we’ll make it. And we did.
Sometimes I worry that we compromised for the sake of simply completing the film. That is the problem with wearing a lot of hats. When you are running behind schedule on set, as a producer, you tell yourself you have to find a way to get back on track. As a director, you tell yourself that what matters is quality, no matter how long it takes. It’s an impossible tension: should I do whatever it takes to finish or should I seek perfection, even if that jeopardizes the whole?
There are two things that make me feel like the choices I made were the right ones. The first is hearing the speeches that were given by the cast and crew at the wrap party, about the great time they had, the friendships they made, and the lessons they learned. Regardless of how the rest of the world sees the film, we poured our hearts and souls into it, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.
And second is the discussion that happens after the film ends at every screening. I wrote a cliffhanger ending in the hopes that people would debate Franky’s fate. Viewers have different theories about the outcome, based on clues in the film or similar stories they’ve heard in real life. That these discussions become so passionate shows me that they care about Franky. For a couple hours, they empathize with an undocumented immigrant.
I believe the majority of the problems in this world could be solved if we all had a little more empathy. Most people who are hateful toward undocumented immigrants have never even met one before. If a viewer can empathize with Franky, they are also going to be able to empathize with the real people who face the very real struggles he does.
People sometimes ask how I foresaw these issues back in 2014 when I started writing the film. I tell them that the issues undocumented immigrants face are not new; there is just now a public debate about them. Hopefully, with the public’s eye on the issue, this film can make a little bit of a difference, help shape the debate in some small way, and maybe give a few people a little bit more empathy.