'La Soga': The inside scoop on murder and corruption in the Dominican Republic
It isn't easy making a movie in the Dominican Republic. When Michael Mann tried shooting part of "Miami Vice" there in 2005, a gunfight broke out near the film set, prompting costar Jamie Foxx to leave the country and forcing the film to relocate in Miami. The filmmakers who made "La Soga," which recently earned several standing ovations at the Toronto International Film Festival, managed to finish their movie without anyone being killed, though they do have colorful stories, which include hiring a machete fighter to handle security. As "La Soga" director Josh Crook puts it: "Our motto when we wrapped each day was, 'We didn't die!!' "
As it turns out, "La Soga" isn't just the best film from the Dominican Republic ever to play in Toronto. Apparently it's the only Dominican film ever to play there. I'd say it was worth the wait. Even though the Dominican is best known for spawning major league baseball players, judging from "La Soga," the country could be a potential goldmine for actors and filmmakers as well.
Largely shot in real crime-infested neighborhoods and local slums, "La Soga" is as much a meditation on the embattled Dominican culture as it is a crime drama, with the soulful intensity of such films as "The Harder They Come" and "City of God."
Set in the steamy slums of Santiago, "La Soga" focuses on an assassin employed by the government to bump off drug dealers and other thugs who have escaped capture or eluded the judicial process. In the film's opening scenes, a hit man tracks down a drug dealer and shoots him in the head in front of a crowd of family and neighborhood onlookers. According to Manny Perez, the film's Dominican screenwriter who also plays the film's starring role, the sequence is based on his eyewitness account of an all-too-real life event.
Perez, who is 40, grew up in Baitoa, a small town on the outskirts of Santiago. When he was 11, his family moved to Washington Heights, where he still makes his home. After graduating from college with a major in drama, he returned to the Dominican to visit friends and relatives where he reconnected with a childhood friend, who, as he puts it, had "gone in the other direction," dealing drugs and robbing banks.
"That scene in the movie, where the police assassin finds the drug dealer, that's exactly what happened to my friend, right in front of my face," he told me the other day, on the phone from Toronto. "Right in front of everybody, the assassin took out his gun and shot him in the head, with my friend's mother there, crying and saying, 'Don't kill him! Please, don't kill him!' "
According to Perez, the country has a small contingent of killers, bankrolled in some fashion by the government, whose job is to finish off "bad guys who basically have three strikes against them." As a further deterrent, Perez explains, "after they're killed, as we show in the movie, the criminals are tied to the back of a truck and driven through town to show what happens when you think you're above the law."
Perez has been acting in film and TV for the past 15 years, having worked with Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn, among others. He frequently pops up on TV series like "Law & Order" and "CSI," where he is invariably cast as a Latin bad guy. Eager to play a less one-dimensional character, he wrote himself the leading role in "La Soga," creating a brooding assassin who not only has second thoughts about his work, but as we see through a series of flashbacks, has a second occupation, having followed in the footsteps of his father and become the town butcher.
When Perez was acting in a low-budget film directed by Josh Crook, he showed him the script and suddenly found himself with a filmmaking partner. Born in Brooklyn, Crook had been making guerrilla-style low, low-budget movies with his brother, Jeff,with such titles as "Sucker Punch" and "Ghetto Dog 2." Guerrilla style might be putting it mildly. On one film, Crook says he had to bail his actors out of jail while on another, finding himself out of money, he copied a key and broke into the New York Film Academy at 2 a.m. to use the editing facilities.
Crook was sold on making Perez's script, but he had no money, having refused several offers of financing the film that would have required shooting in a different country or filming the dialogue in English. Finally the two guys got a lucky break. Crook showed the script to Patrick Pope, an old friend who'd been in a coma for months after barely surviving being struck by a drunken driver. After he recovered, he was looking for something worthwhile to do with the money he'd received as a settlement. Pope said if Crook and Perez could make the film for what he had in settlement funds, he'd write the check, signing on as the film's executive producer.
Finally equipped with production funds, they headed for the Dominican, ready to shoot the film. How did they survive in a country that was too tough even for Michael Mann? Keep reading:
When the filmmakers first arrived, they discovered that their original line producer had hired a crew full of incompetents. Appalled, they fired everyone and started over, enlisting the aid of Fernando Luciano, a local guerrilla filmmaker who became an associate producer on the film. "He not only knew how to hustle, but he knew everyone on the island," says Crook, "so he really helped us get things done, which also meant helping us from getting shaken down."
Much of the production was an ad hoc affair. "We didn't have a casting director, so most of the cast is made up of people that Manny knew or had worked with," Crook explains. The acting talent includes Denise Quinones, a Puerto Rican-born TV actress who was the 2001 Miss Universe, and Hemky Madera ("Weeds"), who'd been a TV star in the Dominican and had family from Santiago.
The location for the key scene where the drug dealer was killed was a teeming slum that was also a popular location for machete fights. "I know it sounds really gruesome, but that's just part of the local culture," says Perez, "We found this incredible dude who was missing fingers and had scars on his arms, but he was the king of the machete fights. To make sure we didn't have any problems, we put him on the crew, If he was around, everything was cool--he was our protector."
Still, everyone learned to be careful. Once when the crew was shooting outside the city hall in Santiago, a parade of protesters arrived, overrunning the scene that was being filmed. Without thinking, Pope began racing toward the crowd, an action that was misinterpreted by some of the protesters. "Patrick almost got shot by a guy in the crowd with a machine gun," Perez recalls. "They just saw this big, tall white dude coming at them and assumed the worst. So we had to go over and save him."
One of the production's most delicate moments involved a graphic scene in the film where a butcher kills a pig. For all the scenes of staged violence in the movie, the filmmakers were squeamish about the prospects of actually slaughtering a pig. Finally they hit upon an ingenious solution, hiring a real-life butcher to play the part.
"He was the actual town butcher," explains Perez. "He told us, 'I kill a pig every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 a.m., so if you want to record an actual killing, be there.' He wasn't messing around. The first time we got there at 6:33 and that pig was already gone. So we came back two days later at 5 a.m., got our lights set up and recorded him just doing his job."
For Crook, being in the Dominican offered great perspective. "Let me tell you, when you're riding around in pickup trucks, going into villages where the kids are barefoot and have no real clothes, it makes you appreciate what you have back home," he says. For Perez, it was a thrill to be filming in his home country, seeing his extended family and having his mother come to the premiere in Toronto and see her son perform on a big screen in front of a packed theater. "There are so many great stories to tell from the Dominican, it just has never had the money to help them get told," Perez says. "We hope this film could put the DR on the Hollywood map, perhaps in the way 'City of God' put Brazil on the map."
So far, the film hasn't attracted any buyers, but the filmmakers say their search for a distributor is just beginning. They are still unsure of how the film, which offers a frank critique of political corruption in the Dominican, will be received in its home country. Crook admits that while no one ever refused them cooperation, they were initially so worried about government reaction that they had prepared an alternate version of the script which expunged most of the negative portrayals of police and government officials.
"The president of the Dominican is a big fan of films, who even has his own film festival," says Crook. "So we've heard that he wants to see the film. We've all been joking with each other, saying 'No, you go take the film and show it to him,' " he said with a laugh. "That way, if one of us gets tossed in jail, we'll still have someone to keep things going back in the U.S. But I'm guessing that if he really likes movies, that he'll end up liking it."Photo credit: Toronto International Film Festival