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Film and the Arts

Actor Turned Director Diego Luna Celebrates "Cesar Chavez"

Photo by B. Balfour

Born on December 29, 1979 in Mexico City, Diego Luna Alexander lost his mother in a car accident when he was only two. So Luna became immersed in his father's passion for entertainment as Mexico’s most acclaimed living theatre, cinema and opera set designer. From an early age Luna began acting in television, movies and theater. Once he achieved international recognition, he expanded his resume to include writing, producing and directing as well.

This producer-actor-director’s full bio includes such highlights as big budget sci-fi thriller Elysium (2013),  the Oscar-nominated Milk (2008), Tom Hanks starrer The Terminal (2004), and provocative Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But his most recent directorial effort Cesar Chavez not outlines a slice of the famed civil rights leader and labor organizer’s life (powerfully played by Michael Pena) but also chronicles the birth of a modern American labor movement. The film also tells the story of a man torn between family duties as a husband and father and his commitment to the fight for a living wage for farm workers. 

Passionate but soft-spoken, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in this struggle to bring dignity to his community and disenfranchised people in general. Chavez inspired millions of Americans who hadn’t worked on a farm or been to California to fight for social justice. His journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one person’s ability to change the world.

Buttressed by two incredibly strong women — wife Helen (America Ferrara) and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) — Chavez presciently foresaw the impact the Latino American community would have on this country as he drew attention to this long disenfranchised sector.

chavez posterQ: Once you got this idea, how long did it take you to do this film? 

DL: At the beginning I didn’t know I had to do it; I would’ve quit had I been told this was going take four years and a half of my life. When I started I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that there’s no film about Cesar Chavez. But this is so powerful and comes in time for many reasons, and  since this community’s growing, everyone’s going to want to do this film.” 

I went out and started shopping as is done with films. You go to studios and sit down with executives and everyone gave us a chance to sit down which sounded like, “Okay it’s happening,” then they said, “Wow, this is great, we love that you’re doing this, we’re not going to join but once you have a film, come and show it to us and probably we’ll be part of it,” and we’re like, “No! We need the money to do it!” 

It’s not like I’m just going out and doing it. I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” and I was like, “How can I make it more sexy? If it was sexier, farm workers would probably be living a different reality today.” 

They said, “What about A-List actors? Can you have Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem in it?” And I’m thinking, the man existed, there are pictures, there’s murals! You cannot just say, “Well now it’s just going to look like something else…” This is about a Mexican-American, a guy who was born in Arizona. Anyway, we found no support in this country. But by that point, I promised the family that I was going to deliver a film.

I promised that it was happening and then invested a year of my life into it at that point. We were working on the script with Keir Pearson, so I said to my partner Pablo Cruz, “Let’s go to Mexico and finance it the way we do in film.” 

We went to Mexico and in a week and a half we found the money. At least 70% that allows the comeback for the other 30%. Then we came back and found the perfect partners, Participant Media and Pantelion Films, two different kind of film [studios], but they’re both doing films that would be perfect for this market — one that we’re trying to prove exists. That’s how everything started in terms of putting it together. 

We wanted to come to the States and open a company and office here, so we said that we have to do a film that mattered on both sides of the border. It would allow us to work here but still do stories that connect us with where we come from and the community we belong to, to the point that my son who was born here, in the States, so he’s knows he’s a Mexican-American. In fact, he had an American passport before the Mexican one.

In a way, this was an attempt to tell a story that he would be able to use to find out where he comes from and what needed to happen for him to be where he is at the moment. That’s how everything started.

Q: Do you hope this film will change society’s perception of Latinos and the issues that concerns this community?

DL: There’s something that’s happened here before which is that all us Latinos, we have to learn from these guys that if we organize, if we’re united, we have the strength to change the world. That’s definitely a reality, because I don’t think we’ve been so well organized since then. Yes, there’s a lot of complaints that we have to this country, as a community, but I would start looking at ourselves in the mirror and [ask] why we haven’t done [anything]? 

We have a chance to send that message on the opening week, March 28th, which is, “We want these films to be out. We want our stories to be represented. We want our heroes to celebrated in film.” 

There’s two things that matter here. As Cesar said and showed us, one is that our strength is in our numbers, and they’re growing. So I don’t know why we, as a community, haven’t experienced that feeling of power [that] we actually have in hand. The other is that the film confronts you, not just us Latinos, but everyone in this country, with a reality that’s very uncomfortable, that today in the fields, the conditions still aren’t great. 

The struggle continues and consumers have also not been aware of what they’re part of when they buy a product since then. The amazing thing they did as a community, is that they connected with consumers, the rest of America, a community they didn’t think they had a connection with. They found a way to say, “Our story matters to you.” 

When you buy a grape, you’re supporting child labor. Moms listened to that, when a mother was in a store in Chicago, she found a farm worker saying, “When you’re buying that product, you have to remember that behind that product is the work of my six year-old. ” 

Mothers stopped buying grapes. So it’s about connecting, finding out what connects us, not what separates us. I think that’s a beautiful message about the film, and that applies not just for America, but for the world. It’s a nonviolent movement that said it’s about the responsibility of knowing we’re not here alone. The work of many has to happen so we can experience the life we have. It’s just being aware of that — that’s what matters. 

Q: Was it tough for actor Michael Peña to have this on his shoulders?

DL: I was walking coming with Rosario from having lunch, and she told me, ”It’s unbelievable how much Michael changed for this role. He’s just nothing close to what he portrayed here.” 

I always told him, “Michael, we have to be aware. We cannot do the Hollywood way, you know? We cannot say suddenly that Cesar was a great speaker, and the Martin Luther King kind of leader.” 

But he wasn’t. He was very humble and timid. As a result of the amount of urge he had for change to happen, he had to become the leader. If he would’ve had a chance to stand back and stay behind, he would have done it. He was a great listener. 

That’s why he could organize these people, because he came and took the time to listen to everyone’s story. This is a community that has been ignored for so long, that suddenly someone arrived that cared about their story and said, “Your story matters.” 

In fact, Mark Grossman, who traveled a lot through rallies and was Cesar’s PR person — he wrote the speeches for him — was very close to him and we worked a lot with him. He told me [that] the rallies were painful because he would stay until nine, 10 pm, and people left, and he was still talking to a woman in the back. He had time, he nothing else to do but this, and everyone realized he was giving his life. We have to remember, this is a man that got out of living in the city. He changed his life, he was wearing a suit, he had a job. But he said, “No, we have to go back to the fields, we have to change things from the inside. It’s not going to come from the outside.” 

He went back and sacrificed not just his reality but the reality of his family. I love when Fernando asks, “Who plays in Delano? You’re not taking me to a place that doesn’t have a major league baseball team, right?” And [Cesar] goes, “Yeah, we’re all going to sacrifice here, and we’re all going to go back to where we come from.” 

Q: You showed how he sacrificed his relationship with his older son. You spent more than four years working on this movie. How much did it affect your relationship with your own children?

DL: It does, it does. I’ve never had to go so far as he did. I was in Chicago on Friday, took the red eye, spent Saturday and Sunday with my kids, and I’m here on Monday. I would never give away the weekend, and stay for another interview. I think that’s what makes him heroic. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. 

Q: How old are your kids now?

DL: Five and three. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. These guys left for months. Besides everything we’ve talked about, the film is about a father and a son. To me, the reflection I’m making here is [that] there’s a sacrifice we fathers do. I did not understand until I had a baby. It changed the way I looked to my father. When I had a baby, I went back and said, “Damn, dad. You’ve done all of this?” 

My mother died when I was two, so my father had to play both roles and work and it’s that very unfair part of life where you know you have to do it. I do film because of my kids, I think about them every moment of my life. Every decision I make, they’re involved. Probably, they won’t know this until they have their own. 

That’s the gap that sometimes... Hopefully in life you have the time to bring it back together, but not many times it happens. For these characters, it took a long a long time. They had eight kids. Dolores Huerta had 11 kids. Imagine that and they managed to do all this as well. 

Q: Was it a conscious choice that you avoided his childhood? 

DL: The first script I got, [went] from the day he was born until the day he died. You can do that in a fictional film, it doesn’t matter, but with the life of someone I think that’s very unfair. It’s impossible in an hour and 45 minutes to tell of someone’s 64-year journey. I thought, “I’m going to concentrate in one achievement.” 

That’s the boycott was to me. I said, “If I can explain how the boycott happened, and why the boycott happened, and what [it brought] to the community, I’ll be sending the right message.” 

I didn’t want to do a film just about this community. I wanted to do a film about how this community managed to connect with the rest of the country. Because to me, the powerful message here is that if change ever comes, it’s because we get involved and we people connect with others. 

We find those who are out there and what connects us with them. So to me, that was the thing I wanted to focus on -- the personal struggle of a father. It’s the first film done about Cesar and the movement, so it’s unfair to ask one film to fill the gap of so many years where there was no film talking about it. Because if I was here, and there were another three films, I could focus in on a specific thing that none of the other films [did], but you cannot ask a film to tell everything that hasn’t been told. Hopefully this will [stimulate] curiosity and awareness so that people will go and investigate a little more about who they are and what’s behind them. 

Q: Why was the movie shot in Mexico instead of where the events happened? Did that have to do with where you found the money? Being a movie about a syndicated movement, with the actors’ unions very strong here, don’t know how it is in Mexico, but how much of the actors and the crew were unionized?

DL: We shot in Mexico because of two reasons. One, the film was financed in Mexico, so a lot of the financing came as support. We first went to California, but even if we would have shot in the States, we would not have shot in California, because the actual places have changed dramatically since the ’60s. So you cannot shoot there, you’d have to recreate the [conditions]. 

We found in Sonora that the fields there have that immensity. Sonora is the state that produces 80% of the table grape of Mexico. Mexico is a huge country, so the feeling when you’re there, it’s the same feeling you have in the valley in California. You really are a dot in the middle of nowhere. There’s this immensity, the feeling that those fields are feeding a world, 

In terms of the union, there’s no way to do a film this big non-union in Mexico. Every actor was paid through SAG; we also have a union in Mexico of actors and technicians. It would be very stupid to do a film about a union without the support of unions [laughs]. But you know what happened…? There was a whole debate on the extras. 

The extras are farm workers. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get paid. The point is, I wanted to work with real farm workers. You know those faces? There’s no way to put makeup on a face and make it look like they’ve been under the sun for so many years, under that condition of dust and wind. Those faces tell you the story. Just by looking at the face, you get many things that can’t be said in dialogue. 

Q: Were these farm workers from the area where you shot?

DL: Many farm workers joined. By the third day they realized that film isn’t glamorous and that the experience was as miserable as working in the fields [laughs]. Because we were in the fields, we put every penny we had in front of the camera, so the conditions we were shooting under were rough compared to the cliché of how Hollywood filmmaking is. 

Q: Did the workers themselves teach you anything, something that you never knew?

DL: The only thing is that they reminded me every day of why the film needed to be done. It just still makes no sense to me that those who are feeding this country can barely feed their families. And by listening to their stories, I got the necessary energy to keep going. No matter what our issues were, they don’t matter. I am lucky to be able to choose where I work, who I’m around, what I do, what stories I tell, I can’t complain. It was a great reminder on why this needs to be out. 

Q: The film deals with social issues. Is that also part of the marketing?

DL: Definitely, and we’re focusing a lot in kids. Before the proper promotion started, we did two weeks of going to high schools and universities. We went to Harvard, Berkeley, Irvine, UCLA, then we did a screening in the RFK High School. It was like a system. We did a screening where they taped it and then that’s going to be shown to kids around California. 

We’re pushing to do tons of little videos in social media and everything to raise awareness about Cesar Chavez and what the movement [stood] for. That’s where Participant comes in. They have an amazing reach in terms of a call-to-action. 

As part of our film, we are also making a petition to President Obama about making a Cesar Chavez National Day of Service. As the campaign goes, if you guys participate, it’d be great. There’s a page called and you can sign. If you sign the petition, we need a hundred thousand signatures to go to Obama. 

Film should be the beginning of something bigger. This film should trigger, hopefully, the curiosity of people to find out exactly what this movement was about. It’s difficult to inform in an hour and 45 minutes about everything they did and still entertain but it is pertinent to talk about this because the issues today in the field are even more complicated [than ever]. 

We thought also about a day of celebration... A few states today celebrate Cesar Chavez day, but we thought that a national day of service would be the way he would like to be remembered, a day where you work and give something back to your community, which is what they did from beginning to end. 

There [are] so many things happening at the same time, and there are so many things happening in Latin America. Because if few people know here the story of Cesar Chavez, you’ll go to Latin America and everyone thinks he’s a boxer. No one knows, and it’s something that hopefully the film, and everything happening around the film, might be able to change. Also, the foundation is working really close. 

Dolores Huerta has been promoting the film with us, and every time she grabs the microphone, she talks about it and the 10 other things that matter to her. If film can work for that to happen, if film can bring attention to the work of those that are still in the struggle, still out there, I’ll be very proud. But it’s definitely about kids.

You know an amazing thing that has been happening is that today there’s many Latinos in key positions and many have the chance to actually choose what they want to do in life. They have businesses and so many of these people are buying out theaters and giving them away to schools. 

For the first weekend, someone said, “I would like to share this film with every high school kid of the community I come from” which is an amazing thing. The distribution company Pantelion is getting these calls and managing to actually make it happen, where you basically buy out a theater and fill it with kids that normally wouldn’t go watch it, or will probably watch it two years later on their phone while doing another 20 things, which is how kids now watch films... so that’s also happening. People like Henry Moreno — he was the first one. 

Q: Is he one of the producers?

DL: No, no, no! He’s just a guy that cares about this. I was at an event in Washington, and Moreno talked about this, he was doing a show and he told me, “I’m buying out theaters to share with the kids, and this is happening, people are starting to react.” 

That’s fantastic. I did this film because I think I have some distance to the story. Generationally, I wasn’t around when this happened, so also that gives me some objectivity, I guess. But the angle which I’m telling this, it’s the perfect angle for people who don’t know the story, to listen [to] it for the first time.

Q: What did it teach you about yourself as a father, as a director, as an actor? 

DL: You know, I found a connection. It was through telling personal stories that they managed to bring the attention to something bigger. It was about a mother going out, as I said, a mother going out of a grocery store and telling another mother, “Behind that grape, there’s the work of my kid. Are you sure you want to be part of that?” 

Then that mother got hit so badly and so profoundly, that she’s gonna turn into an advocate for the movement. But it’s by telling personal stories that you can trigger that, and I think film has that power. Today, if I was sitting in a board meeting of this movement, I would say, “Let’s do short documentaries about each other’s experiences and get them out, because that’s the way to get people’s attention.” 

We do the same thing, in a way. At least film is capable of doing what these guys did. That was a connection that I found on the way. When I was out and everyone was like, “Oh, you’re doing the film about Cesar Chavez! I gotta tell you something. My grandfather, one day, he grew up and blah blah blah…” 

If I do a documentary where I tell you, “More than a 100,000 have been killed in the last eight years in my country because of the war on drugs that our president started, our former president started…” You’re going to go, “Oh, that’s a big number.” 

But if I tell you the story of a kid who lost his father and now has to work and had to get out of school to support his mother, and how the life these four people changed dramatically, not just his but his brother and his sister... The next day you’re going to care about the war we’re living there. So by telling personal stories you can trigger that attention and that’s something they were doing that was way ahead of us. 


"The Girls in the Band" Honors Music's Unsung Heroines

How many female jazz musicians can you name? Judy Chaikin's new documentary The Girls in the Band can help. By the time the credits roll, you will have met three generations of distaff players, composers, arrangers and GreatDayinHarlemconductors reaching back to the 1920s. Names like saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert, trumpeters Clora Bryant and Billie Rogers and drummer Viola Smith will roll off the tongue as readily as those of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Read more: "The Girls in the Band" Honors...

Broadway Play Review—“Sea Wall/A Life” with Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal

Sea Wall/A Life

One-acts written by Simon Stephens & Nick Payne; directed by Carrie Cracknell

Performances through September 29, 2019


Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life (photo: Joan Marcus)


Grief is at the center of the one-acts that make up Sea Wall/A Life, as two fathers try to articulate their grieving and possible next steps towards healing. But neither play delves too deeply into these subjects, instead staying on the surface as the protagonists wear their emotions on their sleeves.


Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall introduces Alex, who regularly leaves England with his wife and young daughter to visit his father-in-law Arthur, who’s living comfortably in the south of France and who debates the existence of God with Alex. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs at the beach near Arthur’s home, whether God even exists becomes moot. 


In Nick Payne’s A Life, Abe is a reluctant father dealing with his own father’s dying. Unlike in Sea Wall, there’s no sudden tragic event, but Payne creates a kind of crude suspense by having Abe simultaneously describe his wife’s giving birth and his father’s final moments. 


Despite moving passages in both plays, both men’s stories of family loss are dramatized in the most contrived way possible, even if, in Sea Wall, Stephens’ description of the tragedy at the beach is chillingly poetic. Payne’s A Life even drags in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which director Carrie Cracknell makes sure we hear a snippet of on the piano that has been sitting on the stage for the entire show in an impotent anticlimax. 


Most problematic, however, is that Alex and Abe are simply not very interesting characters. Although the unseen wives and children are ciphers, Abe’s father and Alex’s father-in-law are more fascinating than the men telling their stories. 


The performances can’t be faulted. Tom Sturridge (Alex) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Abe) disappear fully into these men, and even turn the staging’s cutesy touches—playing around with the house and stage lights, an awkward-looking ladder up which Sturridge ascends to the set’s second level, Gyllenhaal finally sitting down at that onstage piano—into moments that charm the audience...but as Sturridge and Gyllenhaal, not Alex and Abe. These one-acts work far better as actors’ exercises than as fully-realized plays. 


Sea Wall/A Life

Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY

August '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Buster Keaton Collection, Volume 3—Seven Chances/Battling Butler 

(Cohen Film Collection)

The latest Buster Keaton release comprises two of the comic genius’ lesser-known efforts. 1925’s Seven Chances, an inspired piece of classic Keaton lunacy, crams more awesome hilarity and stuntwork into 57 minutes than movies twice as long. As always, Keaton builds the humor to a thrilling crescendo, as he tries to outrace rolling boulders in an exhilarating finale.




1926’s Battling Butler shows him hoping to impress his girlfriend’s tough-guy brothers by entering the ring: needless to say, the climactic bout is a doozy. Both films have superlative new hi-def transfers; lone extra is a short featurette on Keaton’s amazing stunts.


La Donna Serpente 

La Nonne sanglante 


Naxos has resurrected more worthy operatic rarities, beginning with the substantial La Donna Serpente, the only opera by the unheralded Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947). His fantastical 1932 tale is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s equally absurd Love for Three Oranges, as Casella’s richly dazzling music is nearly the playful Prokofiev’s equal. The colorful 2016 Turin staging is highly rewarding.




Charles Gounod (1818-93), best known for Faust and Romeo et Juliette, composed La Nonne sanglante in 1854; a tragic tale of forbidden love, it’s bumpy musically and dramatically, although the 2018 Venice production makes a good case for its stageworthiness.






The Hustle 


This comedy pitting Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as competing con artists—a female reboot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—is about what you’d expect, with Wilson’s smart-mouth shtick dueling Hathaway’s elegant straight-woman manner.




It percolates for 90 minutes in pretty routine fashion, never allowing its stars to stray from their obvious strengths, like Wilson’s sarcastic one-liners. The filmmakers should have had them switch roles, but at least they had the good sense to shoot in the south of France. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are three on-set featurettes.


The Inland Sea


Author Donald Richie was the go-to expert on Japanese cinema—particularly that of Ozu and Kurosawa—so this little-seen (and little-known) gem from director Lucille Carra, which transforms Richie’s own book of his Japanese cultural explorations into a relatively brief (56-minute) but poetic travelogue, is worth seeing.




At times it seems less like a Criterion Collection project—or, at most, an extra on a Criterion Japanese film release—but it looks beautiful in high-def, and the bonus features (new Carra interview, 1991 Richie interview, conversation between filmmaker Paul Schrader and cultural critic Ian Buruma on Richie) bring context to an obvious labor of love.







(Deutsche Grammophon)

Richard Wagner’s heroic opera has been given a fresh makeover by director Yuval Sharon at Wagner’s own shrine, the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. The music—all 3-1/2 hours of it—of course, is gorgeous, especially as played by the Bayreuth Orchestra under conductor Christian Thielemann.




The standout vocalists are Piotr Beczala as the title hero, Anja Harteros as heroine Elsa, and Waltraud Meier as antagonist Ortrud. The hi-def video and audio are top-notch.




When a new resident at a Georgia retirement community—a boisterous New Yorker stricken with cancer—ruffles feathers by starting a cheerleading club, both those who applaud her scheme and those dead set against it are forever changed by her tenacity.




If Diane Keaton wasn’t in the lead, this high-concept, low-wattage comedy-drama would even be less memorable. Along for the ride are Jacqui Weaver, Pam Grier, Celia Weston and Rhea Perlman, proving that even women “of a certain age” can’t overcome lazily-written and crudely directed pep fests. The film looks fine on Blu.







Queen of Spades 


These 2018 Salzburg Festival productions value directors over composers to both operas’ detriment. Strauss’ Salome, one of the most shocking operas ever, has been defanged by stage/set/costume/lighting designer Romeo Castellucci, who benightedly hides Salome during her famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” (maybe he is wearing one hat too many?). Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian is a magnetic Salome, and Franz Welser-Most conducts a thrilling reading of Strauss’ score by the Vienna Philharmonic.




Tchaikovsky’s intense Queen of Spades loses a lot except for the climactic card game, which has been staged incisively by director Hans Neuenfels. Otherwise, Tchaikovsky’s music and a fine cast help keep interest throughout.


DVDs of the Week

The Sun Is Also a Star 

(Warner Bros)

In this queasily artificial melodrama, the delightful star of Blackish, Yara Shahidi, gives her all in the service of an unrelievedly sappy YA romance. Although she and costar Charles Melton have good chemistry and she exudes more intelligence and charm than actresses twice her age, even Shahidi can’t overcome the annoyingness at the heart of this contrived relationship flick.




Some underseen New York locations are supremely photogenic backdrops, so there’s that. Lone extra is brief making-of featurette.






Trial by Fire 


The true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas father convicted of murder after his three young daughters perished in a tragic 1991 fire, is straightforwardly recounted in Edward Zwick’s barely-released drama, which shows how far the semi-mighty have fallen (Zwick directed 1989 Oscar winner Glory after creating TV’s Thirtysomething).




This punishing exploration of capital punishment might lack nuance, but necessary perspective is added by the powerhouse performances of Jack O’Connell (Willingham), Laura Dern (Elizabeth Gilbert, who befriended Willingham and tried getting him a new trial) and—most stunningly—Emily Meade as Willingham’s wife.


CD of the Week

The Film Music of Gerard Schurmann 


Here was a film composer with whom I was completely unfamiliar, even though I’ve seen a few of the films for which he wrote scores. But British composer Gerard Schurmann—born in 1924, he’s a spry 95 now, according to the liner notes—supplied an impressive array of colorful music to a surprisingly eclectic group of features, as this disc—devoted to excerpts from eight of his scores, from a 1956 police drama The Long Arm to a Dostoevsky adaptation that Hungarian director Karoly Makk made in 1997, The Gambler—demonstrates.




Schurmann’s music—as played by the BBC Philharmonic under the sympathetic baton of conductor Rumon Gamba—has sufficient variety and versatility to encompass the aural soundscapes of routine thrillers and horror flicks and even an historical melodrama about Mussolini’s mistress.

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