ALEJANDRO MONTOYA MARIN
Alejandro Montoya Marin sends us back to 1999 in his latest feature, Millennium Bugs. I was privileged to be invited into his home (via Zoom) and we both shared some coffee and our love for cinema decor. During our discussion, he opened up about the hardships involved with getting projects financed and underway. He spoke with passion and heart; his laughter is infectious and a conviction to the dues he has paid. It was no surprise to me that he succeeded with this latest project, a witty, juiced up love letter to the 1990s, chock with family pressure and social angst. This nostalgic vehicle has all the trimmings I can remember of the turn-of-the-century 1999 landscape littered with doomsday paranoia, video rental stores and heavy smoking. His feature is currently circulating the festival circuit and it reflects the hunger in his voice and a spark in his eyes. This is where storytelling starts, with imagination and vigor.
What are your inspirations for filmmaking?
There are a variety of them. From [Quentin] Tarantino, to Looney Tunes. to The Sopranos, there’s just so much stuff out there that moves you. If you pay attention to just one genre, then you don’t like the art form. That’s why I respect a lot of directors like Lynne Ramsay, or Ang Lee or Danny Boyle that are just so different. Every project [of theirs] is different. I just want to do a movie that entertains people. I want people to feel what I felt when I went to the movies.
For Millennium Bugs, where did the impetus of this story come from?
Both characters are very much me. They are me. Everything that happened with [the character] Miguel and his dad happened to me. I went through a rough patch with a significant other that after that I started hitting the bottle a lot. Also, I love the fact that I was born in Texas and raised in Mexico. When I got there [into Mexico], I was in sixth grade I think, I can’t be sure. But everyone’s relationships had already cemented. So, by the time I got in and I was the new kid, you would expect that animosity from everyone that had been together five or six years already. But they weren’t. The people in Mexico welcomed me with open arms and it was so cool. Because I didn’t know how to write Spanish, I just knew how to speak Spanish, that they’re going to give me shit because I’m not Mexican enough. But no. Fast forward twenty years, we’re in Albuquerque where we shot the movie. And someone said a joke “A Mexican, a black guy and a white guy walk into a bar,” and I was listening to him like “What’s the joke?” and he said “Oh, I’m just joking because of you guys” like my producer, we’re just so diverse. And it doesn't matter. I wanted to put that to people like “Oh wait, it’s an LGBT lead? No, I can’t do that.” or “It’s a Latino lead? Oh, I can’t do that either.” By giving people from very different backgrounds a very familiar case but they’ll handle it differently because of their background, hopefully, it’ll attract more people to give other kinds of cinema and other kinds of characters with different backgrounds a chance. So, it’s about friendship and how important friendship is no matter the background.
How much of yourself do you put into your writing?
A lot. Obviously, I put a lot of stuff in of how I’ve seen people react. I [think] “Well, I wouldn’t have reacted that way. But why did he or she react that way?” So, I start breaking it down. I told my girlfriend that as a writer, you can’t really forget pain. You have to leave it there, just in a reserve. It is a great motivator when you’re writing. You remember that shit, you remember how it feels and you just bring it up. I do. I know a lot of people don’t. A lot of people have great imaginations. I wear my emotions on my sleeve so it's different. So [I put myself in this film] a lot. This includes my relationship with parents, and my sister. My sister was the better one at school. I sucked. [laughs]. And we have two older brothers. My dad is not in construction, but I wanted to appeal in the middle for everyone. So, people could grab from that. You can see it in the little things. In a world that's as mean as it is, it shows so much. Like, [Miguel’s] parents dress nice, and the daughter has a private school uniform and [Miguel] got into his Masters [program]. It doesn’t matter the background; people are going through this. First-Gens are going through this. And that's the thing. There’s not a lot of content for [minority] first generations.
I feel that people that are producers and higher ups are afraid. Everyone’s afraid of what they don’t know. Some people can sit back and be like, “Ok, hit me with it. Ok, yeah, I get it. That’s cool.” and some people can’t take it. It’s too different. They don’t want to open their minds and I feel like that could be something. But it's up to people like me or other directors that are first generation to tell the story. To people that it doesn’t seem normal, you make it normal, so then it becomes normal for the next generation.
You have a lot of comedy in your writing. Is there a process you have for adding comedic beats to your material?
I mean, comedy, look at it. There are people at funerals and some peoples’ mechanism is to make a joke. It’s a part of life. Even if the situation is bitter and dark and nebulous, we always find a way to laugh because that's the only thing that pushes us forward. So, I love making people laugh. Some people nowadays are very “No, no, no.” But that’s the thing. If we all laugh about it, it doesn’t become a taboo. It’s not a taboo because we can all embrace that. You think I don’t have jokes about being Mexican? Of course! But how do you reverse that? Like the whole Puerto Rican/Mexican joke [in Millennium Bugs] is hilarious for us to see it in Hollywood and major films. The character is told he’s a Mexican and the accent comes out and we go, “This motherfucker is from Columbia, that ain’t Mexican!” [laughs] I mean, it’s like [imitating Australian accent] “Good day mate, I’m from Massachusetts!” We would all be like, “Wait, what?” Or when people say, “Oh, you’re speaking Mexican.” “Do you mean, Spanish? There’s 50 countries that speak it.” Stuff like that, it's the little fun things that I like to jab at with people. And the characters too! I love it when [the character] Kelly says to Miguel, “Oh, are they talking about you?” It feels like something my brother would tell me.
What were some obstacles you overcame to get this story made?
You ready for this shit? You’re going to get the exclusive. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this. But this whole project was literally riddled with bad luck. The whole thing. From the get-go. The reason why I wrote this was because after Rebel without a Crew, I wasn’t getting any work. I wasn’t getting opportunities I thought I was going to get. So, when all that happened, I felt I was kind of in the same spot. What do I do? Something that Robert [Rodriguez] taught me was don’t expect anyone to make your shit, you do it. You go through the journey. So that is literally what it was, and I got started. I met Katy three weeks later. We hung out and I told her that I was going to write some stuff for her. So, I started typing. She liked the script. I sent it to producers. We had someone who was going to give us $60K and bails on us around New Year’s or Christmas. So, there I am, about to board a plane to Mexico with my girlfriend and I was pacing at the gate. Because I’m like “Fuck it, I’m going to call everyone. Everyone’s going to do it for free. They’ll believe in the project.” And when I was doing that, I got the DP, I got everybody saying to me, “Don’t worry man. You can pay us later; we’ll figure it out.” I realized I can’t do that; I just can’t do that. I’ve been in this industry for a bit and I can’t be doing free work. So, I thought “What am I going to do?” I said, “Fuck it, let’s crowdfund it.” That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
First of all, I’m not going to be political. None of that shit. I am thankful for everyone that donated. But I started getting text messages asking, “When are the perks going to come out?” I had to release a statement. I don’t come from money. I don’t come from millions of dollars. So, if we’re spending 50 grand on something, it’s a bit like, “Man, you’d better stretch that dollar” We raised more of course. I don’t take for granted someone’s hard-earned money to [casually] go “Here you go, go do something.” So, for me, my goal was to finish the project. Worry about the t-shirts and posters later. Because, I’ve seen so many campaigns that never get the movie done. That’s not me. That’s not how it is.
There’s so much to it. We started pre-production, raising the funds because we were still doing the campaign. We started shooting and midway; they didn’t give us the money. We were all freaking out. Trying to figure out how we were going to pay the crew. There were some serious issues with IndieGoGo ... we almost lost all of the money and .... it almost went back to the original sources. We eventually got [the money] because John Kaler, Tamas Nadas, Christina Gopal, several of the other producers saw the trouble we were going through and said “We’ll help you with the money now, and you pay us back when it gets here” So, of course we said yes to that. That was literally day 12 of shooting when we made that arrangement. And then the pandemic hit! It was like, “Here we go!”
But it shows me that my team is committed to this project. I mean, at that point, there was no going back. I mean, they worked their asses off to finish this thing.
Both Kelly (Katy Erin) and Miguel (Michael Lovato) have a lot of chemistry. Did you make them audition together?
No, they did not. I wrote the role for Katy based on us going to karaoke. And with Michael, it’s going to sound like a broken record, or someone who is trying to sound PC or whatever. But it was so fucking hard to find a Latino lead. For X, Y reason. Either they were too big, they’re too small, they don’t want to travel, whatever the reason. I didn’t find a source of where to go and look. Michael auditioned and I was like “ehh” and then he did it again. And then we went out for drinks. And two beers become 15 drinks. Like we were having a blast. I felt I would rather have someone who wants to be in the project than someone who is good for the project but is bitching the whole time, making it difficult. This kid wanted to prove himself. So, I said, I can work with that. When we were having drinks, I immediately saw the camaraderie there.
Do you allow for improvisation in your scripts?
At times, if we are ahead of schedule. Sometimes it’s “Ok, we got the scene, do you want to do it again, like we’re just shooting the shit?” Because Michael is fantastic at improving, and I told him the next movie he can improv a lot more because he has a lot of good quips.
Where did you meet Katy?
We met in LA through a mutual friend from CAA (Creative Artists Agency) We just started getting drinks and I remember coming off really really strong. First of all, I hugged her instantly because I felt like I knew her instantly because we had been talking for two weeks. I remember just asking her questions. I wanted to know what movies inspire her. We started getting along and one time I was in LA and I hit her up and asked to come do karaoke. I was telling her that I wanted to make a movie where you do something assholian to your best friend. She liked it. She started laughing and we started coming up with all these ideas. I called her up and told her to give me two weeks and I’ll have something for you read.
How important is family in the theme of your stories?
I think it's pretty obvious in this film that [Kelly] lacks that family unit which she longs from [Miguel] because he still has it. Her attorney is the only parental figure she has. So, she gets to act like the princess or walk in with the attitude of she’s going to do whatever the fuck she wants. It’s crucial because whatever she’s lacking, he has and whatever he’s lacking she has. So that’s why they’re good together.
The way [Miguel’s] family was seated at the dinner is how my family sat at the table. The family unit in Mexico is like this: kids don’t leave their parents’ house until they’re married. Obviously, some do, but there are a lot that don’t. I had a friend who was still living at her parents’ house until she was 32. They were helping, paying the light bill, the water bill. For some people, it’s like, “Why would I move? I get to hang out with my parents.” I have good parents. They’re different. My dad didn’t understand when I wanted to do film. His position was “I’ve worked my ass for you, and you’re going to go do “film”? I don’t have any connections there.” So, I get that. So, if [Miguel] is already independent, and has a job, has a career or degree, I feel that when he gets called, he feels that something is up. Are his parents getting a divorce? It could be multiple things. It just happened to be that they wanted him for dinner because he got his letter from his master’s program. To tell him congratulations, and that they are proud of him.
Why was this soundtrack, setting and tone of the 1990s so vital?
We were super afraid of small things popping up, and a Blu-Ray actually does pop-up! [laughs] But we said right now there’s a lot of fashion that’s in and the 90s are super popular right now. I’m still so surprised that’s there just so much 80s shit getting blasted everywhere. “We got it, let’s go back to the 90s now, or maybe the 70s.” So, by giving that 90s appeal, when they had asked me why I wanted to do a 90s theme. I said because I needed to do something that would get people’s attention. I feel the average audience member does not want to see movies that are not connected to some sort of big cinematic universe. Not all of them, but a big chunk. I thought with a 90s theme, people would see the performances and could probably reflect on something that they did [in the 90s]. The soundtrack was pivotal. When [music producer] Charles Newman from Mother West [Recording Studio] and I got started, he contributed a track from his band Please, who used to open for Radiohead. So, our goal was to make a soundtrack in which none of the songs were released past the year 2000. We were afraid it was going to cost us a lot, and yes it did. A good chunk of the budget went to the soundtrack because it would be the final sprinkles in the sundae to make people believe they are in 1999.
The 90s were very colorful. Very Nickelodeon, very Disney Channel. I didn’t want to go full film grain. I wanted to build a little vibe in between. There is a filter we used, and it is very slight. We used some Atlas lenses and even some Retro lenses to really utilize the anamorphic style that filmmakers used in the 90s. That was our goal. Whatever we can do to sell the 90s from wardrobe, to music, to the smoke to whatever. A lot of times, people come into an indie film and are like [folds arms] “Impress me” and they start nitpicking before the movie even starts. So, we try to cover our asses when someone says, “Why is your movie so energetic?” Well, not only is it fueled by gasoline, and drugs and alcohol, but I just don’t want the audience to be bored.
What part of making Millennium Bugs stood out to you as being the most memorable?
I think raising the money. I didn’t think I was going to do it. I think that every filmmaker jumped on the IndieGoGo or the GoFundMe bandwagon. I remember there was a week where there were seven [movies] listed. And I try to support all of them. When we raised half the money, I finally said “Oh shit, we can actually do this!” There are more moments in the 17-day shoot, but that for me was the most impactful.
What are your next projects?
Well, you remember when we talked about Danny Boyle? [laughs] I’m doing my first thriller and horror movie! We’ll see how it goes. I’m going to try to do something like Fright Night or The Lost Boys. A little more edgy but like them.
Right now, we’re editing the thriller and getting ready to promote Millennium Bugs soon at the Urban World film festival soon. We don’t have an official release date, so we’re going to go through the film festivals now and get into official selections and try to leverage word of mouth.