“It Was No Gang, It Was One Guy, and He Wasn’t Really a Killer”: Producer and Star Edward James Olmos on The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez
One of the greatest and most criminally overlooked Westerns in the history of cinema arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week in the form of the Criterion Collection’s release of Robert M. Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. A landmark independent film that kicked off the Chicano cinema movement of the 1980s (a movement that would include movies as varied as El Norte, Stand and Deliver, and Born in East L.A.), it’s a genre piece without a shred of manipulation or sentimentality; director Young and producer Edward James Olmos, who also stars in the title role, tell their chase narrative about a wrongly accused Mexican-American farmer on the run from the law without editorializing, and without artifice. Although the film is highly political, the politics emerge organically from the situations and characters, all rendered with painstaking historical accuracy through a complicated tapestry of perspectives. Young’s point of view, which Olmos would adopt and further develop in later work as a producer and director, is that of an objective documentarian, yet his restraint is, as Olmos would argue, deceptively simple. For while The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is not excessively stylized or explicitly argued, it is exceptionally cinematic from its first frame to its last, with Young and cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos unerring in their instincts about where to put the camera in order to give the viewer the richest possible understanding of the historical moment under examination. The movie is as rousing and moving as any more conventional action film or melodrama, but it reaches different viewers in different ways and doesn’t force any of its effects; it blends documentary and narrative techniques more effectively than almost any other film I’ve seen. Anchoring the film is Olmos’ iconic performance as Gregorio Cortez, a Western hero as striking and refreshing now as he must have been in 1982 – not just because of his race, but because of his unique blend of vulnerability, integrity, fear, and agility. Even in its murky VHS incarnations – the only way to see it for years – The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez has built up a following among cinephiles, with Robert Rodriguez even paying explicit homage to the film in Spy Kids. Now, lovingly restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and preserved in a sumptuous transfer by Criterion, perhaps The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez can find the wider audience it has always deserved. I spoke with Olmos about the film’s unusual production and distribution history, which has always fascinated me as much as the film itself, the day after the disc’s release. We began by talking about the origins of the project.
Edward James Olmos: I was helping Robert Redford with the first Sundance Institute in the summer of 1979. There was a producer up there named Moctesuma Esparza, and he asked me if I would help him make two movies. One of them was The Milagro Beanfield War, based on the John Nichols book, which I loved. The other movie was based on Dr. Américo Paredes’ book With His Pistol in His Hand, which is the story of Gregorio Cortez. I said, “of course, it would be my pleasure,” and he said, “But you gotta do Cortez first.” I really wanted to do Milagro Beanfield War, but I said, “Okay, but I want to produce it,” and he said, “That’s fine.” Also up at Sundance at the time was Robert M. Young, who I had worked on Alambrista with. Bob directed that movie and I had a small part in it, and I knew his aesthetic would be right for Gregorio Cortez. His intent in all of his work is that you do not exploit. You do not romanticize, you do not glamorize, you do not manipulate your audience, there’s nothing gratuitous. You are not working toward a result, you are documenting behavior, and the result is that everybody doesn’t walk out with the same feeling after seeing it. Bob leaves the final result to the viewer. It sounds simple, but it is very difficult to do.
Filmmaker: I find it interesting that right around this time you did Wolfen with Michael Wadleigh, who like Robert M. Young came from a documentary background.
Olmos: Michael Wadleigh was a giant, and still is – Woodstock was an unbelievable, unprecedented milestone in the documentation of human behavior. To me it was the single most important musical film ever made. And Bob Young’s documentary work is just amazing. He documented the last migration of the Inuit Eskimos, he shot sharks underwater with equipment that he invented. I don’t know if you’ve seen his movie Nothing But a Man, but that’s a total masterpiece. I just can’t say enough about the work these guys did, and I do think they bring something unique to fiction filmmaking because of that documentary background.
Filmmaker: I feel like that approach you developed with Young on The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez influenced a lot of what you did later.
Olmos: The first film I directed used that aesthetic and became very, very successful. It was called American Me, and it has the same concept as Coppola’s The Godfather. It’s a mafia family and the young guy becomes the leader of the mafia, and his brothers and family are in the mafia, same situation as The Godfather. But nobody came out of my movie humming the theme song like they did in The Godfather. [laughs] Everybody wanted to be in the Corleone family, and they wanted to be Michael Corleone, because The Godfather was so romanticized and glamorized – and that’s fine, that was the intent, and it works. That’s how you make great commercially viable projects, but it has nothing to do with the kind of documentation of behavior that I’m interested in and that Bob taught me.
Filmmaker: Well, one of the things I love about American Me is that it really respects and rewards the audience’s intelligence and imagination, and I think that’s true of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez as well. For example, you’ve got a very complex structure in which the story is told totally out of order and in some cases you’re seeing parts of the same event from different perspectives, and every time you get a new piece of information you have to recalibrate how you see the event.
Olmos: That came from Rashomon. Bob had this idea that if you take a situation and give one person’s description of it, then another’s, then another, you’ll see that all three of them are completely different, but by putting all three together you get a better picture of what it is that you’re actually looking at.
Filmmaker: So that presumably was not in the original script Esparza had when he first approached you. Tell me a little about the development of the screenplay with Bob Young, what was his initial response when you first brought him the project?
Olmos: This is going to make you laugh. I gave Bob the script up at Sundance, and that same year Robert Duvall was there – he gave Bob Tender Mercies to read at the same time. Bob called me up and said, “Eddie, I just finished reading your script, and it’s the most horrific and unprofessional script I’ve ever read in my life.” He couldn’t find one good thing to say about it. And then he said, “Tender Mercies is an extraordinary script. Just incredible.” In my mind I’m thinking, well, he’s gonna do Tender Mercies. I mean, at this point in time I am no Robert Duvall, okay? I had gotten a little recognition for a play called Zoot Suit and I went on to do Wolfen with Michael Wadleigh and Blade Runner with Ridley Scott, but at this time I was not known. And Bob asks me, “Do you have the money for your story?” I said, “I have a million dollars.” He goes, “Oh, that’s more than enough. I want to do your story. Duvall’s script is brilliant, but yours is the story I want to tell.”
Filmmaker: I’m amazed to hear that you only had a million dollars, and that Young thought that was more than enough! The movie is enormous in its scale, how did you guys pull that off?
Olmos: You figure it out. I have no idea how Michael Hausman, our line producer, did it. I really don’t. We had 5,000 wardrobe changes, 150 horses… period cars, period trains, we shot in three states of the union. It was brilliant producing on Hausman’s part, because everything we needed was always there.
Filmmaker: The sense of historical detail is just extraordinary, both visually and at the script stage. What kind of research did you do?
Olmos: When Bob agreed to do the picture and rewrite the screenplay from scratch, he and I went to the real locations where it all happened. We went to Gonzales, Texas, where they captured and imprisoned Gregorio Cortez, and we found the exact prison. We found his cell. The jail and the courthouse were exactly how they were in 1901, it gave us an authenticity unlike anything I had ever experienced before in film. We had to talk the district court judge in Gonzales into letting us use the courthouse, and when he asked us what kind of movie we were doing, Bob kept speaking in general terms of how important our subject was to Mexican-American people and to the Latino culture, but he wouldn’t say the name because at that time no one knew who Gregorio Cortez was. The judge kept asking, “What’s his name?” and finally Bob says, “His name is Gregorio Cortez, but he’s a really important—” and this guy says, “Stop, stop. I’ve been waiting for you guys for 35 years.” He opens his filing cabinets, and in these cabinets is every single piece of testimony and every single newspaper article from around the country related to the trial. This judge was the foremost authority on the case in the world, bar none. He felt it was one of the most important cases in U.S. history because it was the first time a Latino had been tried in an American court of law, and with an interpreter, which was unheard of in 1901. This guy had filing cabinets filled with material, because the case was followed all over the country – it involved something like 600 Texas Rangers in hot pursuit of what they thought was a Mexican gang of killers. And it was no gang, it was one guy, and he wasn’t really a killer – it was self-defense. Anyway, discovering all that material was just unbelievable. It was magical. And it allowed us to make what the United States Historical Society claimed to be the most authentic Western ever made in American film, ever.
Filmmaker: One thing that’s a little different for a Western – in a good way – is the synth score. It’s very unusual to score a Western with electronic music, but I think it works beautifully. How did you come up with that approach?
Olmos: It was because we didn’t have any money! [laughs] Michael Lewis and I did the whole score ourselves on synthesizers in the good old days when we had a Moog, and we just used one guitar player, Hearth Martinez, who did all the guitar parts. Vangelis had done Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire with nothing but electronic music, and we said, “What the hell? Chariots of Fire was in the 1920s and he did it there, let’s do it in a Western.”
Filmmaker: How was it received at the time? As I understand it the film had an unusual distribution history, in that it premiered on television and then went into theaters later.
Olmos: American Playhouse on PBS helped finance the movie, so it premiered there, and I asked for the theatrical rights afterward. I started showing the film for free on Saturday mornings at the Los Feliz Theater and invited my friends, and they went crazy for it because Reynaldo Villalobos’ photography was unbelievably beautiful on the big screen. We showed it four or five times at the Los Feliz, then moved over to the Music Hall in Beverly Hills for another four or five screenings. During this time Charles Champlin wrote a really incredible review of this great movie that you couldn’t buy a ticket for, you could only come see it for free on Saturday mornings at 10:00. People started coming out of the woodwork after that, and Embassy picked it up for nationwide distribution. We tested it in two different theaters, one was a commercial house in El Paso, Texas, and the other was an art house, the Four Star, in San Francisco. We did a lot of footwork promoting the movie in those two markets, so when it opened it was jam-packed. In El Paso we made more money than Conan the Barbarian, which was the number one movie in the country at that time. But then Larry Sugar at Embassy really destroyed the movie. He presold it in 19 different cities, but opened it with no promotion. No newspaper ads, no radio spots, nothing, and no time for us to do the kind of work we did in San Francisco and El Paso to raise awareness of the picture. We had been creating buzz about the movie city by city and were going to continue to do that, but this idiot had no idea what he had. He didn’t like the movie, he thought it was small and stupid – his kind of film was The Sound of Music. So the movie collapsed and went away, and the people who put it out on VHS didn’t take any time with the piece. Rey Villalobos wasn’t brought in to supervise the transfer, the sound wasn’t synced up…it was a disaster. But Chicano studies classes used it over the years, and now the Academy has restored every single frame and it looks and sounds pristine. With Criterion putting it out in this fantastic version, people can finally see the movie we really made.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.