Alfredo De Villa, A Drift In Manhattan
Though he is now living in Los Angeles, Alfredo De Villa can’t stop returning to New York City to make his movies. The 35-year-old writer-director was born and raised in Puebla, Mexico, but moved to the U.S. when he was in his teens. He began his film career with shorts, Joe’s Egg (1995) and Neto’s Run (1999), both of which went on to win him the DGA’s Best Latino Director Award. He studied Directing at Columbia University’s film program, after which he moved into advertising, and in 2002 he directed his first feature, Washington Heights, about an aspiring comicbook artist who is compelled to look after his ailing father and his bodega. The film won a special mention at the first Tribeca Film Festival, and De Villa followed it up last year with Yellow, a dance movie vehicle for actress Roselyn Sanchez.
Like Washington Heights, Adrift in Manhattan was co-scripted by De Villa, with his writing partner, Nat Moss. Another portrait of life in New York, the film presents a triptych of stories about characters isolated and unfulfilled: Simon (Victor Rasuk), a shy young photographer who has a dangerously intimate relationship with his mother; Rose (Heather Graham), an optometrist consumed by grief after the death her two-year-old son; and Tomasso (Dominic Chianese), a solitary, aging painter who is about to lose his sight. The stories interweave as the three lives bisect, sometimes surprisingly, offering the hope of salvation — or at least closure — for the protagonists. De Villa’s film takes a poetic and restrained approach to the material, often using the characters’ actions rather than their words to give us insight, and constructs a thoughtful, poignant and ultimately hopeful portrait of urban lives.
Filmmaker spoke to De Villa about his transition into filmmaking, his cinematic homages to William Friedkin and David O. Russell, and how Darth Vader changed his life.
Filmmaker: You left your hometown of Puebla when you were 17. Why was that?
De Villa: It was a very simple decision to leave. Puebla is the fourth or fifth largest city in Mexico, and it’s very regional. At the time, it was very isolated and basically the prospects of pursuing something to do with film, or trying to do a film in Puebla, were just daunting. A lot of people were getting into the film school in Mexico, but it was difficult for somebody from Puebla because you needed recommendations — I had nobody.
Filmmaker: How important are your background and heritage to your identity as a filmmaker?
De Villa: Personally, it’s very important. I think my work has always been a reaction to what I grew up with as a teenager in Puebla, which has been funky because it’s a very specific world and it was a very specific time, so sometimes I ran into trouble finding dramatic equivalents by setting stories in New York, in a completely different country.
Filmmaker: What did you do once you arrived in the U.S., before you got involved in filmmaking?
De Villa: Well, I worked as a dishwasher, a delivery man, I ran a little gas station — things like that. I did some gardening, cleaned people’s houses sometimes. I was in Florida when I first came to the States, so I found it was lucrative to clean people’s boats; it was a bitch of a job, but it paid better. So I did a few of those, but they were harsh.
Filmmaker: How did you get to the stage of making shorts?
De Villa: Since Mexico, I always had this strong desire to do films. I had the chance to do my first short film when I was in my directing class — it was basically an end-of-semester exercise. Back then [at Columbia], you could do whatever you wanted, nobody cared, use any equipment. So a friend of mine and I wrote this little script which was pretty funny, and it was self-contained so we budgeted out and realized it was going to cost us essentially the cost of film and a couple of more bucks to get it done. $1200 or something like that. So we shot it on 16 [mm].
Filmmaker: How did things progress after your graduation from Columbia?
De Villa: I did all kinds of crazy jobs, anything that came my way and one of those things was that I became a freelance proofreader. In New York, there’s a lot of advertising agencies, and they started to like me because I was quiet and I did my work. What I realized was half the time you just sat there waiting, you really didn’t do much, so for me it was great because I could bring my own work. I started realizing that somebody had to produce those commercials, so I asked around and finally one agency said, “Well, we don’t have an opening, but give us your C.V.,” and sure enough, two months later they called me and offered me an entrance position job. So I had a parallel career in advertising, and basically until ’04 I worked in that industry — even when I was shooting and cutting Washington Heights, I had a day job producing commercials.
Filmmaker: How close is the comicbook artist in Washington Heights to you, in terms of his drive and ambition?
De Villa: I never thought about it, but I think you’re right. I think your observation is very interesting. In Washington Heights, I never thought of him in terms of his ambition, I always understood him in terms of his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father and how it changes him as a person. In Puebla, when my cousins and I were asked what we were going to do and what our ambitions were, nobody ever said, “Oh, I want to run the World Bank,” or, “I want to be the next governor of Puebla,” [laughs] it was like, “Yeah, I’ll go to college and study engineering,” or “Maybe I’ll study political science and then eventually go to law school.” Where emphasis was placed was more on family, on the idea of you staying in the same city, raising your family in the same city, and it was a very close network.
Filmmaker: That closeness of family emerges in a very unusual sense in Adrift in Manhattan, where Simon and his mother have a relationship that borders on incestuous.
De Villa: The first thing I should say is that my mother and I never had any incestuous relationship! [laughs] Let’s get rid of that evil rumor before it arises! Actually I’m not that close to my mother: my father is dead, and I essentially grew up without a father. It’s a very complicated family history. It was a very conscious decision when we were thinking about that character, to make him have this really complex relationship with his mother.
Filmmaker: There’s an echo of David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey in their relationship. You have a great homage to The French Connection in one scene, so was there a conscious awareness of a reference to Russell’s film?
De Villa: I was very aware of that film, and I’m a big fan of it. I love the movie, and especially the scene where the mother and son come to make love: they’re kinda both drunk and they’re actually playing with each other and one thing leads to the next until they kiss. It’s fascinating, and incredibly real. It’s a beautiful moment. I knew when we made our film we would be referencing that movie in one way or another, but it wasn’t that planned per se. In terms of The French Connection, the old title of the movie was 1/9 after the subway lines, and we needed a scene where Heather [Graham]’s character makes a choice to pursue this guy who’s essentially stalking her, and we finally came up with the idea to do it in the subway. Then, of course, we thought about the Fernando Rey-Gene Hackman scene in French Connection, the cat and mouse [where they repeatedly move on and off the train as it’s about to leave]. We decided to do it our own way, and we hoped that contextually it was different enough. I love that scene in The French Connection.
Filmmaker: I’ve read that the movie was quite a bit darker in initial drafts of the script, but that it had to be toned down in order for you to get funding. What did you change?
De Villa: The script was a lot darker, to be honest, and it was a really difficult proposition for the financiers. The scenes between the mother and son were a lot more explicit, and we had to stay more at the level of hint and suggestion. What Heather and Victor [Rasuk]’s characters did was a lot darker, as well – more than just the spanking, if you will!
Filmmaker: All of your movies so far have been set in New York. Is that by chance or design?
De Villa: Well, with these two films [Washington Heights and Adrift in Manhattan] it was more by design. When I came to this country, I came to Miami first and then eventually, three of four years later, I made my way to New York. I remember when I first got there, I felt immediately right at home. Coming from a foreign country, America is a very particular place and in many ways you feel very alienated from it, but I think New York, with its cosmopolitan attitude and the attitude of the real native New Yorkers, it’s so in-your-face and interesting, and so different from the rest of the country that I felt at home. I remember just walking out of the plane when I first came there and just touching the soil and feeling O.K. about it. And, mind you, when I came to New York, I had $400 in my pocket — I just did it. I was fearless.
Filmmaker: Was there a moment when you were younger when you realized you wanted to become a filmmaker?
De Villa: There were a lot of things that were wrong when I was growing up in and around my family, but the appearance was a different story altogether. Even though I was seven and wasn’t very self-aware, I knew there was something very wrong. This is going to sound banal, but I remember going to see The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars movie which marked my generation, and being fascinated when Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker that he’s his father. That powerful revelation was so raw to me, and moved me. I came out of the cinema on this main boulevard, and I was so shaken. I could just not [get rid] of that feeling. The fact that this huge emotional connection between these two characters could happen in a movie, whereas in real life we had to hide it and couldn’t express those things directly, was very moving to me.
Filmmaker: Which lost overlooked masterpiece would you like to see have a renaissance?
De Villa: The movie that I love, and I’m not sure how much it’s been ignored, is a movie I go back to a lot, a lot, one of the early melodramas by Luis Buñuel from Mexico, called El. I love that film. I’m not sure how much it’s considered a classic, but I know a lot of people do know it because it’s one of the most Buñuelian films from his Mexico years.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you during your time as a filmmaker?
De Villa: Well, the one that I can remember most is a very weird story. We were talking to this foreign sales company based in Hollywood to get some projections to raise money, based on actors and whatnot. I had to go in and meet them and hear their notes on the script [of Adrift in Manhattan] (when the script was a lot darker). They sat me down with the president of the company and the development team and were telling me the score and what it is. It was really strange, they went in and said, “The dialogue is good, the situations are good, but there’s no political intrigue. Maybe you could write it like Crash, give it a political angle.” They suggested that the young photographer could try and assassinate the mayor. What do you do with comments like that? And then they said, “The movie doesn’t have enough sex.” I managed to dodge the question of politics, and when it comes to the sex, I said, “No, no, no, you’re wrong. The movie is like Last Tango In Paris, sans the butter.” They actually took notes, nodded to each other, and that was satisfactory. It was just really surreal — I [suddenly] understood a lot of the David Lynch movies after that. [laughs] David Lynch is basically just making documentaries of his surroundings.