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by Lela Scott MacNeil
July 17th, 2010

Come see Monroe Street and other short films about “Brooklyn Transformations” for FREE TONIGHT in Fort Greene Park.

Mariachi, a short film by recent NYU Tisch alumni Elena Greenlee, is a coming-of-age story about a Mexican-American teenager struggling to find his identity between that of his immigrant parents and his Brooklyn-born peers. Filmed in Brooklyn, by a Brooklyn-bred director, Mariachi is a powerful edition to  this Saturday’s “Brooklyn Transformations” show.

We sat down with Elena to discuss the delicate task of telling a non abrasive story about race relations.

Rooftop Films: Describe your film for those who haven’t seen it.

Elena Greenlee: Mariachi is a short film about a Mexican-American teenager growing up in Brooklyn trying to make his way through teenage-hood. He’s dealing with his normal teenage hopes and desires when unexpected hard times strike his family and life has to get a whole lot more serious overnight.

RF: The film addresses some nuanced issues of race through the relationships between Carlos, a Brooklyn born and raised, 2nd generation Mexican teen and his peers.  How aware of these themes were you when writing the script and and how were you able to create a film that tackles these issues without being too abrasive?

EG: I was very aware of those themes from the conception of the idea and throughout writing the script and shooting the movie. They were probably my main motivation to make the film but at the same time I kept that motivation kinda quiet and outwardly set out to make a film that tells a clear story, rather than a film that evokes a certain theme. That way, I hoped the themes wouldn’t hit the audience over the head too hard, if that’s what you mean by abrasive.

But for me the story was always about identity, Carlos’ development as a character is in the way he sees himself differently in the beginning then at the end. In mapping out that development I didn’t really mind if the characters sense of humor, or attitudes were somewhat abrasive or offensive towards each other. It was important for me to depict the social environment and characters accurately and New Yorkers (teenagers especially) tend to have a kinda abrasive way of categorizing each other by race or nationality and putting each other in little boxes. I wanted to show how when Carlos comes into contact with a world outside of his comfort zone he’s forced to start opening his mind and this allows him to understand himself differently as well.

RF: This film is being screened in our Brooklyn Transformations series on July 17.  How effectively did Brooklyn serve as a backdrop for your film?

EG: I was born and raised in Brooklyn and though the story of Mariachi is fictitious the basic premise–a 1st generation American grappling with their identity and beginning to wake up to the fact that there’s a context out there that is bigger and more complex even than New York City–is based on my own experiences growing up. So naturally there’s nowhere else I’d rather shoot than Brooklyn.

RF: The performances are excellent—subtle and powerful. How did you cast the film? What was your process for working with young actors?

EG: I met Jeff Lima (Carlos) on a short film shoot where I was working as a camera assistant around the time that I was forming the idea for Mariachi. I really got a chance to study his performance while pulling focus and I told him I might have a part for him in a couple months. I thought of him while writing the script and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find another actor his age in NY who was able to communicate so much so quietly. I still looked all over town  though just to be certain. I reached out to youth theater programs and performing arts high schools. I posted a call on Breakdown Services/Actors Access and that’s how I ended up meeting Alexandria Snipe (Skyla), she had never acted before but felt very authentic to me and that’s what I wanted to go for. For the background actors I was very lucky to get kids from a NYC high school to come in on a Saturday in exchange for pizza. I think authentic background talent is super important.

Working with the two of them together was interesting, Jeff had a good deal of experience, we discussed the script like crazy in rehearsal and on set he didn’t need a whole lot from me. Alex just needed me to build up her confidence and give her enough takes until she found her rhythm and didn’t feel shy. We shot on HD so wasting film wouldn’t be a concern, I also encouraged them to improvise if they wanted, but I don’t think any improv made it in.

RF: Are you a full-time filmmaker? If not, what else do you do?

EG: Yes, I’d say I’m a full-time filmmaker, just still waiting for the full-time money to start coming in. I just finished three thrilling and grueling years at NYU’s graduate film program and that was beyond full-time so I’m just now finally free to define how I spend my time. Right now I spend 80% of my work time writing or thinking about film projects and 20% doing odd jobs to support myself. I like odd jobs better because they are unpredictable and full of material for filmmaking. There is a stress demon inside of me that tries to get me to go back to bar-tending or waitressing full-time like I was doing before grad school but I tell it to f*ck off. If I were to do something else for work besides filmmaking I would like to be cooking in my own restaurant.

RF: Tell us about your next project.

EG: My next project is another short film which will be my graduate thesis film called “Nasceu Maria” (“Maria was Born” in Portuguese). It’s about a woman, Maria, who’s recently emigrated to New York on a foreign nurses visa, with her 8 year old daughter and a very flaky artist boyfriend. The short takes place over one weekend where the pressures become too much for Maria, she tries really hard to make her daughter happy, taking her on a fancy outing but everything just goes wrong and Maria starts to lose it. Losing her grip on reality actually makes Maria enter this more imaginative state where her and her daughter get to actually bond for the first time in a long time. It’s basically about her best and worst night ever imaginable in New York City. It’s also a really personal project because it’s a collaboration with my mother who wrote a short story based on her own life experiences that I adapted the script from.

I’m raising money to shoot that this Winter and at the same time I’m writing a feature screenplay where certain characters from Mariachi pop up again. That script really fits the category of Brooklyn Transformations but it’s too early for me to talk about it in detail.

RF: What excites you about screening your film, in Brooklyn, at Rooftop Films.

EG: I love the idea of a free outdoor screening and I love Fort Greene Park. The whole thing just really fits the spirit of Summer in Brooklyn, which is my favorite season. Even though most people think the weather’s awful I love the heat, and anyway it’s the best time of year for people to be out in the streets together doing things that don’t involve spending lots of money. So much of nightlife in New York is about commerce rather than community and no one can say that about this event!

See Monroe Street and other short films about “Brooklyn Transformations” for FREE TONIGHT in Fort Greene Park at 8pm.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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