'El Chicano' Co-Writer And Producer Joe Carnahan Explains What It Takes To Direct A First Film [Interview]

Joe Carnahan has once again produced a slick crime movie with El Chicano.Stunt coordinator Ben Hernandez Bray, who worked on The Grey and performed stunts in a long list of major films, co-wrote the script with Carnahan and makes his directorial debut with the Latino-led superhero movie. It's a $6 million movie that, like Carnahan's work, stretches every dollar of its budget.

It's a superhero movie crossed with a gritty crime film, set in East Los Angeles. Carnahan's is clearly pleased the film will get its due and play in theaters, especially after studios were resistant and sometimes tone def. When we recently spoke to Carnahan, he told us about how cathartic the project was, how the headache of Bad Boys III led him to El Chicano, his advice for first-time filmmakers, and more.

El Chicano became a priority after Bad Boys III, right? How'd that experience lead you to El Chicano?

Well, you know, Ben has been kind of talking to me about this for years and years. It's kind of based in fact. His brother Craig, he lost to gang violence back in 2006, and it was a big deal. Craig had done 6 years in Soledad prison and came out and just couldn't acclimate to kind of life on the outside and just got drawn into the wrong place, and he was killed.

And so I think Ben struggled with that for many years, and kind of this idea of how do you use art to calm that kind of psychic war that creates. And we've been talking about it and talking about and then, unfortunately, he lost his daughter at Bella at birth a few years ago and, you know, dude, listen I'm his best friend, and I didn't know how to soothe him or comfort him or console him. In another way I would say, "Listen, dude, I think we should pour our hearts and souls in El Chicano now."

I had a green-lit script on Bad Boys 3 in November 2015 ready to rock and roll, and then it became this arduous process of the movie star that I've been down that road before. I was exhausted by it, frustrated by it and just didn't want to put up with it anymore. So we really kind of went all out and I thought you know, that I don't know any Latino Avengers or anything off the top of my head other than Ghost Rider, but that was always Nicholas Cage, and obviously not Hispanic, so it wasn't something that I think had been done.

I also looked at the metrics about who's purchasing the most tickets for movies in North America, and it was the Latin crowd, with almost 25% of tickets purchased. In a genre film, it's closer to 50%, which is insane, dude. Listen, I sucked in math, bro, but even I can understand those numbers.

But I understand now, having gone through this process, why it's so confounding because we wrote the script, which I thought was great. Everybody said, "Oh it's a fantastic script," but everybody said no. So we go ahead, despite that. We believe in it, we're going secure the money, which is its own herculean task, and we made what I thought was a great film and everybody still said no. We kept hearing–I won't quote this one studio exec saying, "It'd be great if you had a Caucasian-influence in the movie." This is the kind of stuff that we are contended with, and shockingly so in this day and age, this should be a fucking open court lay-up dunk.

Really, it was born out of tremendous tragedy, personal tragedy in Ben's life and utter and complete professional frustration on my side, and I think we both were in need of something like this. Ben needed his own kind of distraction and anecdote and as much as you could possibly ever, you know, therapeutically work through something like that. Because it's just, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. And me, a far, far lesser degree just being kind of fed up with the process of trying to write a movie for movie stars, which I just never want to do again. It just... it sucks.

You said how one executive said he wished there was a "Caucasian influence," so what did you think when you heard that? Do you think some executives aren't sincere about wanting more diverse storytelling? 

I think anytime something like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians comes along, you kind of reset the keel, it's always a great thing. But I feel like, listen, I think that studios are as serious about margins, you know what I mean? Like, their sincerity is ultimately linked to how much money it's going to make them. I think it has far less to do with a progressive attitude or a need socially to make these types of films than what is good for the bottom line. What's going to make shareholders happy? If El Chicano made shareholders happy, where the felt that they could take a risk on an "untried first-time filmmaker, or "an untried leading man," you know... They're not in business to take those shots, I'm in the business to take those shots.

So, I get it, I'm not faulting them. I'm faulting a system that allows that to be pervasive and allows this kind of creative restriction to flourish. Because it's easier to bet on Robert Downey Jr, or Johnny Depp, or Will Smith, or Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt than it is to take a shot on something that could be revolutionary, even though you see like Lupita Nyong'o, nobody's talking about all the sudden, oh my god, is she a big movie star? We don't know. She was in a great movie, and she did a hell of a job. And it's the same thing with the young lady from Alita: Battle Angel, Rosa Salazar.

If something works it simply works, and you see it time and time again. But there on the flip side, you're seeing this slow-moving kind of elephantine reaction from the studios. They just still don't want to wrap their heads around the fact that the star system, the movie star system as we know it, I think has been completely disabled. Unless Daniel Craig is playing James Bond, no one gives a shit. Unless Robert Downey Jr is playing Tony Stark, no one gives a shit. That's not to take away anything as far as those guys being tremendous actors, because they are, and they're always going to be interesting for roles. But you can't tell me Hugh Jackman is going to draw the same crowd if he doesn't got claws coming out his hands, you know what I mean?

That's just the way it is, but they don't see those very simple distinctions. They see this guy's name gets this much because they still base it on this completely outdated antiquated core finance model, which I will never understand fully. It doesn't make any sense to me. Still doesn't make any sense to me. But again, brother, they're not in the business to be riverboat gamblers, I have to be a riverboat gambler. [Producer] Frank Grillo has to be a riverboat gambler. Ben Bray has to be a riverboat gambler because that's the way we want to make these films.

Obviously, Ben Bray has a tremendous amount of experience working on movies, including a few of yours, but when a director is about to make their first movie, what's your general advice?

Stay calm and don't lose your sense of humor. And trust in your instincts and trust in what you've done to get to this point, and beyond that, nothing is written. You'll make discoveries day one and day ninety-one if you're engaged and paying attention. And I don't think there's any, there's no cheat sheet, there's no nothing that can prepare you. You just have to go in and like anything else, like sports, nobody knows where the balls going to bounce.

It's like we start with a plan and we execute from there, but the plan gets broken up, and you have to improvise, you have to ad-lib and that's where the fun comes in. So, I think that people overthink that process too much and just go into it with the same set of skills that got you to a place where you're in a position to make a first movie and don't worry about anything else. So, a lot of this is on the job training. The thing is you'll figure it out eventually. You'll sink or swim.

Since the movie is set in East LA, how was it working there and depicting that part of the city and the culture? 

With Ben being from there, is obviously huge boost and I think we get a deep dive into the culture prior to shooting, and we went in there wanting peoples' permission or wanted their acknowledgment and acceptance, and we gave them our gratitude in response. You know, east LA is very much a state of mind like Detroit. You have a sense of what that is, but it's very much has a cache all of its own. I think that adds sexiness to it, to use a really terrible studio term. It very much does. It has an allure.

I think that you have to pay a top amount of respect. You also have to understand that you're making... We wanted this movie to work for a kid, someone in Russia watching this film, someone in Tokyo watching this film. They would get the plot, incidental that these were all Latino, Hispanic actors that you were seeing, and you got a great story. Someone said to me, the question was "Are you worried about Latin stereotypes? You know, the bad guys being cartel?" So I don't know. Did anyone ever ask the question, "Why were John McClane and Hans Gruber were both white guys?" Are you kidding me?

Every face you see in here, with the exception of me and my dad playing FBI agents, are Latino. Now I think that was way more important to us than... I happen to think the bad guy, Sal Lopez's character in El Chicano, his motivation is pretty awesome that we stole California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from the Mexican Empire and they want it back. That's as cool as any Marvel villain in my books, so I'll take that.

I'm happy that El Chicano is going to theaters and not a streaming service, although Wheelman worked very well on Netflix.


As a director, I'd imagine you'd generally want the big screen for movies like El Chicano and your own?

As much as I love Wheelman, I've had the pleasure of seeing that film in theater, it's an utterly different experience, and it's awesome to watch in a movie theater. Because you've got a guy like [Kevin] O'Connell who won an Oscar for Hacksaw Ridge, who's one of the great sound mixers of all time mixing that movie, and you're in a theatrical environment, and you feel every part of that car, it's amazing. So, yeah, you do feel a little robbed of that experience on television, sure, unless you're talking about tremendous home entertainment systems sitting in your home than I have, but you always want that I think.

You know, there's still that great communal aspect about sitting in a theater with a bunch of people and enjoying the movie, so yeah, I think you're always going to want that, and I'm very happy about that. I'm very happy that El Chicano has that theatrical component because that movie has another Oscar winner, Craig Mann, who mixed and won that Oscar for Whiplash and that movie in theaters is dynamite. So, I'm looking forward to seeing that and experiencing that movie in cinemas.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it's disappointing to think if you made Narc today, it might end up on a streaming service. 

Oh, sure brother. That was fifteen odd years ago, even longer sixteen, seventeen years ago. It would absolutely be, it would absolutely be. It wouldn't be something I think that would have a theatrical component because it was made as a three million dollar film, and again, I thank to this day, Tom Cruise, who will always have my gratitude because of him backing the movie. GHe got it awards season consideration and got it on cinema screens, and so it was a big deal. And I was very fortunate to have that, but absolutely it would go direct to Amazon and Hulu or something like that. It wouldn't get that today.

I wish you two made White Jazz together, which is a great script. Do you think it could maybe happen again in the near future?  

Oh yeah, brother. I just rewrote it. I had to recondition that script, taking into account everything that is happening today and not really being a fan of the "White Jazz" title because I think it has connotations I'm not really fired up about. It's kinda the unofficial LA Confidential sequel, and I'm hopin' that we get that thing up and running, but that's a recent development that I think we're gonna jump back into that.


El Chicano is in theaters today.