In Hollywood, multi-hyphenate filmmakers like writer-director-producer-editor James Cameron are sometimes characterized as narcissists, their numerous credits seen as an insatiable need for control. In the indie film world, however, when filmmakers take on multiple roles it’s often due to sheer necessity.
Such was the case for Colombian actress Paola Mendoza, whose touching and nuanced new feature film "Entre Nos" was a hit at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. When she first conceived of the project, Mendoza simply set out to write a screenplay (along with co-screenwriter Gloria LaMorte) that would do justice to the real-life story of her immigrant mother who became homeless with two children when she first arrived in the U.S. The process took two years.
"We were just focused on writing a good script," Mendoza said in an interview during a recent screening of her film at the San Diego Film Festival. "And once that was done we went on to the next job."
The next job was finding a director, but when that effort proved fruitless they decided to direct the film themselves. Prior to going into production, Mendoza asked her mother, Liliana Legge, for the official rights to her life story. According to Mendoza, her mother said: "I give you permission to tell my story but only if you play me." Mendoza agreed, adding yet another credit to her growing list.
But that's not all. As is often the case in independent projects, her responsibilities also extended to tasks that went uncredited. During shooting, the now writer-director-actress also served as den mother to the two young actors who played her children (Laura Montana Cortéz, 6, and Sebastián Villada López, 10). "We shot the film in 18 days with two kids who are in 90 percent of the film and could only be on set 8 and 9 hours respectively. Every day was an impossible task, literally," Mendoza admitted.
The true nature of the story made the process even more challenging for Mendoza. She felt enormous pressure to represent her mother's experiences in a truthful way, both in her roles as actress and filmmaker. "I couldn't even eat. I was just angry, worried, and stressed," she recalled.
The process, overwhelming as it was, eventually paid off. "Gloria and I were very lucky. When we got to the shooting we shot a better film than we wrote, and when we got to the editing we edited a better movie than we shot. And that's the ideal trajectory."
"Entre Nos" makes public some very personal details about Legge's life. It recounts the time when the family had to sleep in park benches and resorted to collecting used cans on the street for money, as well as the moment when Legge's character was forced to make an extremely tough decision (I'll just leave it at that). Like it or not, the film brought back some painful memories for the real-life family members.
"I remember myself being a lot like [my character in the film] - a quiet strength. I have an overwhelming sense of obligation because of what my mom went through. I always felt that I had to help her, that I was the man of the house," said Rick Mendoza, who now has three children and is a Director of Admissions for a private university. He also made the trip to San Diego, along with his mother.
"It's true that I relied a lot on him. I couldn't make it through without him. He was my strength," confessed Legge, who now lives happily in California on a 5-acre ranch and works as a bookkeeper.
Ultimately, the film focuses on the way the family stuck together despite dire circumstances. Legge's character, for example, turns everything into a game for the kids in order to soften the brunt of reality. Rick Mendoza's character, meanwhile, catches on early and tries not to burden his mother with his fears. The theme that emerges is one of sacrifice and unity, and this gave the real-life family an opportunity to discuss issues long ignored and to grow even closer.
"I remember [my sister] sent me the first rough draft of the script as a Christmas gift. I started reading it thinking I would read for about 20 minutes and go to bed but I stayed up 'til 3 o'clock in the morning. I read the entire thing. Bawled my eyes out. And I think ever since then we've been a lot closer," said Rick Mendoza.
"Their sacrifices were huge for me and that's what has been so beautiful - making this movie, sharing it with the world, and then us having this beautiful relationship. My mother has been able to travel to a couple of film festivals with us. She's gotten so much love. My brother has been able to share in this movie, his kids will eventually see it and it's just a gift for the family that's been very special for us," added Paola Mendoza.
Mendoza is quickly becoming a mainstay in the Latin American independent film scene. In 2007, she starred in the Sundance Grand Prize winner "Padre Nuestro" and also co-directed (with Gabriel Noble) "Autumn Eyes," a feature documentary, which premiered at South by Southwest in 2006. She considers it part of her mission as an artist to contribute to Latin American cinema.
"Latin cinema not only in the U.S. but all across the world is on a huge rise and it's very inspiring to be Latino and be making movies at this time. In particular, Colombia is having a huge explosion that's pushing the boundaries and it's very exciting. We knew we were making this film in Spanish from the very beginning because that's what was true to us, true to our story. And I will continue to tell stories of Latinos, and my hope is not to just make them for the Latino audience but to make them universal and cross over," Mendoza said.
"Entre Nos" opens at the Quad Cinema in NY on May 14th and will be shown on HBO Latino in the fall.