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  • Interview: Director Alfredo de Villa

    Wed, 10 Dec 2008 16:41:44

    Interview: Director Alfredo de Villa - The director of <i>Nothing Like the Holidays</i> talks about his Christmastime comedy-drama

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    Director Alfredo de Villa has a handful of movies under his belt, most notably Washington Heights, an independent film that garnered positive attention on the festival circuit. With Nothing Like the Holidays, he was trusted to wrangle a diverse cast of dynamic acting personalities, from Will & Grace’s Debra Messing to outspoken comedian John Leguizamo. The family drama takes place during perhaps the most emotionally-volatile time of year, Christmas, with the Rodriguez clan reconvening at their Humboldt Park homestead to untangle conflicts while one very heavy secret weighs overhead. ARTISTdirect spoke with de Villa about casting the film, directing shifts in tone, and why the story appeals to him personally.

    What attracted you to the project?

    What struck me, and what I think is the main through line of the film, was the fact that we [set out] to make a mainstream film that said, “Sometimes it’s better to give something up for the benefit of the family, the neighborhood, the country, whatever.” That’s what I thought was really striking. I have kids, so it’s something [I] think about day-in and day-out. What a great way to say something that’s real, at least in my sphere, and prescient to a mainstream audience.

    How did you instill your personal experience into the making of the film?

    Every film that I’ve done has been a reflection of either a conscious idea that [I] want to explore or world that [I] want to explore. Or, a conscious sense of viewing the world and where you come from. Those people on the screen [are] like my family. I grew up with a lot of uncles and aunts, an extended family; we were very close on my mother’s side. I knew those [types of] people very well, and how they would behave.

    I can only imagine that assembling a cast like this must have been a trying task. Could you intuit that they would work well together?

    Absolutely. I have a very specific process of casting. When [I] read a script for the first time, when [I] meet somebody for the first time—specifically an actor, in my case—I come home and I take a lot of notes about my impressions of that person. It can be as superficial as, “She wears glasses,” or something deeper than that; it doesn’t matter. The camera is an instrument that records reality very objectively; it doesn’t lie. So, as such, you have to be very honest about your impressions of that person, because I believe those are the impressions the audience is going to get of those people when they first meet them [on screen]. By the time you get to shooting the scene and cutting it, you know those people on a personal basis because you’ve been with them for a few weeks by then. It’s important that the audience doesn’t. They don’t know them. It’s more about the scene, what it means to the scene. I worked very hard to, in this film, create a balance and create a tone that everybody was going to be working toward.

    Those people on the screen [are] like my family.

    Scenes change in tone very quickly. Some situations are so incredibly sad that it seems you must find the humor in them. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.

    That’s right, and you have to embrace that. When I first read the script, from a storytelling point of view I said, “This would be a great challenge, because if I can do this in a movie, I will feel a lot better about myself.” [Laughs] When I went to the studio they essentially [asked me], “Why you [for the job]?” A fair question. I said, “Well, because this movie depends on how you change colors—emotional colors—within a scene to set you up for the next sequence. I think that’s what got me the job.

    In your past work, you’re known for crafting a very strong identity of place that ties into the story. Where does cultivating a distinct sense of the setting and neighborhood [Chicago’s Humboldt Park] start for you?

    It’s all about creating a sense of geography and at the same time setting up a mood. I feel very close to stories that are, at their core, about people and community, because [they] say quite a bit. It comes with doing a lot of visual research before I engage in any kind of physical production. During the prep, I hired a designer—a man from Chicago who knew Chicago quite well—because I didn’t know Chicago. I had a good sense of what Puerto Ricans were in terms of their identity and whatnot. Then [we flew] to Chicago and we visited, in seven days, a lot of houses. Between he and I we took about 1,200 pictures. I just approach it more like an anthropologist would.

    Can you describe what the on-set mood was among the actors?

    It was really [boisterous]. We shot all the family scenes the last two weeks [of production]. Everybody wanted to leave [them] until the end because they were the toughest scenes of the movie. They got along so well that in between takes they would just go on and on and on, and I had to go in and say [coughs], “We’ve gotta shoot. Do you guys want to go home in two hours or do you want to go home in four, because we’ve got to finish the scene. It’s up to you.” They’d say, “Let’s do it!” Especially Elizabeth [Pena]. [Laughs] She was like, “We get to go home in two hours? Let’s finish the scene! Guys, c’mon, time to work!”

    How much improv did actors like Luis [Gusman] and John [Leguisamo], who have experience with comedy, bring to the set?

    The studio asked me how [I could] fuse [drama] with comedy. We did a pass [of the screenplay] trying to punch up certain jokes, some of which were cut out because they were a bit too forced, to be honest, some of which stayed. I told them, “Look, if I can get a certain cast and I’m allowed to work the way I like to work, I will get you those lighter moments without a doubt, because I need them to switch tones.” That was one of the reasons why I hired Debra [Messing]. She has this insane amount of experience doing her T.V. show, and now she’s on The Starter Wife. She has to be funny every week, essentially. John I had seen on Broadway. He’s naturally funny and he has this manic energy I knew I could use very well. In that sense I knew that I had great performers that would get me there.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Alfredo de Villa, Debra Messing, John Leguizamo, Luis Gusman, Jay Hernandez, Nothing Like the Holidays

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