Review Fix Exclusive Queens World Film Festival Coverage: Daniel Maldonado Talks ‘H.O.M.E’
Review Fix chats with filmmaker Daniel Maldonado who discusses his film “H.O.M.E,” set for at a run at this year’s summer screening session of the Queens World Film Festival.
For more on the film and the festival, click here.
Review Fix: What was the inspiration for your film?
Daniel Maldonado: The first story was inspired by a piece in the New York Times in 2011 about a young man with Aspergers Syndrome who was reported missing yet was able to live in the subways unnoticed. The 2nd story was a culmination of threads involving Livery drivers in the NYC boroughs, communication & urban alienation via immigrant displacement.
Review Fix: What was the most challenging part of making it?
Maldonado: Working with a micro budget. That was the source of any & all challenges such as shooting in the subways without a permit or stopping traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. Luckily we had some good, talented people involved who trusted me based on past collaborations along with a few who were persuaded since they saw others investing themselves .
Review Fix: How do you want it to be remembered?
Maldonado: When I started to write the story I was very bothered and still am by this almost inherent function of city societies and their residents turning a blind eye to incidents & each other. Eventually this turned into a stronger idea in focusing on urban communication and the importance of human connection in urban environments. I’d like for audiences to walk away from the film with just a simple reminder & awareness to the value of this.
Review Fix: How does it feel to be a part of the festival?
Maldonado: It feels great! It feels very welcoming not only from the festival but from the Queens community. I shot a lot of the film in Queens for a reason which was partly due to having been inspired by the diverse communities. This is also clearly reflected in the festival which has really grown enormously and yet they maintain such loving support of all the filmmakers. I loved seeing all the diverse films!
Review Fix: What’s next?
Maldonado: I’ve already begun working on the next feature length script which is a story that takes place in Puerto Rico loosely based on the missing Malaysian flight MH370 and its affect on a community.
New-music festivals are often nomadic, but the MATA Festival has wandered more widely than most, having started at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village and moved to Chelsea and Brooklyn in recent years. Now it has settled in at Le Poisson Rouge, the Greenwich Village club that in the last year has become an important part of the new-music circuit. It is a perfect home for the festival: the club’s programming philosophy overlaps with MATA’s mission of presenting young composers who write in any style that suits them.
As a prelude to each of the festival’s four concerts, the first of which was on Tuesday evening, MATA is playing “The Hidden,” a 10-minute multimedia piece with a brash electronic score by Mike Vernusky and amusingly quirky quick-cut video images by Daniel Maldonado. The work was played twice; the second time Mr. Maldonado’s faded, stressed images imposed an almost narrative structure on it.
By Manuel Betancourt | 3 years ago
Films about how society is becoming increasingly disconnected are now a genre onto their own. Think of Paul Haggis’s Crash, Roger Mitchell’s Changing Lanes, or perhaps most appropriately, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. That film’s tagline, “If You Want to be Understood… Listen” speaks to the themes that director Daniel Maldonado (alongside co-writer Hector Carosso) are exploring in H.O.M.E. Focused on two interconnected stories about immigrants in New York City, the film takes on issues of language barriers and miscommunication that are surprisingly timely.
Maldonado grew up in the city and that’s immediately apparent in the film which feels made for those people who make New York their home. Taking place mostly in subway stations and a cramped taxi cab in one night, H.O.M.E. is a film that immerses you in the multicultural world of the city. As a young runaway teenage boy with Asperger’s navigates the subway, an anxious Chinese mother convinces an Ecuadorian taxi driver to help her get back home. These are journeys that, as Maldonado puts it, help us redefine what we think about when we think about “home.”
Ahead of the film’s screening at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Queens World Film Festival, we sat down to talk to Maldonado about the ways he and his crew were able to outmaneuver the MTA to get the shots they needed, and how instrumental his casting directors were in getting Televisa fave Jesús Ochoa on board his project. Check some of the highlights from our chat below.
On Drawing From Real-Life Events
My inspiration was coming from a few different places. There was an article that came out several years ago in The New York Times “Runaway Spent 11 Days in the Subways,” about a young Mexican boy who had Asperger’s that basically talked about how he had ran away from home and he was living in the subways for several weeks. A combination of thinking what that environment must have been like in his condition, brought about some ideas to what is like to be on a journey within a city. I was also inspired by several other articles that talked about how we were communicating — or not communicating nowadays. And then I came upon a story of language barriers and I thought about a lot of drivers in Queens, all over the city. It all came together in an organic way. The original idea was that there were going to be three stories that spoke about immigrants living in the city.
On Casting His Leads
In terms of the casting. I was at a point, especially with the young man with Asperger’s where I was going to go either way in casting someone who had that condition. But I found this middle-ground in that we cast Jeremy Ray Valdez who I’d seen in a few films. He’s a great young actor who has done a lot of work, mostly in LA. Not much in New York. He also confided that he had a sister who’s autistic, and I think that’s what one of the things that brought him to the script. We brought him on, flew him out to New York for a couple of weeks.
The other actors: Jesús Ochoa who’s a pretty big Mexican actor. I saw him in a Sundance film a couple of years ago and he caught my eye and we brought on casting directors who were able to get in contact with him and bring him over. They [Ellyn Long Marshall and Maria E. Nelson] had done the casting for Girlfight and Maria Full of Grace. They were very instrumental in getting him. And then Angela they brought to us and she was someone who stood out from the beginning. She nailed it from the get-go and I think working with the two of them in that second story was a little bit of magic. They hit it off and had a good dynamic.
On the Secrets to Filming on the Subway
“The film speaks to the immigrants of New York — who I consider to be the fabric of the city.”
I was also one of the producers on the film and I knew that we had to be clever on how we approached this. One of the things that we approached it with was shooting with small cameras and no tripods. So that was step one. We also had two cameras and kind of played it off like, if we get stopped by the MTA or the police — which we did, several times — we had the other camera rolling. So we pushed it. I had to go ahead and do it. And we kind of strategized to film during certain times of the day. That kind of helped. The one thing that we did is, a kind of experiment, actually, was we gave Jeremy, who played Danny, an earpiece and we had him go out into the public with our cameras far back and filmed him interacting as his character throughout lot of the subways, in Grand Central Station, in the Port Authority area. The people that are interacting with him are unaware of the cameras so we had these sort of hyper-real scenes. I think he really thrived on it.
On Screening the Film in Queens
We’re going to be screening at the Museum [of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens] for the Festival and it’s going to be a great setting for the film. Not only because it speaks to New York City, but because it speaks to the immigrants of New York — what I consider to be the fabric of the city. I think the issue of communication and connecting, it’s something we have sort of seen a lot in recent years — put down your phone, pay attention, that kind of thing. But I’m trying to extend this conversation to those that are immigrants, bringing them into the picture, so to speak. I’m portraying characters that we don’t see everyday, especially outside of the city. It’s about giving them a voice.
H.O.M.E. is where the heart is
Winner of Best Narrative Feature at the Queens World Film Festival last month, H.O.M.E. is a poignant, beautifully shot film about the importance of human connection. Its director and co-writer, Daniel Maldonado, a lifelong New Yorker, shows us aspects of the city we don’t always see via two interconnected stories: One features Jeremy Ray Valdez as Danny, a young runaway with Asperger’s Syndrome who is living in the subways. The other thread concerns a struggling Ecuadorian cab driver, Gabriel (acclaimed Mexican actor Jesús Ochoa), who helps a distraught Chinese mother (Angela Lin) get home to Chinatown.
Maldonado’s first feature, H.O.M.E. has both a dreamlike, impressionistic quality and realistic characters and scenes, a testament to his unique artistic vision and desire to create something human and relatable. The New York subway system is also a major character in the film; through Danny’s eyes, it is a repository of complex beauty and sometimes overwhelming stimuli.
The film will be screened at 10:45 pm on Friday, April 15, at Cinema Village, as part of the Manhattan Film Festival. Last week I spoke with Maldonado about the making and the meaning of H.O.M.E.:
You studied film at the School of Visual Arts?
I kind of went about it in a roundabout way; instead of trying to get into a 4-year program, I went to night school, because I was pretty much supporting myself. After two years of night classes, I completely fell in love, so I switched into the degree program and wound up getting a Bachelor’s in film. As much as I loved making student films, what interested me the most was learning about film history and world cinema. That was the biggest spark, learning about films from all over the world, different generations; learning what art is, basically.
Courtesy of Gashouse Films
H.O.M.E. was co-written with Hector Carosso; had you ever worked with him before?
The first story about a young man with Asperger’s is something I wrote very loosely. I wanted it to be a loose narrative and incorporate a lot of documentary elements, but the second story was written with Hector and he was a little bit more formal in terms of the narrative. I had just met him through a friend and it was one of those lucky breaks where we hit it off and we had a continuous dialogue of ideas and fed off each other; that’s very rare.
The inspiration for the film was a story in the New York Times about a boy with Asperger’s who lived in the subway for 11 days.
I knew I wanted to do a story based in New York City and use the city as a character; it’s where I grew up. I was fascinated by that story in the Times… It stuck with me, and since then there have been several instances of children who are autistic going into the subways. I did a lot of research and I befriended a family with a boy with Asperger’s; they consulted in the writing and making of the film. It was very important to me to be responsible in portraying this character. I went as far as spending time living in the subways; I would go down for 18 hours at a time for a few weeks just to know what it feels like. I traveled to almost every single station in the four boroughs.
The film shows so much art in the subways, both intentional and accidental. Did you want to show the beauty of it?
One of things I noticed during that period is that we generally use the subways to go from A to B, so when you’re in that environment and you’re not going anywhere, your senses open up and that’s what allowed me to notice the cracks in the walls, the way the water was dripping from one of the pipes; it became very sensorial with me. It was also important to me to capture any way I could the POV of someone with Asperger’s.
Courtesy of Gashouse Films
How did you find Jeremy?
He already had a career in television and a couple of independent films, including one with Benjamin Bratt (La mission). I really loved his work and I thought he would be perfect. Luckily we knew somebody who knew him so we met with him. He immediately was interested because he had a family member who was autistic. Mind you, this is someone who’d never really spent time in New York—he’s from New Mexico, now living in LA—he’d never really ridden the subways, so I thought, this is going to be a challenge (laughs)…That scene where Danny has a bit of a freak out, Jeremy really had that moment right before we shot that scene. It was July, very hot, and it was a crowded subway car and he was really having that experience.
Then there’s Jesús Ochoa, who you also wanted specifically for the role of Gabriel.
A lot of it goes back to the casting agency Orpheus Group. These women cast Girlfight, Maria Full of Grace, some big independent films. They’re the ones responsible for getting Jesús. He did a film called Sangre de me sangre, which won (the Grand Jury prize) at Sundance. He’s an amazing presence.
Did you shoot a lot of the subway footage at night, or whenever you could get access?
Well, it’s technically illegal (laughs), so as many other independent filmmakers do in New York, you steal shots. The whole approach was that this would have to be planned out for us to execute it. We started off at night just because we wanted more control. Then we started getting stopped by the police … as long as you don’t have a big crew or a big tripod, you can get away with it a lot easier. They would still stop us but we had two cameras, so when they stopped one, the other kept rolling.
Courtesy of Gashouse Films
Danny’s character interacts with various people down there.
I wanted to have Jeremy engage with people while in character. We would give him an earphone and I was speaking to him, and as we filmed, he would interact with people. There’s a scene where he goes into a store in Grand Central and has a conversation with a lady at the counter; she wasn’t aware that we were filming. So we did a lot of experimentation where I wanted to blend fiction and reality, just to see what would come of it. A few people came up to us after they found out we were filming and said that they see a lot of autistic young people in the subway, it was almost common for them.
Those scenes in Gabriel’s cab: he’s really driving around the city, isn’t he?
Yeah, he’d never driven in New York before.
So you had a guy who’d never ridden the subway and a guy who’d never driven here!
Jesús is so amazing, what he was able to give us, all the sacrifices. I said, we don’t really have a whole lot of money to get all the equipment needed for a proper way to film this, so are you OK with driving and performing? He said, yeah, no problem. So we put the cameras in the car and we were all cramped in there; we had another car in front. I think the most challenging part was trying to stop traffic on the Manhattan Bridge (laughs). That was a really tough moment.
Courtesy of Gashouse Films
The immigrant experience, which we don’t always see portrayed on film, is obviously important to you.
I’ve been on that trail for a little bit now; I did a short film in 2009 about a Mexican delivery worker (Lalo), slapstick comedy. In New York City there are a million stories to tell and a million stories have been told, but I’ve always been interested in the immigrant experience because they are the fabric of the city. And the way I see my career going in terms of my interests and inspirations, I’ll continue to make films with immigrant characters.
What do you most want viewers to take away from H.O.M.E.?
When I started to write the story I was very bothered—and still am very bothered–by acts that we hear about, where people are oblivious to situations. It was reported a couple of years ago that a man bled to death on a sidewalk; there was surveillance footage of people throughout the night, passing by, looking at him and not helping. Stuff like that really gets to me and pushed me forward to make this film, write the stories, and ultimately not get on a soapbox and preach about paying attention and being aware, but just tell a simple, quiet little story and hope that people can draw from it the importance of connecting with others.
What are you working on next?
It’s bigger in scope; I’ll just say that it’s a film that I want to do in Puerto Rico and it involves a community that is affected by a tragedy. It’s loosely based on actual events and it goes into mysticism, myth, folklore; there’s lots going on.