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'Can you make him white?' And more absurd lessons in pitching Latino stories to Hollywood

The LA Times logo The LA Times 6/13/2021 Robert J. Lopez
a person sitting on a couch: Producer David Valdes in his Los Angeles home: "I tried pitching so many Latino stories, but it was like banging my head against the wall." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times) © (Christina House/Los Angeles Times) Producer David Valdes in his Los Angeles home: "I tried pitching so many Latino stories, but it was like banging my head against the wall." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

My adventure in Hollywood began with an unexpected phone call.

I had written a screenplay, a fictional tale about a down-and-out Latino journalist who investigates the suspicious slaying of Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar, only to be confronted by powerful people who will stop at nothing to keep the reporter from uncovering the truth.

I mailed an unsolicited copy of my script to producer David Valdes, who had just been nominated for an Academy Award for co-producing the fantasy drama film “The Green Mile,” which starred Tom Hanks.

To be honest, I never expected Valdes to respond.

Then, one evening in late spring 2000, several weeks after the Academy Awards, Valdes called. He liked my script, but he wasn't calling about my story.

“I want you to write my movie,” he said, explaining he had the rights to the story of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, a Mexican immigrant who spent nearly 15 years on death row in Texas after being wrongly convicted of killing a Houston police officer.

The story had universal themes of perseverance, hope and justice. With an Oscar-nominated producer backing the project, I was sure one day Aldape's story would splash across the big screen.

In the end, my hope for screenwriting success, as well as the fate of a worthy story, collided with the difficulty even a successful producer faces in getting a Latino-themed project greenlit in Hollywood.

Mexican folk hero

All these years later, however, I believe Valdes was right to want a movie made about Aldape, who was just 20 years old when he was sentenced to death in 1982 — even though the physical evidence showed that another man had fatally shot the police officer.

He became a folk hero for Mexicans who felt that immigrants face injustice in the United States. Ballads were written about his case and blared across the airwaves on both sides of the border. Hundreds of protesters blocked an international bridge to call attention to his plight.

As Aldape languished on death row, his case was taken on pro bono by attorney Scott J. Atlas, who led a team that uncovered how Houston police and prosecutors had intimidated and coerced multiple witnesses, many of them teenagers, into providing false statements that Aldape was the killer.

Prosecutors also had played to anti-immigrant hostility, telling jurors they could consider Aldape’s undocumented status to determine whether he would be a future threat to society.

In April 1997, after spending nearly all his adult life on death row, Aldape was released and walked off a plane with Atlas in his hometown of Monterrey, where they were swarmed by boisterous crowds.

He landed a role in a Mexican telenovela called “Al Norte del Corazón,” or "North of the Heart," playing himself in the soap opera about Mexican immigrants abused by U.S. authorities.

Four months after becoming a free man, the 35-year-old Aldape slammed his Volkswagen into another vehicle. He died of his injuries.

Valdes had optioned the rights to a manuscript written by Atlas and another attorney who helped Aldape win his freedom.

“It was a good story,” Valdes recalled in a recent interview. “It was such a blatant example of railroading an immigrant who came to pursue the American dream and it became this American nightmare.”

At the time, Valdes, who began his Hollywood career as a production assistant, had worked on more than a dozen films with Clint Eastwood, including “Bird” and “Unforgiven,” and had collaborated with noted filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

For Valdes, the project was an opportunity to produce a bilingual film that he believed would have wide appeal with audiences in English and Spanish.

But the script, he said, “required a detective approach, doing a lot of sleuthing and finding the facts and weaving that into a tapestry.” Or, perhaps a reporter.

Valdes read scripts and considered writers for the project, but he wasn’t satisfied — which may be why, when my screenplay arrived in his mailbox, he took a chance on me even though I had no formal training in screenplay writing.

I signed a contract with Valdes’ film company, Summer Magic Productions, and began poring over several boxes of court records and other files Valdes provided. I traveled to Houston and Monterrey, where I interviewed Aldape’s family.

During meetings at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Westwood, Valdes and I discussed revisions to the drafts I was writing. Valdes pitched the story to executives he knew at Telemundo, who were interested, but the cost of producing the film at the time — about $4 million or $5 million — might have been beyond the budget of the Spanish-language network, Valdes said. He also talked to executives at Searchlight Pictures, Focus Features and HBO.

“I went to all the usual suspects,” Valdes said. “Maybe I was naive in believing that the networks and the studios would have to acknowledge the bilingual and Spanish-speaking audience.”

Some executives viewed the project within the narrow confines of an “immigrant story” and failed to fully appreciate the larger themes, Valdes said. Others wanted to know whether any top talent was attached to the project. Valdes was considering Mexican directors and Spanish-speaking actors to portray Aldape.

“You can’t hire Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt to play Ricardo Aldape,” he said.

The power of story

The bottom line was that studios did not believe Latino-themed movies would have crossover success, Valdes said. Films that at the time had been successful, such as “Stand and Deliver” or “La Bamba,” were viewed as rare exceptions. Also, he was told, executives thought that Latino-themed films would not appeal to foreign audiences, limiting international sales.

David Valdes posing for the camera: David Valdes is photographed at home in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times) © (Christina House / Los Angeles Times) David Valdes is photographed at home in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

In the end, even with an Oscar nomination under his belt, Valdes was unable to get any traction for the Aldape project. It was the same for another story he wanted to produce, which was set in Mexico and had Robert Duvall attached, as well as a project by director and screenwriter Carlos Ávila about the Mexican American music scene in San Antonio in the early 1960s. "Very frustrating," Valdes said. "I tried pitching so many Latino stories, but it was like banging my head against the wall.

“What was surprising,” Valdes added of his Academy Award recognition, “I thought it would open more doors for projects I was attracted to.”

He'd worked for several years as an assistant director before receiving an associate producer credit in 1985 on Eastwood's "Pale Rider" and executive producer credit two years later on Coppola's "Gardens of Stone." He committed to "The Green Mile" after reading the script by Frank Darabont, who also directed the film and co-produced with Valdes. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, with Darabont and Valdes sharing the best picture nomination.

"I was over the moon — nothing short of ecstatic," Valdes recalled feeling the morning the nominations were announced.

The Oscars heat did open doors to more meetings with Hollywood executives, Valdes said, but they wanted him to produce their projects, not his. Among the films he produced were "The Time Machine," and "The Book of Eli," starring Guy Pierce and Denzel Washington, respectively. Valdes is an executive producer on "Avatar 2," which is in postproduction and stars Kate Winslet and Zoe Saldada.

I got my own up-close lessons in the struggle to getting executives excited about Latino-themed projects.

In one instance, I co-wrote a screenplay about a good cop who goes bad, told through the eyes of a Latino officer policing a heavily immigrant neighborhood. An executive liked the story but wanted to know if I could change the officer: “Can you make him white?”

Looking back, the Aldape project and its bilingual concept may have been ahead of its time.

Today there are more opportunities to produce bilingual and Spanish-speaking films and series on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. There are also more Spanish-speaking actors with Hollywood clout, such as Gael García Bernal or Diego Luna, the latter of whom received one of his first U.S. film roles in “Open Range,” which Valdes helped produce.

“It was truly a ‘Catch-22’ back in the day,” Valdes said. “Studios [were] not willing to take a shot on good stories with actors who had no name value and not willing to give talented — but unknown — actors an opportunity to establish the name value that was sought.”

What the studios and executives failed to realize, Valdez said, is that a story will be commercially successful regardless of the race or ethnicity of the characters — "if the story is unique and has compelling characters that resonate with an audience."

“Story trumps all.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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