by Glenn Lovell
Luis Valdez, the acclaimed filmmaker-playwright best known for “Zoot Suit” and “La Bamba,” was born in Delano, Calif., less than five miles from the San Joaquin Valley town of McFarland. Valdez saw his first movies in McFarland and, later, helped organize farm workers there. He would have been the perfect choice to direct Disney’s “McFarland, USA” (now on DVD and VOD), about a Chicano cross-country team and its initially skeptical coach, played by Kevin Costner.
Yes, but then the emphasis/perspective would have been different: the film would probably have been more about the high-school runners and their parents than the fish-out-of-water Anglo coach who struggles to fit in … and, in typical Hollywood fashion, saves the most troubled of the kids from themselves.
In short, with Valdez at the helm, “McFarland, USA” would not have been another in a long line of white-savior movies that includes “Dangerous Minds” with Michelle Pfeiffer and “The Blind Spot” with Hilary Swank.
“Sure, I would have loved to direct that (film), among many others,” replies Valdez from his Teatro Campesino office in San Juan Bautista. “The story of McFarland is a familiar reality, my reality. I grew up there. It’s an old, traditional farming community, not some foreign country … But it’s not surprising that Hollywood would continue to do the white savior thing: that’s long been a through line in these types of movies.”
That said, Valdez has nothing but praise for the Disney release, directed by New Zealander Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”). “I found it to be a wonderful film, positive and inspirational. The reality of the southern San Joaquin Valley is, of course, multi-layered … No single film can deal with all the relevant issues, but I was impressed by the final screen updates that many of the track members went on to college and then back to teach in their community.”
However, the movie industry overall continues to “lag behind” when it comes to cultural diversity, Valdez contends. “The impression is that Latinos or Chicanos are all recent arrivals, and (filmmakers) don’t take into account that we’ve been here as long as the state has existed … If you can’t see past the ethnicity, you don’t see that.”
In 1987, Valdez followed up his screen adaptation of “Zoot Suit,” inspired by the Sleepy Lagoon riots of 1944, with a biopic about Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens. It was produced by Taylor Hackford for Columbia Pictures and starred Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens, who died in a plane crash in 1959. “La Bamba” earned over $100 million worldwide. Not a bad return on an $8 million investment. “Depending on how you define Latino films, it’s a track record that stands to this day,” says the director. “Robert Rodriguez has done some wonderful work and his films have grossed quite a bit, but they’re not strictly speaking Latino films.”
With “La Bamba” in the can, Valdez met with Hackford and new Columbia boss David Puttnam.
“We were feeling pretty good and we just sat around discussing ideas. And they said, ‘What do you want to do next?’ So I pitched them an idea for this thing called ‘Tortilla Curtain,’ which was a comedy. I got the green light. They approved it on the spot. ‘Yeah, go write it.’ I felt pretty happy about that. Then, when my wife Lupe and I were in London promoting ‘La Bamba,’ we learned about Puttnam’s resignation.” (It’s generally held that Puttnam was given the boot for ruffling feathers.)
Dawn Steel replaced Puttnam, who had produced “Midnight Express” and “Chariots of Fire” and was known for chancy, offbeat projects. Steel canceled Puttnam’s projects, including “Tortilla Curtain.”
Valdez next worked on “Old Gringo,” developed by Jane Fonda from a Carlos Fuentes’ novel about the disappearance of writer Ambrose Bierce. Valdez saw Bierce as “this weird Anglophile” and wanted Peter O’Toole for the role, which eventually went to Gregory Peck. After a disagreement over the script, he was “paid not to direct the film” and replaced by Argentinean Luis Puenzo. The film, released in 1989, was a critical and commercial flop.
Valdez was then set to adapt the Rudolfo Anaya novel “Bless Me, Ultima.” The prime backers: Jose Menendez and Carolco Pictures. While scouting locations in New Mexico, he received word that Menendez and his wife had been murdered by their sons. “After that, our film project fell apart,” he recalls ruefully.
“It’s just part of the vicissitudes of Hollywood,” says Valdez of his premature retirement from movies. “Because ‘La Bamba’ made money people assume there were a lot of offers. There weren’t. But I’ve had a fairly typical run in terms of things that have almost been made but weren’t for one reason or another.”
Valdez isn’t bitter. He doesn’t have time to be. His latest play, “Valley of the Heart,” workshopped at El Teatro, moves to San Jose Stage Company in September. Set in Cupertino in 1941, it’s a star-crossed romance between a Mexican-American ranch hand and the Japanese-American daughter of a soon-to-be displaced rancher. Also, “Zoot Suit” was just revived to cheers at San Jose State University. A multimedia fusion of drama and documentary, the new production was directed by son Kinan Valdez.
Does Valdez, who’ll turn 75 later this month, have another movie in him? “I’m interested in taking ‘Valley of the Heart’ to film. I think it would make a wonderful movie. It’s epic because of World War 2, but it’s also an intimate love story. Some people who have seen it on stage have said it’s ‘like watching a movie.’ ”