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August 2007
ILLEGAL TENDER: An Interview with Director Franc Reyes

An Interview with Director Franc Reyes

By Wilson Morales

August 20, 2007

There’s never a shortage of gangster films. There is however a shortage of substance that goes along with gangster films. Any director can make a film about drugs and guns and the eventual shootout that comes somewhere in the film. Director Franc Reyes made a gangster film a few years ago when he did ‘Empire’ with John Leguizamo, but he also added dimensions to John’s character so he didn’t seem one-note and the audience can either root for or against him. Five years later, Reyes has another film coming out called ‘Illegal Tender’, where amidst a backdrop gangster story, there’s a compelling focus on a mother and son relationship. The film has an all-Latino cast with Rick Gonzalez, Wanda De Jesus, Dania Ramirez, and making his film debut, Reggaeton artist Tego Calderon. In speaking to blackfilm.com, Reyes talks about working with John Singleton, who produced the film, casting the leads the film and his upcoming project.

It’s been five years since ‘Empire’ came out and at that time, you wanted to make a gangster film directed by a Latino. Now, ‘Illegal Tender’ is coming out and it’s perceived to be another gangster film.

Franc Reyes: If you want to call it that.

How would you then describe it and what were you looking to set out?

FR: I was looking to make a mother and son story, an urban drama really. That’s all it was.

How long did it take to write the script?

FR: I wrote the screenplay in three weeks. I spoke to Singleton about doing this thing. I pitched it to him and he said to write it up and make it and I locked myself up in a room for three weeks and came up with the story.

Why Singleton?

FR: He met Singleton a couple of years ago at a party for Spike Lee’s film, ‘25th Hour’ and I went up to him and told him I loved his work. I had a film out at the time called ‘Empire’ and he had seen it and said, ‘We should do something together’. I didn’t see him again for a few years because he was working on ‘Hustle and Flow’, ‘Four Brothers’, and all that and then we bumped into each other in LA and said ‘Let’s do this’ and he asked, ‘What do you want to do’ and I pitched ‘Illegal Tender’ to him.

It’s rare to have a studio release a English language, all-Latino film. Was that your idea?

FR: My thing was always the idea of making Latino films. I don’t make for Latinos. I make films with Latinos in it. This story was a way to go.

What does ‘Illegal Tender’ to his community?

FR: ‘Illegal Tender’ has stories behind it. There’s the idea of illegal money that’s missing and the illegal young tender girl that’s 17 at the end of the film.

Can you talk about casting Rick Gonzalez, Wanda De Jesus, and Dania Ramirez in the film?

FR: Me and Rick are boys. We go back a long way and we were talking about doing something together after I had done ‘Empire’. He was the one that was calling me everyday. “How’s the script coming?” Rick always stayed in touch. With Wanda, she hit it out of the park. She auditioned for the role and knocked it out. That’s pretty much it. Dania’s just beautiful and talented. That was a no-brainer.

You also added Reggaeton artist Tego Calderon in the film. How serious did you want him to be as an actor?

FR: He was the only character in the film that I wrote specifically for him. Obviously the role of Rick Gonzalez I wrote for Rick, but the role of “Choco”, I wrote for Tego. He was the one I wanted for the role. I called him and we put it together quickly and I think he did a wonderful job.

Being a musician yourself, was that something you wanted to do, to help another artist in the business?

FR: No. I’ve worked with hip hop artists before. I worked with Fat Joe and Treach on ‘Empire’, so my experience with hip hop artists on film has been good. Both of those guys did a good job on ‘Empire’ and Tego had a wonderful time.

What else do you want people to see outside of the mother-son story? The film will either see on the family relationship or the gangster story.

FR: It’s going to sell on the gangster story. When you see the trailer and you see the guns and the gangster idea, it’s more than that when you see the film. It’s more than your average bang em up-shoot-em-up film. It’s about a relationship and that between a mother and her son. That’s what the movie’s about and if they leave the theater saying to themselves that they understood it, I’m happy. I’ve grown up with so many friends of mine that have been raised by single moms, and they watched the film and they get it. If you were raised by a single mom, then you will get it and if not, you will be totally entertained.

How realistic are some of the scenes? Do you think that people will want to expect more of a plausible scene than suspension of disbelief?

FR: That’s a mistake out the box. You should expect what you see. I don’t think you should expect anything more than what you would expect from Darren Aronsky, Quentin Tarantino, or anybody. I think you should see the movie for what it is.

How was shooting the film in Puerto Rico?

FR: We were there for two months, and I shot two weeks in New York.

What sort of music do you have planned for the soundtrack?

FR: With the soundtrack, we have a number of Reggaeton artist like Tego Calderon and others, but the impressive work is done by Heitor Pereira, the score guy. He did an amazing job.

What were the challenges to the film?

FR: The challenges was just telling the story; trying to get mother-son focal point across in spite of all the gangster stuff going on.

What’s your next project?

FR: I just finished a film this past winter called ‘The Ministers’with John Leguizamo and Harvey Keitel. I’ve been in the middle of pitching that and it’s looking pretty good.

What’s the story about?

FR: It’s basically about these three kids who lose their parents in a fire during ‘the Bronx is burning’, a time I grew up in, and landlords are burning buildings down for insurance purposes. The kids who lost their parents were Pentecostal ministers. Then years later when they are in their twenties, they lose one of their brothers, who was a minister, accidentally to a police officer, and the two brothers go on a vengeance kick. One of them ends up killing the wrong police officer and the other ends up falling in love with that police officer’s daughter. All sorts of stuff unfolds.

Who plays the female lead?

FR: The female part is played by newcomer Florencia Lozano, and Harvey Keitel plays the cops and John Leguizamo plays his own twin brother.

Were you aware that your film was coming out during the month where other Latino films, such as ‘El Cantante’ and ‘Bordertown’ were out and the NY Latino Festival just happened? What does this do for the Latino community?

FR: Again, it’s the idea of getting out there and into the game. I saw ‘El Cantante’ a couple of weeks ago and it’s great that this is happening.

What’s the draw of ‘Illegal Tender’? Is there a message to this?

FR: It’s a mother-son story. If people see it as a gangster story, that’s okay. To me, what I want people to leave with is having finished their popcorn, stayed there, enjoyed the movie, laugh, cry, and had a good time. It’s what any filmmaker would want. I don’t see this as a message film at all. The only thing that makes political is the fact that it’s all-Latino.

What would you prefer to do, write or direct?

FR: That’s a good question. It depends, but I think directing would be my choice. I do a lot of the writing, but I’ve just been offered a job that I will probably take and it’s a directing gig.



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