A conversation with filmmaker Tony Estrada
We are sharing with our readers our recent interview with Tony Estrada, a Mexican-American filmmaker and published writer.
Pro Media Mag: First of all tell us about the start of your professional career?
Tony Estrada: After I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2012, I taught film, photography, and Sophomore English and Literature at the high school I attended, Damien High School, in 2008.
I was offered an internship at MGM while I was teaching and every Friday, I would drive to Beverly Hills to go work at MGM. While at MGM, one of the executives then set me up with an interview to work under his friend, Adam Saunders, an independent producer. I worked for him for about three weeks before he had to move to New York to film his movie About Alex. I asked him before he left to please set me up with someone so that I could learn—paid or unpaid, as I was eager to learn. He then set me up with Lee Toland Krieger, and I worked alongside Lee for a few years.
Concurrent to working with Lee, I also worked as a personal assistant and as a nanny. I would also occasionally do freelance video work, and install windows and do general contractor work alongside my godfather. Whatever I needed to do to make money, while I was learning, I did. In the midst of all this, I also prepped and shot my first movie, Martha Cook. The early days sure as hell made me grow up and was so incredibly worth it. I am so grateful for the way my career and my story began.
Pro Media Mag: It seems your internship at MGM Beverly Hills proved to be a game changer for you. How was your experience working with Krieger?
Tony Estrada: MGM was amazing. I loved every minute of it. I wanted to be there every single moment that I could. I just kept my ears and eyes open, and my head on a swivel at all times and just picked up so much from everything that was said, the awesome meetings I was allowed into, and just observing how everyone worked. I really owe so much to that internship for teaching me, at a very basic level, how the studio system worked. I’ve always been hyper competitive, and this brought out the best competitor in me. Moreover, it showed me that if I just put my head down and worked and was eager to learn that great things would happen. Most of all, what the internship showed me was that this was the field I was meant to be in.
Working for Lee Toland Krieger was such an awesome opportunity. He taught me so much about being a director, not by outright teaching me, but by putting me into situations and essentially saying Figure it out. I learned about pitching, mood books, mood reels, and maybe most importantly, how to effectively run a set. He was always willing to answer my questions even when he was in the thick of production during the times we were in Vancouver and San Francisco and really took the time to make sure I understood what was going on. He has always been willing to watch the stuff I make and provide me with really excellent feedback. I am so incredibly grateful for everything he has taught me and his willingness to take the time to mentor me. Since I’ve started to grow into my own in my career, he’s really started to take on the role of more of a potential collaborator and I haven’t felt as much of a kid around him. Again, this was all with his grace and professionalism, that there has been that shift. I am so incredibly grateful for everything he has done for me.
Pro Media Mag: Tell us about your most recent short film, Bridesman. What kind of response has it received so far?
Tony Estrada: The response to Bridesman has been awesome. We’ve played a number of festivals, including the Academy Award-qualifying LA Shorts Fest and the We Like ‘Em Short Festival in Baker City, Oregon and the screenings have gone so well. People have really enjoyed it and connected with it. I cannot express enough how gratifying it is to hear an audience of people genuinely laugh at what you’re putting on screen and then speaking about their deeper connection to it after the viewing. That was what we aimed to do—make a movie that people laughed along to and kept them talking after it was over, and most importantly, took them away from the daily grind of life for 18 minutes to enjoy something that they could connect with.
I am so grateful and humbled by the entire Bridesman team. The level of commitment and passion they brought to it from the producers to the group of actors that did a table read for us has been nothing short of amazing. To have this many people put this much effort into something that has so much personal meaning to me, really put into perspective how powerful the film medium is and one united voice can be, but more importantly, just how grateful I am to do what I do, every single day. The passion, the ideas, and just the experience of working with brilliant and committed people keeps my juices flowing.
Pro Media Mag: What’s the best project you have done so far?
Tony Estrada: I know it sounds cliché, but each project keeps making this journey more incredible. With that being said, Bridesman has by far been my favorite. It was so awesome to tell a story that was so deeply personal to me and see how people responded to it from the first time I had someone read it, to production, to the screenings.
One of the best experiences of my life was working with Danny Trejo. His humility and passion for the project have taught me so much about what kind of effect just being a good person can have. It was a lifelong dream of mine, since the time I saw Spy Kids when I was 10 years old, to work with him. To have that come true at 25 was beyond my wildest dreams. Moreover, when we were told that he would take off his shirt but not his pants for a shot we needed, then he showed up and was not only willing but eager to do both, that showed me just how much he cared for helping out our project and how much he just wanted to do a good job. I am so grateful for his mentorship and in showing me what true professionalism looks like. To have him go a step further, and speak about our short film on radio and TV, was just so humbling. He has done so much for our project that I really do not know how to ever thank him and his agent, Gloria Hinojosa, for everything that they’ve done for us.
Pro Media Mag: You graduated in Screen Arts and Culture from the University of Michigan. How much it did help in improving your skills?
Tony Estrada: I am so thankful for my time at Michigan and if you’re around me for more than five minutes, you’ll probably hear about it. I love that school down to my core and have made a passionate commitment to myself, in the long run, to make sure that I give to them a fraction of what they gave to me.
When I was at Michigan, it was unlike what I would imagine USC, UCLA or NYU is, which from my understanding, is much more production focused. My time at Michigan was very heavily studies and theory focused. At the time, I wasn’t so sure what watching Soviet films from the 1920s was going to do for me or how writing 12 pages on Rambo was going to make me a better filmmaker (this was easily the best assignment in the history of mankind), but as I look back at it, it was exactly what I needed. It introduced me to cinema from all over the world, from all different time periods that I would have never otherwise would have sought out on my own. Furthermore, it helped me to develop the critical thinking and language that I needed to better hone my craft. Now, I find myself reading more and watching more than I did in college. I still read film academia, and seek out films from 50s and 60s Japan (sometimes to the chagrin of my amazingly supportive girlfriend). The studies and theory really taught me the power of the medium and how to think in a way that would help me craft a movie to fully realize the power of an individual’s voice and their understanding of the world around them in what they put out to the world. Lastly, I am so grateful to my professor Dan Herbert, who continues to be a great sounding board and really inspires me to keep my interest in the academic side of film, just as much as the production. Go Blue!
Pro Media Mag: Who are you inspired by most in the film industry?
Tony Estrada: Without a doubt, I am most inspired by Martin Scorsese. In my opinion, he has done everything a filmmaker can do with the medium both commercially and artistically. The pure craftsmanship in each of his films is enough to make him the beacon of perfection for any aspiring filmmaker, and his ability to speak to something deeper has always been what’s struck me the most. He has done something for Italian Americans in which I aim to do for Mexican Americans, which is portray them as “average” people with “average” struggles in which our white/Anglo counterparts have been, as opposed to their more common portrayal as gang members or gardeners. We’re just as American, just as multilayered and complex. Looking at Goodfellas or Raging Bull, in particular, he has not made some grandiose statement about Italian Americans or stood on a soap box preaching about how to make a difference for Italian Americans, but instead has told their story as true as possible from what he knows. In doing so, he has made them just an everyday piece of the pie of American diversity. That is what I aim to do with my movies. Make a statement without making a statement and progress the lives of Latinos in this country through assimilation in the stories that I want to tell.
The fact that he has also been able to make a mark at the box office shows his perfect balance of artist and businessman, which I believe is one of the most crucial components to being a successful filmmaker. Lastly, to end my Scorsese gushing for today, he has connected with me personally on a spiritual level. Having grown up Catholic, two of his films, The Last Temptation of Christ and his most recent, Silence, have really pushed me to think deeply about my spirituality and my journey with it. If I can equally push someone in my shoes, to think so deeply and raise thequestions that I’ve raised in myself because of these movies, what an accomplishment that would be. He has proven the power of a strong voice and the medium.
Pro Media Mag: What’s the best part of being a filmmaker?
Tony Estrada: The best part about being a filmmaker is two fold: the people I get to work with and the journey of making a movie. Filmmaking has shown me how many brilliant minds there are out there. Getting to feed off these brilliant minds’ ideas and passions is what continues to push me. I love learning from these people and sharing ideas with them, then having them take an idea or thought one step further is such a rush. The process of making a movie involves this creative process constantly and seeing all that thinking and soundboarding come together in one story is so incredibly gratifying. From the struggle of seeing the blank page and having that blinking cursor just taunt you and trying to fill it with words to the planning of the shoot and the production, there is always something new to learn and something to take away from each movie we make. Seeing it go from a mere idea or thought to a full fledged story is an awesome feeling because, as a filmmaker you always know to some extent what it took for that film to be made.
Pro Media Mag: What are some targets you’ve set out to achieve in your career?
Tony Estrada: My first goal right now is to be an artistically and commercially viable director. Some examples of directors I see doing this right now are Martin Scorsese, JA Bayona, Alfonso Cuáron, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and Damien Chazelle. A greater sense of purpose I see for myself and the work that I do is to unify people and promote togetherness through the movies and TV shows that I make. Again, I have no interest in standing on a soap box and preaching, but instead telling stories how I really see them from the incredible experiences I’ve I had thus far in this lifetime. Eventually, I’d love to get to a point that someone like a Brett Ratner or Brad Pitt has gotten to, in which they’ve established production banners that work alongside studios to put out phenomenal content. Recently, I read an Entertainment Weekly article that showed that Latinos make up 16.3% of the US population yet account for 1.3% of all acting Academy Award nominations. I am not saying that I want people to be given things or conversely not earn them just because of the color of their skin. I just want to be able to provide more opportunities for people to succeed. I want to provide opportunities and gateways for Latinos, and young up-and-comers to produce commercially and artistically viable content. That is how I feel I can help contribute to the progression of Latinos in the industry.
I would really love to go back and teach at the University of Michigan for a couple of years and do my best to help further develop the school’s film program. At the end of the day, my goal is to be a leader that promotes unity, and togetherness, however that may come or what opportunities may present themselves to do that in the future, I’ll be ready for.
Pro Media Mag: What are your upcoming projects?
Tony Estrada: There are quite a few projects in the pipeline, currently. We will be shooting the feature length version of Bridesman this summer in New Mexico. Before that, my team and I will be making another short film, called I’m Not Saying This Happened, a romantic comedy that takes place at a funeral. I am also currently writing a comedy pilot called Manny about a wannabe rockstar that takes a job as a nanny, and an untitled action comedy about a guy who accidentally starts a gang war in East LA, and must have the help of his father, a former police officer, to escape. I am also still currently working as a writer/producer/director contractor on internal projects for Niagara Bottling. I am also writing more articles ranging from my spirituality and filmmaking, my recent experience visiting Cuba and the socio-political implications behind it, and my perspective about the officer-involved shootings as a Latino and the son of a former LA County Sheriff Deputy. I’m really excited to see what is to come in the near future.
For further updates on Tony Estrada you can visit www.officialtonyestrada.com