‘¡Viva la Revolución!’ with filmmaker Tony Estrada
¡Viva la Revolución! with filmmaker Tony Estrada and his latest film. Tony is a writer, director, producer, and youth empowerment speaker based in Los Angeles who has produced content for clients including CBS, LA County, Niagara Bottling, Mattel, and Phantom Auto.
Estrada’s 2016 film, Bridesman starring Danny Trejo, is currently being developed as a feature, alongside several other TV and film projects under his Esquared Entertainment umbrella.
Estrada’s films have screened at festivals nationally, and have earned many awards and recognition including the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Tony’s writing has been published in national and international publications, including Elephant Journal, The Advocate and Thought Catalog.
¡Viva la Revolución!, which is currently gaining critical praise and awards on the festival circuit, marks Tony’s fourth film. It stars Mexican telenovela icon and performer Maite Perroni, Miya Cech of The Darkest Minds and Lonnie Chavis of This is Us.
¡Viva la Revolución!
After presenting a class project on the Cuban Revolution, a victim of playground bullying starts a revolution to overthrow the autocratic regime, only to become the corrupt dictator himself.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW (Psychotherapist, Author, Blogger, Speake) recently spoke about Tony Estrada’s latest film. “¡Viva la Revolución! is a film that will inspire productive conversations to help schools end bullying. The Anti-Bullying program fueled by Tony Estrada’s empathy, knowledge, and desire to help children be their best selves, promises to leave teachers and children alike with ideas and skills to last a lifetime.”
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
Buckle your seatbelt.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2012 with my degree in Screen Arts and Culture, I returned to my alma mater, Damien High School, to teach film, photography, and English Literature to Sophomores.
About midway through the year teaching, I was on Facebook and friend of mine, Jeff Diamond, posted that he had just started working at MGM. Had I not been on Facebook at that time, I don’t know if things would have panned out the way that they did.
I reached out to him and he recommended that I apply for an internship. That April, I began working at MGM every Friday as a creative development intern under Matt Dines. It was a marvelous experience and one that I think about daily.
During Easter break, I decided to go in during the week and one of the executives had a personal issue that I was able to help out with. That day, he asked me if I was looking for a job and recommended me for an interview.
I was headed to Atlanta that evening to see Michigan play in the Final Four. I called his friend, Adam Saunders of Footprint Features (Shimmer Lake, When We First Met), and he said that I needed to interview that day in Santa Monica at 4:30, if I wanted the job. My flight left out of Long Beach at 6:30. I nailed the interview and miraculously made my flight, and headed off to see Michigan in the Final Four.
After working for Adam for about two months, his movie About Alex was greenlit, and he was able to take me to New York. Because we had struck up a great relationship in that time, I asked him to put me under someone I could learn from and I didn’t care if I got paid or not.
Adam put me under Lee Toland Krieger (Age of Adaline, Riverdale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). While working for Lee, I was working as a nanny and an assistant to two separate families to make ends meet. Lee was a tremendous mentor and really helped to guide me in my directing career at that time. It was at this time that I made my first film, Martha Cook.
That was the foundation of it all.
Who are your current influences?
My biggest influences right now are Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, Sean Anders, Taika Waititi and Martin Scorsese. Paul Feig for his ability to mix art and commerce so effectively. I just got done reading the scripts to Freaks and Geeks and I am still baffled that someone was able to define the teenage years so brilliantly.
Judd Apatow for his ability to put so much heart into his comedy. The depth of his characters is remarkable. Sean Anders for his ability to make family movies on a studio level that are genuinely accessible to everyone. Taika Waititi because I feel we share a very similar desire to look at the world in a very child-like way.
Martin Scorsese because he is the master and will forever be the unattainable precedent. However in the pursuit, I will find gold along the way.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
Right now, Curb Your Enthusiasm (whenever the new season decides to come out), Veep, Impractical Jokers, Barry, and Michigan football/Dodger baseball games (does that count?)
Cat or dog?
Dogs by a million miles.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
I saw Spy Kids when I was 10 years old. I never knew what impact it had on me until recently. It was the first time that I saw kids that talked like me, that went to private school, whose uncles looked like mine, and whose jokes I thought were perfect.
I remember sitting there and saying to myself “That guy (Danny Trejo) – I want to work with him someday” – not knowing that I wanted to be a filmmaker. That dream came true when I directed Bridesman.
The first movie I saw where I actually noticed a director was Requiem for a Dream when I was 12 years old (yep, when I was 12). That was the first time when I realized that movies didn’t just happen. That there was a guiding hand behind everything that was happening on screen.
How was working on ¡Viva la Revolución!? What did you learn from the experience?
Working on ¡Viva! was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. I loved every second of it and still do love everything that is currently happening with it with our youth empowerment school tour.
From a professional standpoint, my biggest takeaway was ensuring that you’re always guided by the unifying vision/theme. So often, I got caught up in trying to be so much like (fill in the blank). I would, at times, lose sight of exactly what I was trying to say. As I reflect back on the journey, the answer to many of the issues we ran into while making the project, creatively, came from just needing to simplify.
From a personal standpoint, this film taught me about the bullying epidemic. In the distribution process, I’ve learned so much about bullying all over the world and the effect it has on children in the immediate and long term. It is what has given me this intense, mission focused mindset to really want to propel this forward and serve as many kids as we can.
Tell us about your career before you found film.
I can’t really say there was a career before film, outside of being a student. I eat, breathe, and sleep it. However, in cohesion with the pursuit, there’s been tons of odd jobs to make ends meet, but there really wasn’t much before it. Some of the jobs I’ve had have been as a Lyft driver, dog walker, personal assistant, nanny, personal trainer, and window installer.
Where did the concept come from for ¡Viva la Revolución!?
I was on a trip back from Cuba flying over Mexico when I thought to myself, “What were Che and Castro like as kids?” I thought a little kid as a dictator was funny and decided to build a story around it.
When I started digging more into this idea, I thought of how it could be relevant and useful for today and that’s when bullying came to the forefront of my mind. From there, it was absolute rigorous research of different revolutions throughout the world and points of history, and seeing the crossover to today’s zeitgeist.
It became crucial for me to have something that kids paid attention to and that parents could thoroughly enjoy so that it would evoke conversation between them for something that is really difficult to talk about for both those being bullied and the bullies.
What music inspires you to create?
To really kick start the creative juices, I usually have a playlist that gets me in a really high energy state: “Gloria” by Laura Branigan, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – Elton John with Kiki Dee, “Crocodile Rock” – Elton John, “Radio Gaga” – Queen, “Still the One” – Orleans and “Sing a Song” – Earth, Wind, and Fire.
I’ve noticed my most focused creative work happens when I listen to jazz or classical music. I can’t name you many jazz musicians or classical composers, it just gets my brain moving differently. If I really need a jolt to get me thinking differently, I put on Vicente Fernandez, particularly Volver, Volver, and I get set back into place.
Talk us through your creative process.
My films usually stem from one glaring image that sticks with me and that I can’t get out of my head. For instance, for For My Youth the Bell Tolls it was a kid laying on a pool deck with big goggles on as the camera “craned” up; for Bridesman, it was topless day laborers in front of Home Depot; and for ¡Viva! it was a kid as Che.
From there, I start to develop a basic story, that follows the appropriate beat structure. Once I’ve reached a general story that I’m kind of pleased with or at least can be condensed down into one sentence, I start to think about how this story can be relevant to today. From there I work backward and, I massage, massage, and massage until it gets to a place where I feel that we’re serving a great thematic through line.
When it comes to writing, I just write. I just put fingers to keys and start to write. I may have a general idea of ending, or where I’m going, but I’m far from outlined. It’s so hard for me to be overly structured at the start because I start to overthink. I refine, refine, and refine after that.
Collaboration is crucial to me. I need a sounding board with brutally honest feedback. “Yes” people drive me up the wall. I like to be challenged and pushed to make sure that I’m getting the most out of an idea. I want to hear input and feedback, and hash it out with you until a great solution arises.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Just make stuff and watch films nonstop, especially the classics, where all they had was their creativity and a camera. That is the only way you will get consistently better and grow in your craft, it will help you see how great stories are told in the most stripped down way possible.
Do not get bogged down in imitation and over complicating; keep it simple. Always always tie back what you’re doing to the larger thematic element you are trying to convey and or talk about.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
Collaboration. I absolutely feast on good conversation that pushes good ideas to the next echelon of greatness. I just love connecting with people on such a deep level that a trust develops that helps push creativity to entirely new places.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
I’ve learned to not be too hands-on. I try (keyword is “try”) to trust my team as much as I can, otherwise, why did I hire them? Let people more talented and experienced do their jobs and watch them soar. For me, this has always been a fundamental principle of leadership. Empowerment.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Hands down either Goodfellas or Forrest Gump. I watch them all the way through almost every single time they’re on. I am just blown away at how every time I watch both of those movies, it’s like watching them for the first time. That’s how deep the nuances are on each level of filmmaking.
What’s your next project?
I have several projects in the pipeline. I have a few comedy sketches written out that we’re still formulating the strategy on. I’m producing a feature in Syracuse, NY, in April 2020, called New Americans. Along with this, I also have a couple of TV shows and a musical that I either have scripted or am kicking around, along with a package and script prepared for Bridesman, the feature.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Success leaves breadcrumbs. I am such a huge proponent of mentors and I think it absolutely critical that you have a few who really care about you and your development. I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have mentors who are becoming colleagues in people like Adam Saunders, Lee Toland Krieger, and Paul Fruchbom. I’ve been so fortunate in that I’ve just stumbled across them.
One recommendation led to another that led to another. If you demonstrate that you’re hungry, passionate about the work, and a good person, you will be astounded at who enters your life. In people who aren’t direct mentors, but have sought advice from, I’ve reached out to them. It’s amazing what a strongly crafted cold email can do and the doors it can open up for you.
What has been your biggest failure?
At the risk of sounding completely cheesy, I don’t really see anything as a massive failure because I am constantly learning. Perhaps, in my past I viewed it with that gravitas, but now, every “failure” feels more like an adjustment period. “Ok, that didn’t work, let’s try this, this or this.” It’s constant minor tweaks, until you find that sweet spot.
From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, I am propelled by “How are you getting better right now?” If I’m learning from every experience, failure does not control me, nor does it feel like “failure,” rather it fuels me to want to be great.
And if I’m being brutally honest with myself, I’ve “failed” so many times that in a way, I’ve become numb to it, and have just constantly adjusted. It used to scare the sh** of me, but now, I see it as a necessary part of making something super strong.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I want to be a leader for the Latino voice and I want audiences to have a better outlook on humanity than they did before. I’m interested in telling stories that are true to what most Latinos grow up with – working parents that are not in the cartel. I’m interested in making “American” movies that just so happen to feature Latinos.
It’s getting inside of people’s minds from the back entrance and having them influenced without even realizing that it was happening. You serve audiences a pill and lather it with peanut butter. Never on a soapbox. If you leave with a smile from ear to ear, I have done my job. As from the Miss America side of me, I genuinely just want the world to be happier. I want people to feel better.
What has been your biggest success?
Seeing an auditorium full of kids raise their fists in solidarity with the protagonist of ¡Viva! was genuinely one of the most gratifying experiences that I can remember. That showed me that kids not only understood the film, but felt empowered.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
Yes, I have two projects – one I’ve written, and one that I’m producing. I can’t give you more details outside of that, but I am beyond excited to start pitching them around town.
What’s your five-year plan?
I want to have a shop set up at one of the studios. Definitely have my first feature film completed as a director and my first TV show sold. I could also see myself migrating to the executive side. You caught me in the middle of deep contemplation of what my next 5 years will look like.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
Alejandro Gomez-Rejon, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
Singin’ in the Rain is my all-time favorite movie. It is moviemaking gold in every sense of the word. It’s iconic. It’s memorable and it moves me so much emotionally. I am always smiling after that movie and I just want to dance. I watch it, along with The Apartment, at least once a year and I constantly look at how simple the coverage and camera moves are.
There’s no need to overcomplicate things to make a memorable moment, it’s all about the build to those iconic moments that make them iconic.
Who would compose the soundtrack of your life?
I’m going to go with John Williams. His music draws you into the moment so purely and in such a monumental way, that you can’t help but think of anything else at that time. If we could all live in that present state, I think we’d all be living in near constant bliss. Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to have every step you take down a hallway sound like the most epic thing imaginable. I’m totally open to a Tony theme score at any time, Mr. Williams.