Once upon a time, independent filmmaking consisted largely of unestablished filmmakers and actors who struggled to get their cinematic vision in front of the viewing public. Not any more. Today, independent filmmaking has been hijacked by A-list stars who use crowdfunding to raise millions for their movie. Even the Spirit Awards, originally founded to recognize independent filmmaking, are now obsessed with celebrities and films released by big-studio subsidiaries that enjoy mainstream success.
However, there are still true independent filmmakers out there, who still endure the challenges of filmmaking outside of the Hollywood machine. Filmmakers who offer something other than the usual mainstream fare. Filmmakers like Fanny Veliz.
Veliz is an actress whose filmography includes roles in the film Wassup Rockers and the TNT series Southland, but she found her calling behind the camera. She formed Criolla Productions in 2005 and began making critically-acclaimed shorts. Her 2006 production Shortstop was named runner-up for Best Short at South by Southwest. In 2010, her short film Il Destino was nominated for Best Short Film at the Imagen Awards.
After a crowdfunding campaign in 2010 to get some capital together, Veliz was able to make her first feature film, Homebound, in 2011. (Note: you can read the Cinelinx review of the film right here). From her home in Los Angeles, she recently discussed the experience, which was more trial by fire than she expected.”I had assumed that it would be like a bunch of short films put together,” she said. “I thought, I have the experience and I have a degree (in filmmaking), but once we started the process, it was so not that!”
Even with a crowdfunding campaign, getting all the money together was a challenge. “For me, the financing has been the most important thing. Once I had the money I knew I could put the project together, but I never expected it to be so difficult to get the financing. I knew I had a good script and the experience. I just didn’t think it would be that difficult.”
Homebound tells the story of Richard, an ambitious man (played by Jeremiah Ocanas) who leaves a successful corporate job in Los Angeles to return to his sleepy little hometown of El Campo in south Texas. He discovers his father Gilberto (Enrique Castillo) is dying of cancer, and he must get his affairs in order. While there, he begins to rethink his idea of personal happiness, as he feels the bonds of home once again.
Like most great scripts, Veliz based her film on personal experiences. Although she was born in the United States, she moved to Venezuela at the age of 2, only to return years later. She plays the role of Sofia in the film, a Venezuelan immigrant who speaks very little English and runs Gilberto’s bar.
“I wanted to tell a story of two cultures,” Veliz said. “I had written a script that took place in both Venezuela and the U.S., with someone having to decide between the two. That would have cost too much money, so I thought where can I set this story? I met (Jeremiah Ocanas) in L.A. while doing a play, and he wanted to do a movie in his hometown of El Campo. That was a dream of his. I had a script and I visited this town and I thought ‘We could do it here.’ He was instrumental, because he knew a lot of people, and many of the cast members were his family. They opened their doors and let us into their homes.” Ocanas also served as a producer on the film.
“To me, it is such a stark difference, that culture (in El Campo) as opposed to the culture here in L.A., where everyone is trying to make it in the corporate world,” Veliz said of the contrast that anchors the film. “It was really telling the story about a character that has to choose between what he perceives as success and what is really meaningful – his family.”
Veliz points to the casting of Enrique Castillo (Weeds, Blood In Blood Out) as a major “get” for the film. “Someone suggested I offer the role to him, and I happened to know his wife, and she gave him the script and he said he was on board. I was thrilled because I’m a fan. This gave him the chance to play a different character, something we’ve never seen before. He got to play a father. He’s a world class actor. He did all the research and he just brought it.”
Over the past year, Homebound has played the U.S. film festival circuit to strong reviews and a Best Director Award for Veliz from the Georgia Latino Film Festival. The larger film festivals, however, now do not have a place for films like Homebound and filmmakers like Veliz. “It is sad that film festivals like Sundance, South by Southwest and even Tribeca, if you want to get attention, you have to have a celebrity in your film,” she said. “How are we going to break in with new names and create new brands if to break in, you have to have those people and a lot of money? Even the festivals that were for the true independent filmmaker, where a film could be a career-maker, are so hard to get into now because they have been inundated by Hollywood.”
In addition to film festivals, Homebound is now being shown in limited release around the country thanks to Tugg, an online movie service that sets up movie screenings supported by ticket pre-sales. A recent Tugg-organized screening in San Antonio was well received. “It was amazing. We sold out right away – twice actually. People were really moved by the movie. We’ve also been selling the DVDs after the movie, so I feel like a musician that sells CDs or t-shirts after the concert. But it’s amazing, I sold out of DVDs before I left the movie theater.”
While being an independent filmmaker can be daunting, Veliz also has the burden of carrying the mantle for both Latino and women filmmakers. While there has been significant progress for women in Hollywood in front of and behind the camera, Latinos have seen far fewer advances, mostly because Hollywood is still hung up on broad stereotypes. It is something Veliz is determined to change. “I’m a female filmmaker and a minority filmmaker, and I want to tell that story of that community. But I’m telling you, as an actress in Hollywood, the parts that I go read for are just disheartening, but there has been a change. I see it mostly in commercials. Now you see Hispanic families in the commercial world, because it sells. It’s just a matter of time.
“I’m on the board of Nosotros, which was founded by Ricardo Montablan and is the oldest organization supporting Latinos in the film industry. I know there are conversations happening at the studios about Latinos and how to create content. But I really think at the end of the day the change is going to come from us. People like myself who are creating the content. There is definitely a movement, but there is a long way to go.”
Even though two current high-profile shows featuring Latinos, Lifetime’s Devious Maids and Fox’s Gang Related, may echo many Latino stereotypes, Veliz sees an opportunity. “Hollywood is opening its eyes and creating stories for Hispanic actors. In Devious Maids, there are five Latina actresses. I know most of them, and they are all very good. Hopefully, this will create a brand for them like Sofia Vergara has created a brand, and now she’s one of the biggest actresses in television. Now these actresses can go on and create their own name, and make it easier to greenlight Latino projects because of these five women. I haven’t seen Gang Related but I’ve heard it’s really good and well written. While some Latinos are playing gang members, others are playing the police. At least the network realizes there’s an audience for this. It’s a good step.”
Ultimately, Veliz hopes her films do more than just entertain. “I want my movies to have an impact. There is a mission behind it. It isn’t about ‘lets just make money.’ I want to make money, don’t get me wrong, but I want to make art, something socially impactful. Homebound is a story that anyone can relate to. I’ve had screenings for audiences that were not Latino and they relate completely. They tell me ‘that happened with me and my dad.’ That’s when you cross that boundary. It’s magical, because at the end of the day we’re all human beings. I’m telling a human story. I’m not just telling a Latino story.”
For now, Veliz will continue to arrange screenings through Tugg, work to find a distribution deal, and in the future, eventually have a DVD release, as well as a release to video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Until then, in true independent filmmaker fashion, she remains optimistic her work will find an audience. “I have faith that I created a good project that people want to see eventually. I know eventually Homebound will find its home. I’m very confident. Right now I’m just enjoying the ride.”