Andrea Martinez Crowther: filming in Mexico, working with low-budgets, and shooting during COVID
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
I connected with ANDREA MARTINEZ CROWTHER recently. We both have the same goals. To make movies that transcend borders. I have shared my personal opinions for years about writers/filmmakers in the U.S. finding ways to collaborate with industry professionals just South of the Border.
Andrea was the director of Insignificant Things (produced by 2-time Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro). Her new film TARE will begin shooting in November, starring Tenoch Huerta (Narcos, Bel Canto, Sin Nombre).
In this interview, I speak to Andrea about making movies in Mexico, attracting talent, working on low-budgets (but producing results), and how indie writers and producers can find success during COVID.
CLICK HERE para traducción en español por Dani Márquez.
Jacob N. Stuart: Let’s first talk about your debut Mexico-based film, INSIGNIFICANT THINGS, back in 2008. The movie was produced by Guillermo del Toro; stars Paulina Gaitan & Bárbara Mori. As the writer-director of this project, can you tell my readers a little bit about the story, how you successfully attracted big names to the project, and how this movie propelled your career?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: Well, first let me give you a bit of back story. After finishing my Master’s Degree at USC I returned to Mexico and realized that I was at somewhat of a disadvantage after having studied outside the country; that is, I was completely disconnected from the film industry in Mexico. I knew no one. I was also pregnant. So, I started to write Insignificant Things, my first feature-length screenplay. In 2003, I submitted it to the Sundance-Toscano Screenwriter’s Lab coordinated by well-known producer Bertha Navarro (partner of Guillermo del Toro in Tequila Gang). She read the script and decided to take it on. It took us 5 years to actually get the film made. Link to trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0ZeY4BoPnw.
I had met Paulina Gaitán on the set of the film Trade (I was working as script-supervisor). Paulina was 14 at the time, and I fell in love with her. It was hard to keep her attached to the project because by the time we shot the film, she was a lot older than the adolescent character of Esmeralda. But I fought for her because I knew she was perfect for the role. I think she did an amazing job. Obviously, the name of Guillermo del Toro weighed a lot to get people like Bárbara Mori, Carmelo Gómez and Fernando Luján on board. Curiously enough, I knew that I did not want to use a bald cap for the role of Paola, played by Barbara; I wanted the actress to actually shave her head. Bertha told me it was not likely to happen, but when I asked Bárbara if she would do it, she said, “Oh yeah, definitely!”
[Jacob N. Stuart: For my readers, if you have not seen the indie film TRADE, I’d highly recommend it. The movie is more relevant today than ever before. It revolves around Sex Trafficking. Paulina Gatian, in my personal opinion, is the most talented working actress in the entire film and television industry.
If you haven’t read part 3 of our screenwriting series (Why working on-set may improve your screenwriting career and chances), you need to. I talk about why working on-set puts you in direct contact with talent, that you can later attach to your film. Andrea is aperfect example. Working as a script supervisor landed her Paulina Gaitan.]
Jacob N. Stuart: Can you talk to me a little bit about the Latin American film market, namely Mexico?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: Everybody expected me to stay in Los Angeles to further my career; Hollywood is, after all, Hollywood. But I decided to return to Mexico, and I think it was the best decision I could have made.
Mexico where there is so much of the kind of filmmaking I love. It is so vast and diverse, but made with guts, heart, tears, and commitment and with the vision and voice of the director. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that there have always been several ways for directors to get their films funded (tax breaks, development, production, and post-production grants, etc.). This is the main reason why Mexico has been the largest film producer in Latin America.
Right now, several of these funds are in danger of disappearing, and so the film community is extremely concerned and has been fighting to keep them alive. We’ll have to see over the next year how this scenario plays out, especially given the state of things with the pandemic.
Jacob N. Stuart: Why do you think companies such as Netflix and Amazon have taken advantage of this market?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: These companies are giving a lot of opportunities to filmmakers. It would be terribly sad if those were the only opportunities, for that would limit the kind of stories being told. But they are not. They are another option for today’s online age. So, I think we have to be open to change. Right now, for example, my second film, CICLO, is on Amazon Prime. I think that is fantastic. Ultimately what I want as a director is for my films to be made and seen. I can’t really say that the kind of films I make would have their appeal for either of these platforms in terms of production, and I personally have never approached them, but I am not closing myself off either. Link to trailer: http://vimeo.com/63339942
[Jacob N. Stuart: For those who did not read article 8 of our screenwriting series (Hollywood made a deal with Mexico; it's time Screenwriters do, too!), you should do so. This article talks about why Mexico is the most influential film market in all of Latin America. You can also learn more about Screenwriting Staffing’s new film DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA set in Mexico here: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo]
Jacob N. Stuart: Do you think the Mexican film industry can sustain continued success without partnering with U.S. or U.K-based production companies, or is co-production a key to further success?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: I am always for co-production. Filmmaking is a complicated, expensive process. The more alliances we create, the more opportunities we will have. Insignificant Things was a co-production with Spain, and we intended for CICLO to be a co-production with Canada, but for timing reasons, there was no time to put it together.
As a Mexican-Canadian, it’s in my nature to see borders as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Right now, I am developing a project about temporary migrant workers called Labranza, which is to be a Canadian co-production, and I also have another project, Smitten, that I would love to produce in the US. The fact that I am reaching out now to audiences outside Mexico for my next film Tare is for the same reason.
Jacob N Stuart: You have an exciting project coming up in November that stars Tenoch Huerta (Narcos, Bel Canto, Sin Nombre). The story is based on a true story. Can you tell us a little bit about the storyline for TARE?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: Filmmaking for me is a way of dealing with pain and sadness and loss; all of my films have a very personal origin. Ciclo is about my father and uncle’s bicycle journey from Mexico to Canada in 1956. Birdwatching was inspired by my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Tare is born from the sudden loss of the love of my life, Jerry, who died unexpectedly in 2018. This very intimate story follows two deeply wounded characters who, over the course of one night in Mexico City, help each other to heal.
I talked to Tenoch in April 2019. But my idea was not only to get him attached as an actor. I wanted him to help me develop the characters and the story. He immediately came on board, and we started to write the screenplay together. This film will be a challenge for both of us, taking us each out of our comfort zone because Tenoch, for the first time is co-writing and co-directing, and I, also for the first time, will be acting in a starring role.
Jacob N. Stuart: COVID-19 has shut down most major projects. But this is an excellent opportunity for indie filmmakers to exploit this downtime. You wrote this movie with a budget in mind -- limited cast, locations you own, and most of it occurs between two characters on the street. Tell me a little bit about working on a micro-budget?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: After having done Insignificant Things, which was not enormous but was very big for a first-time filmmaker, and Ciclo, which for a documentary was quite large (we were a crew of about 18 traveling across the continent), Birdwatching, my third film, was done on a micro-budget with a cast and crew of 5… and I absolutely loved it!! We were able to create so much intimacy, which was precisely what the film needed. I think I just fell in love with this way of filmmaking and so the next story I wrote followed the same model. I didn’t intentionally write a screenplay for a micro-budget. I think these intimate, “small” stories just come more naturally to me. So, when we started to develop TARE we knew we not only could do it on a micro-budget but that we should. It’s what the story asks for.
The fact that during this worldwide pandemic, this micro-production scheme is precisely what will allow us to shoot when most productions are at a standstill, I think it can be seen as a good lesson to us all…you don’t need a lot to say a lot!!
[Jacob N. Stuart: I have preached to screenwriters for as long as I have run Screenwriting Staffing that having a micro or low budget screenplay in your arsenal is the key to success. If COVID has taught us anything, limited cast and locations are today's currency for indie filmmakers. Read my theory here: Why every screenwriter should have one low-budget screenplay].
Jacob N. Stuart: Given your budget, it’s impressive that you were able to attach Tenoch Huerta. What drove him to this project? Your story? What advice would you give newer writers and directors when attracting named talent to their micro to low budget projects?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: Heart. Guts. Honesty. That just about sums it up.
I wasn’t trying to dazzle or impress Tenoch. I simply wrote -and spoke- with brutal honesty. And I think that is what engaged him.
[Jacob N. Stuart: I can vouch for this. While packaging our newest film DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA, the budget was not in our favor. So when attracting talent, both in front and behind the camera, the story was my major selling point.. A great story will open up doors.]
Jacob N. Stuart: Your film is set in Mexico, but there is a universal message to the story. Why would audiences in the United States, Canada, and beyond be interested in this project?
Andrea Martínez Crowther: This film is about loss and pain, but it is mostly about healing. About learning how to accept the pain and sadness and loss in life and moving on. It is also about human connection, which is what all of my films, ultimately, are about. I think given the state of the world today, these are themes that anybody on any corner of the planet can relate to. I think brutally honest films will always transcend borders because, on a very gut level, most of us share the same basic fears and desires.
Jacob N. Stuart: I have been encouraging writers in the U.S. to collaborate with Latin American filmmakers, specifically Mexican filmmakers. How can writers in the U.S. and worldwide be a part of your new and exciting movie?
Andrea Martínez Crowthe: With TARE, we aim to be the first crowd-funded feature film in Mexico during the pandemic, and we need your help!!! Our idea is to shoot in late October, and we need to raise $31,000USD in order to make that a reality. (We are going to follow the same production scheme as in Birdwatching where we shot for very little, edited a first cut and then applied for a post-production grant…and the film looks and sounds fantastic!!). We’ll be taking all the necessary precautions and measures to protect the cast and crew, but really, this is precisely the kind of film that can be made during the crisis. And I think we need stories about human connection now more than ever. And so we are reaching out to people in Mexico and across the border to join our crowdfunding effort. Learn more here, by watching this short video.
We’re offering rewards (some very fun ones with Tenoch for those who are fans!) which go from signed posters to thanks on screen to zoom serenades from Tenoch and for those who are really enthusiastic, backend points once the film has earned back its original investment as well as Associate/Executive Producer credits. This is going to be a very small production with an enormous and widespread heart!!
Jacob N. Stuart: Finally, what advice would you give filmmakers and screenwriters when trying to break into the Mexican film market?
Andrea Martínez Crowthe: My way of persevering in this industry is that I have stuck to my gut and my vision, and I don’t really think about what the market asks for. I guess I just believe that there will always be people who want to be touched and moved by stories told with uncompromising honesty.
And, in that sense, it doesn’t matter on what side of the border they take place.
More projects by Andrea: LA HISTORIA DEL GALLO & My Dancing Heart, One-off documentary for Al Jazeera.
[Jacob N. Stuart: Your project is an excellent opportunity for writers, filmmakers, and producers in the U.S. to jump on board a film with known talent attached. Having international credits is vital in today’s film world. Screenwriting Staffing also offers English to Spanish or Spanish to English screenplay translation services. Learn more here: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenplay-translation.]
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We invite you to view our production package. You’ll see that we’ve already cast an eclectic ensemble of talented actors and actresses from both Mexico and the United States, and that we’ve assembled an experienced crew of producers who are dedicated to completing this film and seeing it released in movie theaters, film festivals, and on streaming platforms. We’ve created what we consider a recipe for success, and we invite you to come aboard and take a look around. We think you’ll be impressed by what you see, and we look forward to having you join us on this exciting endeavor.
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