William Forsythe - Romina Penich - Adal Ramones - Charley Koontz - Walter Perez

 

The road to making ROAD TO JUAREZ was long and winding, to say the least. Spanning over three years from script to screen, writer/director David Ponce de Leon decided from the outset that his first feature film would not be “a dressed-up stage play” as most industry pundits suggested. Instead, he conceived of a road picture in the realm of films like MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and EASY RIDER, complete with time-honored crime elements and an international sensibility.

After reading several books on the multi-billion dollar underworld of animal pelt and exotic pet smuggling, he stumbled upon a report from the CIA/Homeland Security archives covering how the line between pelt smugglers and those smuggling more precarious types of contraband was blurring. Pooling from various sources and first-hand accounts, Ponce de Leon decided he had his story and began to write the screenplay. After months of tireless research and writing, he created a framework for what is now ROAD TO JUAREZ. Six months and fifteen drafts of the screenplay later, the writer/director decided the script was ready.

There was only one problem - even though Ponce de Leon had been making a living as a writer/director and producer for close to fifteen years, (producing and directing several commercials, pilots, behind the Scenes specials, press kits for network television, as well as a pair of festival-honored short films) he was still considered “a first time director” in the feature market. He needed a partner. A partner with a proven track record in the film industry.

Ponce de Leon was introduced to legendary indie producer, Scott Rosenfelt, who had worked on studio films like HOME ALONE, MYSTIC PIZZA and TEEN WOLF, but also on more indie films such as the critically acclaimed SMOKE SIGNALS. Rosenfelt read the script and after several meetings with the writer/director, finally agreed to take on the project.

Based on the script and concept, Rosenfelt and Ponce de Leon worked on attaching top talent to the project. After several months of meeting with a variety of “pseudo investors”, it appeared ROAD TO JUAREZ had the green light more than once, but in the end, the financing fell through time and again. Enter, Mr. Cesar Ramirez.

Ramirez was a successful business impresario hailing from Austin, Texas, who had always wanted to try his hand at the film business in Hollywood. After reading the script and researching the particulars, Ramirez was convinced he had a tiger by the tail. He raised the seed money in a matter of weeks and ROAD TO JUAREZ was born.

It appeared all signals were finally go…then the road encountered yet another pothole: due to scheduling and budget conflicts, a total retooling of the cast was needed by the time the production budget was in escrow. It was time to recast… before the investors got nervous and pulled the plug yet again. Casting was an arduous process to say the least. Rosenfelt secured Rosalinda Morales and Pauline O’Con, CSA, who had just wrapped the award winning UNDER THE SAME MOON. The Morales team brought in up and coming actors Walter Perez (FAME, THE AVENGERS) and Charlie Koontz (COMMUNITY, RUBBER), who had perfect chemistry as best friends, from the moment they were first paired together.

Once the two leads were locked in, the creative team needed a strong actor for the role of DOUG, the mastermind behind the doomed mission underscoring ROAD TO JUAREZ. They wanted a terrific actor with universal appeal, who could help bring in Anglo audiences. The role, which had been written with Sam Elliott in mind, was originally cast with Michael Biehn (TERMINATOR, TOMBSTONE). Rehearsals were under way and the 3 main leads seem to be gelling together nicely. Then, another pothole: health issues left Biehn unavailable for the locked in shooting dates. Once again, the creative team needed to scramble to find their DOUG. The investors grew nervous once more.

When William Forsythe became available, life was good again. A veteran of films including THE ROCK, AMERICAN ME, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Forsythe was the perfect choice. Possessing the intimidating presence and raspy voice always desired for the role, Forsythe was the dream DOUG. He read the script and the Rosenfelt/Ramirez duo locked him down the very next day.

The final piece of the puzzle was the Mexican antagonist, IVAN. This role, for which Eugenio Derbez was originally attached, was also not easy to fill. The creative team needed an actor with tremendous talent, who could also help pull in the intrinsic Latin American audience.

Mexican comedian Adal Ramones, had been a darling for Televisa and Univision for over two decades following his hugely successful show, OTRO ROLLO, which aired for over 12 years and is being relaunched in early 2013 by Televisa/Univision. Few people however knew that Adal Ramones possessed tremendous talent as a serious actor until 2010, when he played a vicious rapist in the hit Mexican mega TV series, MUJERES ASESINAS. Ponce de Leon and Ramirez saw this performance and knew they had their IVAN. Other names were being discussed as it appeared Ramones would be unavailable, yet Ramirez insisted on keeping with the Ramones angle. (Univision is available on cable and satellite in most of the US, with local stations in over 50 markets. It runs neck and neck with NBC, CBS in terms numbers and ratings).

Ramirez was on a plane to Mexico the very next week and was able to sign Ramones in 48 hours, without a “pay or play” offer. Ramones had been looking to do a North American film, in a serious role… ROAD TO JUAREZ was it. Ramones’ IVAN is a tour de force performance. He created a charming, cunning psychopath henchman, reminiscent of Bardem’s revered villain in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Ramones delivers the Mexican audience both in Mexico and Latin America, but also domestically. Go anywhere in the US or Latin America and ask any Latino who Adal Ramones is…the eyes will always light up.

Once the cast was assembled, the creative team needed a cinematographer with a wealth of experience and a willingness to play at a lower budget. Bill Webb, DP of NCIS, signed on right away but had to step down due to the shifting of the NCIS series shooting schedule. Another pothole.

Then, another hard right…Jonathan West, ASC, who had been nominated for 3 primetime Emmys, (shooting TV shows like STAR TREK: VOYAGER, HAWTHORNE and CHARMED) got ahold of the ROAD TO JUAREZ script and signed on right away. Ponce de Leon wanted a very organic, earth tone rich palette. A look inspired by the masterful works of Rodrigo Prieto (AMORES PERROS, BABEL, 21 GRAMS). West enthusiastically jumped on board and the resulting look of the film feels like a cross between BABEL, 21 GRAMS and the later films of John Ford.

Principal photography was in a word, brutal. Less than 20 shooting days, half of which were in 112 degree heat… in the desert town of Lancaster…in the dead of summer. Brutal. More than one crew member fainted while on location but that was the least of it. Because the director wanted authentic looking locations and the art department budget was so limited, a local Lancaster scout was hired, who found some abandoned desert communities that resembled something out of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. What the scout neglected to mention, until the show arrived at his digs, was that he had not had time to fumigate or further ready the locations for cast & crew, and that the rattlesnake population was at an all time high that year.

At least three separate instances of rattlesnakes were encountered by the crew during the Lancaster shoot, forcing many of them to opt to remain on the truck beds for safety. Especially after hour 18 of the final Lancaster shooting day, as darkness fell upon the abandoned desert town. Inside the abandoned garage (where all torture scenes were shot) it was discovered during filming that nestled within the walls surrounding cast and crew, were golf ball sized, Black Widow spiders. During the climactic scenes where our hero loses his best friend and all are reunited…both cast and crew were completely surrounded by dozens of the poisonous spiders. Miraculously, the spiders cooperated, as did the snakes, and no one was hurt during the production of ROAD TO JUAREZ!

After surviving the California section of the shoot, the creative team still needed to complete the Mexico City portion of the shoot. Being that two thirds of the film takes place in Mexico, much “location cheating” was required. Taking all cast and crew to Mexico was not just cost prohibitive, but a dubious idea at best, considering the huge amount of negative press in recent years.

The creative team needed to get creative. A petite second unit, including the director, producer and lead character, shot for over a week in the streets of Mexico City as well as in several rural farming communities south of the capital. The Los Angeles footage was then intercut with the Mexico plates to achieve a seamless tapestry. So we see Forsythe sitting in downtown Los Angeles, but his POV is second unit Mexico footage.

Various computer generated shots were required to make this transformative process possible. The majority of driving shots were shot on a Los Angeles soundstage with a green screen placed behind the vehicles. The Mexico driving plates were then inserted in post.

The ‘rooftop mugging’ sequence was also composed with visual effects…Los Angeles roof mixed with Mexico City roof. For the rural sequences where the lead cast needed to interact with a small Mexican town, the Valuze Movie Ranch in Valencia, California was used. Southern California sugar cane shack, mixed with small town Mexico sugar cane plantation. Many signs and other postings were also redesigned to give the film a seamless and authentic feel, which was of primary importance to the director.

Ponce de Leon’s initial hypothesis that a group of dedicated independent filmmakers working collectively and passionately could produce a high quality, low cost feature film, with a multitude of locations and top notch production value, from concept to final delivery, was proved right and turned even the biggest skeptic into a believer.

Ray Verduzco for the “ROAD TO JUAREZ” team