Making Victor Vargas
 
 

By the spring of 1998, I had chewed my cuticles into such a mangled condition that I took to keeping my hands in my pockets to avoid provoking questions regarding my well being. We were less than a month away from shooting and we had yet to find our leading man.

I had written a semi–autobiographical screenplay about my pre–teen years growing up in Brooklyn. Working from it, my partner Eva Vives and I would make a short film. I would present it as my film school thesis project. It would be my final exam, if you will.

My years spent in Brooklyn were some of my most formative. As a wide–eyed seven-year-old, it seemed as if our street corner was the stage upon which all of life's lessons were taught. As a twenty-two-year-old film student I thought that recreating one of these sometimes comical, sometimes brutal moments might prove to be the basis for a good short film. I looked into my past with the goal of excavating the ideal Brooklyn memory for filming.

I remembered a local girl who, during a particularly heated game of "catch and kiss," tripped and impaled her head on a fence post. She came out of the hospital a few days later with little more than a collection of butterfly stitches. This could have been a tragic lesson about the frailty of human life. Instead, it was an astounding testament to the seemingly limited physical vulnerability of children.

Once during a local Fourth of July fireworks display, a neighbor decided to ("absolutely had to" as he would later recount in his statement to the fire department) refill the gas tank of his 1973 mustard yellow Plymouth Volare. He hastily poured three gallons of regular unleaded into his tank and one (accidentally) onto the sidewalk.
In a neighborhood where men competed fiercely to mount the most impressive homemade firework
displays, I watched this guy walk off with the blue ribbon. No contest. That four-door burst into flames threatening to explode in the faces of twenty families. He leapt frantically into the driver's seat and drove the burning car away from the crowd. It was a stunt worthy of Evel Knievel. And just as senseless.

As indelible an imprint as these events made on me as a child, my instincts told me that simply recreating one of these scenes in a film would not necessarily leave as sizeable an impression on an audience. After all, we live in a world where images like these have become commonplace. And that's not to mention recreating one of these events in front of a camera demanded resources that were far beyond my reach.

Inspiration finally came in the form of an eight-year old girl. Although only a year older than me at the time, I remembered her as a person who had captured my imagination with an intoxicating sense of mystery.

Remember, I was seven years old.

While I had never forgotten the girl, there was something about her that had slipped out of my memory. One afternoon in her family's apartment, we had shared a moment of intimacy. While not sexual in nature, she and I had participated in a non-verbal interaction unlike any I had ever had before. Without any physical contact, there was the acknowledgement of mutual attraction and trust—but there was also something more basic. Something instinctual.

Whatever it was, it's the stuff pre-adolescent fantasies are made of. And believe it or not, she was the girl next door.

It was already beginning to sound like a movie.

 

After deciding to increase the relative ages of the characters to about twelve, the casting process began. Eva, acting as the film's casting director (adding to her already ambitious duties as producer and editor) made the usual moves. She contacted talent agencies and posted advertisements in trade publications inviting "professional" child actors to audition.

Their "professional" acting abilities were mediocre at best so we needed to reconsider our approach.
Eva posted flyers all over Lower Manhattan: CASTING FOR INDEPENDENT FILM. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. She scouted junior high school talent shows, searched the schoolyards and combed the streets. Slowly we assembled an ensemble cast of gifted untrained actors. But we still hadn't found our leading man.

That's when a thirteen-year-old with the sympathetic eyes of a homesick child wandered into our rehearsal room. He quietly introduced himself as Victor Rasuk.

We proposed Victor start his audition with an improvisation. The scenario was simple. Victor would improvise a scene in which he would confront "a bully" (as played by Eva) who had threatened his younger brother.

On "action," Victor made his way across the room. As he stated his business with the character it became clear that he was not driving the scene towards confrontation.

The obvious choice would have been to threaten this potential antagonist. But Victor saw an alternative. While expressing a nearly tangible level of anxiety, he also displayed equal parts courage and sensitivity. He explained to the bully how much he loved his brother and that he did not want to see him hurt.

That choice raised the improvisation out of the realm of simple teenage melodrama and into that of complex adult drama. In Victor's anxiety we saw his recognition of the threat of physical violence. But in his desperation existed the strength of someone who had little to lose. We had found an actor with an arresting level of complexity. Or perhaps he had found us.

Either way, we had our man.

We called the film we made together Five Feet High and Rising. After nearly a year of editing, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000. And much to our surprise, it won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking.

We were overjoyed.

The pleasure of making that film, our excitement at the generous reception it received and the great deal of affection we felt for one another demanded we ask ourselves a question.

What would come next?

We'd forged an unbreakable bond with our cast. They inspired us. And it seemed they had so much more to offer. Could we make a full length film based on the process we'd created together? Two years later we'd have our answer.

It's called Raising Victor Vargas.

Now in my memory the making of these two films occupies a similar place as those slowly fading memories of my Brooklyn afternoons. But thanks to the magic of filmmaking, they remain safe from the vanishing act of memory. And that provides me the opportunity to enjoy a unique pleasure.

I can share it all with you.

©2003 Landmark Theatres