'Secuestro Express'

Jonathan Jakubowicz and Elizabeth Avellán on Venezuela's surprise hit

Last week, just before the film Secuestro Express premiered in Austin, News Editor Michael King interviewed writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz and his collaborator, producer Elizabeth Avellán, about the background of the film. Jakubowicz spoke to the Chronicle from his home in Caracas, and Avellán from the Troublemakers Studio in Austin, where she works with her husband, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Each spoke about how the film came to be, how they came to be working together, and the importance of the film, in itself and as heralding a new era in Venezuelan filmmaking. And both were more than eager to talk about the contemporary political situation in Venezuela. The following is a transcript of the two interviews, lightly edited for clarity.

Austin Chronicle: Let's talk a little bit about how Secuestro Express came to be, and how you feel it came out for you.

Jonathan Jakubowicz: Well, the first news I have, which is something that happened yesterday, is that we just passed The Passion of the Christ in the box office [in Venezuela]. That puts us the No. 2 of all time. The only film ahead of us is Shrek 2. [Laughs]

AC: You mean you haven't passed Shrek yet? [Laughs]

JJ: Yeah. We're thinking of turning Budu [actor Pedro Perez] green.

AC: Now that you mention it, that might actually work. Why do you think your film has captured Venezuelan interest so much?

JJ: Well, the thing is, Venezuela has been going through a very deep crisis on every level, not only economic, but morally, politically, socially – the entire society has been shaken by Chavez [the Hugo Chavez government] and has been split in two in the last decade, and it's going through a constant state of emergency in which nobody really knows where we're headed. There's one leader and no other leader against him ... [and] 90% of what he says is right, but 90% of what he does is wrong.

AC: That's an interesting way to put it.

JJ: He's been really important in signaling the problem to the society, and then showing the society really how deep our problem is and how urgent it is to fix it, and he became a real hope for the entire nation. He was sort of put into presidency by the huge majority of those in need. It's been a long process, in which we have found him to be something, he's not necessarily what he [pretended] to be. After seven years, there's only more poverty, and the rich are more rich and the poor are more poor, and the middle class keeps disappearing.

AC: When you say 90% of what he says is right, then what is the 10% that he's done wrong that has made things worse rather than better?

JJ: He's sort of the worst of both worlds, in the sense that he's got the worst part of communism together with the worst part of capitalism. He's a total, total radical capitalist, and operates in a similar way to that of the United States, in that he continues giving money to all the neighboring countries to keep them on his side and he's giving away all of the oil to Cuba, to Argentina, to Central America, to the Caribbean, and all that is just to have support so he can do whatever he wants, and the international community doesn't go against him. Then he has all these programs in which he has some Cuban doctors going to the poor neighborhoods, and they give very, very basic help to people who never had it. And of course that is important, and that makes him popular, but it's just like I said, really populist things that are not really effective, you know? Like he's not creating hospitals, he's just sending a couple of Cuban doctors to give people aspirin and stuff.

That's also important, but he's not fixing the problem, and the reality is the crisis has just gotten worse and worse, and the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. The only difference is, right now we have what we call the "Bolivarian oligarchy," which is the new oligarchy – the people who work for him that are a bit nouveau riche, and they're way fancier and way bigger in their show-off of money, and each of them have their private planes, and when he goes to the UN he brings 1,200 people with him. It's a new elite that has come out of this government, because of how expensive the oil is and how much money the government has. Under normal circumstances with the prices of oil, we would be swimming in money right now. When he got Venezuela, the oil was $8 a barrel. Now it's like $67 a barrel – we sell 3 million barrels a day, so we should seriously be swimming in money for everybody.

AC: Your film, except for the framing, in a lot of ways is a classic thriller, a kidnapping thriller. It only makes passing references to the current political situation, probably much more intimately for someone from Venezuela than from America.

JJ: I started with that because that is part of the reason why the movie is so popular, even though the movie doesn't take sides. There's no pro-Chavez or against Chavez; the movie speaks about what's going on in our society from a social perspective, without promising a messiah that's going to change all the problems, and inviting both sides of society to do something to make this society a more fair place. And that has identified [for] both sides, when you see the numbers in the upper-class theatres and you compare them to the number in the lower-class theatres – they are exactly the same.

AC: So the whole population sees it as a movie about them in some way.

JJ: Exactly, as a movie about them, and as a hope that we are actually one nation and not two nations in one, and that there might be a future in which we truly start working together. Also, the way the movie was done, including people from both sides – the movie was done by rich people and middle-class, Chavistas and non-Chavistas working together. And you know it's also part of the message that we created something together, and for the first time, a Venezuelan film is being distributed worldwide – that is the first time in our history.

AC: Obviously it's been enormously popular at home, but you've started to make connections internationally as well.

JJ: Yeah. It was bought by Miramax before it was released at home, and part of the message is that we actually got together and created something together and that's the furthest as we have gone as a society. The movie has become sort of the beginning of a nationwide dialogue. To give you an example, the pirates that sell the DVD copies, they decided not to sell this film because they support local talent, and they support the message of the movie. They wanted people to actually see it in theatres. The movie's been eight weeks the No. 1 at the box office, and there isn't a single pirate copy on DVD in Venezuela.

AC: So you have to go see this film or you don't get to see it.

JJ: I've gotten some of the guys that worked on the film who live in the ghetto, they tell me that people go to their houses and ask them "How do I go to a movie theatre?" Because they've never been in their lives to a movie theatre and they're going for the first time to watch this film. So it becomes something larger than a film, it becomes sort of a new identity for a nation that for seven years was simply split between Chavistas and non-Chavistas. This is the first thing we share.

AC: Wouldn't the government have been a lot smarter to embrace the film, and say, "We have a new young Venezuelan filmmaker who is trying to tell our story," instead of reacting in this kind of Chamber of Commerce way of, "That's a bad picture of Venezuela, we don't like it."

JJ: To tell you the truth, I was completely convinced that the government was going to embrace us and that the opposition was going to say we were communists, because the film has that leftist speech a little bit, and I thought the upper class and the privileged people were the ones that were going to say, you know, that we're promoting kidnappings or something like that. I was the first surprised to see how violent the reaction of the government has been against the movie, and I think it's very telling of who they are as people.

It's very hard for me still to understand what is it that bothers them so much about it, but what I've come to understand is a couple of things. Their revolution is based on social hatred. If the society actually gets together and starts working to develop the minorities and the rich start renouncing some of their privileges to develop the poor, then the revolution is over – because all their popularity is based on revenge and this movie might be the step that society leaves after Chavez has been [in power].

I think they should embrace it, and lead the society into this process. I think they would've gotten 100% support if they would've gone, "Okay, the rich finally fucking got it, now we're going to make it work." I think the rich would've supported them 100% and we could be seriously [moving] to a real social revolution, but they went in the other direction. A lot of people tell me that it scares them that we have more ticket sales than Chavez had votes.

AC: Ministers of culture of all stripes, they don't like works of art that show unpleasant things, it doesn't matter what the reason is.

JJ: That's the other thing; they have been going around the world telling everybody that they fixed illiteracy, that they have fixed poverty in Venezuela. And I mean no one of us can believe that they are trying to pretend that our problems are solved, but they seem to want to pretend that their problems are solved and the movie obviously portrays a society in which problems are very, very present. So it could be many of those reasons, but it wasn't even the minister of culture, it was the vice-president of Venezuela himself who said it was "a miserable film with no artistic value." I was in the UK [United Kingdom] last week and talking to the press there they told me that "miserable art with no artistic value" is almost a direct quote from Hitler when he was referring to Picasso.

AC: I assume part of the reaction is that you use a very brief clip from this extremely contentious piece of a riot film, the shooting on the bridge [during anti-Chavez demonstrations]. It's almost like the Zapruder clip [of the Kennedy assassination]. It's just on the screen for a moment, and I'm sure Venezuelans, they all know what it is. But an American audience just sees a shooting and that introduces you to the world of the film. What is the specific reason you included that piece of film?

JJ: The way I see it, the political problem is a consequence of the social problem, and that's the way that montage is built. To me, it was an idea of showing all the political violence in which we're not only showing them, but we're also showing members of the opposition being violent. The montage is designed in a way that's completely neutral, because those guys that are shooting for the revolution are supposed to be heroes. So if they're heroes, why is it that showing them is attacking them? That's what I don't understand of the controversy.

AC: I had read about the controversy over the film ... and it was astounding to me that that bit of footage – it's probably three seconds, if that – and I thought, obviously in Venezuela this thing is so symbolic and huge that it just overwhelms everything around it.

JJ: It is very symbolic and huge, but at the first week the movie showed, every Chavista that saw the movie thought the movie was completely Chavista – the fact that in that montage you see them shooting and after that you see cops shooting back at them, which is in any case the Chavista version of what happened that day. So, if anything, we were giving them the reason, we're not putting them shooting on a march, like a specific demonstration, which is what the opposition have been saying they were doing that day. So, if anything, the montage is Chavista, and if you really consider them heroes, then there's really no reason to think otherwise. So my idea was to give a sort of visual reference of what's going on in this society, sort of presenting the problem and using that as a point of departure for the rest of the film as if saying this is why all of this is going on.

AC: In that particular instance, that might be easier for outsiders than for Venezuelans to see because they won't be familiar with all the details of the various shots; they'll just see, oh, you're coming in from a long shot, this is the whole society, and you're coming into this narrow particular story that fits into that. I think that's easier to see from an outside perspective.

When you say "the message of the film," do you think it's boiled down in that last bit of narrative where the voiceover says, "You can fight the monster or invite him to the table." Is that your sense of what the message is?

JJ: That's probably the more simplistic way to put it.

AC: Is that your own or a quote?

JJ: That's my own. I mean it's one of those things that maybe some Zen [master] would say at some time, but I don't know. ... It's one of those things. I mean, the thing is, what the message of the movie is, we are at a point of no return in our society in which we need to communicate in order to survive as a society. Because if we don't communicate we're simply going to destroy each other. And if there's anything I know about my society, it's that everybody wants us to succeed, and the moments that the movie calms down, it's those little moments in which the characters communicate. I think that's the value of the film, which is, "We're not going to fix the problems with a movie, but we might begin a dialogue between all sides of society that's going to lead us eventually to start solving the problems." Because the society is so split in Venezuela that not only do people live in completely different circumstances, but people have no idea of the way the other side lives. Creating a project that invites each side to look at the other side with respect and under human lights – because the characters are not positive or negative, they're simply human beings with all sorts of good things and bad things about them. The idea is to show that communication is a beginning for a society, to start moving in the only direction we can move if we're not going to simply destroy each other.

AC: About the level of realism in the movie. On the one hand it's sort of an extreme thriller version of what happened to you, when you were kidnapped. Initially, you thought the experience was so ordinary it wasn't a good subject for a film. It's also in the thriller tradition of films like The Getaway or Tarantino's films, which when I see them I'm not confusing them with reality: It's highly cinematic, I know I'm in a cinematic world. When you were making this film – it has some of those same qualities – but how fully realistic were you trying to be at the same time?

JJ: These people are a really bad case. You know, not every kidnapping has all those things happen the same day; however, it's completely possible for a kidnapping like this to happen, and there's a lot of things that might come up for an American audience as a coincidence that are no coincidence for local audiences. For example, if you leave a car like that in a place like that, it will get stolen. Like when the car gets stolen from the thugs. And only thugs would have the brilliant idea of leaving a car like that in a place like that – because they're not used to dealing with thugs. If you take money out of that specific ATM at 5am, you will get robbed.

So, all these things are not coincidence, they're mistakes that the characters are making. My idea was to include humor as part of the story and make it as exaggerated as possible because the Venezuelan audience is an audience that likes big action films, and my idea was to communicate with everyone in the nation, and in order to do that I knew I could never reveal that I was actually sending a message until the end of the story. It had to be sort of smuggling of ideas behind a really fun action movie.

AC: At the same time, you're calling attention to the fact that this is a film, there's the voiceover – people get typed the minute they come onscreen, and then you've got all those split-screen things where you're simultaneously calling attention to the fact that this is a movie.

JJ: That's the idea – the movie's sort of a mirror of who we are. It continually speaks about who we are, and it's not pretending to be a documentary even though some parts might feel like a documentary. I think that's fun I was having with the level of reality I had in my hands, because all these guys were nonprofessional actors, and the level of reality they reach is something that I think would have been too much if I wasn't using all those techniques to remind you constantly that this is a movie to enjoy. Because this reality is so hard and so violent and so tense, the movie's already as it is so extremely tense, that I think if I wasn't sort of calming it down with the comic release and with all those elements in style, I think it would have been unbearable.

AC: I gather it was pretty rough on your lead actress ...

JJ: Yeah, she [Mía Maestro] had a really hard time shooting the movie. She had to sleep with the lights on, she was having nightmares and calling me at 4 o'clock in the morning telling me, "These guys [kidnappers] really hate me, this is not acting." She's been in America for five years, and the reason why these guys that kidnapped her are so good at the roles is because they have been living in a ghetto for 26, 27 years, and the resentment is something they're acting, but they know very well.

AC: She felt like it was coming out in those scenes, those were obviously really hard scenes. How did you recruit these guys, the three kidnappers [played in the film by Venezuelan rap musicians Carlos Molina, Pedro Perez, and Carlos Medera]?

JJ: That was actually how the movie was born. I wanted to do a short on kidnapping, and I came to them in order to ask them to make a song, and they said, who's going to be the kidnappers? I said I haven't been casting yet, and they said, I don't think you're going to find better kidnappers than we are.

AC: It's not always true that just because someone has lived an experience that they know how to act it.

JJ: Well, when they said that, I said, "Well, let me see." We did a rehearsal and we just pretended there was a kidnapping and I saw the best 35 minutes of improv I'll ever see in my life. You can see by my camera shaking how scared I was, and it was because I was watching a real kidnapping, you know?

AC: They weren't overacting as though they were onscreen?

JJ: No, the good thing about rappers, which I think is the reason so many rappers become actors, is there is a very close relationship between rapping and acting. It's sort of the performance of the speech, and acting is 80% speech, and these guys were naturally born actors. They didn't look at the camera; they were completely comfortable with the camera. It was when I saw them that I decided that not only were they going to be the kidnappers, it was also when I decided that this had to be a feature film, because it had to be seen by the whole world. And I wrote the script for them.

AC: And they didn't mind being represented as thugs and murderers and rapists?

JJ: No, no. They would've minded the opposite.

AC: I've never been to Venezuela, but I've been told that having guns is sort of ordinary, they're ever-present. Is that your experience?

JJ: Yeah. I mean, I don't personally carry a gun, because I wouldn't use it, and it would only make things worse for me, but it's extremely common on every level of society, upper-class and middle-class and lower-class.

AC: Is that a recent phenomenon?

JJ: It's increasing, but it's been true for years. It's not part of the Chavez world, it's been part of this nation for a while. It's also important to say that none of this street violence is new. It has gotten worse, but at some point the government seemed to think we were saying that this is new and that this happened because of Chavez. This was happening before Chavez, and that extends to the gun element, to the kidnappings, to all those things. It's just gotten worse, and the resentment has gotten worse because he pretty much gave it a flag and made it a political movement.

AC: You've got a petition [on your Web site] to get nominated for the Oscars. I know that's a terribly political process. What do you think will come out of that? Is there any reason for the government to back down [from withholding your film]?

JJ: The thing is, the Academy only considers the films that are submitted by each government as the official selection. There was only one other film made in Venezuela this year, which was a film made for TV that was only in theatres for a week, and they were telling us that we were going to be the submission until the last day and they suddenly – they even asked us to send a print to the Academy – and then suddenly the last day they decided the opposite and decided to send this TV movie that has absolutely no chance.

AC: There were only two movies made in Venezuela this year?

JJ: Yes.

AC: So there's really no film industry?

JJ: Not anymore, I mean, Secuestro might be the beginning of a new era. It's really a before and after, it's only about to become the top-grossing movie of all time since it's also a movie that proved that the Venezuelan marketplace makes a movie profitable, so there might be some people that are going to become interested in investing in movies in Venezuela. And they might bring back the industry from the nonexistence in which it is. They sent that other TV movie in order to boycott us.

AC: It seems so self-defeating ...

JJ: Yeah, no matter what, a nomination is so good for its country of origin. The thing is, you also have got to understand that for these people Hollywood is the devil, the CIA is probably behind this movie, and you can see in their Web site that they're suggesting that this is part of a conspiracy by Zionist tycoons together with the CIA.

AC: Is that a reference to your Jewish background?

JJ: I don't know if they're talking about me or about Harvey Weinstein or about a mix of the two. I don't know what exactly they're referring to.

AC: Is that kind of anti-Semitism common in Venezuelan rhetoric?

JJ: It's very uncommon, and I have to say has not been a part of any government tool. However, it's become very present in government supporters, because being against Bush and against the CIA also sort of means being against Ariel Sharon. ... It's sort of the world's being divided in two, which is extremely ridiculous. Just the fact that Chavez is against Bush shouldn't make him appealing to everyone who doesn't like Bush. It's a little more complicated than that, but a lot of people see it like that. Like when that Irish film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was distributed in America – I don't know if you saw it ...

AC: Yes.

JJ: Yeah, a lot of people started thinking Chavez was the new Che Guevara or something. But that film would never be able to be shown in Venezuela, because everyone would laugh. It's sort of an Irish take on a situation in order for them to prove that Bush is bad. And it's very, very unlikely that Bush had anything to do with what happened that day here. You have a million and a half people marching against the presidential palace, I don't buy that the CIA paid all of them.

AC: Let's talk about your Austin connection with Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellán.

JJ: Her father installed Internet in my house when I was like 15 years old. He said he was her father and at first, I didn't believe him. ... I wanted to be a filmmaker and Robert had just made El Mariachi, so he was sort of the symbol of everyone who wanted to be make films that was a teenager in those days. He proved to all of us that it was possible. So it was, I met him and he told me and after a couple of years Elizabeth came to Venezuela and we met, and you know I was 18 years old and I had a radio show in a news station and I interviewed her. That's how we started our friendship, and I started sending her all the shorts and everything I did in film school, and at some point I made a documentary on the arrival of three ships of Jewish refugees during World War II, into Venezuela, and she really liked that documentary and gave me a call and sort of invited me to Austin. I went there and went to UT for the master's program for a year, and even before that I went to Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Spy Kids 2 to work a little bit as a production assistant.

AC: What years?

JJ: 2001. Then we went back in 2004 to cut the film. We cut Secuestro in Spicewood, which is outside of Austin. In my producer's extra bedroom.

AC: Rodriguez says that you can make movies on a desktop now. You only need a computer?

JJ: I mean, we do believe a lot of the philosophy, the way that Robert does things. We did a lot of this movie Mariachi-style, and that's how we were able to do it with such a small budget. We finished it on a desktop in Spicewood, with a computer with software that was 300 bucks. It's a new era, everybody can really do so much. There's less excuse for any filmmaker not to be doing something great.

AC: Any upcoming projects?

JJ: I haven't decided my next project. This whole political thing and the petition for me to be jailed and all that stuff is not necessarily the best way to start writing.

AC: Are they threatening you with jail? What for?

JJ: For portraying the authorities in a negative light and promoting the use of drugs.

AC: And there's a law to that effect?

JJ: They say there is. I don't think they're going to put me in jail. I don't think they can at this point. But they are asking for six to 10 years of jail for me.

AC: Have you been charged?

JJ: No, it's just been in court, and I don't think any of that is going to become a reality because it would be an incredible political mistake. But, I also wouldn't imagine that the vice-president was going to call us "miserable," and I didn't imagine a lot of what has happened, so I'm not sure what else. Maybe they'll try to put me in jail. But I don't think they will.

Also, that petition people are signing on the Web site is sort of a letter to the members of the Academy asking them to consider the film that Venezuelans prefer, not the film that the official government wants, because it's kind of strange that the Academy only sees the movies that the governments want them to see. How many movies are we missing made in the world that simply governments don't want the world to see? That petition has 75,500 signatures already in a week. There are 1,000 signatures per day. It's quite amazing, because the movie has become sort of a symbol for freedom of speech in Venezuela. It's been an amazing trip. With such a low-budget movie, it's really incredible, like you see the numbers and you see like Dukes of Hazzard, Fantastic Four, Wedding Crashers, Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, those were all flops in Venezuela this year, because Secuestro grabbed 75 percent of the summer box office.

AC: Are you concerned that Americans will look at it and think it's just another dark thriller?

JJ: I don't really know. I think this movie, for America, is more for politically aware people and people who really care about what's going on in the rest of the world. And I certainly think the movie delivers to a young audience that wants to see an exciting thriller and doesn't care about the political factor. But I think the true audience for this movie in America is the people who want to know and have been hearing about Chavez and have been hearing about kidnappings and really want to know what is it that's going on in Latin America, and this is a new generation of Venezuelans talking to the world from the reality itself. It's not somebody who's looking at us, but us, we're trying ourselves, and I think that can appeal to people that are interested in that reality. This reality is also the reason why you guys are almost becoming a Spanish-speaking country.

(clear box)

Austin Chronicle: Sounds like you're very busy.

Elizabeth Avellán: A little busy, you know some days just get like [makes avalanche noise] ... snowball.

AC: How many films are you working on at the moment?

EA: We are actually just prepping one, but we have another – Sin City 2 – kind of on the horizon, so. ... We will be probably shooting it after we finish shooting Grindhouse, so it's just one right now. But also, I'm seven months pregnant, actually seven months and a week pregnant, so I could be having a baby pretty soon.

AC: So you have your hands full.

EA: Yeah, it gets pretty crazy [laughs]. So what's going on?

AC: I talked to Jonathan for almost an hour, so I may have exhausted the subject.

EA: I'll tell you, he's the one that's the most knowledgeable about it, about what's really going on, because he lives down there [in Caracas]. Even though I'm Venezuelan and I keep in touch, I know the things that are going on, he's the one that knows more the political aspect of things and how things have gone down in that way.

AC: Your family still lives there, but you came here when you were young?

EA: Well, what happened is my father and mother both went to boarding schools here in the United States, they're both from Venezuela, and my father went to college in Boston. He always said – he had seven kids – and he always said "When I turn 40 I'm going to go back to school." We would all laugh at him, like "Haha, yeah sure you are." And he basically, when he turned 40 in December, we were in Houston in September of that next year before he turned 41. He was attending Rice University as a master's student ... So, he did it [laughs], he did do it. So that's how we ended up in the United States, I was about 13 years old. He stayed here for about 10 or 12 years, and then he moved back and he's been back there ever since. All of us kids pretty much grew up here and stayed here, even though some of them have lived at different times down there. I go about twice a year at least to spend time, and I'm always in touch with my family and friends down there and they come visit me, I go visit them. So I'm very in touch with my Venezuelan roots.

AC: So, this is not only a literal family project, but also a film family in some ways, second generation Avellán-Rodriguez, right?

EA: Absolutely. My grandfather was the one that began commercial television in Venezuela, and he was the pioneer, he put the antenna up himself. So there is a lot of involvement that my family has had in the television business and before, when my grandfather was alive. Right now I have an uncle that's the voice guy for Cinemax and HBO, kind of the Latin American Mel Blanc, he does a lot of commercial voiceover stuff. He was a very famous deejay down there, he's actually in the film, in Secuestro Express, he's the deejay.

AC: That momentary deejay scene.

EA: Yeah, that was my uncle. Right away, my uncle had also been the narrator, because he's a very, very famous voice talent down there, and he was the narrator for Jonathan's Ships of Hope, which is a documentary that Jonathan did – without Jonathan knowing he was my uncle. Very weird.

AC: He hadn't met you then?

EA: Well we had met, but it's my uncle on my mother's side so Jonathan didn't know my second last name, he didn't know I was Avellán-Veloz. So when I said, "Hey, that was so cool that you put my uncle [Ships of Hope], that he did the narration," he was like, "What? Who? Your uncle?" And it's the only person he paid for, because he wanted the best talent for the voiceover, he knew how important it was. So, it was very funny, very serendipitous. So we thought it'd be a really great thing to put him in the movie [Secuestro] as, you know, he's been such a part of both our lives in a way.

AC: I remember being puzzled by that scene because it just sort of leaps in the middle there. Sometimes that's a continuing device in films, the all-night radio show.

EA: Exactly, well you know there's a lot of clandestine sort of stuff like that that happens in communities like that, because they can, you know? Some guy's just sitting there, there's a lot of that going on in Venezuela, especially as a result of the Chavez thing people kind of want to voice something, so they set up their own little radio station. By the way, all of my uncles, even my mother, had deejay licenses; they all had worked radio, so it's in the blood. By the way that's how I met Jonathan, and it was a radio station; it was one of the radio stations our grandfather had owned. But in Caracas, Jonathan was a film critic when he was 17 years old and he wanted to interview me, and I was so surprised to meet such an incredible, knowledgeable young 17-year-old who had parents who, you know, had money, he didn't have to work. Yet he worked, and he was such a professional, and I was just so impressed with him.

AC: So he didn't badger you into helping him?

EA: No, no. You know what? He hardly ever badgered me. He just sent me things. He got better and he kept sending me things, and when he sent me the documentary, he just blew me away.

AC: You didn't have any role in that at all?

EA: No, no – that was his aunt who gave him the $12,000 to do it. She's really involved in the Museum of Tolerance; she's one of the board members of the World Museums of Tolerance for the Holocaust, because she was a child of the Holocaust, his aunt. So, she wanted to record the beautiful things that the Venezuelans did for the Jewish people. At that time, it saved somewhere between 7,500 and to 10,000 Jews, and they've been able to live down there up till now in wonderful, very free-loving communities where everybody accepts them and loves them and there's no anti-Semitism ever. And lately, that's been turning.

AC: We talked a little about that, whether anti-Semitism is on the rise, officially or unofficially.

EA: Chavez did show up at the at the Hebraica school, his people looking for quote unquote "bombs" and they scared the crap out of all these children. Maybe a year and a half ago, in the morning, when all the kids were arriving at school at Hebraica, he arrived with gunmen and everything doing a search of the school because they thought that Jews were involved in some sort of bomb scare ... it was all bull, it was all a scare tactic. Because some of the people that have been the opposition to Chavez have been the Jewish community – not all of them but a couple of them, and so it was really a scary moment. His mother cried bitter tears, she lived through the Holocaust too, you know? She was I think 4 years old when she came to Venezuela. And it was just the saddest thing to see on TV, how these little kids are really scared. So he's done some things to scare the Jewish community into feeling a little vulnerable, which is so weird. Because I have so many friends and even family members who are married in that community and also not being Jewish, but they're always such a part of our lives and I grew up with a lot of them. And everybody knows their families so well. So he's been doing some stuff that scares the Jewish community down there. Not enough yet that it's alarming, but enough.

AC: Let's talk about the film. Where do you think it fits into the family tradition that you and Robert are establishing?

EA: To me it was such an important work because we all went down in Mexico with Rubén Blades and Rubén taught us all so much. He spent so much time talking to all of us about social consciousness – not political consciousness but social consciousness. We all ate it up because we were all raised that way, my father is very ... well, he's a socialist, and that's how we were raised, and Jonathan was raised that way too. You extend a hand to everyone around you and whoever works for you, you know the basics of humans being able to live in a country that you don't let go of the poor and just let them die and starve. So, there were certain things, both Jonathan and I were huge believers that Chavez didn't happen because "Oh, poor Venezuela, poor Venezuela." It happened because so many had turned their backs and our generation – he's a little younger than me, but his generation also – had basically ignored it and basically spent the money on themselves, until all of a sudden we were seeing the repercussions of that as young people, and with our family members. The kidnappings, the robbings, getting held up and all of those things. So, there was a lot of talk with Rubén about that, and the situation, because he knows so much about Latin America. When Jonathan came back from Mexico and he was here at UT studying at the university, he was trying to figure out what he was going to do as a short. Sandra Candito and him came up with this idea to do a movie about that and I was like, you know what, if you guys pay for the production, I'll pay for the post. I'll have my post guys do it for you guys, and I'll pay for it. I knew that they were going to come up with something really great. It was serendipitous that it happened during the strike down in Venezuela, because you could never shoot in Caracas, Caracas is worse than Mexico City in some ways to get around and to be in a car, there's traffic all the time. So it literally was very serendipitous and so Jonathan was really ready, he had rehearsed with these guys so much. Robert [Rodriguez] was a part of it in the sense that Jonathan, that's been his big hero, and we used all of Robert's guys to do the movie. And Robert by the way sat down and gave Jonathan some notes – he even told him to slow it down a little bit [laughs].

AC: That I don't believe.

EA: He did [laughing], and by the way, the editor of the movie is actually Robert's associate editor, Ethan Maniquis.

AC: Is this cut slightly different than the one a few weeks ago? ...

EA: We did sit down with Harvey [Weinstein, of Miramax] and really considered some of the doubts that they had, because they were very meaningful, and Jonathan and I were very open. Sandra too, to really listen and be able to make it. ... Because some pretty meaningful little things were done, like Harvey felt like there were too many coincidences, but in a small city like Caracas – it's a big city but it's a small city.

AC: To me the coincidences were part of the structure of the film. ...

EA: Yeah exactly, because that is Caracas. You basically are like, "Oh my God, you're my uncle?" That sort of thing happens all the time. I'll be at a mall in Caracas and somebody looks at me from far away and they come up to me and say, "You have to be an Avellán," you know, like, "Oh yeah, I am." Just because they know your family and you have a family resemblance.

AC: But there were some changes made?

EA: Yeah, there were some changes before we released it, a few changes.

It's such a part of us, because all of Robert's guys worked on it and we're all really proud, and so many people know Jonathan because he was a producer's assistant in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and so everybody in the crew is really really proud of what he has accomplished. Also, it has been such a weird journey, with Chavez. To tell you the truth, we thought Chavez's people were going to love it, okay? It's such a weird concept that they're turning around and acting like this, because we're like, "This is right up their alley. This is literally talking about the problems that they've been talking about."

AC: Officials in any government become tourist officers.

EA: Exactly, but this is reality in our country, and the only way we're going to change it is by talking about it.

AC: It also seems to me to be very stupid on their part, that if they embraced the movie they would look good.

EA: Absolutely. It's a unity message, from the get-go it was in the middle of the worst moment in Venezuelan history, the most divisive moment in Venezuelan history, yet a group of young people, including actors, including crew, who were from opposite sides of the tracks completely got together to make this movie. Venezuelan movies are usually just so boring, and only the filmmaker likes them, so it was something so exciting to make a movie that – well, that's why it's made so much money, it just passed The Passion [of the Christ], it's crazy the amount of money this movie is making, down there I mean unheard of. And we're about to beat Shrek 2, which is the highest grossing movie ever, ever.

AC: He said you hadn't quite beat Shrek 2.

EA: Not quite [laughs]. I don't know, we might not get to Shrek 2 level, but anyway, it's been such a proud thing for people. Finally a Venezuelan film that people can actually go see over and over and laugh and talk about it.

AC: In the U.S. a thriller with political pretensions is released, you do get a lot of similar reactions, but when it's such a popular film you'd think the government would have the sense ...

EA: Yes, to tell you the truth, in my view the movie really leans leftist, I think really the worst guy is the boyfriend; he's the bad guy.

AC: That's the one false note – the one homosexual interlude – I thought, what's that all about?

EA: You know what's interesting? Right now in Caracas, because it's been so in the closet. I was talking to a cab driver when Jonathan was writing this thing, and this cab driver says to me, because so many of the young men have left Venezuela to go to Europe because they don't want to have to deal with the government, or their parents have sent them off to other countries. So basically I said to him, "Hey, I hear there's like six women for every guy in this city." And he goes, "No ma'am, there's more like 18 women for every guy because two of three are gay." And the sexual revolution and the gay movement, which have been in this macho, macho culture, had been so squashed down it's literally popping up, like bubbling up. You have no idea, it's so weird. All of a sudden, all of these people coming out of closets that you had no clue, and so it is something that is very real. I'll tell you, the Martín character is very typical – that has caused things to shift in Venezuela because of his macho attitude, because of his entitlement attitude – everybody else is a "monkey." They use these words. We took the prototype of the guy that has turned Venezuela into a place where people don't care about the poor, and there are so many of them. So it's interesting to me that mainly the men have left the country, the young men, his age, the Martín character.

AC: Because they have the ability to leave.

EA: Exactly, but they haven't sent their daughters, they've sent their sons out. It's really a fascinating subculture, because the worst thing that you can be down there is gay. I'm telling you, that is changing because they're coming out of the closet in droves. Here it doesn't ring true to you because it's such a given in this country, pretty much. Here the gay revolution has happened and it's been going on for many years, so there's not a lot of people in the closet and if they do it's a very short-lived closet. They don't feel the stigma. Down there, oh my God, your father would disown you, especially your wealthy father, I mean forget about it. You want Daddy to give you his money, so you want to be able to have all those nice things you've got and be able to use the drugs and go to these parties, you can't let your daddy know you're gay. So they end up marrying these girls, it just ends up happening so often lately to people we know, that Jonathan and I know. People don't realize that it might not ring true in another country, but down there, I think that's also hit the zeitgeist out there. It's like, "Oh my God," because it's so real. It's not a negative gay character because I think the Marcello character, you see how much the kidnappers love him, and everybody loves Marcello you know, the drug dealer guy. And they're like "Hey, that's a gay guy that's serious about his shit, you know? He's not hiding, he's who he is." But that other guy is the one that is in the closet hiding, dating this girl, something else he's hiding completely behind the wealth of his father. Because if his father found out, it happens so often, the father finds out and hell breaks loose, they disown you ... the more macho they are the more they're hiding. That's reality down there.

AC: This takes an extreme genre and uses it to talk about larger things. Did he feel as if that's the kind of movie he wanted to make?

EA: Jonathan is a very socially conscious guy. Robert has been one of his mentors in a way that he's admired Robert's films and at the same time Jonathan has been a person that is very socially aware, he was raised right. The same way that I was raised or the way that Robert was raised. So that always kind of filters through to your work, you can't help it. But Robert and his family films, there's a message that maybe someone else making family films it doesn't ring true, and in Robert's films it does ring true. I think it's because it's what your makeup is, what you're made of, what you were raised with.

It would be very hard for Jonathan, I think, to make a film without including some of that social consciousness that he has. But stylistically, I agree, there are not similarities, but if you think about it the sound, it was Robert's guys. So there were a lot of professional hands that were in post-production, he got the best crew in Venezuela, so both ways. But the post-production was done in a very professional way, and usually, for independent films all of that gets redone. We didn't have to redo any of that.

Robert and I are very proud of the film and extremely proud of Jonathan. I don't have a lot of time to mentor people, and to mentor someone who ends up being everything – he's not just pretending, but he's really working and making it happen for himself. That's exactly Robert's message. Robert was so impressed, because we didn't tell Jonathan anything, until it was done to a point where we wanted Robert to see it and give us notes. He had no idea, and everybody hid it from him, because we also didn't want him to think we weren't giving 150% to his movies. So here we were all working on it on the side, and at the same time when he saw it he was so proud. First of all, Sandra who has worked with us not just as a publicist but marketing and all that stuff with Miramax, Ethan who is his right-hand guy, proud of me because of what I did, and then proud of Jonathan. Because Jonathan has been kind of the little kid who has been watching from the sidelines or being a little PA on set, and it's a pride thing. The fact that Harvey really loved the movie and that it has this message and hopefully it'll help in Venezuela, make people realize that you can make movies like this. Look what we did in Caracas. So the fact that Jonathan went out and did it, it's Robert's motto, "Just do it." So we are extremely extremely proud of it.

AC: How do you sell this to an American audience?

EA: It's a hard one, it's a hard one. I think that any movie in Spanish is a hard one. America's not used to seeing subtitles. And it's not budging. Especially if you think about it this movie's even harder, because this movie is for young people, it has a young kind of audience.

AC: It's going to show up in art houses where young people don't go.

EA: Exactly. So it has been a hard sell, but Harvey and Bob believe in it so much. And they also believe it's not just going to be a Venezuelan phenomenon, I think it's going to be a Latin American phenomenon. So much of this is happening in all of Latin America. It played amazingly in England, I don't know why but it did, at the [Raindance] festival. I don't know if they're more open-minded or what, but we expect the European audiences, because they're much more in touch with what's going on politically in other countries. In Europe, believe it or not, they know so much about what's going on in Venezuela, because first of all he is so vocal against Bush and they love that, that crazy Chavez guy. But at the same time they see that there are problems, so there's this weird dichotomy, and I think European audiences are going to understand, I think Spain is going to do great business. Right now it's going to be playing in Mexico and in Brazil. So Harvey and Bob, for what they spent on it, they're going to get plenty of their money back, and I think it will be one of those movies people will find on DVD. The reality is, I'm from another country, and I'm more interested in international news than the average American. That's reality, sadly enough.

AC: Americans aren't going to movies that don't have clear winners and losers. They don't mind blood and guts as long as the good guys win.

EA: It's been a bad summer for movies, and I think that that didn't help anybody. We all suffered at the hand of the pissed-off American audience that doesn't want to show up at the movies because they've been fed so much crap. ... Which is fine, because I think that people find things on DVD and that it has a long life in that medium. I believe that Jonathan's movie will be an international movie, and that it will also then do a good business in DVD. Latinos by the way, are DVD watchers. They just are. They'd rather take the 10 members of their family and buy one DVD and watch it than go to the movies, all 10 of them, it's too expensive. And by the way that is also a problem, ticket prices are insane, and the popcorn's more expensive than ever, so if you have five kids – believe me I go to the movies – if you have five kids it is expensive to go the movies. It's a $100 proposition at that point. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jackubowicz, Elizabeth Avellán, Robert Rodriguez, Sandra Condito, Hugo Chavez, Harvey Weinstein

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