Take2IndieReview sits down with Director Felix Igori Ramos to discuss his journey to becoming a filmmaker.
What was your childhood like growing up in Chicago?
Rough. I grew up on the Westside of Chicago which was populated at the time with Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) of which I am half and half Guatemalan and Black folks. Very much a low-income community infested with drugs and gangs. We took care of each other as much as possible, but I bore witness to a whole lot of tragedy. My father left my mother, my middle brother and youngest brother and I in 1985 to find work in California. So, at a very young age I was aware of danger everywhere. I was the oldest, so I had to pick up my younger brothers from school, daycare and as a latchkey kid bring them home and feed them and early on change diapers as well. All while trying to avoid getting my ass beat constantly from the kids in the hood. As an older man I love the city of Chicago, but I don’t look back fondly on those 7 years before my father moved us to California.
Was there anything specific from your childhood that inspired you to become a storyteller?
Yeah, I read a lot. My cousin Tony (in Chicago) got me into reading Stephen King novels at a way too early age and my imagination just would wreak havoc on me. A lot of sleepless nights. Ha, ha. But, as I read, it awakened the concept of storytelling in me, and I began to write short stories and make short movies with a tape recorder. You see we were poor so we couldn’t afford an actual camera. So, I would write these little “Radio Days” like stories where I would get my brothers or cousins to act in them. We’d record them and I would listen back to them with my eyes closed and imagine all the action that no one else could see. I loved those little recordings.
What was it about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing that inspired your love for filmmaking?
I was 11 years old when I read the film review for Spike’s Do the Right Thing from Roger Ebert. Who was my absolute favorite critic and I learned so much about the depth and magic in the artform known as cinema and I lament not having my first feature reviewed by Mr. Ebert. So, I read his review and many things caught my eye especially the fact that I lived my whole life in a neighborhood like the one depicted in Spike’s film. Roger Ebert said he walked out of the theatre with tears in his eyes as it moved him so powerfully that I had to go see what that was about. So, I hopped on the bus and road it to the Village of Norridge which was the only theatre showing Spike’s films. I don’t remember breathing throughout the film and I saw it through my hands the way an 11 year old might see a horror film. And that ride home was the most ethereal I’ve ever had. I felt as if God had shown me my purpose. So fast forward 17 years to Fall of 2006, I’m on the campus of USC to hear a lecture Spike Lee is giving on his documentary When the Levees Broke. I stick around after for the meet and greet and I see a large crowd surrounding Spike and I’m feeling very self-conscious and elect not to go speak with him. I was battling with a decision at that time. I had a good desk job and it was about to get much, much better you see I was going to be offered a new position that would catapult me within this company. But I was contemplating going to the Los Angeles Film School at age 28 and see if I could make this dream a reality. So I finally muster the courage and walk back to the crowd and wait my turn to speak to Spike. I walk up to my film hero and shake his hand and begin to recount my trip from Chicago to Norridge to go watch Do the Right Thing, telling him that the Box Office attendant wouldn’t let me in because I was only 11 and the movie is Rated R. I explained to the ticket guy why I needed to see it, he was very moved by my passionate plea, but he still said no, but did say if you bought a ticket for Batman or Indiana Jones 3 and lost your way into the theater for Do the Right Thing, that he wouldn’t say anything. I tell Spike this and his response is “I don’t know whether to be flattered or disturbed.” I tell him (with almost tears in my eyes) how I’m at a crossroads with this job and film school. Spike tells me, “If it haunts you this much, then you should go to film school and don’t chase your dream ATTACK IT”. I heard God’s words to me through that man that night. Four months later I’m at the Los Angeles Film School where I shot 7 short films. Fast forward to March 2022. I order a pictorial filmography of Spike through his store Spike’s Joint, and the order asks for a personalized message that Spike can respond to. So I remind him of our meeting in the Fall of 2006, that I went to film school and I finally made my feature film debut. I just received the book in the mail a few days ago and in it is Spike’s message to me, “Felix, keep ATTACKIN’ YA DREAM!!! Spike”. Pretty cool.
After having been discouraged in your earlier years, at 26, what gave you the courage or inspiration to create the Streets of Self Defeat?
My father’s death. It drove a sense of mortality in me that I began to think about that 11 year old that took that bus ride out of Chicago to Norridge again. And I began to hear him crying out to me that he’s been suppressed for to long. I needed catharsis. My youngest brother Mario at that time was living a gangster life and we were all afraid that it would lead to his demise. So, I made this film about a young man that is living a foul life and one night gets shot and as he’s on the pavement dying, he reflects on his life all the while speaking to God. I employed my brother Mario to play this character. The tragedy is my brother was shot and killed 17 years after we made this film. This film will more then likely haunt me the rest of my life.
What impact did the loss of your father have on making that film and in the story you told?
I always felt a responsibility to my brothers to be there for them in ways that my father never was. So, when my father died, I assumed the role of “pop” to them and I wanted them to see someone achieve a dream, as far fetched as it was. Throughout the 5 minute film the character laments his choices but also laments his relationship with his father. I needed catharsis. So, I chose to find it through this film, my filmmaking debut.
Having wrote, produced, shot, directed and edited this film, your first short, what was it that made you take on all those creative positions yourself?
I was attending Long Beach City College at the time and the assignment was to make a short film (5 minute max) without dialogue and without a crew. So, we were learning how to be a one person wrecking crew. So, I had to fill all five of those positions because we weren’t supposed to have a crew. But it was great. Honestly, I would like to do that again, except maybe the DP part. That’s way too much work. But for the most part I always write, produce, direct and edit or at least work very closely with my editor. I guess I’m a little bit of a control freak. Ha, ha.
Can you share what it was like to leave the film industry and go into construction and corporate America?
Trying. After I graduated from the Los Angeles Film School in 2008 my son Israel was born, and my wife and I decided that I would stay home with him while my film career was blossoming. Looking back though it was a real blessing to be able to stay home with my son those first few years. I believe it’s why I have such a bond with him. So, after two failed attempts, at making two short films, due to the financing never coming through, I quit filmmaking. And that hiatus was from 2010 to 2014. During those 5 years, I dug ditches, worked on plumbing underneath homes, installed 200 lb. windows and doors for the elites of southern California and worked desk jobs to provide for my family. I thank God for the ability to take care of my family but the 11 year old’s dreams were being suppressed again, and there was going to be a reckoning with that.
What did you learn from that experience that you brought with you when you returned to filmmaking?
That I may not be able to do anything else but make films. And I’m not even saying I do that very well but it’s the only thing I ever felt natural doing. During that time Spike Lee’s words to me kept echoing in my soul. Am I “ATTACKING” my dream? And the answer was an emphatic NO. I was “battling with myself in the ring of doubt and fear” (quote by Common the Hip Hop emcee) and losing. So, I woke up one morning in May of 2015 and told myself I was going to give it one more shot and fulfill that 11 year old’s dream.
Why did you choose a six year old’s obsession with Basketball to be the subject of your first foray back into filmmaking with Shootin Shots?
I was very insecure that I could do this again so instead of getting a crew and auditioning actors I just wrote something very, very simple and employed my son Israel to play the lead role. He and I shared (and still do to this day) the love for basketball so naturally I wrote, produced, shot, directed and edited a 5 minute short film like I did with Streets of Self Defeat. I picked up my Samsung S7 and filmed scenes with my son of him playing basketball and at one point dunking at the age of 6. It was so much fun and truly resurrected the filmmaker in me. To this day I still thank him for bringing dad back to life. So, we shot that in 2015, in 2016 I brought in my nephew Andre and made Rivals Shootin’ Shots of which he beats my son Israel. I concluded the saga in 2017 with Champions Shootin’ Shots which is the re-match where my son wins. Such a great period of time, that I got to document my son turning 6, 7 and 8 years old.
How did the story of In the Defense Against Tyranny come to you?
The results of the 2016 election. I had two ideas for two separate films. Which was the Frank Suarez journalist story and then the Frank Suarez family man (or lack thereof), so I chose to mesh both those stories and thus the script evolved. I was really pissed by the election of Trump in 2016 but more so I was afraid of the direction our country was headed. Being a minority in the United States and having encountered racism I was afraid where this man’s racist, xenophobic ideology was going to take us and how it was going to influence my neighbors, who voted for him. I was afraid for my sons. So, I chose to make my feature film debut as a response to not just the fear, but the hope I still had in our country.
Can you share more about the 12-day shoot?
That was a whirlwind. But there was no other way. My associate producer Anastasia Reinhard and I decided pretty early on that we had no other choice then to shoot an 84 page script in 12 days with the money we had. The whole film was financed by my wife and I. I could have tried to raise more money through crowdfunding or try to find financers so to give us a longer shooting schedule. But my wife and I felt the momentum was on our side and that delaying principal photography may cause us to lose key actors or crew, so we put our faith in God and proceeded on a 12 day shoot. Every day was a fight to make the day, shooting on average seven to eight pages a day, sometimes more. We worked the typical 10 to 12 hour days, sometimes more. The fact that we got the entire film in the can in those 12 days is a testament to my cast who often times I couldn’t give them more then 2 to 3 takes before we were on to the next set up or scene. And, of course, a testament to my crew who were a Godsend and never complained (except for one day, ha, ha) always giving us the best of their efforts. This film was blessed of God and protected by angels because we honestly did not have one bad day where we lost major scenes, moments or plot points that could’ve sunk the film. Thus, a $100,000 feature film was shot in 12 days.
What do you find most important in the casting process?
Finding good actors. Ha, ha, no, but seriously, you come across some interesting characters. And so, I work off of a look that I’m looking for, for the character and a lot of times the connection the actor makes with the character ends up winning the role. Chasing Randy Vasquez to play Frank brought in Marilyn Sanabria to play Cassandra because they are actually a couple in real life. Fernanda Moya was exactly what I was looking for in Elise and thankfully she turned out to be an amazing actress. Rick Ravanello who played Edward Ashe I never met I saw his reel and we had a few phone conversations, and I was convinced he would play Ashe with all the villainy but add such emotional nuance that would make Ashe a real person instead of a cardboard cutout antagonist. Most important I think is finding actors that connect to the character in a very personal and real way.
Do you like to rehearse?
Yes, as much as I possibly can. I like and respect actors. I find what they do to be nothing short of miraculous. So, I like building, finding and meeting the character with the actor through rehearsal. I’m the writer so I know a lot about my characters, but I like to hand them off to the actor so that they belong to them and in a way, I’m being reintroduced to them when the actor finds this person. It’s quite invigorating to see these people you spend so much time alone with during the writing come to life when the actor breathes oxygen into them.
What was most challenging?
Saying goodbye to everyone when we wrapped. You see I’d been waiting for 29 years to shoot my first feature film. I only had 12 days of production with everyone and the exhilaration of coming to set every morning during those 12 days was like the greatest feeling I’ve ever experienced. That night as I drove the U-Haul from set to my house at 3am, I wept the whole way home giving God all the praise but knowing that the 11 year old finally lived that dream he dreamt on the bus after watching Do the Right Thing. That was the most challenging.
Is there anything you would do differently as you prepare for your next film?
Yes, but we prepared pretty damn well the first time around. Shooting a film on such a short shooting schedule with your own money forces you to be buttoned up. No room for error. God willing, on the next, we’ll have a little more time to experiment and create in the moment. That’s the only thing I regret with our short shooting schedule. I didn’t have time to infuse the poetry that I wanted the film to have. I had to make decisions in the name of getting the footage in the can that would produce a coherent film.
How were you able to fundraise?
I didn’t. My wife and I self-financed the entire $100,000 budget by refinancing our house and pulling out the equity at the time, my wife cashed out her 401k, my wife and I took out personal loans and we ran up our credit cards. She is an absolute Godsend to me because she believed in me when I stopped believing in myself. I don’t know many wives that would have done all that she did to bankroll a dream all while having lost her father that year as well as being pregnant with our third son, Samuel. 2018 was an amazing year and I owe so much of it to my beautiful wife, Jennifer. Forgiveness and finding peace, and simultaneously finding strength and power, are central to survival in this film.
Can you talk about how these themes both oppose and feed each other?
I think in the pursuit of strength and power you make many mistakes and hurt many people along the way. It’s a selfish pursuit, thus collateral damage is a given. And if the attainment of these goals occurs well, you’ll find yourself to be a bit of a tyrant after the dust settles. So in the broad stroke, Ashe is the obvious would-be tyrant, but the more fine brush stroke, is how Frank is the tyrant in his own home. And so, his pursuit of forgiveness and peace is how he has awakened from his selfish pursuits to see that Cassandra and Elise were what he sacrificed to have the moment he has at the end, which is to interview a Presidential candidate. He’s achieved a mountain top in his career but in order to gain his daughters forgiveness he has to blow it all up to prove to her that she is more important than his desire for power and strength. It’s a helluva dilemma. I hope Frank found forgiveness and peace at the end.
You begin the film with a quote by Thomas Jefferson and end with a passage from Psalms; how are politics and religion or spirituality at play in this piece?
Yes, I begin and end the film with two Thomas Jefferson quotes. The Psalm is me crying out to God in gratitude that this dream came true. The politics on the surface is pretty obvious but what I think most people miss is the underlying theme of what it means to be a member of a functioning democracy and how precious it is. It is a dream, a concept that must be watered with faith, hope and blood, like the tree of liberty, in order for it to survive. There is no righteous army that stands at attention to defend democracy, liberty, we are that army, and I am not insinuating taking up arms to protect and preserve. No, I mean protecting our way of life with ideas, respect and truth. The presence of God has been ever present in all of my short films to this my first feature film. All of my characters wrestle with God in one form or another in my films. It is the journey of life for me. When we enter this world (or time) we are separated from God and so the race is to get back to our Creator, our Father. So Frank is a flawed, sinful man who has lost much. His desire is to return to Cassandra. He’s not a man of faith but has a consciousness of God and thus speaks to Him throughout the film. As a matter of fact, the scene in the third act where he has accepted his mandate and is in the bathtub
sobbing, I imagined Frank like when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane imploring the Father to pass the cup to someone else. Not that I liken Frank to Jesus, but the idea that what he was about to do held that kind of weight to him.
In the Defense Against Tyranny has won many awards at film festivals! What did it feel like to watch the film at its premiere at the Historic TCL Chinese Theatre?
It was surreal. It felt like I had done right by the 11 year old boy who had this dream. Watching, listening and just breathing in the moment felt a like dream I’ve dreamt many times, but it was real. Watching the film and realizing how well it played on the big screen finally made me feel like I belong. Like, this is not just some unreachable accomplishment or me deluding myself thinking that I had the chops to be a filmmaker. I do belong, I do have the chops and I will be here for quite some time.
What inspired your next project For the Sake of the Kids?
As a father of three boys, it breaks my heart to know that my sons live in such a violent world. Especially, our country with the number of guns that are readily available, it just seems like this pestilence of violence is not being extinguished – instead it is encouraged. Through everything! From movies, to music, to politics, to culture. America is a nation birthed on a violent revolution and preserved though a violent Civil War. When Sandy Hook happened my middle son Israel was about 4 years old, and I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening. I held him tightly as I’m sure everyone held their children so much tighter during that horrific moment. But as the country moved on and nothing was accomplished after that tragedy and the many, many more tragedies that followed. The artist in me, the voice, felt sickened and compelled to do something. So, I wrote this idea but as the writing progressed, I felt guilty thinking what right do I have to write about the pain that these families, communities experienced. I’ve never lost anyone close to me to such violence. Then June 16, 2021, happened. My brother Mario was shot and killed.
School shootings and gun violence are very challenging topics, what are you most hoping people will take away from that film once its completed?
A reckoning with our own souls. If nothing else, I hope the film asks the question why do we still resort to violence to solve anything. Why? I’m not naïve, I understand the superficial why. I’m asking a more existential, spiritual why. What is it about each other that still terrifies us? A gun is an instrument of death. Nothing else. Why do we glorify it so much? Maybe if studios and filmmakers would stop being such cowards and not acquiesce to America’s ravenous appetite for destruction and instead explore the disease, perhaps a change can happen in our American culture. It’s an endeavor worth pursuing. Otherwise, your child may be the next one to be shot.
There seems to be a strong parent/child dynamic in each of your films. Can you share why that theme is one you continue to explore?
Yeah, there definitely is. When it was just my mother, my two younger brothers and I in Chicago, I reluctantly took on the role of father figure to my brothers, Jairon and Mario. So, I think that started my fascination with the father/son dynamic. And having three sons of my own I think it just naturally bled into my writing. I do worry about the state of men in this world, that is becoming more feminine and woman centric. Which don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe is necessary and long over-due. I just worry about young men and their place in this world and their lack of guidance in evolving into a vessel of peace and not destruction.
What lessons or motivation could you offer to other young filmmakers feeling discouraged by finances, lack of support, or instability?
Lessons, I’d echo Spike’s words “ATTACK” your dream. Don’t chase, don’t hope, don’t wish – ATTACK! I didn’t take the advice all the way through, I actually quit for five years having lost confidence and faith in my abilities. And that’s Okay. Throughout this voyage you will fail, you will lose hope and you will get knocked down. And sometimes you won’t want to get right back up. But at the end of the day if this dream haunts you, as it did me, you have to get up and go again. Take the hits and swing back as well. Artists don’t necessarily choose to do art, because why would a rationale person want to suffer the way artists do for their art. The art chooses you as a vessel to be the voice in the wilderness crying out to the world to reckon with its soul. Filmmakers are vital to society. Keep your faith in God and yourself and it will carry you when nothing seems to be working. Take it from me, a guy who made his feature film debut at the age of 40 years old.
What’s next for you?
For the Sake of the Kids. I need to write a few more drafts to find the final story. But, in the process I’m considering shooting a Proof of Concept to show potential investors. I won’t be able to finance this feature film, so I need to find investors that have the courage and empathy to take on such a difficult, but necessary, subject matter. Though I wish had the money to self-finance, I don’t, and I can’t go back to my wife or that strong, patient and beautiful woman I described earlier may not stick around. Ha, ha, ha. But to God be the glory and if For the Sake of the Kids is meant to be my second feature film, He will provide.