Revisiting American Me and its Boyle Heights building 30 years later
By speaking with me american With stage manager and associate producer Antoinette Levine, it’s clear that the film’s director and star, Edward James Olmos, was acutely aware of the risks involved in directing a film based on the rise of the Mexican Mafia.
“We all got the speech,” Levine says. “There was always this feeling of knowing that there was a possibility that some kind of threat, or violence, or worse, could potentially happen.” She says that when scouting the scene, Olmos empathized if his department heads wanted to leave the project out of fear for their safety. Levine tells THE TACO“Everyone was in it. Nobody walked.”
Almost since its inception, and certainly until its release on Friday, March 13, 1992, Olmos’s me american was criticized for what some considered a confusing and blasphemous portrayal of the rise of La Eme, the most powerful and influential Chicano criminal organization both within the California prison system and on the streets of LA. stale-voiced pundits of the day who continually condemned sex and violence in movies. Danny Trejo explains the backstory perhaps best in his memoirs, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Hollywood, and Redemption. In short, the storyline angered Mexican mob bosses for specific on-screen incidents related to the portrayal of the film’s main character, mob kingpin Montoya Santana, played by Olmos. Santana was based on real mob boss Rodolfo Cadena, who was murdered at the California Institution for Men, aka Chino, in 1972 at the age of twenty-nine. Disapproval of the project reportedly led Olmos to be targeted and extorted. Two months to the day after the release of me americanAna Lizarraga, a highly respected East LA Gang Intervention Advisor who worked on the film as a technical advisor and gang negotiator, was shot in his driveway.
About 50 minutes from me americanThe 125-minute running time required filming in active prisons and detention centers around California, including Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall, Chino and, most notably, Folsom State Prison – the the only place Levine remembers team members giving up due to bullying. nature of the infamous penitentiary. But when the film moved to the streets of Boyle Heights and East LA, everyone involved – perhaps none more than those working in the set department – felt the heightened intensity of the story that they were telling.
Eastern locations like Evergreen Cemetery and Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine appear in the film, but arguably the best example of the settings put in place for everything me american the location is the Boyle Heights apartment building chosen as the Santana family’s residence. The two-level complex located on Mathews Street just south of 1st Street and a block east of Soto Street were built in 1925. Arches, stuccoed entryways, and windows obstruct the modest courtyard; a decorative coat of arms adorns the top of the facade. The courtyard-facing apartments have steps leading up to their front doors, which cinematically creates opportunities for dynamic staging and camera movement in a relatively small space.
Another building just across the street was chosen for Santana’s best friend and partner in crime, JD (William Forsythe). At the time, the location boasted second floor balconies visually conveying a tight-knit community, everyone knows each other. The orientation of the two buildings and the turn-of-the-century houses in between allow Olmos to film from building to building while seeing the entire street. This seems especially prominent in the early scenes shot on Mathews Street set in the 1950s. “It’s like it was pre-conceived for this movie, in a particular way,” Levine says. “We have received a golden gift from places where there is no cut to. You literally have the long shot.
Levine recalls that the tenants of the apartment’s main location were excited about the prospect of filming the film there. “This apartment building felt like it was in the right place at the right time with the right people,” she says.
Once the creative aspects were cemented, strategic and unyielding logistics were required to make a film dealing with the adversities in which this neighborhood was deeply involved. Without the bars and walls of a prison, the location department was tasked with forming an airtight array of protections in the streets around the production.
By the early 1990s, gang-related homicides in LA County had reached records. “Literally, the whole area was active gang territory,” says Levine, who a year later me americanamassed the locations of LA’s socially charged drama To fall. “We were visitors, and if we wanted to come out alive and unharmed, then we had to figure out how to be a visitor in a particular neighborhood.” She reminds that under no circumstances should anyone wear colors that could have mistakenly identified them as part of a gang.
Part of Lizarraga’s job – likely contributing to his execution-style murder – was to broker a truce between gangs to allow the filmmakers a safe working environment. She also advocated for hiring gang members to work as extras on the film.
Working closely with his localization team, the police coordinator, production security and the infamous, later disbanded LAPD CRASH unit, Levine created an impenetrable fort, so to speak, around the location of Mathews Street. She asked her team to find a closed and fenced school ground where the production base camp could be held. “The vision was to literally create a grid around us that would close off the streets in such a way that there should be an access point. I battened down the hatches,” says Levine.
Still, the filmmakers were on the alert. Levine says that on several nights while filming at the Mathews Street site and adjacent areas, gunshots were regularly heard. Although these shots were not aimed at the set, people were terrified.
In lives in dangerthe one-hour documentary on the making of me american, Olmos addresses his team from the courtyard of the Mathews Street complex. As the somber crowd listens intently and an LAPD officer, arms crossed across his chest, stares sternly around him, the director informs them that over the past week, three homicides took place within a two block radius of the location. Olmos calls it “good luck” that none of these deaths were associated with the film.
Although working on me american posed serious risks to everyone involved, what not to be lost in the self-reflexive dangers of filmmaking is the pervasive sense of community that Levine said connected the filmmakers to each other and the neighborhood.
“The Mathews Street complex was like a gift from the creative gods that it actually existed,” says Levine. “It was like a cultural campus. There were all these lives that took place in an intimate and closed complex, each with its own story, each with its own sorrows and joys. It was a reflection of the heart of the film in that way of a culture that will stay alive forever, no matter what challenges it faces from society at large.
In the behind-the-scenes documentary, Olmos acknowledges that it was atypical for a studio film to shoot amidst Eastside gang violence, but capturing the reality of the neighborhood was of the utmost importance.
Levine praises Olmos’ uncompromising dedication to the film and the residents of the neighborhood in which the film was shot. “He did not isolate himself. He stepped forward and we walked the streets,” says Levine. While scouting, Levine recalled Olmos “telling the kids they had to finish school and college if they wanted to be successful like him. He has always done mentoring. It was also clear that Olmos’ influence, fame, and social and cultural activism most certainly allowed access to places the filmmakers would not otherwise have been able to access. “He’s a culture king,” Levine says. “He made his people proud and he has a humility around that worship, if you will. And his humility stems from his knowledge of the struggle of his people in this United States of America.
Through his management, Olmos declined to comment for this story due to his schedule.
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