Sunday, May 08, 2005

El Padrino filmmaker has the stars, but not the advertising

Damian Chapa has taken his new movie, El Padrino, on the road — literally. The gritty gangster flick, which stars Jennifer Tilly, Stacy Keach, Faye Dunaway, Gary Busey, Robert Wagner and Brad Dourif, as well as the filmmaker himself, is opening across the state without a major studio behind it.

Since there's no money for splashy billboards and TV ads, creative marketing has been a necessity. Chapa has been doing local radio spots, making appearances at nightclubs and distributing fliers at gas stations.

And don't forget the Padrino-mobile, a white van plastered with movie posters and equipped with loudspeakers to announce the opening date and credits as it travels up and down Houston streets.

"We had offers from big distributors, like Warner Independent. I'm a bit of a renegade, and I wanted to protect my investors. I wanted to see the value of the hard work. We're very excited. We're getting out there and working hard," says Chapa, chatting over enchiladas at La Mexicana in Montrose.

He's accompanied by his tireless promotion crew, which includes his charismatic father; a pair of cousins; and Pierre Chemaly, director of photography on El Padrino and Chapa's right-hand man.

Chapa chose to unveil El Padrino in this state because of his ties here. The 42-year-old actor, director and screenwriter spent part of his youth in Robstown, a small town just outside Corpus Christi. His father, grandmother and a few aunts still live there.

Chapa currently resides in Marina del Rey, Calif., but he has been in Texas for the past month promoting El Padrino. The movie has opened in McAllen, Laredo, Victoria and Corpus Christi. Oscar winner Dunaway even showed up for the El Paso premiere.

This weekend's opening at local Cinemark theaters marks the film's biggest rollout to date, and it's just the latest in a long line of challenges for Chapa, who wrote and directed the film.

"We're sort of out here without a paddle. We're fighting the hurricane," Chapa says. "It's hard enough being probably one of the few Latin films out there. It's been one city at a time. The grass-roots effort is the only way to do it."

Chapa portrayed Lyle Menendez in the CBS miniseries Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills, and he's been in big-screen movies Under Siege, Street Fighter and Money Talks. He has two sons, ages 15 and 5, and was once married to actress and model Natasha Henstridge (Species).

But he's probably best known for playing the lead in Taylor Hackford's Blood In, Blood Out (also known as Bound by Honor), a violent and controversial Latino epic about three brothers growing up in East Los Angeles. The 1993 film also featured Benjamin Bratt, Billy Bob Thornton, Ving Rhames and Delroy Lindo.

"He was the güero with the blue eyes," says an excited cashier at the Mexican restaurant, referencing Chapa's claim to fame. The film is a cult favorite among Latino audiences.

Soon enough, waiters, cooks and customers are clamoring for an autograph and a photo with "Miklo," Chapa's character in Blood In, Blood Out.

In El Padrino, which delves into the world of drug trafficking, Chapa plays Kilo, who has followed his father into the world of gangs but wants to leave it for a normal family life. Chapa says the issues raised are part of a larger spectrum that Latinos — and all minority groups — can identify with.

"All immigrant groups went through this thing of gangs, drugs, mafia. We all need to look at this more closely, because even though it's the minority of our people, it's the majority of the expression. We need to deal with it, and we need to show the young people that this kind of a life is not what you think it is," Chapa says. "We need to be able to have the freedom to express the diversity of our culture without being politically correct. This film doesn't sweep anything under the carpet."

"Damian is doing in the movie business what we are doing in the record business. He's doing his own thing and not letting anything stand in his way," says La Mafia keyboardist and producer Armando Lichtenberger Jr. The Tejano group is helping Chapa promote El Padrino and is in talks to collaborate on the soundtrack to a sequel.

"Doing independent releases is not easy," Lichtenberger adds. "You've got to have the drive to make something a success."

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