I love the opportunity to champion new filmmakers. There are so many wonderful independent films that are seen by too few people, and many of these films are as good, if not better, than the studio movies that get so much attention. One such film is “Trouble in the Heights,” the first feature by screenwriter and director Jonathan Ullman.
It may seem odd for a Jewish filmmaker to make a film that is populated primarily by Latino characters and actors, but the seed of the story was planted when Jonathan moved to Washington Heights, an uptown New York City neighborhood with a large number of Latino residents, especially from the Dominican Republic. The story came to him one day while walking the streets of his adopted neighborhood.
“There’s something very cinematic about the lay of the land to me,” he says, “the architecture, the [George Washington] Bridge, of course. Also, it doesn’t look like any other neighborhood in New York…. It has its very own unique identity.”
Still, this film came as a surprise even to its filmmaker. “Five years ago before or even after I moved up here, I would never have thought in a million years that my first feature film would look like this,” he says.
Jonathan also feels that the neighborhood has been neglected in films. “This neighborhood adopted me,” he says, “and I wanted to do something to return the favor.” The area has begun to get a bit more attention, however, since the Broadway musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the new reality TV show on MTV titled simply, “Washington Heights.”
Residents who saw early cuts of the film confirmed that Jonathan portrayed the Heights accurately. “When we started showing this around, the first reactions we got were how well we captured the sights and the sounds and got the feeling of the neighborhood right,” he says.
Washington Heights has long had a reputation as a crime-ridden ‘hood with a lot of drug traffic, and “Trouble in the Heights” does deal with that subject matter. Still, it’s hardly your typical “drugs and crime” story.
Two young boys stumble upon a bag of money, and they impulsively take it, thinking it will help their families and take them out of their modest (although far from destitute) circumstances. The problem is that the money belongs to a high-powered and enormously violent drug kingpin, Nevada, played by Broadway star, Raul Esparza. (See my interview with Raul.)
What ensues is a sometimes funny, often frightening turn of events that is never predictable. I wasn’t quite sure what would happen to the boys and their families. Nevada and his ilk are terrifying, but there is little actual violence portrayed on screen. The bulk of the film is about familial love and dedication.
The heart and moral center of the film is Diego, the older brother of one of the boys. Diego is played by Rayniel Rufino, an actor you’re highly unlikely to know (unless you’ve seen the movie, “Sugar”), but the fact remains that you should know him. He plays the character with a quiet strength and dignity that anchor everything else in the narrative. This is a big responsibility for an unknown actor, and Rayniel bears it skillfully on his shoulders.
His job included sharing the screen with veterans Raul Esparza and Luis Antonio Ramos, as well as writing and performing some of the songs in the soundtrack. I hope to see more of him in the future.
Diego is working on a career as a chef but is thrust into the world of crime that he knows little about. Jonathan says he sees Diego as the new Washington Heights, while Nevada is the old Washington Heights. Much has been said about the renaissance in the neighborhood, but as someone who once lived there, I can say that it has always been a very family-oriented area, despite some crime-ridden pockets.
Jonathan credits casting director, Judy Henderson, with finding him the perfect actor for each role. Casting is a particular talent that is largely unsung except by those in the industry. Henderson has won an Emmy Award for her work on the popular series, “Homeland,” so the crew of “Trouble in the Heights” was lucky to be able to work with her. “She really did a great job of putting the cast together. I couldn’t be more proud,” Jonathan says.
Raul Esparza knew Henderson and was happy to consider any role she brought his way. Jonathan was gratified to get an actor of his caliber and was impressed with what Raul brought to his role.
“Our production attorney came to the set,” Jonathan says, “…and he met Raul earlier. Raul had just gotten to the set in shorts and a backpack flung over his shoulder. Then, a couple of hours later, Raul’s in character in a black leather jacket. The lawyer didn’t recognize him. It was a total transformation. He put that jacket on, and he had a swagger.”
The boys, played by Antonio Ortiz and Cruz Santiago, do a remarkable job among the more seasoned actors. In my interview with Raul, he talked about a particularly difficult scene that he shot with Cruz, during which he was very impressed with the young actor’s ability to immediately let go into the emotion of the scene.
This is especially impressive considering that the movie’s budget meant there was no time for rehearsals or multiple takes. Jonathan says they even had to remove shots from their list every day because there simply wasn’t the time or the money. You’d never know it considering the final product, which ended up looking like a movie with a higher budget.
It was working as an agent trainee at one of the top agencies in Los Angeles that made Jonathan want to try filmmaking. “I learned by reading a ton of scripts what was done right and what was done wrong,” he says. After he tried his hand at short films, he discovered that he enjoyed the process.
Now, he’s completing a documentary about a controversial cocktail that began in Washington Heights – “the nutcracker.” A number of myths abound about the drink, but it’s controversial primarily because it is frequently sold in barber shops and bodegas that are not licensed to sell alcohol. His film chronicles the drink’s beginnings and the folklore surrounding it.
“Trouble in the Heights” is now available on iTunes, Amazon, Redbox, and other on demand services. If you’re a fan of indie films (and if not, why not?), I highly recommend renting it.