The Documentary Is The Thing
by Juan Ramirez
pLAywriting in the city
“The play’s the thing.” Well, at least for me the play is one of many things. I fell in love with movies after I watched “The Godfather” and “Scarface”, one summer afternoon. Did I mention I was 11 years old when I saw those films? God bless HBO and my parents having to work and leaving me home alone to watch movies all day. I was blown away by the idea that one guy could both be Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. I wanted to be that guy. Al Pacino, will always be the reason why I became an actor.
Pacino inspired me to audition for the high school plays in a predominantly white theater department. Pacino was a short, ethnic, actor who made it in Hollywood. I was an average height, fat, actor who wanted to be on stage. If he could do it, why couldn’t I? Being on stage was the closest thing to being in the movies for me. I fell in love with acting and the theater in high school. It was in high school that I understood why the play was the thing. There is no greater feeling than performing before a live audience. I love movies and the movies are still my thing but I will always consider myself a stage actor.
So I entered college as a stage actor. I auditioned for college and warehouse theater productions. I didn’t care where it was, I just wanted to work. I soon discovered that it was hard to get work. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a director or a casting director say to me, “You’re great, but I can’t use you”, I’d be a very rich man right now. I soon discovered that in order to get work you had to work, but how do you get work if no one will give you work. Then I discovered the second biggest influence in my life, John Cassavetes.
I just so happen to rent a film called “Faces” directed by this T.V. actor turned director named John Cassavetes. He wrote the movie, directed it, paid for it with his own money and shot it in his house. He did everything. “Faces” is a raw, gripping and heartbreaking film. It had all of the feeling of actors performing on stage but in a movie. I soon got my hands on anything that had Cassavetes name on it. Movies and books, you name it. Cassavetes was an actor who wrote. He was my teacher. I was an actor, who says I couldn’t write? Cassavetes made his own films because Hollywood didn’t want to make the movies he wanted to make. Nobody wanted to cast me in anything, so I wrote plays and cast myself. If you’re worried that I might fall in love with myself, it’s too late. I began writing one act plays, a lot of these were terrible, and some eventually were presentable, but I learned how to write by writing. After having notched a couple of plays under my belt, I decided to give movies a shot.
I started making short films. I borrowed my friends camera and cast my actor friends and made these low budget productions that were, you guessed it, terrible. That didn’t stop me though. I loved the process of creating something. Whether it was a play or movie, for me it was all about the characters. This past year, I decided to do something different. I made a documentary.
I’ve been a Dodger fan all my life. If you cut my veins, you will see that I bleed Dodger blue. I watch every game on television. I yell at the T.V. when they’re losing, I clap and cheer when they win and when they lose in the playoffs, I experience the deepest depressions. I will admit it’s very sad that my mood depends so largely on how the Dodgers are doing.
In 2011, my beloved Dodgers were dragged into bankruptcy. Yes, one of the most popular Major League Baseball franchises couldn’t afford to buy a Dodger dog that they sold in their own stadium. How did this happen? Who would let this happen? You needed to look no further than ownership. Frank McCourt, the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, used the team’s finances for his own personal benefit and in the process ruined one of the proudest sports franchises. Well, I for one was not going to take this lying down and I soon discovered that a lot of other Dodger fans felt the same way.
On July 9, 2011 a small group of Dodger fans banded together and protested Frank McCourt’s ownership of the team outside of Dodger Stadium. When I heard that the fans were organizing a protest I realized there was a story there. So once again, I borrowed my friend’s camera and headed down to the corner of Elysian Park and Sunset and began filming the protest. I ended up with an hour of footage. Ok, now what? You’re not writing a play or a movie. You are not creating characters nor dialogue. I no longer had the luxury of putting words in people’s mouths. In my plays or in my films, if I simply wanted a character to say something to establish a theme I would just have them say it. But what I filmed was real. These were real characters, not just based on real people but the real people themselves. I couldn’t tell them what to say or make them say what I wanted them to say.
There may not be a lot writing involved in making a documentary, but there’s a lot of storytelling involved. I know how to tell a story, right? I mean I’ve written plays and films, a documentary can’t be that different, can it? What I soon discovered, is that the writing of a documentary is done through the images. The same things that I worried about when writing a play or a film apply to a documentary. What’s the story? The theme? Who are your characters? What’s the conflict? Where’s the stories arch?
I interviewed 25 people for the documentary. They were part of my research. I began outlining. I wrote a voice-over that would serve as transition to move the story along. I discovered that writing a documentary isn’t any different than writing a play or a film. When you’re editing your film, what you’re really doing is rewriting. You’re making the pieces fit. You getting rid of what doesn’t work and keeping the stuff that does. You may not have a play or a screenplay as your canvas, but you’re rewriting in the images you are choosing to show.
The name of my documentary is “Blue Revolution”. It’s about the Dodger fans protest and boycott of Frank McCourt’s financial abuse of the team. My characters are the Dodger fans. I have documented their efforts to take back their team through interviews with various Dodger fans, news footage and footage I shot myself. They’re letting the world know that they do not want Frank McCourt as owner of their team. Frank McCourt dragged the Dodgers into bankruptcy as an effort to keep the team. A team whose revenue he used to purchase seven homes with. The McCourt family has taken over $100 million in personal loans from the Dodgers. He has abused the trust of the fans. The same fans that show up every year and support the team regardless of how good or bad they are doing. The fans are not dumb. They know they’re being swindled and they’re doing something about it. They are no longer going to give this man their hard earned money. The fans have created “Occupy Dodger Stadium”.
The story I’m telling in “Blue Revolution” has many parallels to what’s going on in “Occupy Wall Street”. The fans are fighting against the corporate greed of one man. I used the same techniques that I used when writing a play or a film in making this documentary. I followed in the footsteps of John Cassavetes and made the film with what I had access to. It may not be much, but it was enough to tell the story. I was inspired by these actors turned filmmakers to do something I’ve never done before. I’ve never made a documentary. I realized is there’s a time and place for everything. All my experiences up until this point have led me to this path of making “Blue Revolution”.
I know William Shakespeare was talking about plays when he said “the play is the thing”, but for me when I hear this, it’s about creating. Whether it be performing, writing, directing, etc. that’s what the things is. I think we all have the ability to be hyphenates. We are not just one thing. I never would have thought of myself as a writer or director. I thought I was just always going to be an actor. But I learned I could be more than that. It’s about the creation of something. Whether it’s a character, a play, or a movie, whatever you create is there forever. “Blue Revolution” is something I created, it’s proof that it happened and no one will be able to take that away, because it’s my thing.
Juan Diego Ramirez is an actor, producer and award-winning playwright. His one man show, The Whitest Mexican, premiered at the REDCAT in Los Angeles last year. He has also performed in The Mexican O.C. and the West Coast premiere of Guilt Anthology and Miss Lebron. Juan’s performance in his play, Revelations was named of the year’s best by the O.C. Weekly in 2007. In 2008, Revelations was named best play of Teatro La Ta’s Asi Somos Theatre Festival. His other plays, Latino 101, Public Speaker, Mr. V. Neck and One Out of Six premiered at Fullerton Colleges Director’s Festival. One Out of Six was named Best of the Fest in 2006. Juan also appeared in the award winning short films Someone to Love and Assignment. The latter aired on Showtime and won an Imagen Award for best short film. He also starred and produced the independent feature south loop. Juan received a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from California State University, Long Beach.