FILM: Documentary Goes Behind-the-Scenes with John Leguizamo

In 2011, John Leguizamo took Broadway by storm with a triumphant and, in my opinion, overdue return to the stage for his one-man show, “Ghetto Klown,” which I thoroughly enjoyed when it opened at the Lyceum Theater in Manhattan. A New York Times review noted that the show’s spine is “the trajectory of Mr. Leguizamo’s show business career, from his first public performance in the conductor’s booth of a subway car to his renown as one of just a handful of successful Latino actors with a national profile.”

Filmmaker Ben DeJesus went behind-the-scenes to capture Leguizamo’s theaterical journey in the documentary, “Tales from a Ghetto Klown,” scheduled to début as part of the PBS Arts Summer Festival in July. DeJesus spoke with Tania Fuentez Media about working with the comedic force-of-nature, grassroots efforts to raise funds via Kickstarter for production costs and more. “I saw this as a fascinating story of this really small group of people led by John’s creative genius who were literally taking on Broadway,” says DeJesus, who helms Diamante Pictures. The film also includes commentary from Leguizamo’s mentors and friends such as “Ghetto Klown” director Fisher Stevens, Rosie Perez, Ralph Fiennes, Liev Schrieber and Ruben Blades.

NOTE: “Tales from a Ghetto Klown” premieres as part of the PBS Arts Summer Festival on Friday,  July 13, 2012.

TFM: Why did you want to make “Tales from a Ghetto Klown” and how did you pitch the idea to John Leguizamo? What was his first reaction?

Ben: I was first introduced to John by my business partner, David Chitel from NGL Media, who had been partners with John for over 10 years. I had always been a superfan of John as an actor in theater. I had read his books when I was studying theater at Rutgers; I had stood in line at the TKTS booth to buy half-priced tickets to “Freak” back in 1998. I even stood outside his stage door to shake John’s hand. So once he mentioned that he was starting to rehearse his new one-man show, right away I asked if I could come check out a rehearsal – with my camera, of course. But my plan was to be low-key and more of a fly on the wall. There I met Fisher (Stevens), the director and the rest of the crew, including Arnold (Engelman) the producer, Aaron (Gonzalez) the designer and Micah (Frank), the uber-assistant (director).

After that first day, I saw this as a fascinating story of this really small group of people led by John’s creative genius who were literally taking on Broadway. It seemed like history was being made in this small rehearsal space above the Duane Reade on 50th and Broadway. So I asked John if I could hang out again the next day – with my camera, of course. That day, I came in with a treatment for the documentary and pitched John and Fish to let me hit the road with them to capture this story. Fortunately, they said yes and I got to capture this story.

TFM: Has this film’s three-year journey and working closely with Leguizamo lived up to expectations? Was there any time during production that he asked you to stop filming or didn’t want you to shoot something too personal? What have you gained from the experience?

Ben: I’ve always loved documentaries that capture some type of mission in progress. Whether they result in a happy ending or not. So while this show was destined to make it to Broadway, there were many moments of potential failure and forces throughout that had the potential to derail the whole thing. I would be shooting behind the camera, completely engrossed in how John and the team would overcome these amazing challenges and obstacles that seemed to pop up at every corner. John never once asked for me to stop shooting. But I also had a sense of when to put the camera down. So from an outsider’s point of view, I could see that people would be interested in seeing the not always-pretty process behind the curtain. John and Fisher especially were so invested and worked so hard to make the show better, that it was not hard to root for them. But their success was certainly not guaranteed, which made the story even more compelling to me. Plus, not a lot of people ever get to connect and collaborate with one of their genuine heroes, so I was very aware that I had landed in a good spot. Regardless, I was there to capture the story as it happened – the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s been an amazing journey, that has certainly opened a lot of doors for myself personally and professionally.

TFM: You began your television career as an MTV intern, successfully becoming a producer/writer for MTV Cribs and other popular shows. What led to launching Diamante Pictures and going independent? Discuss what draws you to new projects?

Ben: I usually just tap into what I know, which is music, youth, mainstream urban and overall POP CULTURE ENTERTAINMENT. If I am going to ‘live’ with a project over a long period of time, then it better be something I am truly passionate about. In the case of this film with John, it’s been an incredible ride and has felt more like an adventure, than a ‘job.’ I also want to tell stories that have never been told before.

TFM: Funding an independent film can be a daunting challenge, to say the least, but a Kickstarter campaign was initiated to aid the process of making “Tales from a Ghetto Klown.” How has that been coming along? What still needs to be done to see the film through to the end?

Ben: Latino Public Broadcasting and PBS have been the biggest champions for the film, thanks to their generous support and belief in the project. Without them, none of this would be possible. However, we’ve made a film that is bigger than the budget we had originally raised which is why we went the Kickstarter route in this last phase. Kickstarter is like the PBS Pledge Drive for the 21st century. Besides being a great source of funding for a project, the buzz you can build via a Kickstarter campaign is extremely valuable. I’ve backed projects there myself, so I believe in the model for artists from all kinds of mediums. At the moment, we have raised over $15k towards the our $25k goal … Now we have only six days left to raise another $10k, or we get ZERO. So we really need people out there to get behind the project to make it a reality.

TFM: Funniest moment working with Leguizamo?

Ben: A lot of times, I would be the last person in John’s dressing room before he headed out onstage. Those moments were great because a lot of times it would just be us shooting the breeze right before the shows and not all of it was just shooting all the time. Some of the best footage came when I would just be cracking wise with John about anything and everything. During those times backstage, at some point the vibe would shift and John would open up to my camera in a way that was unplanned and natural. Seeing him and Fisher interact was always funny, and I’d have to muffle my laughs to not ruin the footage.

TFM: What’s next for Diamante Pictures?

Ben: I’m looking forward to a stretch of three days off in a row. Then after that, I want to keep directing more television, before doing my first feature film. I have a script in development for a television coming-of-age series. I also want to find another project to work with John again ASAP. He’s a great guy and someone who goes out of his way to open doors for people who are trying to make it happen. In addition to my work with Diamante Pictures, I’m also the chief creative officer of NGL Media, which is one of the leading producers and distributors of original digital content targeting New Generation Latinos. John is also a partner in that company along with our executive producers, David Chitel and Ben Leff.

Recommended:

Kickstarter campaign for “Tales from a Ghetto Klown” (special message from Leguizamo): http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/475801048/john-leguizamo-tales-from-a-ghetto-klown

“Ghetto Klown” official site: http://ghettoklownonbroadway.com/

PBS Arts Summer Festival: http://www.pbs.org/arts/exhibit/summer-arts-festival-preview/

Latino Public Broadcasting: http://www.lpbp.org/index.php

NGL Media: http://www.nglmedia.com/

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