By Danny Contreras
After much sleuthing, I finally got a chance to exclusively interview newcomer film director Jonathan Ullman, who’s had the unique opportunity to release the independent film “Trouble in the Heights” — a film based on the realities of the predominantly Dominican populated Washington Heights area in New York. What sets Jonathan Ullman apart from other Dominican film makers whom have released lesser known films about Washington Heights; is that Jonathan is of Jewish descent and was able to capture the essence of the Dominican culture existing in The Heights by connecting directly with Dominicans. Jonathan has made Washington Heights his home, and an inspiration for his future in film.
Danny: How long have you lived in Washington Heights?
Jonathan: 5 years now, moved up here at the end of 2007
Danny: Did you choose to live in The Heights, or was it a choice of circumstance?
Jonathan: It was a circumstance, but I could have chosen to leave, and I chose to stay. And I am glad I did. I like living up here.
Danny: So you could have left, but you chose to stay?
Jonathan: [chuckling] Yeah, and I am glad I did, I like living up here.
Danny: There are certainly other parts in the boroughs of New York which are quite rich in culture, we have West Indian communities, other Latino communities such as Spanish Harlem, Jewish communities, and so on — but what about Washington Heights made your head turn?
Jonathan: I think when I first got up here, it’s just the look of it. It looks different than any other neighborhood in New York, that’s when I first started walking around the neighborhood exploring, and I think that is the first thing I noticed. The parks, and of course the George Washington Bridge — it just has a different look and feel than anything else that I’ve seen in New York — and I felt that was pretty well under represented in television and film and entertainment in general.
Danny: And this is why you decided to make the film Trouble in the Heights?
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean that’s what got me started thinking about it, and then I just came up with an idea one day out of the blue — what if there were two brothers? Thinking ok — what happens with these two brothers? Well, the younger one does something bad the night before gets in trouble, the older one has to protect and then it snowballs from there, that’s pretty much how it happens.
Danny: How did it feel to see a theater full of people waiting to see your film?
Jonathan: Pretty good [chuckles], I mean it’s great to know that there’s that kind of interest, that there’s that kind of, I mean not just interest, but to have 700 people come out on what was the coldest night of the year, and then afterwards, the involvement, the enthusiasm and the buzz that happened. We had a little Q&A with the audience and the cast and how they understood the messages of the film and appreciated the messages of the film — and not to sound conceited or anything about it, but we’ve pretty much come to expect that, because we have shown it before on the festival circuit. In fact in D.R. (Dominican Republic), when we went down there in November 2011, they really appreciated how we showed the culture, the neighborhood, the community — in fact someone went up to Rayniel Rufino (the film’s star who played Diego) after one of our screenings, and told him that out of all the films she saw in the festival that year, our film was the most Dominican, which is something considering we never once mentioned the word.
Danny: Well, it’s true because being Dominican, I can vouch for that, I understand exactly what they mean, especially since I lived in both places, the Dominican Republican and Washington Heights. There is that authenticity that you can see in the film for certain, as a Dominican — you can see it and you can feel it, especially the cultural essence of it.
Jonathan: Really! That’s great feedback to hear from people, we hear this time and time again, and they really do appreciate the messages in the film, like I was saying, it’s not just a stereotypical portrayal you know — it shows Dominican people in a different light, than normally they would be shown up here in the Heights.
Danny: The film is wrapped around lots of dramatic diversity, from street crime to family cultural values, how much of the film did you personally live through to portray its realness?
Jonathan: Are you asking me if there is anything true about it, in the story?
Danny: Well, not if there is anything true in the film, but rather — what did you experience living there that led to the realities? Did you experience any of the realities in the neighborhood in order to portray it in your film as you did?
Jonathan: Well, in terms of the plot no. In terms of the story no, but in terms of the people, yeah, the people whom I met up here informed on the characters and personalities. Even Ana’s (Alexandria Metz, co-star) pregnancy, is portrayed in how I see and know a lot of people who are raised by single mothers up here, and that factored into the story definitely. I also wanted to show a guy like Diego who got Ana pregnant — he’s a responsible family guy who isn’t like the older generation, he wants to stay and be a father.
Danny: That’s exactly what I mean regarding dramatic diversity, because the film did show plenty of cultural value, it seems as if you were exposed to a lot of the Dominican culture through the people you’ve met there, and the people you were able to work with.
Jonathan: Absolutely! And the people on the film helped out as well, the actors brought a lot of their own experiences into the film. I had a guy who became one of our associate producers, Will Sanchez, and I titled him the executive in charge of authenticity. As a dialect coach, he helped me when I was writing the script, with some of the language, the street language really, and he also helped with some of the characters’ accents and how they would say things.
Danny: And that certainly helps with the film’s continuity
Jonathan: Well yes, and it’s not just that, but it also helps with the authenticity too. I didn’t know certain things. One of the things that I learned is that Dominican Spanish sounds different than Puerto Rican Spanish, sounds different than Mexican Spanish. So like Raul who’s Cuban, we needed to get the Cuban accent out of him and get the Dominican accent into him. And Olga too — Even Alexandra who plays Ana, she did her own research and met with some kids living up here, and so how she talks in the movie is very different than how she sounds in real life, so they each did their own thing, brought their own experiences and if they didn’t they talked to people who did.
Danny: How difficult was it to convince your producers that your idea for Trouble in the Heights was solid?
Jonathan: It wasn’t really like that, I came up with the idea and called Dave Steck (producer), who I have been working with on a couple of other things together, and told him I think I have a good idea for a film, and I think I have an idea to raise the money — but can we do this with the amount of money available to us? We didn’t take a look at the script and say “this is how much money we’ll need to do it,” we looked at the money we had available and asked ourselves “can we do this for that amount of money?” That was the hard part.
Danny: So a true challenge to say the least?
Danny: Are you continuing the Washington Heights genre to bring out other perspectives?
Jonathan: Actually I am. I am doing a film called “Nutcracker Inc,” which is the story of the drink called “The Nutcracker” its origin uptown, and its relationship to the neighborhood.
Danny: Overall, What future in film are you seeing in your crystal ball?
Jonathan: For me personally? “The Nutcracker” documentary is the next thing, which is in post production now, which is a lot, a lot of editing of hours and hours of footage that we shot last summer. And so that is the immediate goal — to get that into the world. After that a film about “Paradise Garage,” which was a nightclub in the 70s and 80s in New York, with the resident DJ, Larry Levan. Those are the next things I am working on. And you never know what ideas come up as I work on other projects.
Danny: Thanks for your time Jonathan, would you like to expand on anything else?
Jonathan: Everyone can catch “Trouble in the Heights” on itunes, Amazon, Video on Demand, Blockbuster and Red Box. And it will be on sale in May 2013, it will be in Walmart, and am waiting to hear about others as well — I’m actually editing bonus features, interviews and behind the scenes for the sale edition.
As a Dominican, it was good to see Jonathan shed light from an angle which brightened areas of Washington Heights not known to those who may have not experienced living there. However, regardless of your heritage, or where you live, Trouble in the Heights is an insightful look into the Dominican culture which sparks much interest. I highly recommend renting it, and if you’re a film collector, shelf this in your cultural section when it comes out for sale in May 2013.