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And the Earth Did Not Swallow This Film Project : Movies: Severo Perez persevered to make the feature based on the 1971 novel of a Chicano boy growing up in a migrant farm-worker family in the '50s.

March 10, 1994|GREGG BARRIOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Severo Perez, an independent Chicano filmmaker and writer, is about to see his dream of a lifetime come true. His feature film " . . . and the earth did not swallow him" is set to premiere Saturday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The film is based on the 1971 semi-autobiographical novel ". . . y no se lo trago la tierra," by the late Tomas Rivera, the Chicano writer who was chancellor of the University of California at Riverside when he died in 1984. Rivera's much-praised book tells the story of a Chicano boy growing up in a migrant farm-worker family in the 1950s.

Perez recalled that after reading the book 20 years ago, he excitedly called Rivera on the phone. "I told him it was the first time I ever saw my culture, the stories, the people that I grew up with on a page, and they were real. I think he was a little embarrassed."

The filmmaker also tried to secure the rights to the film at the time. "Rivera said, 'Go ahead and just do it.' I told him I needed a release. Unfortunately, I couldn't take his word and get funding." Perez later learned the film rights had been sold.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 12, 1994 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 13 Column 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
KPBS Employee-- An article in Thursday's Calendar section about the film version of " . . . and the earth did not swallow him" misstated the place of employment of producer Paul Espinosa. It was KPBS in San Diego.

In the meantime, the San Antonio, Tex., native built Learning Garden, a successful educational film and animation company in Hollywood. He also worked as a producer on Jesus Trevino's "Seguin" and wrote "Soldier Boy," a screenplay about a Chicano family adjusting to life in post-WWII Texas. Although that film was never made, Perez and his wife, Judith, adapted it into a play, which premiered in 1982 at El Teatro Campesino, directed by Luis Valdez.

"After that, I devoted my time to getting the rights to 'tierra,' " said Perez, now 52, in an interview at his Silver Lake home. He finally bought the rights to the book from the author's widow.

When Perez contacted PBS producer Paul Espinosa, he didn't think their project would turn into a major production, but to their delight, they received a $1-million grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write and research the screenplay.

Once the film finished shooting in 1992, Perez ran out of money to complete the film's score and post-production. Espinosa got additional money from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting and from "American Playhouse," the PBS-TV program that funded Greg Nava's "El Norte" and Ramon Menendez's "Stand and Deliver." Espinosa now sets the film's final cost at nearly $2 million.

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Perez admits they were lucky, since most independent Latino film projects in Hollywood usually fall by the wayside. "The problem with Chicano filmmakers," he says, "is that we don't have access to the marketplace."

Nevertheless, Perez feels that a healthy, independent Chicano cinema is possible.

"To have a Chicano cinema, we have to address a Chicano audience, their sensibilities. We can't just expect an Anglo actor with brown contacts to speak to our culture. It has to be deeper than that. The chemistry for Mexican rice isn't just tomatoes and rice; it's a whole process of building something from scratch.

"I started making films before I saw Chicano films," he says. "The one filmmaker I appreciated was Mexican director Alfonso Arau, especially his 'Calzonzin Inspector' and 'El Aguila Descalza.' They were films made on the run and are still exciting to watch."

Perez was also inspired by Italian Neo-realist director Vittorio DeSica's "Bicycle Thief." "When I was desperately looking for more money to finish 'tierra,' I reminded myself that DeSica shot most of his film in wide shots because it was the most inexpensive way to work. Since I had 47 locations in 27 days and a small budget, I told the story using master shots because in that wide shot you get a sense of atmosphere as well."

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While Hollywood bemoans the supposed lack of qualified Latino actors for starring roles, Perez had no such problem. He cast veteran Latino actors Rose Portillo ("Cagney & Lacey") and Marco Rodriguez ("Hill Street Blues") as the boy's parents; Daniel Valdez ("Zoot Suit") as Bartolo, a traveling troubadour; Lupe Ontiveros ("El Norte") as a deceiving baker's wife; and Sal Lopez ("Virgin of Tepeyac") as El Mojado.

Casting the lead role of the migrant boy was harder. He saw some 300 kids before picking Jose Alcala, 16, of East Los Angeles for the part. "Jose has honesty," Perez said of his choice. "He also has enormous courage. For a young actor with little acting training, he took risks by getting out there and doing the lines I gave him without hesitation. What you see on the screen is genuine." Alcala, a Garfield High School student, previously co-starred in the television movie "The Long Walk Home" with George C. Scott.

"I enjoyed working with Mr. Perez," says Alcala. "He told me that 'tierra' was the story of a boy who's looking through his past to discover who he is. That helped me get a better grip on the role."

Perez is hoping his film will be picked up by a commercial distributor for a theatrical run after its premiere. "Although 'tierra' will air nationally on 'American Playhouse' this fall, PBS is encouraging us to seek a commercial release to make the film more visible when it is aired in the future."

The director's next project is a small-budget film version of "Soldier Boy." "It's an extension of 'tierra,' both in time and place," he said.

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