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Young director has Hayek in his corner

Nicolas Lopez's last movie had Spanish help. Now he's giving Hollywood another try.

July 02, 2007|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Director Nicolas Lopez gave Hollywood the cold shoulder two years ago, when he was asked to produce a remake of "Revenge of the Nerds."

The 24-year-old Chilean had his own creative visions, and he persuaded the Spanish producers behind this year's hit, "Pan's Labyrinth," to fork over $7 million for his superhero comedy, "Santos."

With that movie under his belt, Lopez is giving Hollywood another try. He is putting the finishing touches on a deal with an American production company that has agreed to give him the latitude he's been seeking.

Salma Hayek's Ventanazul plans to make Lopez's time-travel romantic comedy as the first of the several Latin-themed movies the company will be producing annually under a joint venture with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

Lopez says Hayek and her president of production, Jose Tamez, both of whom are from Mexico, understood his point of view. "I want to have one foot in the United States and the other in my culture," he said, noting that the Ventanazul movie will be produced in English. "Santos" is in Spanish.

Lopez is following the lead of fellow directors Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro, who have found financial backers despite their insistence on retaining creative control of their films. They recently persuaded Universal Pictures to finance a slate of movies for the international market.

In countries such as South Korea, Japan and France, movies made in the national language, with local yet universal themes, are increasingly challenging Hollywood movies at the box office. "Santos" will be released in Spain and Chile on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, and the rest of Latin America two weeks later.

A self-described "chubby geek" who learned Japanese by reading manga comic books, Lopez was the kind of filmmaker Hayek was looking for. "He represents the Internet generation that is connected to the world," Hayek said.

Lopez, who grew up idolizing directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, is not interested in making artsy foreign-language films or exploitation movies that depict Latinos as struggling illiterates or gangbangers.

"I'm tired of seeing movies where we are all poor and barefoot and we don't know what Wi-Fi is," said Lopez, sipping a Diet Coke at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where he previewed 20 minutes of "Santos."

He hopes to start production next spring on his Ventanazul project, which he describes as a John Ford western, "Terminator," and "Back to the Future" rolled into one. Budgeted at $15 million, it will be the largest production he's managed by far.

Although it is set in a fictitious metropolis that could be anywhere, Lopez was adamant about filming in Chile with his crew and his producer, Miguel Asensio. He wants to do for Chile what Peter Jackson did for New Zealand: create the infrastructure for a film industry by building a state-of-the-art studio.

"When your country is located in the ass of the world and it's named like a condiment, it's hard to get people to take you seriously," he said.

"Chile is ideal. You can make things for a price, and there is a lot of enthusiasm and excitement down there."

In addition to Hayek, Lopez found a mentor in Elizabeth Avellan, the ex-wife of Rodriguez and co-owner of Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. Avellan discovered Lopez at the South by Southwest film festival two years ago, when he debuted his first movie, "Promedio Rojo," a teen comedy that was a hit in Chile.

She took him under her wing, throwing him a surprise 22nd birthday party in Austin, where he met his idol, Rodriguez. She is now helping fine-tune "Santos," suggesting cuts, doing special effects work and advising Lopez on how to maneuver in Hollywood.

"If you don't have the right support, you will be chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine, and nobody will hear from you again," she said. "Not that many 24-year-olds have two feature-length movies under their belt.... He is going to be an amazing filmmaker."

"Santos" has distribution secured in Spain and Latin America but hasn't been picked up by a Hollywood distributor. Rich Raddon, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival (which was presented by The Times), said Hollywood did not know what to do with "Promedio Rojo."

"It was in a foreign language and it wasn't your typical art house foreign-language film -- but they recognized the talent," Raddon said. "I think he is going to come up against similar obstacles with 'Santos.' It's a superhero movie in Spanish."

Raddon said Lopez's single-mindedness and vision could make him a success. "That is the way you can stay alive in Hollywood, by having that backbone and standing behind your convictions," he said.

Lopez plans to return to Chile and begin writing his Ventanazul movie this month. He is still in awe that a "freak" of such tender years succeeded while pitching his outlandish characters.

"And now Ventanazul is taking a chance on me," he said. "I really owe them my life."

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

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