It isn't easy making a movie in the Dominican Republic. When Michael Mann tried shooting part of "Miami Vice" there in 2005, a gunfight broke out near the film set, prompting costar Jamie Foxx to leave the country and forcing the film to relocate to Miami. The filmmakers who made "La Soga," which recently earned several standing ovations at the Toronto International Film Festival, managed to finish their movie without anyone being killed, though they do have colorful stories, which include hiring a machete fighter to handle security. As "La Soga" director Josh Crook puts it: "Our motto when we wrapped each day was, 'We didn't die!' "
As it turns out, "La Soga" isn't just the best film from the Dominican Republic ever to play in Toronto. Apparently, it's the only Dominican film ever to play there. I'd say it was worth the wait. Even though it's best known for spawning baseball players, judging from "La Soga," the country could be a potential gold mine for actors and filmmakers as well.
Largely shot in crime-infested neighborhoods and slums, "La Soga" is as much a meditation on the embattled Dominican culture as it is a crime drama, with the soulful intensity of such films as "The Harder They Come" and "City of God."
Set in the steamy slums of Santiago, "La Soga" focuses on an assassin employed by the government to bump off drug dealers and other thugs who have escaped capture or eluded the judicial process. In the film's opening scenes, a hit man tracks down a drug dealer and shoots him in the head in front of family and neighborhood onlookers. According to Manny Perez, the film's Dominican screenwriter who also stars in the movie, the sequence is based on his eyewitness account of an all-too-real life event.
Perez, who is 40, grew up in Baitoa, a small town on the outskirts of Santiago. When he was 11, his family moved to Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, where he still makes his home. After graduating from college with a major in drama, he returned to the Dominican Republic to visit friends and relatives and reconnected with a childhood friend who, as he puts it, had "gone in the other direction," dealing drugs and robbing banks.
"That scene in the movie, where the police assassin finds the drug dealer, that's exactly what happened to my friend, right in front of my face," he told me. "Right in front of everybody, the assassin took out his gun and shot him in the head, with my friend's mother there, crying and saying, 'Don't kill him! Please, don't kill him!' "
According to Perez, the country has a small contingent of killers, bankrolled in some fashion by the government, whose job is to finish off "bad guys who basically have three strikes against them."
Perez has been acting in films and TV for the last 15 years, having worked with Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn, among others. He frequently pops up on TV series like "Law & Order" and "CSI," where he is invariably cast as a Latin bad guy. Eager to play a less one-dimensional character, he wrote himself the leading role in "La Soga," creating a brooding assassin who not only has second thoughts about his work but, as we see through a series of flashbacks, also has a second occupation, having followed in the footsteps of his father and become the town butcher.
When Perez was acting in a low-budget movie directed by Crook, he showed him the script and suddenly found himself with a filmmaking partner. Crook, born in Brooklyn, had been making guerrilla-style low-, low-budget movies with his brother, Jeff, with such titles as "Sucker Punch" and "Ghetto Dawg 2." Guerrilla style might be putting it mildly. On one film, Crook says he had to bail his actors out of jail, while on another, finding himself out of money, he copied a key and broke into the New York Film Academy at 2 a.m. to use the editing facilities.
Crook was sold on making Perez's script, but he had no money, having refused several offers of financing that would have required shooting in a different country or filming the dialogue in English. Finally, the two guys got a lucky break. Crook showed the script to Patrick Pope, an old friend who'd been in a coma for months after barely surviving being struck by a drunken driver. After he recovered, he was looking for something worthwhile to do with the money he'd received as a settlement. Pope said if Crook and Perez could make the film for what he had in settlement funds, he'd write the check, signing on as executive producer.