"There are 9 more years of incredible lessons that chess taught these kids every single year so we are spinning the film off into a TV Series telling the rest of the stories."
A dedicated teacher inspires the Miami Jackson High School chess team to become the first inner city team to win the United States Chess Championship.
Hi Carla, thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you keeping during these strange covid times?
Thank you for this interview it is always amazing to talk about Critical Thinking, actually we are a Covid movie. We got in to SXSW for the main theatre Saturday night, etc and one week before the world shut down. So I have mixed emotions about covid times.
Has this time offered you any new creative opportunities?
Yes actually more than I would have come across under a pre-covid world. I think it became easier to connect to people through Zoom, people that you might not have had either the access to or knew about.
Congratulations on Critical Thinking I've been reading the reviews on Rotten Tomato which are pretty amazing, what has it meant to you to get this positive response to your debut film?
It was a 20 year journey to make critical thinking so to see 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and land on every streaming platform has been extremely humbling.
What do you think it is about this film and the story you are telling that has connected with people so much?
Because even though it takes place in 1998, it's timely now. The issues we tackle in the film are universal problems that we have to illuminate not ignore, everyone else threw out their Sunday paper but I made it into a film. This is a true story based on the lives of people that actually went through these challenges and only through chess and a mentor they all got out.
When did you first discover this story and why did it stay with you for so long?
On a Sunday morning in 1997 I saw the cover of tropic magazine in the Miami Herald. It said "Kingz in the Hood" and showed a picture of one of the players holding a chess piece and didn't need to read further. I had a quantum shift in my brain and realized the actual "genius" was coming from the inner cities not the usual private schools for example. That got under my skin and it became a passion project for 20 years until it was released in 2020.
Did you always have the end goal being that you would produce this feature?
I found the story and kept with it all those years. the people in the film became my family I met them when they were 15-16. There were other people along the way but it was always going to be made no matter what. I'm an immigrant from Venezuela who didn't speak English as well and I related to these boys. So when I looked in the eyes of five 15 year old kids who did not speak English and told them I was going to make a movie about their lives I had to follow through. There was simply no other possible outcome. I told them to trust me so there it is.
How did Critical Thinking come about?
Mario Martinez, the coach, taught a chess elective and the rest is history. Those kids played before, during and after school and it took up so much of their time they became ghetto intellectuals and they were able to change the trajectory of their lives.
You have an incredible cast and an amazing director, how did you go about attaching these names to critical theory?
I think the reason it took so long to make is because no one but John Leguizamo could have played the part of Mario Martinez, it was simply a role he was born to play. I think it's his best performance of his career. Working with Michael K. Williams was surreal. He was a force of nature with so much talent overflowing that when he was on set the room felt small like his presence was everywhere. This is a huge loss and we're still extremely shocked and sad. Rachel Bay Jones was a gift and I had seen her on broadway in Dear Evan Hansen, for which she won a Tony Award. She brought a different energy and it was unforgettable watching her play the principal. Not to forget Zach Zamboni, he was the cinematographer for Anthony Bourdain and he filmed scenes where, even if you muted the sound, the vision was so out of the ordinary special and we were lucky to get him.
What has been the experience for you working with this cast and your director John Leguizamo?
Life-changing to say the least. Of course the talent was off the charts but it was the fact that these people were emotionally attached to the story that I championed for 20 years. One of the greatest moments for me was watching the "real" guys watching themselves being portrayed by the actors. I’ve never seen an ensemble cast who met one month before filming become so tight as if they had known each other for years, just exactly how the "real" boys were. They would have won "Best Ensemble Cast" but covid...
As a producer what has been the biggest challenges you faced making this film and looking back is there anything you would have done differently?
The biggest challenge was to make sure the real boys and the coach were always involved. Because it took so long to make it was hard to keep everybody positive and moving forward. I worked to make this film EVERY! SINGLE! DAY!. Even if nothing was happening I would go to New York or Los Angeles to keep the energy moving towards the goal. It actually began to define me it was so consuming, and we actually delivered a masterpiece so it was worth it. As for "differently" I don't even let myself go there because it is futile, also who's to say my idea would have been better anyway. It took more than a village to complete the lifecycle of this film and everyone had a part in making it as special as it is.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I have always had a passion for underdog stories. But I started in the fitness video industry in the 90's and produced 15 internationally sold titles. Even though everything is proportionately smaller, the process is still the same. Idea, script, funding, casting, filming, editing, and the most important, getting it out to market. It's a microcosm of making a film but it taught me the process.
Now that you have completed your debut feature as a producer have you gotten the filmmaking bug?
Of course there are more stories to tell. The film is based in 1998 but the chess program lasted 10 years. There are 9 more years of incredible lessons that chess taught these kids every single year so we are spinning the film off into a TV Series telling the rest of the stories. And before you ask yes, that was always the plan from the beginning. I'm also developing a slate of aspirational projects both scripted and unscripted TV, Doc-series and films.
And finally, what do you want audiences will take away from Critical Thinking?
Chess has the ability to change the way you think and it's subconscious. The life lessons chess teaches you parallel the lessons you need to learn in life no matter how old you are. Myself, I think differently about everything picturing what I would do if this or that would happen. It is a tool to get you anywhere you want but the most important lesson is this movie was made with blood, sweat & tears. Hang onto your dreams because you may get what you wished for.