In the late eighties, a month after the release of La Bamba -- at the time the biggest Latino box office hit ever -- Newsweek magazine proclaimed that it was the era of the "Hispanic Hollywood." That same summer came the release of the Chicano classic Born in East L.A. written, directed, and starring Cheech Marin. Compared to the box office smash La Bamba which made $54 million, Marin's comedy was only a modest success making $17 million. But, for Latino films which struggle to make it to millions in ticket sales these two films were blockbusters that made Hollywood studios stand up and take notice of the moneymaking potential that laid in the hands of the Latino movie-going audience.
In March of 1988, amidst Hollywood's giddiness over the Latino box office, Warner Bros. released Stand and Deliver theatrically. It was a small, independently-made Latino film starring the legendary Edward James Olmos and a young Lou Diamond Phillips. Based on actual events the movie tells the story of Jaime Escalante (Olmos), a Bolivian immigrant, who teaches math at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to mostly Latino students. The school is facing losing its accreditation and the students are failing miserably. Mr. Escalante, or Kimo as his students call him, decides to teach AP Calculus against the advice of the school administration. The chair of the math department says, "You can't teach logarithms to illiterates." Kimo responds, "Students will rise to the level of expectation." When a record number of students pass the AP Calculus exam they are accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service.
I got a chance to chat with Edward James Olmos about the 25th anniversary of the film and the upcoming release of Filly Brown, a movie his son directed which stars EJO himself along with the late Jenni Rivera in her first (and sadly last) movie role.
Stand and Deliver earned close to $14 million dollars at the box office. This is a huge feat for a Latino film, even today. Last year's most successful Latino movie made a little under $6 million. What do you think contributed to Stand and Deliver's success?
EJO: The biggest contributor, the biggest factor of its success is the story, hands down the story. It's a universal story and we wanted people see it. So, we allowed people to see it. We practically gave the film away to anyone who wanted to see it. And because of that the word of mouth was strong. Now practically everyone has seen this movie. Most students see it at least once before leaving high school. Sometimes they see it two or three times in school. The usage of the film by teachers has been incredible. And it's because of the story. It's an inspirational piece. It's uplifting and it's not only inspiring for the kids but for the teachers too.
Stand and Deliver has been the most successful thing I have done in my life. So many people have seen it. There was really no need for me to do anything else. And the fact that we were able to do the film, it was a miracle.
Your performance in Stand and Deliver garnered you an Oscar nomination for Best Actor making you the first American-born Latino to receive this honor. Do you remember the day you found out you were nominated? What effect did the nomination have on your acting career?
EJO: I was in Miami on the set of Miami Vice. It was around 8:30 in the morning. I was walking from my trailer to the set and someone walked up to me, someone I didn't even know. They said, "You were just nominated for an Oscar." I asked him, "Excuse me?" And he said, "Yeah, for Stand and Deliver" and then just walked away. Of course I called my family right away and then Jaime (Escalante). I called him and woke him up. It was around 5:30 in the morning over there in California. I told him, "Congratulations, you just won me an Oscar nomination." Jaime said, "What do you mean? That wasn't my performance, it was yours." And I said, "No, it was all you. I just impersonated you. It was all you."
It's really difficult to figure out how to make a performance work, it's like putting lightning in a bottle. But, it was really just an impersonation of him. From meeting and watching and observing Jaime I realized there is a reason why he was successful at teaching, it's his personality. And I found that out on set. He was always there on set while we were filming. He was always standing there next to the camera. I would look at him after finishing a scene and he would have his arms crossed on his chest, his head tilted, his eyes a little bit squinted and then he would put his thumb up. That's it. He wouldn't say anything, just the thumbs up.
And as far as the nomination it opened up a big opportunity for me with a big studio. I signed a development deal. Tom Pollock, who was head of Universal at the time, asked me what I wanted to make. I got the chance to make a movie that I had been trying to make for 18 years, American Me. And it was as strong a movie and as important as Stand and Deliver.
Stand and Deliver is filled with witty dialogue that people quote even 25 years later. Some of my favorite lines are, "You burros have math in your blood," and "his body is decomposing in my locker." Any favorite lines of dialogue?
EJO: Oh yeah, there are so many of them. There's the one that everyone quotes when he calls the kid, "the finger man." And that was all Jaime, all those lines were Jaime. There was nothing of that stuff that we made up. I rewrote the script, him and I, we wrote it together. All the dialogue in the shooting script was ours. We were never credited but we wrote it. He told me line by line what he said. He remembered everything. The scene where he comes back from the hospital and surprises the kids. When they yell, "Bulldogs, dog-dog-dog-dog" and he says, "Thank you for babysitting my canguros." When he makes them line up, "Against the wall like a snake." He told me exactly what he said to each kid while they were standing in line and I put it in there.
The scene where he talks to the guys from ETS (Educational Testing Service) and they accuse him of cheating, the part that Andy Garcia plays, he told me exactly what he said to those guys. Exactly that scene, word for word, was said by Jaime. That scene, the dialogue is meticulously written. If you go back and watch it again -- the rhythm, beat by beat, it is incredibly written. It's because Jaime is a mathematician, he was meticulous with details, you have to be.
I remember lines from a lot of the movies I made like Zoot Suit and American Me but most of the ones I remember are from Stand and Deliver.
You are part of some of the most iconic Latino films. We haven't had a huge hit like that in a few years. What do you think it will take to get there again?
I don't know but the main issue is distribution. Right now I am focused on April 19, the release of Filly Brown. That movie is my cause right now. There have been some major mistakes around publicity. Pantelion took over the distribution after Indomina went under. Indomina, they were young and couldn't handle it, they didn't know what they were doing. So, we sold it to Lionsgate/Pantelion and they moved up the release date, they made it earlier. And I told them that they made the biggest mistake for a film of this caliber. They aren't giving people a chance to find out about the film. They need time for word of mouth to spread. Latinos and Spanish speakers, they will show up because of Jenni Rivera, because of their love for her and their love for me. But they are losing out on the chance to attract an audience of non-Latinos that will love this film. They are going to do what is always done with Latino films and independent films -- putting the movie out there without giving the audience a chance to find out about it. You need to give it away and then they will tell other people -- and then thousands of people will find out about it. It takes time. Unfortunately, with this film, if it works, will probably be attributed to Jenni's tragic accident.
It's an issue. Studios want to tell universal stories. We want to do the same thing. But, we want to use Latino stories with Latino faces to tell universal stories. We're all part of one group. We are all humans and we all want to tell human stories.
Filly Brown opens in theaters across the country on April 19. The film stars Gina Rodriguez as a rapper who needs to make it big so she can raise money to get her mom (Jenni Rivera) out of jail. In conjunction with the film's release the official soundtrack will be available beginning April 16.