RISA MACHUCA IS shown directing "Asi Es" in Mexico her hat reads "Made in Mexico" in Spanish and the film has been picked for this year's HBO New York International Latino Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Liberty's Machuca makes mark in film world
By Jeanne Sager
LOS ANGELES For Risa Machuca, coming home this month holds special meaning.
She’s coming home to visit Liberty because it’s her hometown, the home of her mother, the home of her alma mater.
But her final destination is New York City and Lincoln Center the heart of the performing arts on the east coast.
That’s where Machuca will take her place in the 400-seat theater at Fordham University on July 27 to watch a series of short films picked for this year’s HBO New York International Latino Film Festival.
The fifth short in the line-up that evening? “Asi Es” a film in Spanish with English subtitles, a film directed by Risa Machuca.
“It’s pretty awesome to come home and say, ‘Meet me at Lincoln Center because my film’s showing there’,” Machuca said with a laugh. Machuca has been climbing the filming ladder since she left Sullivan County Community College for a summer’s internship at a production company in San Francisco in 1996 and never came home.
With a year and a half at Sullivan under her belt, Machuca said she planned to come home at the summer’s end to enter film school at New York University. Instead, the company offered her a job.
Seeing an opportunity to get into filmmaking on the ground floor, Machuca jumped in with both feet. She hasn’t hit the ground yet.
Bouncing around the production headquarters from helping with craft services to writing to acting as a production assistant, the work eventually led her toChris Robinson, at the time an acclaimed music video director. Assigned to work with him, Machuca was aiming to earn a berth as his assistant.
Robinson wasn’t convinced.
“I said, ‘Alright, cool, you’re going to hire me, you just don’t know it yet,’” Machuca recalled.
The night of a major music video shoot in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, filming had gone way beyond schedule. With overtime costs averaging $5,600 per hour, Robinson wasn’t happy. Then the art director announced he’d forgotten to bring a bottle of Cristal, the champagne requested by the artist for a crucial scene in the video.
With town almost a half hour’s drive away, Machuca thought fast. She set off on foot, racing to a party a quarter mile down the road.
She crashed the party, spun out her story and bagged a bottle from the owner. Then she sprinted back up the hill.
“When I got back, they were just breaking everything down, but the lights had just been turned off they were still warm,” she explained. “I yelled, ‘Stop, here’s the bottle!’”
They wrapped filming that night, and Machuca got the job. For the next five years, she was Robinson’s assistant, directing second unit as they filmed videos for stars like Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Carlos Santana.
“You’ve got to make yourself invaluable,” she explained. “There’s so many people trying to do what you’re trying to do out here, people who actually went to NYU film school and graduated…”
Machuca’s apprenticeship sent her to the heart of Brazil, where she was driven around to scout locations that would ultimately become the background of a Snoop Dogg video. It gave her the chance to meet with Blige on a professional level and tell her what the R&B singer’s music meant to a girl growing up in a small town in upstate New York. Machuca jokes that she was “made in Mexico, but I’m from Liberty.”
Her mom, Gail Schlanger Hartman, left her home in Flushing at 19 and hitchhiked to Mexico, where she fell in love with the culture and the people. On a return visit, she met Ely Machuca and the two were married.
They divorced when Risa was 2, and Hartman moved to Liberty to be near family six years later. Machuca entered the second grade at Liberty Elementary School, and her mom took a job at the Triangle Restaurant owned by a member of the family.
Growing up, Machuca split her time between Liberty and Mexico. She remembers taking her homework out with her on the beach in her father’s hometown, sitting down to read her schoolbooks while someone cooked up the crab she’d just fished out of the ocean.
As a teen she indulged her developing passion for film and music with a job at the Boob Tube.
“This way I could see as many movies as I wanted for free!” she explained.
Growing up in Liberty, Machuca played in the band where she was first flute, first chair. She grew up with eclectic sounds the mariachi bands in Mexico, the R&B that was pulsing through radios in the early ’90s.
They sent her off on her journey into music videos.
After five years with Robinson, Machuca had taken over the director’s seat on a few, but her star was still ascending.
She decided to take time off to decide was she supposed to be directing, was she supposed to be in music?
Coming back from traveling the world, she took an acting class and booked a short film as an actress.
There she met Fanny Veliz, another Latina actress with a love of directing.
Working together, the women created “Shortstop,” an 18-minute short film that went on to win a special Jury Award, Best Short Runner-Up at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival.
With a miniscule budget, Machuca noted, the film quality was awful. But the story and the directing were spot on.
The film paved the way for the project of her dreams a short shot in her father’s town in Mexico.
The story of a boy who goes on a surfing trip and takes an alternate path out into the wide ocean, the project was produced by Robinson and Jessey Terrero, a filmmaker best known for shooting the bulk of 50 Cent’s music videos.
“Asi Es: The Way It Is” took six months to complete after shooting,
“I’m not a famous, noted director,” Machuca admitted. “I pulled a lot of favors to get this done! People showed me a lot of love.”
Having the short picked up for the HBO festival gives Machuca hope someone will offer to finance making this a feature-length film.
In Spanish with English subtitles, the film will premiere on July 23 at 2 p.m. in the Helen Mills Theatre, located at 37-139 West 26th Street (between 6th/7th Avenues).
It will play again on the festival’s closing day at Lincoln Center, 113 W 60th Street (9th/10th Avenues) at noon.
“Asi Es” is being screened as part of “A New World,” a 90-minute block of politically- and socially-themed content.
Machuca said her mom and a group of some 30 friends and family members are planning a mass trip down to the city to take in the show.
“I’m extremely proud of this,” she said. “And the awesome part is to be able to bring ti back home to New York to show all my friends and family what I do.
“They know I’m out here, directing, but they don’t see what I do firsthand,” she said.
Hyper aware that many of her classmates have settled with families and stable jobs, Machuca said she’s in a business where success happens day by day. There are freelance jobs here, paychecks there.
But her life is like the boys who paddle out to the ocean in Asi Es.
“They kind of leave everything behind in search of a dream,” she said.
Machuca hasn’t stopped dreaming.