Family tragedies inspire Calgary-shot superhero film El Chicano

ERIC VOLMERS, CALGARY HERALD
More from Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald

Published on: August 17, 2017 | Last Updated: August 17, 2017 4:17 PM MDT

 

Last year, Ben Hernandez Bray sat in an empty New York apartment and wrote obsessively for four weeks.

The outpouring of creativity came from a dark place. He was grieving the death of his daughter, who died in utero 19 months earlier.  

The project he was working on was based on an earlier unfinished screenplay called El Chicano, which itself had been inspired by another tragedy in his life: the gang-related death of his youngest brother 12 years ago. Along with his best friend, filmmaker Joe Carnahan, the former boxer and stuntman had been periodically working on the project for close to 10 years as his career took off, first as an assistant director on high-profile films such as David O. Russell’s The Fighter and American Hustle and then directing for television.

“It was just a rude awakening and time to set everything aside,” says Bray. “My perspective on where my career was going really changed when my daughter passed. It was Joe who sat down and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I was numb. I had just directed an episode of Arrow at the time in Vancouver. Joe just threw it out to left field: ‘I think it’s time to finish El Chicano. I think it’s time for your brother and for your daughter.'”

So he took over the apartment in New York that had been temporarily vacated by a friend.

“I rewrote what I had for four weeks, basically in a dark room,” Bray says. “I sat there and wrote 180 pages of a script/memoir.”

Production on El Chicano is scheduled to begin Aug. 17 in Calgary with Bray directing and Carnahan among the producers. It is certainly not a fact-based memoir. The two took what Bray wrote and tweaked it for another two weeks, turning it into a decades-spanning superhero movie about a mysterious supernatural vigilante named El Chicano who takes on the drug dealers in the barrio. At the heart of the story are fraternal twin brothers, Pedro and Diego Hernandez. Fifteen years after witnessing El Chicano in action, Diego has grown up to be a highly decorated L.A. police detective, while his brother entered gang life and committed suicide after a prison stint.

When investigating the deaths of 12 gang members in a warehouse, Diego begins to uncover details about his brother’s past life in a secret “shadow world.” He begins to suspect he didn’t take his own life after all but was murdered.

So while not directly autobiographical, El Chicano certainly contains elements of Bray’s life growing up as the oldest of six children in a ghetto in San Fernando. His youngest brother Craig died at the age of 29 of a drug overdose not long after getting out of prison. It was a death that the family, and some investigators, have always found suspicious.

“My mother and my grandmother were the two people who raised us and they were tough as nails,” says Bray. “Statistically speaking, out of six of us, to lose one is — I hate to say — the percentage is pretty damn good. We were fortunate and we thought outside the box, but my brother just loved that life and it took his life, unfortunately.”

Bray thought outside the box by becoming a professional boxer and later a stuntman, stunt co-ordinator and actor. He also became an assistant director, working on the second unit of critically acclaimed films helmed by Russell and Carnahan-directed films such as The Grey and Smokin’ Aces before turning his attention to television in Vancouver, where he helmed episodes of Arrow, Lucifer and Supergirl.

El Chicano is his feature debut as a director. The film stars comedian George Lopez, Lucifer’s Amy Garcia and Raul Castillo, a stage actor and playwright who also starred in HBO’s Looking. He will play the dual role of Pedro and Diego Hernandez.

Turning areas of Calgary into Los Angeles has proven to be surprisingly smooth, Bray says. Other than a few days in Los Angeles, most of the 23-day shoot will take place in Calgary.

“I was blown away,” Bray says. “Especially in Inglewood and Ramsay, we found specific areas that played just like East Los Angeles.”

He says the process of making the film has been cathartic, both harrowing and therapeutic for him. In December, while the film was still in development, Bray suffered a third devastating tragedy when his mother died.

In El Chicano, the character of Diego and Pedro’s mother is directly based on her.

“I’ve got these three incredible forces,” he says. “I’ve got my daughter, I’ve got my brother and I’ve got my mother on my shoulder moving me forward.”