Master of the Lens
Salvador Carrasco is walking along the west side of campus heading towards Pearl Street to loop around to his office in the Letters and Science building. He's about to launch into the story of his decision to become a professional filmmaker, but first he has to get rid of a package. He weaves through the construction maze alongside the Math Complex and makes his way to the Liberal Arts building, where he finds a mailbox to put the package in. For the time being, it is out of his hands.
“I'm not one of those cases," he says, "There are many such cases, that tell you that when they were five-years-old they had a little video camera and they filmed their clay toys and they did their little home movies. I wasn't one of those.”
For those who don't know, Carrasco is the writer and director of "The Other Conquest," a film about the Spanish subjugation of Mexico told from an Aztec point of view. It was the highest grossing film in Mexico at the time of its release. It is Carrasco's crown jewel, a feat of seven years that won him international acclaim.
Locally, Carrasco is responsible for spearheading the Associate degree program for Film Production, approved only three weeks ago and set to officially start fall of this year. The program has already started off strong. The short film "Solidarity," which has already won best drama at the San Diego Film Festival and played at countless festivals, including the famous Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, was one of the first major projects that resulted from efforts to create the AA degree.
Instead of clay models, Carrasco harbored interests in astronomy and art history growing up. In Mexico it is customary to choose a profession right after high school, so he chose film because it meant he could incorporate his myriad interests into a career.
After attending the National Autonomous University of Mexico for a year, Carrasco transferred to Bard College in upstate New York. While at Bard, Carrasco applied to New York University film school, in search of a scholarship, which NYU didn't administer to international students at the time. As a testament to his will, Carrasco told NYU to create a scholarship for him. Eventually they did, and he graduated two years later with a degree in film and television studies.
It was during his time at NYU that the idea for “The Other Conquest,” the film began to ferment.
“I think when you are living away from home, there is this tendency to become a little bit more interested in the affairs back home. That happens to many of us foreigners. Sort of the James Joyce syndrome,” he said. “I started thinking more of Mexico and its history, probably [more] than if I had been living in Mexico at the time. And I came up with this idea for this foundational story for modern Mexico.”
"The Other Conquest" took Carrasco seven years to complete. Filming was conducted “piecemeal:” filming would occur for a week before running out of money, and then a long period of fundraising would keep production occupied for up to a year and a half.
Carrasco began his teaching career at SMC in 2002 with a class he still teaches today, Film 7, "representation of ethnic minorities in cinema," or how it's listed in the books: American Cinema: Crossing Cultures. He has taught directing at the University of Southern California, screenwriting at Pomona College and headed the advanced directing program at Los Angeles Film School, but his favorite place has always been SMC.
“Once I was doing location scouting in Arizona, and I actually took a plane back to do my Tuesday class and then I flew back the following day because it really mattered to me, and I even felt I needed it psychologically, spiritually," he says.
The new AA degree has meant the addition of classes like cinematography and Film 33, aka Directing the Short Film, which has produced a number of key films since its inception, including "Solidarity."
"As far as I'm concerned there's no sense of entitlement here," Carrasco said. "Most students come to class for the right reasons, there's remarkable work ethic and most students acknowledge what you're doing for them and give back a lot."
Carrasco finds that the scripts students write for class come from a real place, versus students he encountered at USC, whose scripts seemed to emulate what other movies had done.
"We're managing to combine a very high level of craft with the truly remarkable stories that our students have to tell given their background," he says.
The program, he hopes, will give students more than enough training in the film industry to have a comfortable career, at least in the beginning. When industry friends call, Carrasco sends his students to help out.
"I don't feel like I came up with anything new, I just feel like I found a home," he says.
For Dustin Brown, director and writer of "Solidarity," Carrasco convinced Elpidia Carrillo, an long-time friend from his "Other Conquest" days and marquee name from titles such as "Predator" and "The Border," to take on the lead role in the short.
"It really took us to another level," Brown says. "That was a huge deal."
Brown has known Carrasco for many years and consulted with him on different projects.
"Very often [friends and family] will tell you how good [your film] is," Brown says. "That doesn't really help you. Carrasco has always been very open about his criticism."
Brown finds the biggest thing Carrasco has taught him is to stay open to new ideas and heed a strong vision.
"I've learned that working together it will make all the difference in the end of the film," Brown says.
“To me success has to do with your passion, your work ethic, your attitude, and your talent," Carrasco says. "The great thing about those four is that they come regardless of social class or background or how much your parents have or don't have."
Right now, Carrasco is slated to direct a film about a fascist coup d'etat against Franklin D. Roosevelt that involved major corporations and made the cover of Time Magazine in its time.
And much like his films and what he is creating at SMC, "it's not really an end, it's a beginning." It's in his hands.