As part of our SXSW 2020 coverage, I had the opportunity to speak to actor, comedian and director John Leguizamo ahead of the release of his directorial debut, Critical Thinking. Telling the true story of the 1998 Miami Jackson High School chess team who use their skills compete in the state championships, the film is a sports movie looking at race, class, and recognising talent.
Here’s what the director had to say about his producers, working on a script that was in development for nearly 2 decades, and telling a story that’s ‘riveting, important, and urgent’.
Flixist: Your producer Carla Berkowitz spent over 20 years developing the project. When did you get on board with the project and how have you found it being involved in the production?
John Leguizamo: It was fascinating — I got two authors on the same story from two different producers and brought them together. The story must be great because two people were thinking of it — Scott Rosenfelt and Carla Berkowitz — and we brought them together and became an incredible team!
I found the story so riveting, so important and so necessary in these times when Latin people and Latin stories are just not represented. We’re the largest ethnic group in America and we’re less than 4% of the people in front of the camera, behind the camera, and our stories are even less than that, less than 1%. And the story was just so positive, so everything I saw growing up – I grew up in the hood. I saw how much talent there was, how much intellect, how gifted people were, and it wasn’t being used or nurtured.
Flixist: The film takes place in 1998, about 20 years ago. Even though it’s quite recent history, how important was it to you to approach it as a period piece?
JL: Absolutely, we wanted to make it as authentic as possible, as real to the time — and then what the characters went through and who they were. I had the consultants who were the original players on set each day in rehearsals, and they taught us the exact games that they played, and the moves, and how they moved. I wanted every actor to imitate and learn from the real students who won and to turn a chess movie into a sports movie.
Flixist: Yes, I definitely noticed the tropes, which was interesting! And I’m sure it was great to consult with the original individuals. In your other work, for example Latin History for Morons which is on Netflix and is really a lot of fun, you’ve explored a sense of displacement, belonging, but also not taking yourself too seriously. How much do you think this has impacted your work on the new film?
JL: I bring myself to everything I do! I’ve always been irreverent, a little bit anti-authoritarian, anti-status quo. So I try to bring that wherever I go. I can’t help it, that’s who I am! I brought some of that irreverence and humour, that’s how Latin people are anyway — we deal with the most horrific situations yet we try to stay positive. That’s kind of our gift to America!
Flixist: With the social and political backdrop of the film you’ve got immigration, gun crime, a lot of these themes feature early on in the film. Did you have any difficulties in production as a result and were any of your ideas for the screenplay vetoed because of it?
JL: No, well the producers Carla Berkowitz and Scott Rosenfelt were incredible — and Harvey Chaplin — really supported me, really trusted me, and they believed in me. They believed in me wholeheartedly and I’ve never had that experience in my entire life. So I’m really grateful for this experience because it was the best experience I ever had. They knew that I cared deeply and that I wanted to do it as perfectly as I could.
I studied chess as best I could, I was going to the clubs, talking to the consultants, all five of the chess players, going over the script with them, going over the script with the teacher — I hung out with the real teacher. I grilled them and they knew that I wanted to do an authentic piece, it wasn’t about ego, or some artist trying to show off his skills. I wanted to make this work because it was important to me. It was important to Latinx people to have a successful film because we don’t get as many shots as white people, to fail hundreds of times — we only get one shot and if we fail then it sets everything back for everybody.
Flixist: What for you has been the most surprising thing about the experience of shooting the film and putting it into production?
JL: I think one of the incredible things I’ve learned was, well I’ve been in over a hundred films (not all of them great! Some of them are!) and I’ve worked with some of the greatest directors of many decades. I didn’t realise that I’d learned something from all of them: I had learned something from Baz Luhrmann, from Spike Lee, from Tony Scott, from Brian De Palma, from Barry Levinson. I’d learned something from every single one of them and I didn’t realise that I’d been storing that information. It came in handy for the problems we encountered on set of this magnitude.
Flixist: And a final question, what would you most like viewers to take away from your film?
JL: What I want people to take away from the film is that everybody has a special skill or talent and all we need to do is make sure that we nurture it and respect it.
Flixist: Excellent, that’s a really positive message and you do a wonderful job of bringing your personality to the character Mario and encouraging kids beyond their backgrounds — so on behalf of all your viewers, thank you!
JL: Thank you!
[Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.]