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A Night at the New Orleans Film Festival with Director David Dubos and Michael Aaron Santos

By Jeff Boudreaux

Delta Justice trappers

“Delta Justice: the Islenos Trappers War,” directed by David Dubos, tells the true story of the Spanish-descendant fur-trappers of St. Bernard Parish in the 1920’s, who had to fight to regain their land from political big-wig Leander Perez (portrayed by Delgado’s own Michael Aaron Santos in reenactments), who swindled the Islenos out of their very livelihood. In the face of very real threats of violence (namely a Gatling gun on the river commanded by Perez’s men), the courageous Islenos exercised their 2nd Amendment rights to take back what was rightfully theirs.  On Saturday, Oct. 17, I had the honor of attending the New Orleans Film Festival premiere of “Delta Justice,” which screened exclusively at Chalmette Movies. I was fortunate enough to catch up with both the director and the star of this excellent documentary, and get their thoughts on the making of the film and why it was so necessary for this little-known event in Louisiana’s history to be recognized.

Interview with Director David Dubos:

Director David Dubos

JB: This is a piece of Louisiana history that I don’t feel many people are familiar with, especially those outside of St. Bernard or Plaquemines parishes. Why do you think it is important to bring this story to light now and why did you decide on this project as your first feature-length directorial effort?

DD: Well, I’ve done documentaries before. I did one on George Rodrigue and the Blue Dog years ago, that was with Whoopi Goldberg who played the voice of Tiffany the dog, who narrated her own story…I was drawn to this project because my mother’s side of the family are Islenos, the Nunez’s of St. Bernard. My great-aunt approached me because her grandfather was Manuel Molero, and she’s in the film. She said, “I want to leave a legacy behind about my grandfather because he wasn’t well-known and his story’s not well known. But he was a hero to the Islenos, and he’s not getting his credit.” So, they run a non-profit, they raised the money and asked me to do the film. The more I researched it, the more I was fascinated by the whole complex story. As I said today on the morning news…they run these commercials about being a tourist in your hometown. I felt like I was being an historian in my community, because I was learning things that I had never heard or found out about. I didn’t know that Leander Perez was such a player back then in the local political arena. I had heard about this story from my brother Clancy, who works at WWL and does Gambit, our great-uncle who passed away about ten years ago, he told Clancy he was in the trapper’s war as a boy, running ammunition back-and-forth to the trappers and I kind of put that in the movie as the young boy…

JB: I remember the scene and I’m actually friends with the other guy, Lenny Vasbinder.

DD: Lenny, yeah. So that was my little tribute to my uncle Leo. So, as I started researching the project, I just became sort of fascinated with the complex storylines behind it, the idea that it still resonates today. As James Carville and Ellis Henican point out, there’s still people out there willing to take advantage of poor people to better their profit margin, so I just thought that even though it happened in 1926, it’s still going on today and that is a big reason to do something – when even though it’s historical and it’s interesting it can be used to judge modern happenings and modern events in that context, so it resonated. That’s why I did it.

JB: And you mentioned that Manuel Molero is such a heroic figure for the Islenos and it’s so great that you brought recognition to him and I was just wondering as you said at the end of your film that he never had a street named after him…

DD: Nothing. It’s heartbreaking.

JB: It’s almost hard to believe that a villain in the parish had a major thoroughfare named after him. During the making of this film, at any time did you receive any opposition from any supporters or family members of Perez?

DD: We reached out and the spokesperson decided not to participate for obvious reasons as you saw in the Bill Buckley clip from “Firing Line.” No one wants to be associated with him, so even his descendants sort of look askance at him, or pretend that he didn’t exist. Even though he was an influential person in local politics. He also was very good friends with Huey Long, oddly enough.

JB: He actually represented him at one time.

DD: Yes, he defended him. He helped him. They were ready to vote him out as Governor, he helped circle the votes to get him to stay. You know, but I do think he’s a villain. You try to find a human side to people, as Carville talks about. But with him, you have to search pretty far-and-wide. I just felt that it was an important story to tell on many levels. I felt that it was an exciting story, I thought it was a tragic one in many ways. A tragic and senseless loss of life. Some people were wounded, and also tragic in a sense that a year later they blew up the levees and the flood happened. It was like, they won the battle and they lost the war kind of thing. Which is why the last shot of the movie, I have the muskrat sitting there sort of oblivious to it all. Even Dot [Molero’s granddaughter] had to take Perez’s son to court because of another land dispute…75 years later, she took him to court and it just baffled me that it’s all over this furry rodent.

JB: Sort of like a local version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. (Laughs)

DD: Yes it really was but it was all over this creature. And when you think about it, it’s such a strange thing to fight over. But, like when somebody else said, when there’s money involved, people get greedy.

JB: That’s true…How exciting is it for you to have your film opening up to such rave reviews at the New Orleans Film Festival?

DD: Well, it’s great. The last time I was here…was the George Rodrigue film. That was 20 years ago. So it’s like my anniversary, in a way. It’s exciting and obviously, everyone thinks they’ve made a good film. We certainly felt very strongly about the film. But, until you get it out there in the real world and let the critics see it and the public see it, then the public is the final arbiter of the film, I believe. Critics’ notices are nice, but some great reviews don’t always get great audiences in numbers to movies. So, it was important for us to not only try to make the best film possible and to get good notices but also to let the public be aware of it…try to get some people like you to help us spread the word about a quality film.

JB: Absolutely. And you cast Michael Aaron Santos in the pivotal role of Leander Perez. What influenced that decision?

DD: Well, I never had worked with Michael before, but I knew that he was a talented actor from friends of mine. This is a very small community that we live in, in terms of the creative community. And Michael, I had heard nothing but great things about and so I talked to him by Facebook and met with him and he accepted the role immediately. He’s very easy to work with, he gives a terrific performance in the film. And I plan on using him again when I make a narrative film.

JB: Can you tell us about any other projects you might have coming up? I know you’re doing “Bayou Tales” next year and then “Butterfly in the Typewriter.”

DD: I have actually three projects. I have “Bayou Tales,” it’s a television show. We shot two episodes for a pilot, which we’re finishing up by the end of the year. And then we’re planning on doing seven more next year, to make it eight total and then I’m doing a feature-length documentary right now on Bobby Charles, the Cajun singer-songwriter. He did “See You Later Alligator” and “Walking to New Orleans,” and he was in “The Last Waltz” movie. He was the only musician in “The Last Waltz” that was filmed but is not in the movie.

JB: The Band! Oh my God, Scorsese, yes.

DD: We’re trying to get Mr. Scorsese for an interview actually. But, we’ve already talked to all of the local musicians who’ve worked with him. Dr. John is going to be off-tour in October, so next month we’re going to sit down with him and do an interview with him. But we plan on talking to Neil Young and Robbie Robertson and Scorsese. So that’s a feature-length documentary I’m working on. We’ve already filmed about half of it. So we have that, “Bayou Tales,” and you mentioned “Butterfly in the Typewriter.” That’s a book I optioned about John Kennedy Toole and it’s going to be a biopic about his life. It will be filmed entirely down here and we have some great people attached. I can’t really give away too much, right now that’s in the pre-pre-production stage, but it’s moving forward at a rapid pace, at least. I want to do that next summer.

JB: How did your experiences as a screenwriter, because you’ve penned such films as “Leprechaun 3” and “Spy School,” how has that prepared you for a directorial career?

DD: Well, I actually got in the business originally as an editor, then I segued into screenwriting and I had some success with that. A lot of those films that you mentioned…if you look at the resume, they’re either work-for-hire, like “Leprechaun” was. The producer was from New Orleans, he had optioned another screenplay I had written and I had to throw my hat into a ring with six or seven other writers and I got picked to write it. It was a very successful movie, in fact, Warwick Davis who plays the leprechaun, he said it’s his favorite one. I’ve been alerted to that anyway…and then “Spy School” was an original script I had sold to a company…it’s more of a dramatic film that they had turned into more of a comedic one, so I wasn’t terribly happy with that one, but that happens all the time with writers. Now I’ve done stuff for Lifetime and I’m now segueing into directing, because I just want to have more control over my screenplays. So, I’m very pumped about “Bayou Tales,” I’m very excited about “Butterfly” and some other projects I have in the works that I’ve written and will eventually get made into films. But, in terms of how it helped me…in a way, I’ve learned that you can learn as much from bad experiences as you can from good ones, so I’ll leave it at that.

JB: It makes you who you are really. And lastly, what advice would you have for any aspiring local filmmakers who might be along the same journey?

DD: If they want to be a writer, I would access screenplays on the internet. I think the Academy Awards has a database of free screenplays that are available. Read as many great scripts as possible, watch as many great films as possible. You know, some people like film school and think it’s worthwhile, other people belong to another camp. I think if you want to specialize in one area, it’s good to do that, and it’s good to network. You can get your stuff seen. But nowadays with the technology, with the cameras and the editing suites being so inexpensive, you can basically make movies and buy all of the equipment for about $10,000 and try to make your own movies. Which is really a huge advantage for young filmmakers now. They have YouTube and outlets like iTunes to sell the films and get a distribution platform that works for them in the digital age. So, I would say to learn your craft and…never stop learning. You don’t just stop when you get to a certain age and say, “I don’t need to learn anymore!” You can always learn, and always pickup good advice and good tips from talking and meeting directors. I had a radio show on the air for about five years and I got to interview Danny Boyle and Kevin Smith and Kathryn Bigelow, so I had access to them and I could ask them questions like you’re asking me, like “What advice?” And a lot of them have specific advice but basically it’s about learning your craft and continuing to get better about what you’re doing. So, just be a sponge but also learn other departments. Learn art department, learn editing and about music and costuming. It’s all part of your movie and you can’t be totally blind to all that, because there’s so many arts involved in making a movie, that it doesn’t hurt to have a broad range of knowledge.

And now for part two of my interview at the New Orleans Film Festival premiere of “Delta Justice: the Islenos Trappers War,” as I had the pleasure of sitting down for a few questions with Actor/Director/Playwright Michael Aaron Santos, who also teaches drama and is Chairman of the Arts and Humanities Division at Delgado Community College.

Michael Aaron Santos

JB: You play Leander Perez, who had a reputation as being both a villain and a hero in various parts of Louisiana. How did approach your portrayal of this very diverse character.

MAS: It’s really just about what the character wants, what he’s trying to get and everybody’s motivations for what they want…in retrospect we can say “Yeah, they were motivated by greed or ambition,” but I try to approach it about him doing what’s just, what’s right, what’s going to be best for the land long-term. So, I was always trying to approach it if Leander wanted what’s best for the parish and saw the future in those terms…as if he was just trying to do best for his himself, his family and…for the land.

JB: It was an amazing performance, I really enjoyed it. What drew you to this project and what was it like working with director Dubos?

MAS: David was great. From the very beginning he knew exactly what the story was going to be…the first thing we shot was the courtroom scene, so that was kind of thrown in the middle of all the big controversy. That was a challenge at first, but I think once we got that in it was kind of easy to go back and fill in everything else. But as for what drew me to the project, I think it was my lack of knowledge. Always knowing Judge Perez Dr., but I asked around to other native New Orleanians and they didn’t know, they knew some later Judge Perez stories. But the early stuff, they didn’t have any real clue. So, that really drew me…prior to…all the controversy at the end of his life. Where was he forty years before that? How did he go from point A to point Z? So that was fun.

JB: And you can see all of the buzz with the lines here. How exciting is it to have the lead role in a film opening up at the New Orleans Film Festival to rave reviews?

MAS: It’s just been one surprise after another. When I was called to kind of pseudo-audition for it/do the role/when it actually got put together, I remember at the first screening thinking, “Wow, this is really top-notch,” because I had only seen a little bit of footage before the UNO screening. But again, once it got asked to the film festival, it’s been one kind of “Wow, wow, wow” thing, so I’m just completely humbled and honored and just enjoying being part of the whole thing.

JB: What are some upcoming projects of yours that we can look forward to?

MAS: Well, I’m doing a lot of writing these days. I’m a playwright, so I’ve just a finished a new full-length that I’m trying to shop around and trying to develop a little more into better shape. So, I’ve kind of put some acting things on hold for a little bit, just because I want to finish it and a couple of other things. Hopefully in the next year you’ll see a play called “A Work in Regress.” I’ll see if I can get it workshopped or stage-read and hopefully a production of it someday and get it going!

JB: Well, you know I looked on IMDB and I think you’re going to be in “The Big Short.”

MAS: Yeah, that’s right. That’s coming out sometime around Christmas…and I’m very excited about it. I’ve seen one trailer from it and it looks funny.

JB: Yes, it really does…so lastly, what advice do you have to help increase the visibility of other local actors in films such as this?

MAS: You know, whenever those local actors are given a chance, just make the most of it. When you think you’ve worked hard, work another hour…work another couple of hours. Get help from each other, that’s something we probably don’t do enough of, and that’s to utilize each other and help local filmmakers like David…and do quality work, because when you help the local filmmakers then the local talent can shine, and those projects do well. Work together and just work harder, would be my advice. Because it’s going to take time to change the perception…And the perception has changed I think from when I first started out, but just continue working at it to fill it all in.

When it was all said and done, and “Delta Justice” ended its three-day run of sold-out shows at Chalmette Movies, as part of the 2015 New Orleans Film Festival, a great many people experienced a truly enlightening part of Louisiana history that was every bit as entertaining as it was educational. It was such a delight personally, having the opportunity to listen and engage with such phenomenal talent whom we’re certain to hear a lot more from in the near future.

     Ready for some great news? I thought so. Due to the overwhelming popularity of “Delta Justice: The Islenos Trappers War” at the film festival, Chalmette Movies will be bringing Director Dubos’ film back for an exclusive one-week engagement, starting on Friday, Oct. 23. Showtimes are at 2 and 7 p.m., every day. So, if you missed it this past weekend, be sure and take this opportunity to treat yourself, and your family, to a must-see film.  

 

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