The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY.
Interview: Rob DeStefano & Dan Esposito
How do you respond to a stranger who tells you that you should make a film about his life? Emmy winning editor Lee Percy (Taking Chance TV 2009) responded as any normal human would: he dismissed the zealous and potentially egotistical subject. But as industry members would attest, it’s all about the story. Praq Rado – an illegal Albanian immigrant – had a damn good story, and after much persistence, Rado had his life turned into the awarded short, Dreaming American.
Percy, writer and director of the film, received more “story” than he could bargain for, especially in the biopic’s festival run. When Praq Rado attempted the cross-country travel to attend the Hamptons International Film Festival, he was detained in Buffalo for not having papers. IF sat down with Percy to discuss the incident and the making of the film.
Title: Dreaming American
Director: Lee Percy
Cast: Praq Rado, Giancarlo Esposito
Inflatable Ferret: The events surrounding the birth of this short, and now Praq’s detention, are unbelievable. Can you put these events into context for us?
Lee Percy: The film is called Dreaming American. It’s a short, a 24-minute film, based on a true story about a young Albanian man in New York – an immigrant trying to build his dream. He’s been there eleven years, and the man upon whose life it is based plays the lead in the film. It’s a dramatic narrative, but it is based on the events of his life. We wanted to put a human face on immigration – everybody has an image about who an immigrant is. We wanted to tell a very specific, fun, and emotional story so people would have a connection to that. Unfortunately, as he was traveling to HIFF, he was taken off a train in Buffalo by ICE and is in federal detention awaiting deportation.
IF: How did you meet Praq? And what drew you to an Albanian’s story for your face of immigration?
LP: There are so many millions of immigrants in this country, and all of us come from families that were at one time or another immigrants, so as I said, we really wanted to put one particular face on it so that maybe people would see our movie and whatever image they have in their mind of an immigrant would change. You would see that there are many faces to immigration.
It’s a funny story how the film came about. I was at an industry party in New York, and he was a caterer there. Aren’t actors all caterers? He came up to me and started talking, and he figured out who I was. He said, “You’re going to make a film about my life.” I said, “Okay. Why don’t you write down all the things in your life that you think would make a film?” I thought I’d get rid of him that way, but he’s not only sure of himself, he’s tenacious. He wrote the stuff down. We met, and he told me the things that he’d done, the struggles he’d been through, and what it was like in Albania. I thought the story was very human and moving. I got Barbet Schroeder involved, and the film just kind of took on a life of its own.
IF: What were some of these things Praq wrote down?
LP: I know about Albania – a lot of Americans don’t. It was one of the most closed societies in the world for many years. If you were driving from the former Yugoslavia to Greece, you had to drive all the way around Albania. No information in, no information out. He grew up in the mountains, and they used an old plow – the steel blade you stick in the ground pulled by a donkey like we used here one hundred years ago. It was a very backwards country. He came here; he struggled. One of the things he did to earn a living – because if you don’t have papers, no social security number – was dance in a go-go gay bar. I was a mentor at Maisha Film Lab and the other mentor there with me was Giancarlo Esposito.
I got him to play the drag queen who runs the bar where Praq works. He’s funny and delicious in the movie, as you can imagine. It’s a very different kind of a story. It shows kind of a demimonde and a New York street life. When you talk to him [Praq], he is such a force of nature. He’s so optimistic and good hearted. His spirit really comes through in the performance.
IF: My family is from the Bronx, and I know there is a huge Albanian population there.
IF: As foreign a place as it is, there are these communities of immigrants that keep traditions and culture alive. Does that play into the film?
LP: We’re developing the film into a feature, and this would be a bigger part of the feature, but even in the short he lives in the Bronx with his brother in an apartment that has an Albanian landlord who gives him a break on the rent. The brother is very much a traditionalist; he’s family oriented and is the older brother who expects to be respected. Praq is the younger brother who is much more adapted to life here. I think the older brother believes America is venal and selfish. The Praq character in the movie, Zef, just goes for it. He wants it all. He wants the American dream. He wants to be American. I’m sure that’s the divide down the middle of Arthur Avenue.
IF: It’s a community that was Italian and now it’s becoming Albanian. Did you notice the two-headed eagle when driving around there?
LP: Yes, the two headed eagle!
IF: New York often becomes a character of its own in films. How did you harness the city and capture it?
LP: I just used the city because I wanted it to be the backdrop of the film. It was always written as a New York film, and New York was a part of it. I think the thing about LA is that it has a big industry because LA could be “anywhere.” Like you said, New York has its own character, but LA could be any city in the US. In New York, it’s pretty obvious you’re in New York. I designed the film to take advantage of that. Early on there’s a scene where he and his friends are walking up the street talking, and it’s just two 500mm shots where you see these three friends walking up the street with the traffic and the people. Then there’s the club. It’s a character in the movie, and it’s an important character in the movie.
IF: You mentioned expanding this into a feature. Is this current struggle with deportation something that would be incorporated into that?
LP: Unfortunately, we do have a new chapter, a new act, for the feature.
IF: Have you been in touch with him since his detention?
LP: Yes. You can only communicate with him by phone. They can’t have computers or internet, but there is a really crappy phone system that you can barely hear on. You put money in it, and then they can call you.
IF: Was there anything that might have catalyzed his detention?
LP: It’s just bad luck. The lawyers have told us that Buffalo is a bad place to go through. He can’t fly because he doesn’t have identification, so he takes the train. It’s a horrendous trip from the west to the east, but he was out in LA and wanted to come back for the festival. They often come on the trains in Buffalo and ask to see everybody’s papers.
IF: Are you based out of New York?
LP: I’m based out of New York, but right now I’m in LA because I’m editing Kimberly Peirce’s new film, which is a remake of Carrie. I had worked with her in the past on Boys Don’t Cry. So we are in LA doing that with Chloe Moretz who is playing Carrie and Julianne Moore who is playing the crazy mother.
IF: What do you edit on?
LP: I use Avid.
IF: What did you shoot Dreaming American on?
IF: What was that like for you?
LP: I’m not a big RED fan. It’s very temperamental. It has a tendency to look a little plastic. Nancy Schreiber who is a brilliant cinematographer – she shot forty movies probably – shot it. She and I worked very hard in the DI (digital intermediate). We actually had the people doing the DI get a special plug in that was a film curve. In some shots we even added grain, so it didn’t look quite so RED-like and electronic and plastic. Now, the Carrie film, Kimberly’s film, we are shooting on the ARRI Alexa. And I think the Alexa maybe has more of a film look, but it doesn’t have the resolution. The RED is 6K, so you can blow those things up. In Dreaming American there’s a shot on the river, and I could only do one angle. I was lucky to get that, but I could punch in and get the close ups because I was using the RED.
IF: How do you like LA compared to New York?
LP: I started my career in LA, and I went to school in northern California. When you’re going to school and starting out is when you really make your closest friends. My best friends are out there. I prefer New York City as a place to live, but like I said, I lived in LA for a long time and I’m not one of these people who hates LA. I’m always happy to be there. But home is New York.
IF: As a filmmaker, do you feel that LA is more nurturing? Or does New York have that same opportunity?
LP: I think New York is more nurturing for somebody trying to make their first few films. I think for independent films, New York is a much more friendly place. I think if you’re just out of school and you want a job, LA is great because there’s more work there, but I wouldn’t have tried to make this film in LA – partly because I’ve worked so long in New York. I had a crew. I had thirty-five actors and a crew show up everyday and work for free. It’s pretty amazing.
IF: Is Dreaming American playing in any other festivals?
LP: It’s going to be in the Big Apple Film Festival next month, so it has another New York screening. It’s been around for a while, so we were in Palm Springs and Phoenix. We won an award in Fort Lauderdale. We won an award in Honolulu.
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