Directing Without Shame: Bringing HIV-Focused Telenovela Sin Vergüenza to Life
An Interview With Series Director Paco Farias
Family secrets ... betrayed trust ... condom usage?
The classic, persistent themes of Spanish-language soap operas, also known as telenovelas, get a refreshing, enthralling update in Sin Vergüenza (Without Shame), the new telenovela that is taking the Internet by storm. Presented in English as well as Spanish, and imagined and realized by California's vast AltaMed health care network, the aim of the show is to "educate without being educational." The project is a unique endeavor -- it combines a fresh narrative format with the ability to tackle real-world issues such as HIV, stigma, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) issues, family issues, infidelity, shame, aging, dating and more.
Before you read, make sure to watch Episode 2 of Sin Vergüenza. Stay tuned for two more episodes in the coming weeks -- each accompanied by a conversation with key people involved in the production!
This interview with the director of Sin Vergüenza is Part Two of a series. Read Part One, an interview with actors JM Longoria III and Joanna Zanella; or check out what's coming up in the series.
In the second interview in this four-part series, TheBody.com sat down with the director of Sin Vergüenza, Paco Farias. A longtime watcher and admirer of telenovelas, Farias knew he had to pay homage to the format while updating it for a modern audience. In this interview, he talks about the lengths to which the actors went to perform the scenes in English and Spanish; the privilege of being a Latino director taking the helm of this unique project; and his favorite scenes to shoot throughout the process.
Can you talk a little bit about how you became a director?
I started out as an actor first. In the late part of 1999, I came to Los Angeles to try acting out here. I got a job as an assistant to a director on a DVD series. From there, I started to work very closely in post-production and learned how to edit. That slowly became my main source of income instead of acting, and I became an editor. About five or six years ago, I started to do short films with a friend of mine, Douglas Horn, who is a very talented writer, director and filmmaker. I then started directing my own short films. That's kind of what led to this job offer -- my very first directing gig.
Who approached you to direct Sin Vergüenza?
For the past year, I've been working with Ben Odell. Ben is the head of production at Pantelion Films [the first major Latino-focused Hollywood studio]. I've been writing for him for over a year now, along with my writing partner, Jennifer Stetson, who actually did help me out with Sin Vergüenza. Ben knows that I wanted to direct features. The director that was hired for Sin Vergüenza had to back out because of a conflict, so the producers from AltaMed were scrambling at the last minute to find someone. They asked Ben if he could recommend someone, and Ben recommended me, and that's how I got the job. I had to interview with them, but that's how I got in the door.
It was interesting because this was new territory for them. Up until then, AltaMed had done mostly instructional videos. They were venturing out into a narrative world, and they kind of wanted to get my take on what the novela should be like. What I said to them was, because of the subject matter, this project had to be treated with panache, but with a little more respect.
When people think of telenovelas, there are certain preconceptions that come with that. One of things that pops first into my mind when I think of the older telenovelas is this hyperbolic acting, speaking and tone that's very popular within the genre. That's changing. I watched a lot of telenovelas for research, and I think it's a lot more subtle these days, even though the heightened drama is still there -- I don't think that's ever going to go away. I said to them, "I think that's kind of what we want to shoot for. I think we want it to be a little more cinematic and have a high level of production value, because with the subject matter, if there's any sense of us being flippant or light or sort of making fun of it, then I think that works against us." They completely agreed, and that's what we set out to do.
You know, my mother called me after watching it and said, "I like it a lot, but it doesn't feel like a telenovela." And I said, "Well, that's good; that's what we were shooting for."
You want to pay tribute to the format and use the format, but still do something fresh and new.
Why do you think that the telenovela format is such a great platform to tell the story? What about the genre works for this particular story?
All of the characters in the telenovela were based on actual people, actual cases, that the producers and story creators had come across in their work. These are heightened realities. The experiences that these people are going through in real life are so heightened that it can feel like a soap opera -- incredibly emotional, and sad. Those are all elements that I'm familiar with in telenovelas. It seemed to be a good fit.
When you were offered this project, what made you want to take it on? What did you see in it that was appealing to you?
I thought the message was great, as far as reaching an underserved population. According to the producers and the data, as Latinos, we are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. I think that may be because of our culture, and the way we handle subjects that are scandalous or taboo: We try to ignore them, and hopefully, they'll go away.
That that's the way it was in my household growing up. If there was something borderline scandalous, you just didn't talk about it. And if somebody tried to bring it up, it was "Oh, I don't want to talk about that. We're not going to talk about it." I can only speak from my own experience, but there's a heavy religious aspect to the Latino community. There's that sort of "properness" that makes you just not talk about sex or sexuality. It's like being in Catholic school. Everybody's aware of sex, but nobody acknowledges it for fear that they would have to have a discussion about it. It's ignored. And that's part of the problem. I thought Sin Vergüenza was a wonderful out-of-the-box idea for addressing that problem. And, I really liked the people that were putting it together.
My two biggest reasons for taking on this project were the subject matter and the people I was going to get to work with. I sat down with the story creators, Natalie Sanchez and Hilda Sandoval; we got together over dinner and just started talking. These two extraordinary women talked about all these people that they had met, and come across, and how they wanted to reach out to the Latino community and this was their idea. From that premise, from that point on, I was on board. And, once I got to work with the casting director, Blanca Valdez, again, and started to assemble the cast, I just got more and more excited, because I was going to get to work with so many wonderful actors.
I'm Puerto Rican, and I'm from New York --
You're Nuyorican? [laughs]
Yes [laughs], I'm Nuyorican -- and that's one experience of being Latino in the United States. In Sin Vergüenza, the community is very East Los Angeles, with Tejano [southern Texan] elements. I thought it was great that it spoke to the Latino community, but it was still a different experience that I didn't have as a Latino. It was great to see the L.A.-based Latino community highlighted.
They always wanted it to feel like it was East Los Angeles, even though there was a key scene in the series that clearly took place in a Tejano bar. There are Tejano bars here in L.A., but it does feel like it could be set in southwest Texas.
And that's a good thing; it's very obviously a Mexican American family, but they could have been in many different places. The series has that feeling that makes it relatable, and a lot of people can connect with it.
People sometimes just say "Latino" for the entire community in the U.S., but they don't get that there are so many different Latino experiences. I saw a community reflected that was different from mine, and I really enjoyed it.
I'm also glad that the series is offered in English and Spanish. Can you talk more about that?
That's actually the thing that I'm loving most about it, to tell you the truth. Let me give you a little back story first: When we first had the script, we knew we'd have four days, maybe five, and we'd have to do four episodes. In essence, one episode, five or six pages of script a day, which is doable, in my mind. Then we said, "We want to do this in English and Spanish." So, essentially, you're doubling the page count. A five-age script becomes a 10-page script -- and now, that's scary, if you want to deliver everything that's asked of you on time and under-budget.
We began to discuss with the producers, "Can we do this?" "Is it possible?" "Should we do all it in English and subtitle it?" "Should we do it all in Spanish and subtitle it?" "Should we do it half and half and make it a Spanglish series?" And then, ultimately, we decided we had to do it in English and Spanish. I said, "If that's the case, we have to be extremely picky and extremely lucky in the actors we choose. We have to lean more toward actors that speak fluent Spanish, because otherwise it's not going to work." And Blanca Valdez, the casting director, went out and got actors that could do exactly that.
Because of schedule constraints, they weren't going to get that many takes. They'd get one or two or three takes in English and then we'd have to flip, we'd have a set-up and do the same thing in Spanish. And here's the thing about witnessing it: It's a switch in your brain. It wasn't always automatic. We would do a scene, and then we'd do it again, and then they would just naturally do it in English. We'd cut, we'd say go to Spanish, and they'd naturally do it in Spanish. To reinvest yourself in the emotion and the character, as well as the practicality of that switch in your brain saying, "OK, we're going to switch into another language now" -- it was fascinating to watch.
Another thing I loved about it is that the Spanish would inform the English, if that makes sense. The telenovela works better in Spanish; I think the language is more poetic. The example that I use is that one of the characters says to another, "You've been living a lie." In Spanish, it's "Una vida de mentiras" -- "a life of lies." You can't say that in English, "You've had a life of lies." It doesn't work that way. It doesn't have the same kind of impact as it does in Spanish, and it's not as beautiful.
We made the decision to always go in English first, and then in Spanish. I think they were more worked up, and they could key into the emotions a little deeper by the time they got to the Spanish, and the language helped them out. I think the performances are a little more subtle, a little more beautiful in Spanish. It was a lot more natural a fit.
The other aspect of it is, it really shows the talent these actors have. I've been trying to find other instances of projects like this. I haven't found anything yet where someone did a performance all in one language and then did it again all in another language. The opportunity to do this -- and with the same actors, not with a whole different cast in a different language -- is very rare. Granted, the format is small, but it was quite an ambitious undertaking, and that these people pulled it off is pretty amazing.
The stamina these actors showed! Especially the first few days, because we shot the later episodes first. I get emotional just thinking about what they had to go through, and how they delivered. They were so professional. And a lot of these actors are up-and-coming. I think they're going to be great. JM Longoria, Joanna Zanella and Jorge Diaz, the younger ones, they really delivered. The older actors are all pros, and I was just as impressed with them. I had worked with two of them before. I'd worked with Danny Mora, who plays the father, and I absolutely loved his work and I love working with him. So, when he came in to audition, I knew I had at least one that I could cast, just from memory. I had also worked with Eliana [Alexander], who plays the mother, a lot, as well.
These scenes are incredibly gut-wrenching and highly emotional. I can't speak highly enough of these beautiful actors.
When you started working on the project, did you have the full script or did you get to weigh in on characters and storylines?
Off the bat, the script was great; it was really well written. When I came onto the project, I brought my writing partner, Jennifer Stetson, and we did a couple of final passes on the script. We worked on the overall arc, the flow, of the four-episode series. If you read it at first, it felt like one 40-minute pilot. We needed to break it up into four pieces. And so, each piece had to have its own little arc. One of the things we knew we had to do was that each episode had to end in a cliffhanger fashion. So that's what we tweaked. We gave it a little polish.
Without giving anything away to those who have yet to view the series, do you have a favorite character or storyline?
I'm kind of attached to all of them, to tell you the truth. I have favorite scenes.
What was one of your favorite scenes?
I love the scene between the gentleman caller and the grandmother, where they talk about being widowed, and they're both awkward. And they're both venturing out into this world again that's completely unfamiliar to them both, but that they both desperately want. That scene, when we auditioned it, we had so much fun in the audition.
And then, there are little moments. In the first episode when Eliana, the mother, sits down with her daughter, and she has this little moment where you know she's struggling with something, and she asks her husband if he's going to be going out again tonight. And the way she does it is so subtle and beautiful, and there are so many things going on in that little beat. I remember editing it, and loving it, and being so impressed by it, that I took a little video of it on my phone as I was playing it and I texted it to Eliana and told her how happy I was that she was involved with the project. Stuff like that.
I had almost forgotten about abuelita [grandma]; she has such a great storyline. People don't talk enough about what happens when you reenter the dating pool as you're aging, as far as HIV prevention and safer sex.
That character becomes a little more prominent in episode 3!
Are there any plans for the series after the 40-minute script you shot? Is this going to be it for Sin Vergüenza?
I don't know. I know Natalie and Hilda would love to see episodes 5 through 8. I would be happy to explore that, as well. If they say, "Hey, we want to do four more episodes," I'm in. But I feel that this is a very neat self-contained thing. It ends the way it's supposed to end. And I think it ends in a very real way.
I really hope that it can get out there. I never thought we'd be taking YouTube or the internet by storm, but I always felt that the project was good enough, it was a good thing; and like the tortoise and the hare, it's not going to sprint, it's going to slowly be watched, and slowly over time build the amount of views that the producers are hoping for.
Is there anything else you would like to say to people who are watching Sin Vergüenza, or planning on watching the series?
I think people should give it a chance. The subject matter is difficult. It's a subject that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I think it's important to watch, and it's extremely important to understand the subject matter and to fight the stigma. I don't know if this project will accomplish what it set out to do, but I know for certain that it was a wonderful, out-of-the-box idea. I think AltaMed should be commended for it.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.