‘El Chicano’ co-writer Joe Carnahan recalls ‘blue-collar’ Sac State film education

Joe Carnahan ’95 (Film Studies) has written and directed several movies that feature high-octane action sequences designed to get your heart pumping and adrenaline running. But he doesn’t consider himself an action director.

“I guess that’s what I’m known for, but what makes any film interesting, what makes any genre work, ultimately, is the characters,” said Carnahan, whose credits include Narc, The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces and The Grey. “How much you connect to them and how much you care about them.”

Carnahan hopes that the characters in his latest film, El Chicano, which opened May 3, connect with audiences in a big and very important way. The film is the first superhero movie to feature an all Latino cast, something Carnahan and his co-writer Ben Hernandez Bray, who also serves as the director, hope can address a major problem in Hollywood: the underrepresentation of Latino individuals in movies.

“Ben for years had been saying, ‘I don’t see myself represented. I don’t see brown faces. I don’t see those movies,’” Carnahan said. “The only balm I could supply, as his best friend, was to say, ‘We need to go make this movie now.’”

Carnahan credits much of where he is today to Sacramento State, from which he says he received a “blue collar” film education – one that prioritized hands-on learning over theory – in a diverse environment that exposed him to individuals from all backgrounds.

A native of Vacaville, Carnahan had become involved with creative writing while a teenager, which morphed into an interest in film while attending Solano Community College. At 19, he wrote his first screenplay.

“It was terrible, but it was a good learning process, and so I wrote that and began to write another one, another one, another one, and through attrition and just being stubborn about the process and understanding that I was learning even though it wasn’t stuff I was ever going to do, I just kept slogging forward,” he said.

He continued to take film courses, raised his GPA and transferred to Sacramento State, where he enrolled as an English and film studies double major. Working at a moving company to help pay for college, he also got involved in the local theater and film scene, and staged a one-act play in the Playwrights’ Theatre.

The campus itself even made its mark on Carnahan’s career. The tunnel below Arboretum Drive at the front of campus was used as a filming location for an early version of Narc, which eventually became one of his first commercial films.

Carnahan eventually saw a string of success with several big-budget action films and thrillers, but getting financing for El Chicano proved difficult. He and Hernandez Bray eventually had to go to Canada to secure funding.

The film, based in part on Hernandez Bray’s personal experiences, tells the story of a Los Angeles police detective who discovers that his deceased brother had planned to become a masked vigilante known as El Chicano in an effort to fight the influence of Mexican drug cartels in East Los Angeles, and eventually assumes the mantle of El Chicano himself. Billed as a superhero film, Carnahan says it also touches on issues of identity, including what it means to be both an American and a Mexican American.

El Chicano aims to make a dent in a severe underrepresentation of Latino characters in Hollywood. A 2018 USC study found that just 6.1 percent of speaking roles in films in 2017 went to Latino characters, despite Latino individuals making up nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population. The disparity is even greater when looking at who is spending money at the multiplex: Latino individuals bought 23 percent of all movie tickets in 2016, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Or, to compare apples to apples, El Chicano came out just one week after the highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame, the culminating film of a 21-movie superhero series that featured just one prominent Latino character.

In talking about how to address the issue, Carnahan circles back to what he loves most about making movies: creating characters that can connect with an audience.

“If you watch Black Panther, you don’t say, ‘Well I’m not African American or African so I can’t possibly understand what that story is about.’ It’s absurd,” he said. “Of course you do. It’s a great movie. Great movies transcend.”

The approach Carnahan took with El Chicano – to make the movie, whatever it took – stems from lessons and values he learned at Sacramento State, which were imparted by faculty members who also were working professionals in the film industry.

“I didn’t go to film school. Sacramento State was my film school, and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It had a blue-collar approach to it. It wasn’t so steeped in film theory. It was, ‘ Get out and do it.’ ”

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Henry Garcia embraces change and lands at Pixar

Why would Pixar hire a guy on track to become a physics professor to work on animated films? Let Sacramento State’s William DeGraffenreid explain.

“Henry and I decided to get together and watch a football game,” recalls DeGraffenreid, referring to his former student and current Pixar Animation Studios technical director Henry Garcia ’05 (Computer Science and Physics). “During commercials, he was telling me what he could about his work. I remember him asking me if I had seen Wall-E, and I said, ‘Yeah, it was a good movie,’ though it had come out before Henry had joined Pixar.”

Garcia mentioned a scene featuring a pile of garbage in which papers were fluttering randomly. In the real world, he pointed out, they would move in patterns. In Wall-E, they didn’t.

“He said, ‘But they do now,’ and he gave me a smile,” DeGraffenreid said. “He had already made a contribution to Pixar and contributed his knowledge.”

Garcia’s first project with Pixar, creating that realistic paper fluttering effect for Toy Story 3, was ultimately cut from the film. But since then, he has made his mark at the animation studio – and on some of the most beloved films of the past decade.

The rain in The Good Dinosaur? Garcia’s work. He helped a red hooded sweatshirt come to life in the short film Lou. He’s also worked on Up, Inside Out, Coco, and currently is the simulation supervisor for the highly anticipated Toy Story 4. And, in what he considers his favorite achievement, he helped create Merida’s iconic, curly red hair in Brave.

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Henry Garcia gives notes during a Toy Story 4 simulation review on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

“That was 18 months of my life dedicated to building that simulator, with the rest of my team,” Garcia said. “When I look back at that film and I look at her hair and how much it brought that character to life, there’s a lot of pride.”

It’s hardly what the Citrus Heights native envisioned when he transferred to Sacramento State in 2001 after a couple of years at Indiana University. He had followed his girlfriend halfway across the country, run low on money, and was unenthusiastic about having to return home and enroll at the local university.

“In hindsight, it was a huge blessing,” said Garcia, a first-generation college student. “What Sac State did for me was amazing, and I can’t say I would be at Pixar if it wasn’t for that.”

Having been fascinated by computers and graphics since playing video games in middle and high school, he enrolled at Sacramento State as a computer science major. Then, while taking the calculus-based physics courses required for that degree, he fell in love with physics and decided to double major, with the ultimate goal of obtaining his doctorate.

Two internships helped him get into the physics doctoral program at UC Berkeley – located less than four miles from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters. The studio recruited at Berkeley, and Garcia was fortunate enough to land an interview.

There was just one issue: Despite his computer science background, he hadn’t touched a computer in almost three years.

“After the interview, the room kind of split in half a little bit,” he said. “Half were thinking, ‘What are we doing? We can’t hire this guy. He doesn’t know anything about computer graphics.’ And the other half was saying, ‘Yeah, but he’s so passionate, he’ll figure it out. Let’s give him a shot.’ And luckily, one of the people on the positive side was the head of Toy Story 3 at the time.”

Garcia landed a one-year residency, left Berkeley, and hasn’t looked back. As a technical director, he uses computer software to animate effects like fire and smoke as well as “simulations,” such as hair or clothing, generally handling between two to 10 shots per week (a full film has around 1,600 shots total). Once the work is ready, he takes it to his supervisor for feedback, and then ultimately the director for final approval.

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Henry Garcia works on Toy Story 4 on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

On Toy Story 4, Garcia has assumed a supervisory role, working with a team of about 13 to make sure the film comes in on time and on budget – and is up to Pixar’s high standards.

The work is relentlessly collaborative. For example, the Toy Story character Bo Peep wears a cloak. Technical directors like Garcia have to work with the animators to ensure that, when Bo Peep moves her arms, the cloak moves with them realistically.

That’s where Garcia draws upon his experience at Sacramento State, where he found small class sizes, engaged professors who put students first, and a highly supportive and collaborative environment he didn’t have at other schools he attended.

“That’s something I’ve taken with me,” he said. “I think part of my success at Pixar is because I have the skills to bring a team together and be a positive voice in the room, while also having good ideas. I attribute that to Sac State.”

DeGraffenreid, now a special assistant to Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, remembers Garcia as incredibly talented academically while also bringing a sense of humor and caring to the Department of Physics. Garcia was heavily involved in the student physics club and spearheaded the group’s efforts to provide after-school science programming to local homeless K-12 students. And he has returned to campus several times to speak with Sacramento State students and share his knowledge and experience.

“Anytime I’ve asked, ‘Hey, we’ve got this opportunity, would you like to come to speak to our students and tell them your story,’ he’s ready to do it,” DeGraffenreid said. “As a Latino, he understands that he can serve as an example of what’s possible, and that by being present and showing himself as an example, he can inspire other Latinos as well, because unfortunately it remains a marginalized group in physics.”

Garcia – whose path has taken him from Sacramento to Indiana and back, from computer science to physics, from graduate school to a dream job at one of the world’s most famous movie studios – hopes current students will see him as an example of someone who wasn’t afraid to alter course when necessary.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get tripped up on being so focused on their plan that they’re not open to changes in that plan,” he said. “So as you’re progressing through your major, as you’re applying to internships, as you’re setting up and planning the rest of your life, recognize that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, and be open and embrace them whenever they seem like a positive step.”

As Maritza Davis moves on to Kings, Unseen Heroes looks to the future

You can’t tell the story of Sacramento’s growth without telling the story of Maritza ’07 (Communication Studies) and Roshaun Davis ’08 (Journalism).

The couple’s award-winning events agency, Unseen Heroes, is responsible for some of the region’s biggest public events, including GATHER: Oak Park and the Midtown Farmers Market.

But change has come as the agency moves into its second decade. After 10 years with the company she founded with her husband, Maritza recently took on a new role as the vice president of experience and social responsibility for the Sacramento Kings. Her responsibilities will include managing the Kings’ events team, which puts on more than 350 events annually, and the community impact team, which runs programs such as the Junior Kings and supports and participates in a wide variety of community activities and initiatives.

We spoke with Maritza and Roshaun about Maritza’s new job, Sacramento State’s role in the community, and the next big thing for Unseen Heroes.

Why did you feel now was the time to move on from Unseen Heroes and take the role with the Kings?

Maritza: I felt like it’s a pivotal time for our city. Sacramento is like a teenager. We’re trying to get into the running with our cool older sister Los Angeles and older brother San Francisco. Teenagers are a little bit awkward. We are learning how we fit into California. The time is now for us to grow into adulthood. The Kings are the only major league team that we have in the city. The NBA is progressive and evolves at the rate in which a sports team should. My expertise in community development and event production are two unique worlds. I want to share that with the Kings organization and support the vision of our ownership and leaders. Ultimately we are one big family as a city and it is our time to shine.

Roshaun: I think it’s amazing. Sometimes when you develop a concept and kind of push it into reality, you get bogged down by that concept or that role. For her to be able to grow into another position and still have Unseen Heroes run is just a testament to the well-oiled machine that we’ve become. This business has become bigger than both of us.

Looking back on the past 10 years of running Unseen Heroes with Maritza, what are you proudest of?

Roshaun: I think the thing that I’m proudest of is actually being able to see things come to fruition now with such ease that weren’t attainable 10 years ago. I sit at different events and I see different things happening in the city that we aren’t producing but I know that the work we put in over the last 10 years indirectly or directly has attributed to that thing happening. That’s a cool space to be in because it makes me proud of all the hard work and determination we pushed. We believed in the city in a way not a lot of people did 10 years ago, and to see the city actually living up to the belief that we put in, that energy that we put in, that love that we put in, that’s amazing.

Why is being involved in your community so important to you?

Maritza: We all need each other, whether you recognize it or not. The connection to other people, the connection to how we all live, is monumental. It’s great to have resources like parks, but what makes the park come to life and be relevant are the people. To me community means everything, it’s what makes the world go ’round.

How do you view Sac State’s role in and impact on the community?

Maritza: Sac State, especially in recent years, has done such an amazing job of getting involved. It is not a university that is just watching from the sidelines, instead they get involved with what’s happening in our city. For a university like Sac State to get involved with existing students and alumni is strong evidence of the dedication they have to the growth of their student body both past and present.

Roshaun: Sac State produces a lot of graduates who are doing some cool things right now. A lot of the people who we work with are actually graduates of Sac State. That’s just a testament to being open, to educating the community here, and then developing them in a way that allows them to contribute back to the community. It’s a vital role and I think Sac State plays that perfectly.

What’s in the pipeline for Unseen Heroes?

Roshuan: Right now we just landed a big contract with Electrify America. Over the next 10 months, there will be an initiative called Sac-To-Zero introducing electric car sharing and electric charge stations to the Sacramento market. We’re producing a series of launch parties and signature events for them. It really changes the face of this green movement in our city, and is being used as a test market to see how it can be run in different cities as well. For that to be on our plate, have that opportunity to really grow that program, and see it being implemented nationally is really cool for us to have our hands in.

Read our 2015 Made at Sac State story about Maritza and Roshaun at csus.edu/made/davis.