‘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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Alumnus and former State Hornet reporter wins Pulitzer Prize

Russ Buettner ’90 (Journalism), along with fellow New York Times investigative reporters David Barstow and Susanne Craig, spent 18 months digging into the complex finances of the family of President Donald Trump.

Russ Buettner“We didn’t do anything else during that period of time,” he said. “There were at least two times when we thought we might be finished and we were going to make one more round of contacts, and each of those times when we thought we were finished those additional reporting contacts we made yielded more results that required more process and analysis and then circling back to what we had done before.”

That hard work paid off last week when Buettner and his colleagues were awarded journalism’s most prestigious honor: the Pulitzer Prize. The award, given in the Explanatory Journalism category, was one of two for the Times this year and a first for Buettner. It also marks the second year in a row a Sacramento State alum has received a Pulitzer: Hornet graduates Derek Moore, Jim Sweeney and Martin Espinoza earned the award last year for their coverage of the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

While a student at Sacramento State, Buettner spent two semesters as a reporter for the State Hornet student newspaper. He joined the Times in 2006 after working on investigations teams at the New York Daily News and New York Newsday, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles highlighting abuse, neglect and deadly mistakes in New York’s system of caring for developmentally disabled people.

Below, Buettner discusses his Pulitzer-winning work and his time at Sacramento State (interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity).

What was your reaction upon learning you had received the Pulitzer Prize?

It’s a very exciting moment. I’ve been doing this a long time and have gotten close before. But it’s kind of a pure excitement that you share with your colleagues. You feel good about what you’ve accomplished. You feel very good about the work that you did, that kind of reinforcement and recognition from that particular body. This means a lot in journalism.

Pulitzer Day - Speech
Russ Buettner addresses the New York Times newsroom following the announcement that he and his colleagues had received a Pulitzer Prize. (Photo courtesy Russ Buettner).

Why did you feel this story was important to report?

When somebody is president of the United States, getting to the truth of their lives and what they’ve done that led them there is always going to be important. Some of the ways that Donald Trump is very different than other presidents is that most often in modern times, by the time they get to the point when they’re running for president, most of their life has been thoroughly vetted before. People have gone through it, looked at all the relationships they’ve had, connected the dots that need to be connected, and there’s kind of an extensive public record on all that. Donald Trump had been a public figure for decades, obviously, but never had been taken seriously in that kind of way before. So it was worthwhile to go through that and test, basically, his origin story that he’s always told about himself, that he told during the campaign as to why his ideas should matter and why he was the best person to be president.

How do you feel Sacramento State prepared you for a career in journalism?

I owe almost everything to Sac State. It was a place I could afford to go and a place that welcomed me, so those were two things that I’ll be forever grateful for. It was place that taught me both new ways to think critically, which is everything in my work, and to believe in myself that I was capable of doing that at a fairly high level. I learned to write when I was there. There was a professor there named Jeanne Abbott who worked closely with the Hornet, and when I wrote something, a longer thing to try and get it in the paper, Jeanne would spend hours with me giving me feedback, helping me to massage it into something that was publishable at what seemed like a professional level. Writing is a particular kind of skill. There are some people I’m sure who can just get it and nail it first time they try. I wasn’t like that. I had ideas and talent but I needed to do a lot of work to perfect it for a large audience. All the journalism staff and the English Department at Sac State really moved me along in that direction.

What lessons from Sacramento State do you use most today?

No matter where you’re from, and I don’t mean Sacramento, I just mean from no matter what the economics or cultural background is of your family, you can find a path to get to a place that is mentally satisfying and will challenge you throughout your life. You can feel like when you see your friends going off to huge prestigious universities, that it must be true that your fate is determined when you’re 17 years old and you’re as good as you’re ever going to be when your 17 years old. Sac State shows you that that’s not true. It’s just all a big journey and you just keep learning and keep digging, and you’ll find the life for you that is the best use of your skills and talents and the most rewarding. The lesson for me about Sac State is that it’s a big door opener to the world.

What advice do you have for current Sacramento State journalism students?

Dream big and never quit learning. Realize you got there and you had some skills and some talent and you learned about things you wanted to do. You made a lot of progress. But you are literally not going to stop making progress if you keep working hard on that same pace for your entire life. I know that’s true in journalism. That’s one of the best things about it, you’re just constantly learning and being exposed and being challenged in new ways. And I think that’s true in most fields today. The world is constantly changing underneath our feet and that’s a wonderful thing and wonderful process, and just embrace it and go forth.

Derek Parker completes his degree and starts a new program at Sac State

Derek Parker ’10 (Career and Technical Studies) had two problems. Sacramento State helped solve both.

First, he was running an adult education paramedic program at the Sacramento school district’s Old Marshall School, a program he had built up from a single EMT class, and the program couldn’t be accredited unless its director had a bachelor’s degree. So Parker, who had left Sonoma State years earlier before graduating, enrolled in Sacramento State’s Bachelor of Science in Career and Technical Studies (BSCTS) program, one of several degree completion programs run through the College of Continuing Education (CCE).

Then funding for the program suddenly dried up.

“I had put all this work into creating this paramedic program that I believed in,” said Parker, who is also the battalion chief for the Sacramento Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division. “I’ve got students who are in the program. I’ve got a whole slew of students who want to get into the program. I can’t just let this thing go.”

He contacted Jill Matsueda, director of academic programs with CCE, to see what could be done. The college was receptive, the school district signed off on a transfer, and, in 2009, the CSU’s first and still only paramedic program was born.

“We went to Sac State first, and they jumped on it,” Parker said.

Today, the paramedic program has made a tremendous impact on the fire department where Parker works: He estimates around 20 percent of the department’s employees have gone through it.

Parker’s path to a degree, and a job as a battalion chief, has been a little circuitous. After graduating from Merced High School in 1994, he enrolled at Sonoma State and played football there until the university cut the program in 1996. When he left school and prepared to enter the workforce, his grandmother suggested firefighting.

The entry level position in the industry was as a firefighter/paramedic, so Parker went to paramedic school and got a job with a local ambulance company.

“It’s the closest thing I could find to sport competition. When you’re addressing a sick patient, you have a limited amount of time, so there’s a little bit of pressure,” he said. “Can I complete all these tasks in a short period of time for the betterment of the patient? That’s what drives me. Pushing myself. I’m competing against myself.”

As a battalion chief for the EMS division, Parker is responsible for all of the division’s day-to-day operations. That means overseeing the individuals who work on ambulances, handling EMT and paramedic certification, ensuring that ambulances and other vehicles are in good working condition, and managing the budget. He also still responds to fires, and spends much of his time during the summer on incident management teams working to contain the state’s now-prevalent wildfires.

In addition to the project management skills he uses regularly in his current job, the BSCTS program included students from a wide variety of career backgrounds, something Parker says gave him a broader perspective he continues to find useful. For example, meeting people in the culinary industry provided insight that can come in handy when responding to a grease fire or other emergency at a restaurant. Interacting with students from a law enforcement background allowed him to better understand their perspective on emergency situations.

“You always think your kingdom is the most important kingdom, and I realized that it’s a neighborhood, not a kingdom,” he said.

A photo of Derek Parker, in uniform, at a Sacramento fire station
Derek Parker earned his bachelor’s degree from Sacramento State while at the same time starting the University’s paramedic program. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

With the paramedic program, Parker has taught close to 500 paramedic students who since have found jobs at fire departments, ambulance companies, hospitals and other employers throughout California and beyond. Students in the program receive hands-on learning experiences in a variety of areas, including advanced training in life support and terrorism preparedness, and leave with 30 units of academic credit.

Students in the paramedic program consistently rank higher than the national average when taking the National Registry Exam, a cognitive test required for paramedic certification.

The University runs two cohorts of paramedic program students each academic year, with 40 students admitted to the fall 2018 cohort and another 40 admitted to the spring 2019 cohort. According to the latest data from CCE, 90 percent of paramedic students became licensed after completing the program, and nearly the same number were employed within six months of graduation.

“Derek saw the untapped potential for Sacramento State to offer a paramedic program,” Matsueda said. “Traditionally, these programs are offered at the community colleges and from private providers, but Derek saw the potential for a level of quality and professionalism that would come with the academic oversight of University faculty.”