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Interview: Writer/Director Jairaj Walia on Pendejo

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While writer/director Jairaj Walia has made several short films, he is currently in the midst of post-production on his first full-length feature film, the romantic comedy Pendejo. Walia recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss pursuing a project of this scale with a cast that includes Danny Trejo, Raja Fenske, and Fernanda Romero. The comedy focuses on a partying son (the pendejo [or “idiot”] of the film) forced by his father to work for the family company as a janitor or end up disinherited. Walia conceived of the film after heeding the advice of a former professor to “write what you know”. In this interview, the writer/director is quick to emphasize that the film (due for release in 2012) is loosely based on his life experiences. My thanks to Walia for his time.

Prior to pursuing this film, you almost walked away from moviemaking to work in your family’s business. Is your family supportive of your choice to follow your creative instincts or do they still hold out hope you will work for the family?

My family has always been supportive of my film career. They allowed me a great opportunity by sending me to NYU [New York University’s TISCH School of the Arts] to study film. When I started to step away from film, they were disappointed because they felt that I was such a creative person. Of course, if I had wanted to join the family business, they would have supported that as well; but it was actually my parents who pushed me to get back into film. They reminded me how passionate I have always been about films. Truly, without their support, I would have never started writing Pendejo, much less made it into a feature film. I thank my parents for guiding me and providing me the opportunity to make my first feature film.

You wrote a movie somewhat fueled by your own life, how awkward or easy was it to partially mine your own life for comedic fodder?

One of my professors once told me, “Write what you know.” This was the first time I actually listened to that advice—and to be honest, I have never enjoyed the writing process more. Pendejo is very loosely based on my life experiences; and even though 99% of all the characters in the film actually exist, it was great fun to exaggerate and sometimes tone down some of the experiences I’ve had on this crazy rollercoaster we call “life”. I think that people should be able to laugh about anything—through any situation—no matter how tense. If you can’t laugh it off and find the humor in a situation that is testing you, then you are never going to make it through it. It was great fun sitting down every day and translating pieces of my life into a script. It was also very scary, because at one point I began to think, “Hmm do I really want to share this much with complete strangers?” In the end though, I decided to laugh it off and write it anyhow. So when you see the movie, feel free to laugh away. I did throughout the writing of it.

How were able to cast a veteran actor like Danny Trejo? Was it challenging to direct someone of his wealth of experience, or was Trejo receptive to your directorial approach?

We were able to get in touch with Danny Trejo through my awesome producer, Sevier Crespo, and my amazing casting director, Travis Huff. Somehow, they got in touch with him and his people, explained the role to him, and before you knew it, there he was on set awaiting my direction. In this film, he’s able to show a side of himself that we never get to see—a lighter, comedic side. And he’s great! I’ll admit I was hesitant about even going up and speaking with him. Most of the time it seems Danny’s roles require him to be snarling at someone and stabbing them with some sort of sharp metal object. So now that he was standing right in front of me on set, I really had to tell myself, “Well Jai, you asked for this, so own it and direct your actor.” To my pleasant surprise, Danny Trejo was not only perfect for the role of Pedro, but he was a kind, respectful and professional human being. He kept calling me “Sir,” which was freaking me out, because I have grown up watching him in movies and now he is calling me “Sir?!” So he and I pretty much spent our time together calling each other “Sir.” Danny really allowed me to do my job and I’m so grateful that he participated in our film and elevated it with his talent.

Can you walk folks through your thought process in casting Raja Fenske and Fernanda Romero?

To be able to make the comedy work, I needed an actress for the role of “Jenny” who was not only beautiful, but talented. But more than that, whoever played “Jenny” needed to have a softness about her—a likeability that is just part of who they are. When I saw Fernanda Romero’s picture, I could see that she had the beauty box and the likeability box checked off. But did she have the talent? Well, after she came in and read for the role, I turned to my team and said, “Get her! She is Jenny.”

The role of “J” was a little more difficult. I really wanted to show a different side to Indian males. On TV and in movies you always see the same couple of Indian actors that all look similar. But what many people don’t know is that you can be from India and have light skin and look totally different from what is depicted in the media. So I needed a good-looking kid that was Indian, but without the typical Indian look—and who was talented enough to carry this movie on his shoulders. It was difficult to find this combination for the character of “J.” Either I found the talent, but they didn’t have the look, or I found the look without the talent. The Holy Grail of the Indian comedic actor without the typical Indian look was looking like a lost cause. So we had a second casting session and in walks Raja Fenske—boyishly charming, easy to get along with, and tremendously talented! He made Pendejo; he completed it. Raja is Pendejo—and I can’t thank him enough for carrying this film on his shoulders.

The movie partially reflects aspects of Indian and Latin cultures. Was that always an underlying goal for your film or was it a nuance of the film’s dynamics that came about in the development process?

It was never my goal to blend Indian and Latin cultures. The story of Pendejo is loosely based on my life. And in my life there are people from all over the world with different cultures and backgrounds. I am Indian, so I made the choice to keep our main character Indian. And most of my friends and the people I’m surrounded by are Latino, so they too remained Latin in the translation. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about Latin culture through my friends, so I felt comfortable writing about it. I grew up in the U.S. and am an American, so that also got thrown into the mix. I just wrote what I knew, and because of that we got an interesting blend of Indian, Latin and American culture all in one big melting pot.

In a down economy, how proud were you that you were able to get this movie produced/funded? What were some of the larger logistically challenges you faced in making Pendejo?

Extremely proud. I was just happy to be able to make what I had written. Sometimes people never get to see what is on the paper become a living, breathing, film—and I’m so grateful that I was able to see that transformation. One huge logistical challenge was finding a farm or open area to shoot our U.S./Mexico border scenes. Every place I found wanted too much money. And I didn’t want to shoot it in my backyard because you can only stretch the imagination so far. But luckily some angels were watching over us again, because I was put in touch with a lovely doctor who owned a vineyard in Temecula. And he let us use his 600-acre ranch in exchange for a few photos of his vineyard. Some things that seemed to be a huge hurdle were solved simply by the kindness of others. I can’t thank this individual enough for allowing us to use his property; it really gave those scenes the realism they needed. I really hope other independent filmmakers are lucky enough to run into good people who are willing to help.

When did you realize this film needed a mini-horse?

I knew this film needed some kind of strange pet since day one. I thought about it and then suddenly, “Mini-horse! It’s brilliant!” I don’t know how or why the mini-horse crossed my mind, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, so…

Are you in the process of submitting the film for festivals? Can you talk about where it is slated to appear in 2012 (please ignore this if it’s too soon to ask)?

Yes we are currently submitting to film festivals and considering distribution options. The film is being finished in post-production but will definitely be available for viewing in 2012. For updates on the release of the film, check on www.pendejomovie.com or follow us on Twitter and Facebook. I can’t wait to finish this bad boy up and share it with everyone! Get in, join us, be a Pendejo!

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