Helmers, come home

Latino filmmakers return to personal projects

First, Hollywood faced runaway shoots. Now it faces another problem: runaway directors. And it seems to be a peculiarly Latino phenomenon of late.

  • To follow “Hellboy,” Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro will make “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a counterpart to his 2001 Spanish-lingo thriller “Devil’s Backbone,” which will be co-produced by Jorge Vergara and Alfonso Cuaron’s Anhelo Prods and Del Toro’s Tequila Gang.

  • Hot off of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Cuaron will cash in his clout, making a film in Spanish about the 1968 student uprising in his native Mexico.

  • At Cannes, Walter Salles confirmed he will follow up Disney’s “Dark Water” with “Linha do Pase” back home in Brazil.

  • Luis Mandoki went home to Mexico to helm two pics back-to-back. The first, “Casas de Carton,” looks Venice-bound.

  • After “Crazy in Alabama,” Antonio Banderas has optioned a Spanish novel for his second directorial outing. He’ll shoot the film in Spanish in his hometown of Malaga in southern Spain.

  • And Mexican helmer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose first English-language pic, “21 Grams,” nabbed Oscar noms for stars Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts, reportedly is mulling a return to his roots.

A handful of European directors has straddled both indie and studio fare, but U.S. helmers rarely swing both ways. So what’s got into these Latino mavericks? It’s not just the allure of creative liberty, or homesickness. “When I’m homesick, I go out and eat tacos, I don’t go off and make a film in Mexico,” Cuaron says.

“A studio movie is like a box of cereal, while a small film is like the toy you find in it,” says Del Toro. “You can play and have fun with a small movie.”

But, counters Cuaron, his pal of 17 years: “There is one secret we don’t tell our mommies: We love the cereal as much as the treat.”

Salles has confessed to Cuaron that he’s content to keep making films in Brazil. “A filmmaker’s strength lies in his identity, and therefore in his roots,” he tells Variety. “You have to remain as close to your own culture as you can.”

For 16-year Hollywood vet Mandoki, returning to Mexico was a much-needed shock. After some unremarkable Hollywood fare, he’s following the lead of Cuaron, who raised his cachet with “Y tu mama tambien” after making critically acclaimed pics “Great Expectations” and “A Little Princess” in Hollywood.

“I made ‘Mama’ against the advice of many people. Ironically, it opened doors for me, and the studio movie I was developing at the same time would have probably closed doors,” Cuaron says.

Mandoki’s “Casas de Carton,” based on the childhood guerilla experience of pic’s Salvadorean screenwriter Oscar Torres, is the helmer’s first attempt to work with children, with no stars in sight.

“It’s been hard work, but revitalizing,” says Mandoki. His next pic, “Amapola,” is a hard-hitting look at the origins of the drug trade.

“Whenever you do a film out of your own frontiers, you should go back, keeping in synchronicity with where you come from and with who you are,” says Salles, whose “Linha” tracks a group of street kids across Sao Paolo.

But why the simultaneous diaspora? It could be a sign of the times. “In a Bush era, these directors just don’t like to be thought of as part of a U.S. system,” says Don Ranvaud, prexy of Latino sales/production company Buena Onda Films, which has “Linha” on its slate.

All the projects touch on sociopolitical issues that have shaped their countries. Reflected in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a thriller set in 1942 Spain, Del Toro’s fascination with fascist Spain stems from his childhood friendships with Spanish exiles from Franco’s regime.

Banderas has set his film in 1978, just after Franco’s 40-year dictatorship ended. It’s a coming-of-age film, about teens on holiday. But, almost inevitably, it will become a movie about a whole country coming of age, too.

Cuaron’s “Mexico ’68” touches on the violent student uprising that left “one of the biggest scars on the Mexican psyche, an event that had an impact on the rest of the world, like a drop of poison in a huge lake that may not kill you but changes it forever,” he says.

But Hollywood need not despair — some runaway Latinos also are running back.

Cuaron has Universal’s sci-fi thriller “The Children of Men” in simultaneous development with “Mexico ’68”; Del Toro has committed to “Hellboy II” as well as developing “At the Mountains of Madness” for DreamWorks; and Banderas is reprising his starring role in sequel “The Legend of Zorro,” currently shooting in Mexico.

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