On Filming John Leguizamo: An Interview With Benjamin De Jesus

Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

 

As part of the PBS Arts Summer Festival, Tales From a Ghetto Klown documents comedian and actor John Leguizamo’s return to the stage after a nine-year hiatus and his attempts to get his show, Ghetto Klown, to Broadway. Filmmaker Ben De Jesus spent three years following Leguizamo from the time he started writing until the show’s Broadway debut in March 2011. De Jesus spoke with Highbrow Magazine by email about his experiences with Leguizamo and his making of the documentary.

 

When did you first meet John Leguizamo? Have you worked with him on other projects?

I first met John when our mutual friend David Chitel [founder of the New Generation Latino Consortium] introduced us so we could work on some viral videos together. We hit it off during those small-scale shoots, which were more like informal and improv-style collaborations. A lot of brainstorming and trying things out on the fly with an outline, as opposed to a rigid script. It was a really great creative experience for the few of us involved, so John and I kept in touch and on the lookout for another project we could work on together. 

 

How did the documentary come about? Did John seek you out to produce it, or were you the one to approach John about the project? 

I had always been a super fan of John as an actor in theatre. I had read his books when I was studying theatre at Rutgers. I had stood in line at the TKTS booth to buy half-priced tickets to Freak back in 1998. I even stood outside his stage door to shake John's hand. So once he mentioned that he was starting to rehearse his new one-man show, right away I asked if I could come check out a rehearsal—with my camera, of course.

 

But my plan was to be low-key and more of a fly on the wall. There I met Fisher [Stevens] the director and the rest of the crew including Arnold [Engelman] the producer, Aaron [Gonzalez] the designer and Micah [Frank] the über-assistant. After that first day, I saw [Ghetto Klown] as a fascinating story of this really small group of people led by John's creative genius who were literally taking on Broadway. It seemed like history was being made in this small rehearsal space above the Duane Reade on 50th and Broadway. So I asked John if I could hang out again the next day—with my camera, of course. That day, I came in with a treatment for the documentary and pitched John and Fish to let me hit the road with them to capture this story. Fortunately, they said yes and I got to capture this story.  

 

What was it about Tales from a Ghetto Klown that appealed to you? Why did you get involved?

I've always loved documentaries that capture some type of mission in progress. Whether they result in a happy ending or not. So while this show was destined to make it to Broadway, there were many moments of potential failure and forces throughout that had the potential to derail the whole thing. I would be shooting behind the camera, completely engrossed in how John and the team would overcome these amazing challenges and obstacles that seemed to pop up at every corner.

 

So from an outsider's point of view, I had a sense that people would be interested in seeing the not-always-pretty process behind the curtain. John and Fisher especially were so invested and worked so hard to make the show better, that it was not hard to root for them. But their success was certainly not guaranteed, which made the story even more compelling to me. Plus, not a lot of people ever get to connect and collaborate with one of their genuine heroes, so I was very aware that I had landed in a good spot. Regardless, I was there to capture the story as it happened: the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

You spent three years working on the documentary. How much of that was spent following John Leguizamo around, and how did that impact your other projects? Did you put everything on hold, or was there other work being completed?

I would shoot John for weeks during rehearsals, then I traveled with him to Chicago. I hung around the Broadway theatre in his dressing room just before the shows and sometimes during intermission, on and off, for the whole five-month run on Broadway.

 

Not all of it was just shooting all the time. Some of the best footage came when I would just be cracking wise with John about anything and everything. During those times backstage, at some point the vibe would shift and John would open up to my camera in a way that was unplanned and natural. But throughout most of the three-year process, I was also doing other projects through my production company [Diamante Pictures], including several music videos, TV specials and commercials to keep the business running. But I was there with John to capture all the major moments from pre-Broadway to opening night to the tour in Colombia.

 

When setting out to make the film, did you also have a plan to distribute and show it? At what point in the process did you consider public television? How did PBS become involved?

In the beginning, things were happening so fast with the actual show that I was really focused on just capturing as much as possible as it was happening. I literally got booked to go with John to Chicago about 12 hours before my flight. Once the show opened on Broadway, I had a chance to sit back and look at what I had and thought PBS right away. So I applied for a grant with Latino Public Broadcasting and six months later they told us we won the grant. At first, it was just going to air on PBS off-prime time, but then Donald Thoms, head of Arts Programming, saw the project and decided to fast track it for the prime time PBS Arts Summer Festival. So it's been very exciting. We also have a DVD with special features being released at the same time.

 

Tales from a Ghetto Klown is pursuing funding through Kickstarter. What inspired you to turn to Kickstarter for funding? What advantages, if any, does a grassroots source like Kickstarter provide an artist?

Kickstarter is like the PBS Pledge Drive for the 21st Century. Besides being a great source of funding for a project, the buzz you can build via a Kickstarter campaign is extremely valuable. I've backed projects there myself, so I believe in the model for artists in all kinds of mediums. 

 

You’ve done a lot of work for mun2 and SiTV, the video for Don Omar’s "Reggaeton Latino" and other projects either in Spanish or for a Latino audience. Is that a deliberate choice? How has your heritage influenced your work and your choice of film projects? How has it influenced your work on Tales from a Ghetto Klown?I never seek out to do Latin projects specifically, but I do tap into what I know, which is youth and mainstream urban [culture]. But ultimately, I love American pop culture, which now more than ever is all about fusion and cultures converging anyway.

 

What’s next for Ben De Jesus and Diamante Pictures?

I'm looking forward to a stretch of three days off in a row. Then after that, I want to keep directing more television, before doing my first feature film. I have a script in development for a television coming-of-age series. I also want to find another project to work with John again ASAP. He's a great guy and someone who goes out of his way to open doors for people who are trying to make it happen.

 

Tales From a Ghetto Klown airs tonight on PBS.

 

Author Bio:

Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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