In a cramped office on the UNLV campus, filled with books and monitors and computers and DVDs, Francisco Menendez is conferencing via Skype with editors in LA working on a movie he directed. But it’s not Primo, the film 15 years in the making that Menendez will finally premiere at this year’s CineVegas film festival. It’s even older than that, a movie that the filmmaker shot 20 years ago and sent off to an LA lab to be processed. He tells the story with a mix of wonder and excitement: “[The] lab called and said 35 percent of the footage is lost. I was like, ‘That broke up my first marriage! What are you, crazy? You can’t tell me that!’ But I don’t really believe in suing anybody; I think that’s kind of bad karma. So I just said, ‘Okay, well, here’s my number. If you ever find it, call me.’” Fifteen years later, Menendez got a fax from the lab saying that the footage had been located, and now here he is, coming back to something he started more than two decades ago.
That kind of patience and perseverance has marked Menendez’s career as both a filmmaker and a professor at UNLV, where he now chairs the film department. Born in El Salvador, Menendez came to the U.S. at 18, got a master’s degree in film from Cal Arts and started teaching at UNLV in 1990, where he’s been ever since. As a UNLV faculty member, he established a program in which students serve as crew members on films written and directed by professors, giving them firsthand experience of what life is like on a real film set.
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“In order for feature films to be done in a film-school setting, you really need someone who’s crazy, and really wants to give up their life to commit to the project,” Menendez says, and it’s obvious he’s referring to himself. Primo is the product of the university’s co-curricular project, as was Menendez’s 2001 short film Medio Tiempo, and Menendez is proud of the opportunity he’s had to help students learn the filmmaking ropes and go on to real careers. “That’s the point of the project, is the fact that those that want to use this to professionalize themselves, they can, in a way that you can’t do in a classroom, or you can’t do in a 10-minute film,” he says.
Primo, which Menendez first wrote in 1993, was shot primarily in three 10-day stretches in 2004, with Menendez himself traveling to El Salvador to shoot supplementary footage. Postproduction stretched on much longer, partly because the director placed himself ahead of the technological curve at the outset, convincing the university to invest in high-definition video equipment at a time when it was not especially prevalent. “We shot a film on hi-def, but we could not afford a hi-def monitor to ever look at the film until two years after it was shot,” Menendez explains. “So we had no idea what it looked like. We had it down-converted on a small monitor, and we were like, ‘This looks pretty bad. Why are we shooting this way? We want to shoot on film.’ We were shooting on faith that technology was going to somehow step up, and it did. All of a sudden we got to the point where relatively inexpensive plasma [screens] could show what we’d shot. We were like, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’”
The story of three Salvadoran cousins who reunite in Las Vegas under unfortunate circumstances, Primo is a very personal project for Menendez, and not just because of all the time he spent working on it. “Coming from El Salvador, as I became a filmmaker, I felt it was my responsibility to tell stories about El Salvador, because if I don’t, no one else will,” he says. After CineVegas, the movie will show at film festivals both in El Salvador and in LA (in a festival targeted to Salvadorans). “What I really love about showing Medio Tiempo to a group of Salvadorans, is they all weep and cry and whatever, because someone’s actually telling a story about Salvadorans,” Menendez says. “That’s amazing to them, that somebody’s doing that, and there’s no commercial reason for it.”
He hopes for the same reaction to Primo, and has spent years crafting a film that will resonate with audiences, as well as bring attention to filmmaking at UNLV. It hasn’t always been an easy road. “Making a feature film is a war,” he says bluntly, and then goes on to catalog the casualties, from the beginning of production to now: “In between I got divorced, I had a stroke, I had another child.” For Menendez, though, it was all worth it. “The idea was to just create a film that would mean something,” he says, “and at the same time do something meaningful for the program.”
Primo plays June 19 at 9:30 p.m.