Thursday, September 30, 2010

Honoring Her Tejano Heritage

Turbulence on a Texas ranch is at the center of the real-life 1875 events that inspired the independent historical drama Atanasia, screening tonight at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. Turbulence on a Texas ranch was also the starting point for a long and involved production process guided by writer, director, producer and star Alicia Villarreal, the great-great-granddaughter of the title character, a Mexican landowner in Texas who tries to hold her family together during violent times.

In 2001, a hurricane blew threw the 50-acre Villarreal family ranch in Riviera, an hour south of Corpus Christi, flattening movie sets that had been carefully built. Alicia and her father Roberto started all over again and finally got rolling in the spring of 2002. After a number of additional intermittent shoots, the movie was eventually completed in January of 2005.

El Tunal, one of the rebuilt sets

"I hadn’t remembered how long it took us to make Atanasia until you asked," admits writer-director Villarreal during an interview with FilmStew. "It was very ambitious for a first film. We didn’t know that there are certain rules in indie filmmaking: no period pieces, not too many actors, few locations... We broke the rules because we didn’t know any better!"

There have been ten screenings so far in mostly small Texas towns like El Campo, Falfurrias, Premont and San Benito. As Villarreal gears up for tonight's showing at Del Mar College, she is hoping for more heartfelt audience reaction.

"A great highlight for me has been the number of Hispanic people who were so moved that they cried during and after the movie," she recounts. "I think it's because they could relate to the story, their families having gone through very much the same thing."

Headed for 2011 Hispanic fests

Atanasia began in the mid-1990's as a book co-written by Villarreal with her father. Roughly 1,000 copies have been sold through their sister company VAMOS Inc. to local school districts as supplemental learning material for Migrant Ed. and bilingual programs. A new official Atanasia website at the URL is set to launch soon, with seven other books written by Villarreal Sr. to be offered for purchase.

The pair's $300,000 movie marks the final film appearance of musician Freddy Fender, who plays the part of a liberal hacienda owner. In the end, the Grammy Award winner's participation was limited to an opening scene.

"Freddy was supposed to be a more central part of the film, but he had an accident while riding his motorcycle before shooting began," Villarreal explains (he later became ill with cancer, passing away in 2006). "I had to rewrite the script and create a cameo role for him. Freddy first read about our project over breakfast in the Corpus Christi Caller Times."

(l to r) Villarreal, co-producers Tanya Leite, Esther Jimenez

Another name involved with Atanasia is stunt coordinator David Alverado, whose credits include Pearl Harbor, Hidalgo and The Alamoz. He came to the script via an employee at a copy shop the Villarreal's once owned.

Individual investors provided $125,000 for the film, with the rest financed by profits from the family's educational publication business and extra consulting performed by dad Roberto. At one point, a waitress named Ramona ponied up $1,000 of her federal tax refund for the cause, a show of support Alicia is still trying to reciprocate.

"She moved away to Maine before we finished the film and we lost touch," she bemoans. "I’m actually trying to find her, because I want to give her a copy of Atanasia and stay in touch. Maybe she’ll read this article!" Maybe, indeed.


1 comment:

  1. I see from the rules of the / AMC film contest that the maximum running time for entries is 90 minutes. That's right where ATANASIA is at, so I think it is a good suggestion for Alicia to enter the contest.

    You've got a good group of judges, too: