Q&A: ‘Gringolandia:’ hard-up in ‘The Big Apple’

By George Nelson
Published On : Sun, Jan 19th, 2014

Chilean filmmaker Cristóbal Ross’s first comedy web series, ‘Gringolandia,’ has received rave reviews and follows the exploits of a Chileno in New York.

Q&A: ‘Gringolandia:’ hard-up in ‘The Big Apple’

Both Cristóbal Ross and the protagonist of his recently released mockumentary web series, “Gringolandia,” know too well the hardships of relocating to “The Big Apple.” Ross upped sticks two years ago, moving from his native Chile to New York, and went into filmmaking blind — as a result he had to learn the ropes on the job.

Peter, the star of “Gringolandia” — played by Chilean Youtube star Koke Santa Ana — also finds himself in an alien predicament. Jobless, broke and unimpressed with U.S. hot dogs — “not even good enough for the munchies” — he decides to introduce New Yorkers to the Chilean “completo.”

A Chilean culinary staple, the “completo” is a hot-dog variant which comes packed with extras — diced tomato, mashed avocado and mayonnaise among the standard additions.

The bilingual, seven episode series — penned, produced and directed by former engineer Ross — follows Peter and his “gringa” girlfriend Stacey, played by Nicole Schneider, as they try to carve out a successful business. Hugely comical obstacles arise in the form of Nicole’s father — less-than-impressed with his daughter’s new partner — culture shock and the ever-present language barrier.

“Gringolandia” took only five days to shoot and has received brilliant reviews by both English and Spanish speaking audiences since being premiered alongside Sebastián Silva’s “Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus” and “Magic Magic” in November last year. The series had already received more than one million views on Youtube.

The Santiago Times spoke with Ross to discuss his journey as a filmmaker, how his own experiences inspired the creation of “Gringolandia,” the future of filmmaking and the boundaries between reality and fiction.

How did you first get into directing?

I worked for LAN Airlines in Chile for three years after studying industrial engineering. However, I wanted to change careers, so did my wife. We quit our jobs and moved to New York in September 2012. Now my wife is studying and I am on a surreal adventure.

Initially I wanted to be a film producer but I ended up becoming a filmmaker — it wasn’t really planned. I enjoyed the experience of being on set and making my vision into reality. It is something I find very satisfying and now I realise why people find it so addictive. Imagining something in my head and then seeing it on screen is something very unique — this is what drives me as a filmmaker.

It took me a long time to realise how to go about making “Gringolandia” but after I had researched everything I decided to put my life savings into my goal. I started writing the series in January last year and it took me three or four months to complete. We shot some teasers in order to test the water and make sure the team felt right — test the water before diving into the sea, if you like.

Engineer to filmmaker is not the most obvious career move — how hard was it making the transition?

It was easier than I first imagined. While working for LAN I felt the need to create something, this is why I quit my job. At first I didn’t think I was capable of writing or directing, I had not tried it before so I definitely had doubts. Initially I looked for script writers, directors etc. — all of whom were too expensive and I wasn’t sure if they would be able to accurately create what I had in mind. In the end I decided to go it alone. My film school consisted of learning as I went along — this way I was able to decide exactly which part of filmmaking I wanted to specialize in because I was able to experience all aspects first hand. This is the spirit in which I entered the entire process.

Were you able to transfer any of the skills you learnt as an engineer into filmmaking?

As a matter of fact, yes. Without my experience of engineering I’m not sure I would have been able to pull “Gringolandia” off. Being able to bring the entire project together comes from my background as an engineer, from creating the story, recruiting talented people, the logistics and making sure the financial side of the series remained viable. I utilized the skills I learned as an engineer and viewed filmmaking as a problem that needed to be solved — that’s how I went about it.

Why did you decide to release the series only on Youtube?

The nature of storytelling and the way it is broadcast is changing so rapidly. Independent creators are now able to have complete control over their production because of platforms like Youtube. So much of the time there are no editorial restrictions, people high up saying “you have to say this” or “you must include that.” A web series is a more flexible format — they are usually cheaper to produce and you have more creative control. There is no studio dictating how things should be done, there is more freedom. The only person I had to answer to was myself. I was able to cut out the middleman and there are a lot of middlemen taking a cut for themselves in this industry. I have invested my entire life savings into creating “Gringolandia,” but we managed to find a couple of sponsors so I was able to recover some costs.

Shooting a web series is completely different to what goes on in Hollywood for example, where it is almost impossible for one guy to develop an entire vision, from creating the story to editing the final cut. This is one of the reasons I decided to focus on directing as opposed to editing — so that I could project my own vision.

How did you invent the characters for ‘Gringolandia?’

I went through a lot of things when I first moved to New York, so many of the occurrences in the series are loosely based on my own experiences. Peter, the main character, was based on a mixture of a friend of mine and the classic Chilean guy stereotype. I wanted to put this guy amongst classic U.S. sitcom stereotypes and it turned out to be a good experiment — what happens when this Chilean guy finds himself in awkward situations? A few of the other characters were created with the help of the cast, we looked at what their strengths were and they developed their own characters as we went along. We were learning the whole time.

Where did you find Koke Santa Ana?

I immediately thought of him when thinking about who would be good for the role. He was already a really popular guy on Youtube so that made it easier for people to recognize him. He is also a terrific actor. He was making funny videos on Youtube and it was plain to see that people were enjoying his work. Now he is involved in a lot of projects so I am glad “Gringolandia” has helped his career to grow.

And Nicole Schneider?

I posted a web-based advert looking for a 25-year-old, natural, sweet, naive, blonde American girl. I received over 300 applications and Nicole was one of the first to apply. After reviewing the other applications we eventually came back to her. There was no casting. We met on the first day of shooting the teasers. All actors were cast in this way, through Skype. I met them all on the first day of shooting. When you see someone acting on screen I feel that is enough.

What were the main problems you faced while filming?

One of the actors had to leave halfway through filming so we were forced to rewrite an entire scene — that was very challenging. We also shot a few teasers that never saw the light of day so, theoretically, that was wasted work. We made a few mistakes along the way but in general the production was very sound and the pieces were very well put together so when problems did come up we were able to cope with them.

Do you take inspiration from other filmmakers?

I love Ricky Gervais — I take great inspiration from his work, mostly “The Office.” I am a big fan of mokumentaries in general. Exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction is something I am very interested in. I want the audience to ask: “is this real or not?”

How have people reacted to ‘Gringolandia?’

The series has received more than one million views in two months and we have over 60,000 subscribers and a whole load of Facebook and Twitter followers — we are all over social network.

The reaction has been really great — far better than I could have imaged. We’ve had really good reviews, especially from the LA Weekly, and Youtube is full of positive comments. I am amazed by this. I thought at least there would have been a few negative people throwing bad comments around but I have not seen anything. Everyone seems to love it and many people are pressuring us to make a second season.

Where are most of your fans from?

For now they are mostly Chileans, many of whom are living abroad. I think they can really relate to Peter as most of them have probably experienced at least one of the amusing situations he goes through. We have not yet angled the marketing towards a U.S. audience. Gringolandia first premiered at Virginia’s William and Mary Film Festival last November, a few episodes were shown in between screenings of Chilean director Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and Magic Magic. The 500-strong crowd really enjoyed it, which was encouraging and it gave me a good hint that the series could be attractive to an English-speaking audience as well. Also, there are many second generation South Americans living in the U.S. so there is certainly potential.

Do you have plans to create another series?

Yeah, we have a few ideas. First we are trying to finish the first season, consolidating it and proving the business model works. I would like to be able to make a living out of filmmaking, turning it into my day job and not just a hobby.

So once I have done this hopefully we can get a few more sponsors and create a second season. I feel there is a lot of potential in this format, I am convinced this is the future of television. The habits of the audience are changing so fast — nobody wants to be fed what is on the TV, people want to have more say in what they watch these days. TV and traditional media are in decline whereas mobile viewing is on the rise. The scenario in five years time will be completely different.

This is one reason that we are funding a company called www.contento.tv — a company focused on storytelling for digital media of the future.

What are your long term plans? Would you like to make movies?

I feel that it’s kind of a romantic idea to want to make movies. I’m not sure. At the end of the day I only want to tell stories and the medium of film is only one way to do this.

Not everyone wants to watch a movie for two hours, sometimes it is too long. I know that the movie industry is a tough place to be right now — you have to get most funding directly through box office — and many cinemas are struggling. It is a really concentrated market. If I find the right idea and I decide that I really want to take it somewhere then I may make a movie in the future, but for now I think the future is online.

I would also like to thank all the people who have made “Gringolandia” possible. I would not have been able to turn it into a reality without the help of all those involved. Many people got on board simply because they believed in the project so I would like to say a huge thank you. My editor,  Nicolás Balbontín, has also been brilliant — I am indebted to them all.

By George Nelson (nelson@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

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