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Street Shooters

Two filmmakers return to the scenes of their rough childhoods.

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A key scene in Drive By, an indie feature about gangbangers in Little Village, takes place under the el tracks just east of the Blue Line stop at California and Cermak. The hard-bitten Loco spies one of his fellow gang members consorting with someone from a rival crew. His gang, the Brotherhood, is under siege--targeted by other gangs, pressured by the police, and betrayed from within. Loco figures he's looking at the turncoat and decides to shut him up for good. He walks up, pulls out a Smith & Wesson, and delivers a few words of advice before pulling the trigger: "Never betray your friends."

Vicente Zuniga C., who plays Loco in the film, sits at the wheel of his beige Ford Escort talking to Juan J. Frausto, the film's director. Zuniga pulls up under the el tracks where Loco executed his compatriot. "I like shooting under the el," says Frausto. "Once you see an el, you can tell it's Chicago."

Frausto and Zuniga grew up together in violence-plagued Little Village, and they wrote and produced the movie together. The main character, a promising student named Ceasar O'Campo, wants to join the Brotherhood, but the gang's leader, his brother Kiko, is determined to steer him away from the streets. Though the film suffers from preachy dialogue that labors to drive home its profamily, antigang message, the principal actors give strong performances and the film vividly captures Pilsen and Little Village. Completed last June, Drive By was screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center and the City North 14, and in January it was released on DVD and video by Artisan Home Entertainment--a strong showing for an independent film shot on a shoestring.

The project originated in 1998 after Frausto spent six days shooting a trailer for "Westside," a film he wanted to make about a dope-smoking kid who longs to leave his gang and make a life with his girlfriend. That February, Frausto and Zuniga took the trailer to the American Film Market in Santa Monica, California, an annual gathering of producers, distributors, investors, and agents. The two hoped to raise $500,000 for the project, but no one at the market would consider a work in progress. "We were two young guys with nothing to show, so they couldn't trust us with their money," Frausto recalls. "I said to Vinny, 'Next year we'll come back here and we'll bring a finished product.'"

"I believe in Juan," says Zuniga. "To me, he's a brother. When we came back disappointed, I felt like LA had won. Thousands come back the same way, except they spent more money trying to prove they could do something. I didn't want that to happen to Juan because he had a lot of years invested." Frausto went back to the drawing board and spent three weeks drafting a new script, "The Brotherhood," based mostly on stories Zuniga had told him about his rough childhood. After several revisions, the pair pooled their savings, applied for loans, ran up their credit cards, and solicited contributions from friends and relatives to produce the film.

A shortage of professional Latino actors made casting difficult, and the producers mostly relied on friends and neighbors who'd never acted before. When Mario Acosta, a neighbor of Zuniga's, stopped by looking for carpentry work, Zuniga recruited him for the role of Ceasar. "He had this innocent look," says the producer, who talked his partner into passing over a more experienced actor. Felipe Camacho, a veteran of off-Loop theater, snagged the role of Kiko. Zuniga wanted someone fiercer looking, but this time Frausto prevailed, and Camacho agreed to lose a few pounds and grow a goatee for the part.

The cast may have lacked acting experience, but their familiarity with the world of Drive By carried most of them through. Sometimes the material hit too close to home: One woman left her audition in tears because the opening scene, in which her character arranges a hit on a gangbanger, reminded her of her brother's death. Rosa Frausto, one of Juan's sisters, played a character who gets raped by one of the Brotherhood, and the director had to leave the room while the scene was being shot. "It was hard because it looked like she was actually going through it," he says. "She would tell me, 'Juan, it's only acting.'"

Vicente Zuniga may have been closer to the story than anyone else. His father, a Mexican ranch hand, moved to Chicago to become a welder for General Motors and later bought property in the city. Vicente was born in 1969, the youngest of four siblings. As a child he earned money by carrying groceries for customers at a Jewel and selling raffle tickets for the Holy Name Society at Saint Francis of Assisi Church, on Roosevelt near Halsted. As a teenager he bounced from school to school, facing off against gangbangers.

Thomas Kelly High School, where he spent his freshman year, was especially tough. "I had too many enemies there because everybody thought I was a gangbanger," he says. "The white guys didn't like me because I looked white but wasn't. The Mexicans didn't like me because they didn't know which gang I was in." When one of his friends got jumped by a white gang called HEADS ("Help Eliminate And Destroy Spics"), Zuniga leaped into the fray to help him out. Another time a 19-year-old Latino gang member hit him and snatched the gold chain off his neck; after Zuniga pressed charges, the hood threatened to shoot him.

That summer Zuniga was attending a sales training seminar when he saw a kid who looked like his enemy. The kid was alone for once, and Zuniga approached him, itching for a showdown. "What's up?" he said.

"Hi," said the kid. The friendly reply caught Zuniga off guard, and he realized he was mistaken. The kid was Juan Frausto, also enrolled in the seminar. The two chatted and became friends, taking the bus and train home together. For a while they worked together, selling pots and pans door-to-door in Niles, Oak Park, and Blue Island. When Zuniga's father took his family on vacations to New York, Ohio, Iowa, and Nebraska, Frausto would tag along.

Zuniga transferred to Benito Juarez High School for his sophomore year, but this time, instead of too many enemies, he had too many friends. "Everybody knew me and everybody liked me. Because of that, I didn't do my work." He hung out late, worrying his parents, and crossed gang boundaries alone with only a blade for protection. Once a gunman surprised him but backed off when he realized that Zuniga was the wrong target. Before leaving, the gunman asked, "Do you want to buy a gun?"

Zuniga thought about joining a gang, though he's reluctant to mention it by name. One night he went to a meeting in an abandoned building. "There was nothing to see but shadows," he says. One of the members had just been killed by a rival gang, and they were planning their payback. One of the older members insisted that Zuniga leave; the incident inspired a pivotal scene in Drive By, in which Kiko kicks Ceasar out of a Brotherhood meeting.

The murders of several friends dissuaded Zuniga from joining the gang. "I knew how I was. I knew I could be real crazy and I was going to start hurting people for real. I was worried about that."

For his junior and senior years Zuniga attended William Jones Metropolitan High School, where he found his groove taking accounting and computer classes. After getting into a fight at school he found a mentor in his accounting teacher, Don Barry. Zuniga tried to find more productive ways of dealing with his stress. He took aikido and lifted weights. He joined Assumption Church, just north of Cook County jail.

After graduating in 1987, Zuniga earned a degree in applied science at Wilbur Wright College and held a series of jobs as a stuntman, an armored-truck guard, a schoolbus driver, and a chauffeur. Eventually he began rehabbing buildings and selling real estate, and like his father he's sunk his money into properties, buying buildings in Little Village, New City, and Texas. Considering the fact that he could have been smoked long ago, he thinks he's doing pretty well. "It's not just luck," he says, "but the guy upstairs."

The oldest of seven kids, Juan Frausto was born in 1968 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. His parents emigrated to the U.S. when he was 18 months old, and for more than a year they lived near Lawrence and Kenmore in an apartment with no electricity and no sheets on the beds. In 1972, after his father hired on as a machine operator for John Crane International, the family moved to Pilsen, and three years later they settled at 26th and Trumbull in Little Village.

In elementary school Frausto was a strong student and a talented artist. He got his first taste of the movies at the old Marshall Square Theatre, near Marshall and Cermak, where he became a fan of Mexican director Felipe Cazals. In 1977 he convinced his father to take him to Star Wars, and two years later he saw a WTTW special about the making of the film that showed director George Lucas in action. Frausto was taken with the idea of making movies, and at age 12 he began messing around with a neighbor's eight-millimeter camera.

As a student at Curie Metropolitan High School, Frausto played bass guitar and baritone horn and notched As and Bs in his classes. Instead of baggy pants and gang colors he opted for slacks, vests, and white shirts. Seven of his friends joined the Latin Kings, but Frausto kept away. "I knew what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "I knew right from wrong. I knew joining a gang was wrong." Two of the seven eventually joined the Chicago Police Department; the other five are dead. One was stabbed 77 times in the back, his skull opened up with a screwdriver, and Frausto still recalls seeing him in his casket. "He looked like a mannequin. His two brothers were devastated. They looked like zombies because they lost their kid brother. Now those two brothers are gone too."

After graduating in 1987, Frausto enrolled in the communications program at Columbia College to be trained as a cinematographer. He made a few three-minute films and wrote a 20-page screenplay that impressed one of his teachers. Eager to plunge into the film industry, he dropped out of the program after two and a half years. "Columbia doesn't provide you with a job," he says. "You have to go out there and do it on your own. All my friends went to Hollywood, and within six months they came back disappointed."

He worked on music videos, commercials, and independent films in Houston and Chicago, climbing the ladder from production assistant to assistant director and learning how to shoot on the cheap. Around 1992 he began working on his first feature, Change, about three Mexican-American families in various stages of cultural assimilation. His friend Vicente chipped in $500 toward the production cost and worked as a lighting tech on the film. They shot it over a period of 30 months, working on weekends, and in 1994 the film premiered at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, one of the first local productions so honored.

Principal photography for "The Brotherhood" took place in January and February 1999. Frausto and Zuniga had no difficulty finding locations, shooting at Washtenaw Park and George's Hotdogs on Kedzie. But staging scenes of gang violence in Little Village posed some problems. A pair of cops interrupted the death scene under the el to find out what was happening, and a noisy crowd disrupted a scene in front of AAA Foods on 25th Street in which a gang member shoots his girlfriend, her lover, and then himself.

Frausto began editing the film in April, working day and night with a friend's digital system. By August he'd completed a rough cut--and lost 25 pounds. Needing more money for postproduction, he and Zuniga returned to the American Film Market in February 2000. Zuniga took the lead in chasing down prospective investors. "Juan is very quiet," he says. "I would try to bug everybody: 'Hey, watch this movie.'" Eventually an agent, Marvinia Anderson, sent a copy of the film to Malibu producer Barry Barnholtz, who liked what he saw and signed on as executive producer. Production was completed for just under $500,000, and Barnholtz struck a deal with Artisan Home Entertainment for a direct-to-video release. Over the next four months Frausto and Zuniga negotiated the film's sequel rights, sound-track rights, and revenue percentages for sales and broadcasts. Artisan executives, wanting a title that conveyed action, renamed the film Drive By.

As Frausto hammered out the deal, he realized that some of Zuniga's street smarts had rubbed off on him. "I learned how to read people," he says. "You can tell if somebody is telling the truth. I'm a little more reserved. He doesn't hold back anything. His business skills and my skills as a filmmaker got the movie to where it is now."

Last fall, as part of an effort to prevent gang violence, Zuniga and Frausto took members of the cast and crew to Juarez and Clemente high schools, where they screened a trailer for the film and a related music video. "We would like as many kids as possible to see this film," says Zuniga. "It's very psychological. We're hoping that kids will learn from this movie so that they won't go through it themselves."

As my tour winds down, Zuniga drives to Assumption Church. The church occupies neutral territory between turfs controlled by the Latin Kings and the Satan Disciples, and maintenance workers occasionally pick up shell casings on the grounds. Three scenes were shot at the church, including one that resonated with both producers: a teacher who's grown up in the neighborhood compliments Ceasar's writing. "Let me help you prepare for the future," he says. "You can be anything in life."

The filmmakers are waiting for their first check from Artisan, which has expressed interest in a sequel. Frausto, who moved with his family to West Elsdon four years ago, is fielding offers to direct other independent films and searching for money to produce his five other scripts. Zuniga, who still lives in Little Village, wants to start a company that will film TV commercials, conduct personal development workshops, and provide dating services. He's proud of Drive By and hopes some kid who's where he was 20 years ago will take it to heart. "I told Juan, 'Once this film is done, if I die tomorrow it's cool because I should have died a long time ago.' So I feel like, hey, this is good because now we have history that people can learn from."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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