By Aldo Velasco
Tent City is set in the near future during a time of economic collapse. Unemployment is in the double digits, and block after block of businesses and homes have been foreclosed and abandoned. Only the powerful few live in homes, while the rest must survive in the tent cities cropping up everywhere.
Matthew Ochoa, a renowned comic book artist in better times, has acquired a home at great personal cost: He has taken a job on a Resident Eviction Squad. Every day, he and his co-workers must forcibly evict unlucky homeowners who have fallen behind on their payments.
But things aren’t much better at home. His relationship with his wife Sandra has become tense. Matthew’s 11-year-old son Ivan is clearly furious at him, but refuses to explain why. Despite this, Matthew persuades Ivan to play their favorite game, Trapezoid. Using three random words as building blocks, Matthew and Ivan create a science fiction tale — a story-within-a-story — about a hapless corporate worker who learns to his horror that he is not a human being but is, in fact, a robot created to serve the company’s nefarious purposes.
Tent City interweaves Matthew’s life at his job with the story-within-a-story of the corporate robot. Matthew’s workplace becomes increasingly untenable, and he finds himself identifying more and more with the character in his Trapezoid story. One day he must evict an elderly man who will clearly die alone in Tent City. Another day, he and his co-workers burst into a home only to find that its resident has committed suicide rather than face eviction.
One night, after finishing the next chapter in the story, Matthew learns from Ivan the real reason he has been upset. Ivan admits that he is ashamed of his father’s new job; that his own best friend at school was recently evicted, and Ivan has become a pariah at school due to his father’s profession. Deeply affected, Matthew must grapple with a painful choice: should he stay at his job and keep his family home, or quit the job and keep his family, even if it means living in Tent City?
When I began thinking about this project, the idea of tent cities was hardly futuristic. It was already happening. My downstairs neighbor, a photojournalist, told me about the growing tentopolis on the eastern edge of town. He had gone out there to take some snaps but was greeted with a volley of rocks.
I’d seen tent cities before, those clusters of the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. But this one was different. It was made up of the losers of the middle class; losers because they had lost their prized possessions — their homes — during the subprime mortgage crisis. It felt like the final nail in the coffin of the American Dream. It felt like the future.
At that time the economy was in freefall and nothing seemed unimaginable. The financial crisis could very well snowball into a global depression. I began to imagine what might happen in a few years time. What if it was not just a few homeowners but a majority of people living in tent cities? My story began to emerge, the tale of Matthew Ochoa, a graphic novelist who has been forced to abandon his career during the economic meltdown. To save his family from the fate of living in Tent City, he takes a job with a Residence Eviction Squad, an armed team of men who evict others from their homes.
I didn’t, however, want to create another dystopian vision of the future. My view of humankind is oddly optimistic. Since Matthew is a graphic novelist, I wanted the resolution of his dilemma to come out of his storytelling. I conceived of a game to be played between Matthew and his son, in which they concoct a parallel story, a pulp science fiction that would illuminate Matthew’s situation in the main storyline. Once this structure fell into place, I felt right at home. It’s the kind of story-within-a-story conceit that I love about The Arabian Nights and the short stories of Borges.
Ultimately, Tent City isn’t about the housing crisis as much as the ethical choices we all must make in periods of financial duress. We think we have a grasp of who we are. Our identities are firmly in place, in terms of family, career, and status. All it takes is an economic catastrophe to strip us clean of all that, leaving our self-image in tatters. We are forced to make the kinds of choices that would have been unthinkable just months before. Tent City is about a man who suffers just such a shock to his persona, and who must use the skills of his former life — as a storyteller — to piece together his true self.
— Aldo Velasco, Director
I was feeling very clever. Not only had I solved a major production problem, I had achieved it in striking way that paid homage to cinematic history.
A crucial aspect of Tent City is its story-within-a-story, told by Matthew (Anthony Giangrande) to his son, Ivan (Austin Coleman). But I had conceived this inner story as a science-fiction epic, requiring a budget worthy of Roland Emmerich. How was I supposed to skillfully portray this world — and at the same time convince anyone that I could pull it off in production, under budget?
The solution came to me one morning, in the stage between sleep and wakefulness: I would create the science fiction universe with nothing but black-and-white still images, like La jetée, Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short about time travel, memory, ephemeral love, nuclear holocaust, and other concerns of the French New Wave.
But after I had finished patting myself on the back, reality set in. Due to budgetary constraints, my production team and I only had two days to shoot all the still photographs, which would make up a full third of the film. The script called for elaborate locations set in a futuristic universe: a “gleaming” city, a laboratory for the building of robots, a space-age restaurant, and trickiest of all, an idyllic lake bordered by a forest of fir trees. Where was I supposed to find that in Los Angeles?
The joy of shooting stills is that you can use a small image to tell an epic story. I needed images of a field full of corpses — victims of a plague — but I had no idea how to create such a ghastly scene. The solution was to go small rather than big: we lined up as many friends and family as we could, had them lie down and kick off their shoes and socks, covered them with blankets, and voila: plague victims. Our ever-resourceful production designer Michael Fitzgerald added a macabre touch by creating numbered toe tags for each foot.
For the high-tech robot-building laboratory, director of photography Mathew Rudenberg suggested an L.A. metro station. With its eerie overhead lighting pods that resembled spaceships, the place looked like a leftover set from Godard’s Alphaville. And producer Jasmine Jaisinghani provided the trickiest location — the lakeside forest — by delving into her memories of youth in L.A. and remembering Franklin Reservoir, a hidden oasis smack in the middle of the city.
Those two days of shooting stills were just as stressful and fun as the regular shoot, with our skeleton crew and very patient actor running around town getting as many snaps as possible. In the end I had more than 3,000 photos to sift through — 125 ended up in the film.
The stills are the most striking visual aspect of Tent City. A still photograph can capture an emotion in a sliver of time and somehow make it essential, timeless. I’m so in love with this style that I’m planning on one day creating an entire film using only stills.
— Aldo Velasco, Director
Director / Writer
Aldo Velasco is a filmmaker and playwright born in Guadalajara, Mexico. His short films have screened at the Sundance, SXSW, and Los Angeles Film Festivals, among others. His play The True History of Coca-Cola in Mexico has been staged at numerous theaters across the country. His short film Infitd was selected by UCLA Professor Chon Noriega as one of the 100 Best Chicano Films of all time. Currently he is in pre-production on two feature films, Scuttlebutt and SuperMacho.
After receiving his MFA from the UCLA Film program, Aldo took a detour from the film world and worked for a time as a private investigator. His investigation of the Mario Rocha case was featured in the film Mario’s Story, which has aired on Showtime and won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2006.
Jaisinghani is a partner at Lodestar Films in Los Angeles, where she focuses on feature film development. She received her BFA in theatrical direction at Carnegie Mellon University, and afterwards worked for Capitol Records and George Harrison's label Dark Horse. She has several projects in development, including a film with Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn) produced by Laurence Mark Productions and SuperMacho with writer/director Aldo Velasco.
Sostre graduated with an MFA from the UCLA Directing Program in 2004. Her passion for producing led her to produce 20 graduate-level projects, including ChaosTheory, for which she won a Student Emmy. Angela works as a freelance producer/line producer, producing commercials, music videos, PSAs, as well as several feature films, including A Quiet Little Marriage, which won the top prize at Slamdance this year.
Anthony Giangrande — "Matthew"
Giangrande has film and television credits that include Changeling, Entry Level, Checking Out, No Such Thing, The Funeral, CSI:NY, Monk, ER, Without a Trace, and The West Wing, among others. He has appeared in numerous stage productions, in works ranging from the classical to the contemporary, in prominent theatres in New York, Los Angeles, and regionally.
Austin Coleman — "Ivan"
Coleman is 11 years old and was raised near Houston, Texas. Early on, his talents in the performing arts became apparent and he moved with his family to the West Coast where he has since appeared in several national commercials and print ads. Most recently, Austin appeared in the feature film Angels and Demons and had a guest star role on Southland (NBC).