'We wanted to tell a story that represented the meaning of these cars within Mexican-American society,’ 'Lowriders' director says

By C. Molly Smith
May 10, 2017 at 04:44 PM EDT
Credit: Universal Pictures

Set in East Los Angeles, Lowriders tells the story of a talented teenage street artist, Danny (Gabriel Chavarria), who finds himself caught in the middle between his traditional father, Miguel (Demian Bichir), and ex-con brother, Ghost (Theo Rossi), as they enter a lowrider competition. Ahead of the release of the intergenerational drama — which also stars Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist as Danny’s love interest and Eva Longoria as Miguel’s wife — on Friday, director Ricardo de Montreuil shares his perspective on the city, authenticity in the film, the title car culture, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you become attached to Lowriders, and what attracted you to the project?
RICARDO DE MONTREUIL: I’m a filmmaker from Peru, but I’ve been living in the states for more than half of my life. I came to study film and I ended up staying. I moved to L.A. approximately 12 years ago, after I made my first film, and I fell in love with Mexican-American culture. I started going to the parties, the concerts, the art shows…I started realizing how much Mexican-American culture has influence on pop-culture worldwide. I became fascinated by the art scene, what was happening on the East Side of Los Angeles.

About six years ago, Brian Grazer saw my second film, Máncora, and he thought that I might be a good fit for Lowriders. Máncora was a coming-of-age film about [a young man] trying to escape his reality, let’s say. Brian and I met and Kim Roth, [an executive producer on] the film. Brian told me growing up in Los Angeles, he was fascinated with lowriders and he’d been trying to make a movie for a long time already, but he was looking for somebody to help him find an angle. I told him my idea was to tell this story about lowriding, but from a young person’s point of view…to introduce somebody who’s not aware of these cars, what they represent. He loved the idea and that’s how we started the process.

What perspective do you think you brought, not being a Los Angeles native? What did you want to say about Los Angeles’ lowrider and street art culture?
I guess a foreigner’s fresh eye or fresh perspective. First of all it made me realize how [fragmented] Los Angeles is. There’s like a line divided, two cities in one and I became very passionate about what was happening in L.A. and I was very curious why nobody was making films showing this side of town. I felt like the most vibrant part of the city was being ignored, so when Brian told me let’s make a movie on lowriders, it was the perfect opportunity to take a picture of what’s happening in Los Angeles today.

Family is also central to the film. What did you want to get across there?
Estevan Oriol — the Mexican-American photographer who took the picture of the two hands that make the L.A. sign — he’s one of the most important people inside lowrider culture. Mister Cartoon is his business partner. He’s a very famous [tattoo artist and muralist], who’s also a very important part of the lowrider community. They’re executive producers on the film because we really wanted to make sure that we were as authentic as possible and we really wanted to demystify lowriders. The origin of lowriding was about family, was about taking your car on a weekend and cruising the streets…but was not originally connected to gangs. We wanted to tell a story that represented the meaning of these cars within Mexican-American society, or community, in California.

What was your experience working with Demian, Gabriel, and Theo, and what would you say each brought to their respective characters?
Every actor was so close to their character. Demian brought an amazing patriarch quality to Miguel and he was very protective of Gabriel, being a young actor and being the lead of the film. So, off camera there was already that fatherly relationship between Demian and Gabriel. Gabe and Theo hit it off like really good friends. There was really a brotherly quality and Theo, being a little bit older, was protective of Gabriel. Ironically, because of schedules, Demian and Theo never met until the first day they shot. I don’t know if that helped create some tension between them on camera. Obviously they were [professional], but they never met. Theo brought all this intensity that they were looking for for Ghost and at the same time, that humanity that the character needed to not be stereotyped.

How about Melissa and Eva?
Eva was amazing. She completely gives herself to the character. She really wanted to create a honest portrayal of a Mexican-American woman in Los Angeles and I think she did an amazing job. She also brought that motherly quality that I wanted for the role, almost like an anchor for Miguel and Danny, even though she’s not Danny’s mother in the film. And Melissa, she’s an amazing actress. She’s nothing like her character in real life. I wanted somebody that could be like a mirror image of Danny…She’s the one who somehow makes Danny realize what’s wrong with him and maybe if he accepts who he is…he might find a voice in his art.

Do you have any standout memories from your time on set? Maybe a bonding or funny moment, or if there was a time when you really needed the car to work and it didn’t?
There’s this scene where you see Danny and Lorelai [Benoist] get in a lowrider that hops, you know, on a 90-degree angle. We thought originally that they were going to be able to do that quite easily, but the day that we went to test with the actors, we realized that it’s very hard to be inside one of those cars while they’re hopping. We shot it practically. There’s no visual effects on that shot, so both actors were [very brave] the day we shot them because they were actually inside of the car. It was a very cool scene; it was a lot of fun, but at the same time it felt dangerous. I think they had a blast. Those [cars] are massive. They look like a transformer or dinosaur. That’s one of those things that on the page sounded fun and then practically, it was quite a challenge.