Aspen Filmfest: Directors Ben Snyder and Ari Issler on making ’11:55’
If You Go…
What: ’11:55’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Sept. 24, 2:30 p.m.
How much: $20/GA; $15/members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
A Marine returns from the warfront in Afghanistan and quickly learns peace is hard to find at home in the tense crime drama “11:55.”
The film, which screens Saturday afternoon at the Aspen Filmfest, follows Nelson Sanchez’s uneasy return to the cruel reality of his burnt-out, violent neighborhood in Newburgh, New York, over the course of a single day. The Dominican-American vet is looking to settle down. But his past in the local underworld and the shooting that led him to join the military won’t let him go.
A rival looking for vengeance is on a bus to Newburgh, due to arrive at five minutes to midnight. Nelson weighs fighting or fleeing and opts to stay and face his past.
“I ain’t running this time,” he says.
Building to a final showdown in the street, the film plays like a Western in the “High Noon” tradition, but it tweaks the genre’s notions of masculinity, violence and pride and sets it in the Puerto Rican and Dominican community of Newburgh.
“We were inspired by Westerns but wanted to create almost an anti-Western,” said co-director Ari Issler. “We were very aware of a lot of the traditions we wanted to break with, as far as how those films treated and used people of color and women.”
“11:55” is the first feature film from Issler and co-director Ben Snyder. They wrote the film with star Victor Almanzar, based in part on his experience in the military and in the street life.
Almanzar is an acclaimed theater actor, with work including a run in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy.” But these days he’s most recognized for playing Big Heavy on “Empire,” the hip-hop drama that became television’s breakout hit of 2015.
He worked with Snyder in the theater early in both of their careers, and the two have collaborated often over the past 12 years. The actor also starred in Snyder’s and Issler’s 2012 short film “Nobody’s Nobody.”
The development of “11:55” began with a conversation between Snyder and the actor, when Almanzar pitched an idea for what Snyder calls an “elaborate cops-and-robbers, double-crossing gangster action movie.” As they talked about what interested Almanzar about that story, however, a different and more autobiographical one emerged.
“He started talking about all the things he experienced personally: what it was like coming home from the military and what it was like when he used to be involved in gangs in his neighborhood,” Snyder recalled. “I told him, ‘I’m actually a lot more interested in that.’”
From there, the three started working on the script that would become “11:55,” transposing Almanzar’s personal story and his emotional journey onto the fictional Nelson Sanchez.
Almanzar’s performance isn’t a showy one — Nelson’s struggle with his conscience, his machismo and the emotional weight of returning from war is mostly internal. Because Almanzar was drawing on his personal experience for the character, the directors simply guided him by telling him “to stop acting.”
“It wasn’t just a thing like when you find someone who looks the part,” Issler said. “It’s his story, but he’s a trained actor. So it’s about stripping away the act.”
The film has a powerhouse supporting cast behind Almanazar, including a standout Elizabeth Rodriguez as Nelson’s sister, Julia Stiles in a memorable cameo as a gangster’s irate wife, David Zayas as a wise and powerful local drug kingpin and John Leguizamo as a fiery disabled veteran.
Snyder and Issler made “11:55” conscious of the stereotypical roles that Hollywood most often gives actors of color. The film offers the kinds of complex female characters and fleshed-out Latino ones that remain rare in much mainstream entertainment.
“Everything we do explores intersections of race, class, power, poverty,” Snyder said. “And we were thinking, ‘If we made this choice what would bell hooks think of that? What kind of rant would Spike Lee have on our film? What kind of messages are we sending through the choices we’re making?’”
Members of the mostly Latino cast came to “11:55” following long-standing relationships with the filmmakers in the New York theater world. One of those projects — a short play developed through the Labyrinth Theater Company — brought Issler, Snyder and Zayas to Aspen for HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2003. The filmmakers returned to the Wheeler Opera House in 2008 to screen the Aspen Shortfest selection “Hector is Gonna Kill Nate.”
“It’s really coming full circle for us,” Snyder said of returning to Aspen with their debut feature.
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