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Young José has problems. He lives under the shadow of his athletic older brother. His single mother is stressed out. His best friend has immigration worries. Only his grandmother truly pays attention to him. She and a teacher help José turn his life around through an unlikely pastime for a kid in South Texas: chess.
José is a fictional character, played by Rico Rodríguez of "Modern Family", in the new film Endgame, which opens on Friday. The cast also includes Efrén Ramírez (Napoleon Dynamite), Ivonne Coll(Jane the Virgin), and Justina Machado (Devious Maids).
Endgame is a film by Carmen Marrón, a former guidance counselor who CNN called an “upstart director with an improbable rags-to-film-festival-success story.”
The daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, Marrón produced her first film Go For It! (2011) with no experience in the entertainment industry. Go For It! went on to win audience choice awards at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, San Antonio Film Festival, and Cine La Americas (Austin), and was a selection at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival. Go For It! provided Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane The Virgin, with her first film role.
Inspired by true events, Endgame is a fictionalization of how a chess team from Brownsville, Texas, one of the most economically disadvantaged cities in the country, went on to capture the Texas State Chess Championship. Shot in only 19 days, the inspirational film also touches on such topics as teen drinking, depression, bullying, and immigration. For Marrón, Endgame marks the latest culmination of her dream of presenting empowering stories starring Latinos, about Latinos, and for Latinos.
A native of Chicago now living in Los Angeles, Marrón recently spoke with NBC News about her career and her new film.
NBC: How did you go from Arizona guidance counselor to Hollywood filmmaker?
CM: My whole life, I’ve felt like my purpose was to make a difference, especially with Latinos and women. I always wanted to give back. I went to graduate school and became a guidance counselor; I remember telling the person who interviewed me (for a job) that I wanted to be in the most troubled, most discouraged community. I wanted to work with those kids because that's how I grew up. It ended up being in South Phoenix.
When I was working with the kids, I saw my friends, myself, my cousins, they were making same mistakes – and I noticed that kids were hungry for role models, but they were looking for them in TV and film. The girls were trying to be like Britney Spears or Kim Kardashian, and the boys like rappers. I decided to reach them through the medium they responded to most; that was my stroke of lightning, my epiphany. I realized I needed to start making movies that showed them (Latino kids) as heroes, to help empower them.
A former guidance counselor, "Endgame" director Carmen Marrón had an "epiphany" that she should make movies to reach teens through the medium they respond to the most - movies. "I needed to make movies that showed them as heroes."
I went to the library, I checked out book on how to write a screenplay, and then later I moved to L.A. I was so naïve! I thought people were going to line up and help me because I wanted to do something to benefit society. People told me that no one wants to see movies with Latinos in them; even Latinos told me that.
After two years of being rejected and brushed off, I realized I had to do things for myself. I taught myself how to write, direct, produce, and market; seven years later, I made "Go For It!"
NBC: What were some of the challenges in making Endgame?
CM: Although I definitely had more confidence this time around, every movie has its own challenges. I had Rico (who plays Jose) for only six hours a day, due to the child labor laws. So I had to work fast, and many times I only got two takes. As a producer, I had to gather a team, get sponsors to donate, get Brownsville to agree to our shooting on location. During production, you have to keep everyone motivated, focused, and on track even when things go wrong. Then putting the movie together took about a year, getting the music, sound (usually for a fraction of regular rates), getting distribution. As a producer, it honestly never stops.
NBC: What was the best part of making Endgame?
CM: For me as a filmmaker, the best is always when someone sees it and really connects and they get inspired. That is priceless, it is gold. To show a movie and have a kid or their parent or their teacher say that it makes them feel stronger about their own situation, that keeps me going. And I think it always will.
NBC: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
CM: The number one advice I give everybody – for anything, not just for film, for anything outside the social norm – is to pursue something that you absolutely have to do. Something that you love more than anything; that is how I felt about my two films. Before I did Go For It!, I knew I could not leave this planet without giving it a try. With Endgame, I knew it was a story that could inspire so many communities, and I knew I had to tell this story. And trust me, when your heart leads, the creativity follows. I had a strong vision in my head, so on set when there were problems, when we had production issues, I still moved forward. I figured it out, because I knew it could be done.
NBC: What do you hope audiences takeaway from Endgame?
CM: Definitely the message is ‑‑ no matter what community you live in, no matter how much money you may or may not have, whatever your challenges are: Si se puede (yes we can). You can create the life you want, if you and your community all come together for the greater good. Then truly, truly: Si se puede.