The Making Of
Director Matthew Buzzell and Co-Director/Producer Elizabeth Massie talk about their experiences with the Reynas, how COMPAÑERAS is a different kind of music documentary and that having children changes everything.
What led you to make this film?
Elizabeth: The first time we saw this group perform, we were blown away—not just by their ground-breaking status as women in a very male-dominated musical tradition, but also because of their superb musicianship. We knew that audiences would share our thrill in hearing their interpretation of mariachi. We wanted to know who each of these women were and what had brought them to making this music. Because I am always drawn to women’s issues and Matthew has made several music documentaries, it felt like the perfect subject for us to take on as a team.
Matthew: Quite simply, it was the spirit of the music and a chance live performance of Reyna de Los Angeles that Elizabeth and myself literally stumbled upon. I was somewhat familiar with mariachi music but it had not spoken to me until I heard these particular ladies performing it. The interpretative emotions contained are so compelling that there was no option to not make this film.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Elizabeth: We had very little financing so both of us had to work on other projects. That meant we couldn’t always be filming when we wanted to, and it took us two years to get the film edited.
Matthew: As with most documentaries, the challenge is simply finding the story. In this instance, we had a great many characters to explore. Weighing the options of which particular characters to focus on to find our story was most challenging.
How does COMPAÑERAS differ from other music documentaries?
Elizabeth: COMPAÑERAS explores the lives of the women in the band and what the experience of singing mariachi music means to them, rather than focusing on the music itself, the lyrics, the techniques and traditions of mariachi.
Do you think Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles has expanded the fan base of mariachi music?
Elizabeth: As the first all female professional band, they have opened the door for dozens of other professional groups to form, as well as hundreds of high school and college groups. But they have had very little exposure outside the mariachi world and we’re hoping that this film will bring their passionate music to new audiences and make mariachi maniacs out of them!
Matthew: I most certainly do—particularly for me. I had long been aware of mariachi as a musical form but it had not “spoken” to me until I saw Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles. The swagger and machismo of many of the male mariachis I have seen perform comes across as a tad bit tongue-in-cheek, in my most humble of opinions. The same material performed by Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles is much more immediate, much more emotional and performed as if their lives depended on it.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
Elizabeth: We filmed a concert in Tijuana that was very interesting. Their reception there was less enthusiastic than it is in the States. We learned that this is because female mariachi is still not taken seriously and even frowned upon in Mexico. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time in the film to present this and explore its ramifications.
Matthew: More music!
Did you view the Reynas any differently after shooting the film than before you had started?
Elizabeth: Some people who see the film are troubled by what they perceive to be a lack of ambition in the Reynas. They question the band’s commitment and professionalism when it becomes clear that marriage and children regularly take precedence over the music. I felt the same way when we started filming—why weren’t they more famous? Why didn’t they tour more? But over the four years of making the film, I had two children myself and I began to understand why the Reynas were making choices like staying home over touring. I think ambitious professional women (and men) can be very unforgiving of women whom they see as not fulfilling their personal potential when it conflicts with raising children. I would now say that raising my children is the most important way in which I fulfill my personal potential—more important than making documentaries, though that’s extremely important to me too. I learned that as much from filming the Reynas as I did from my own experience of motherhood. Their lack of anxiety over their choices gives them a confidence and grounded quality that I admire deeply.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
Elizabeth: When filming the concerts, we often had to plug our DAT recording machine into the mixing board—with varying results! Sometimes it just didn’t work at all, which meant we couldn’t use any of the footage from that concert. But we shot many concerts and also filmed the Reynas in a more controlled environment where we could record the sound cleanly so in the end we had plenty of performance footage WITH amazing audio.
Matthew: I am sure there were. They were resolved one at a time and with heavy sighs.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Elizabeth: It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser. Audiences just flip out over the music and the beauty and dignity of the women in the band. The Reynas have all seen the film, some more than once, and the first time they saw it, many of them cried. It was especially difficult for Cindy, the former bandleader, who left the band after sensing that she had lost the support of the other women. But she thanked us for presenting her story so truthfully.
Matthew: The response has been tremendous thus far. It plays well to audiences of diverse age groups. That is quite gratifying.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Elizabeth: I’ve spent many years working in cable television—those jobs keep a roof over my head while I’m working on an indie project. But those jobs don’t feed my soul or allow me to express my passions and interests. There is no substitute for independent filmmaking. It is worth all the struggle.
Matthew: This is a most difficult question to answer as the answer can change almost daily. I would ultimately have to say that believing that this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life, that this is what I was put on this planet to do, keeps me motivationally afloat.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Elizabeth: When we made the film, we always hoped it would be on PBS—the style and subject matter seemed to us perfectly suited to PBS programming. Having the film on Independent Lens is the best possible broadcast venue for this film. We are thrilled!
Matthew: Because public television has always been the high water mark for thoughtfulness and diversity. I was raised on PBS. I cried when Fred Rogers passed. I am a Masterpiece Theatre junky. It is an honor to again be associated with Independent Lens and PBS.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Elizabeth: Ask my children! Everything from paying work to missing birthday parties to writing the screenplay I’ve had in my head for years.
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