In this interview, filmmaker and San Antonio native Joseph Tovares explores early Texas history and describes working on Remember the Alamo.
Tovares also produced Zoot Suit Riots for American Experience and is the managing producer for La Plaza, a long-running public television series about Latinos.
Why did you make this film?
What got me interested in the story initially, about eight, nine years ago, was an intense desire to try and find out what life had been like for my ancestors on my father's side. Relatives moved from the town of Saltillo, present-day northern Mexico, to San Antonio in the middle 1700s
I grew up in San Antonio and I've always felt very much at home and very much a part of that city. And I really didn't understand why until I made the film and learned about the Tejanos at that time, and what they'd gone through, and the kinds of community that they had.
Growing up, my father would paint a picture of us as very different from people in Mexico — and I never quite understood why. And the reason is because he's held onto this very Tejano point of view. They saw themselves as very independent, frontier people who had risked their lives to settle the frontier and developed a culture that was quite distinct from the rest of Mexico. He passed that down and I always had a sense of very deep roots in San Antonio....
So, for a long time, I've had an interest in the Alamo and in San Antonio. It's really become this mythic story that maps onto American ideals about freedom and liberty. And because my family had been there for so long, I was curious to learn more.
How is your story different from other portrayals of early Texas history?
Well, you know, I think our film, Remember the Alamo, is our attempt at truth. (laughter) It's very much a film about the Mexicans that were living in San Antonio in the years leading up to the battle and the war, and about what life was like for them. We don't go a great deal into the settler experience, because that's been covered by other places and we felt that this story hadn't been told and really merited some exploration.
I didn't set out to destroy anyone's myths about the Alamo. That's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell the story of Tejanos, plain and simple. For a long time Tejanos were just seen as part of the furniture. As if we didn't have an active role in the revolution at all. Clearly anyone who sees this film understands that we had a very active role, and we made some very difficult and debatable decisions... I'm hoping that the film is a trigger for some sort of a dialogue about race which I think we desperately need to have.
How did you develop the story?
Well, I think the first thing we had to do is take our central character, José Antonio Navarro, and we tried to map out the important points in his life, the important official points. You know — where was he at the battle of the Alamo? Where was he during the earlier battles, during the convention for independence? And you have to take that and map it onto the larger story of Texas and try and create from that something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Something that would reveal Navarro's character and allow it to develop. And something that would provide tension.
The problem we faced is the problem any screenwriter faces, any novelist, even any good academic historian. You know: take that information and craft it in a way that'll hold people's attention and remain historically accurate and true and honest.
What parts of the story were you sorriest to leave out?
I feel badly that we weren't able to create more of a story about the female experience, but coming up with the necessary documentation to make that into a convincing narrative was really, really difficult. It was difficult for the general Tejano experience as well, because there weren't a lot of letters left behind. There were no photographs. So it was a bit of a dilemma.
The other thing that we weren't able to get into — largely because of time — was the Native American story. It's not as though the Tejanos were the original inhabitants of that land. There were Indians there when they moved there — Indians and the Tejanos moved to a place that had water. Water in Texas at that time was very important, and the Indians wanted the water. The Tejanos wanted the water and it was a very brutal period where they fought for control.
What were some of your biggest production challenges?
The battle of the Alamo takes place in 1836, which is about 15 years or so before photography arrives in San Antonio. So when we started this project it was terrifying. How do you budget for a documentary film where you have virtually no photographs? We had some photographs of our main character, but probably 20, 30 years after the battle. So the biggest challenge was the illustration. We took the Navarro photographs, and we did use some photographs of San Antonio that were taken a few years after, but still illustrated the town as it was during the time period of the Alamo battle. So we cheated a little bit.
We also used generic photos of settlers and horses — and we relied a lot on re-creations. Now, some people have issues with re-creations in historical documentaries, but the fact is, this film wouldn't have worked without very dramatic re-enactments using actors. I mean, I don't think we could have gotten away with just shooting through a window, candle-on-the-table, cut to a talking head. I mean, it wouldn't have held up. And so we were faced with that and decided to go forward. And I think, if you approach the re-creations correctly you can make it work for the audience.
Which scenes were the most fun to shoot?
I'm of two minds. I really like the simple things that we did at the Alamo, and I really enjoyed doing the big battle sequences, because they were just plain fun and that's what I love to do — to be out, creating those kinds of images. What people in the television audience may not know is that just about all of the fight sequences were shot in one big room, in a mission about five miles, seven miles from the Alamo itself — a huge hallway in Mission San Jose.
We did shoot at the site of the Alamo for one shot. It's the façade of the Alamo. It's a really beautiful shot, and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas were very helpful and instructed their police detail to remove some barricades that were obscuring the façade. They take great pains to take care of the site. They don't allow photography inside the building, and the Daughters really see that space as hallowed ground.
Did anything unusual happen during the filming?
There were funny moments. The guys who you see riding the horses into the sunset when Navarro was running off to Louisiana to go hide out — one of those guys clearly had not spent much time on a horse, and when we put [cinematographer] Michael Chin up on a cherry picker, elevated him, got these guys to ride off into the sunset, and they're riding off and this guy just slowly starts sliding off (laughter) — and fell off the horse before we got the shot. It was pretty hilarious.
There was also the time when we're setting up, and out of the trees comes this really tall guy: cowboy boots, blue jeans, no shirt and a rifle. He just starts walking up to us. It's a very Texas moment. I mean, where else does that happen? And he comes up, a perfectly nice gentleman — cowboy — and he tells us that he's just going around the creek bed, kind of thinning out the snake population. But (laughter) it's the kind of thing that happens only in Texas and in the hill country, and no place else.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
What's important for people to come away with is the fact that Tejanos were there. Tejanos were fighting for independence of Texas long before Stephen F. Austin and the settlers ever arrived. There's some justification for believing that Tejanos really came up with the intellectual framework for that revolution. And that's the reason that they extend a hand to the settlers — it seems like a very natural thing for them to do, because they'd been fighting for independence for so long, and they see the arrival of the settlers as helping that cause.