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28 October 2014
FILMS - Interviews

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Peter Sollett
Raising Victor Vargas
Written by Tom Dawson
updated 15th September 2003


Peter Sollett
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Read our review of "Raising Victor Vargas"

Born in Brooklyn in 1976, writer-director Peter Sollett studied film at New York University. He won the Best Short Film Prize at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals in 2000 for "Five Feet High and Rising". It would be the inspiration for his feature film debut "Raising Victor Vargas", a charming coming-of-age comedy set on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Why did you decide to transform your short film "Five Feet High and Rising" into a full-length feature?
We got to know the lead actors from the short, Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, as people and saw how much they had to offer. And we saw how good they were in doing what they were doing. "Five Feet High and Rising" was autobiographical, it was about the Italian-Jewish neighbourhood I grew up in in Brooklyn. The scriptwriter Eva Vives and me thought that we should do a film directly about Victor and Judy's experiences, which we now had access to because we were their friends. It was clear that they wanted to continue acting, and I really wanted to do something that would be more available in a commercial arena - so that more people could see it.

One of the interesting aspects about "Raising Victor Vargas" is that it's a story about inner-city teenagers from a working-class neighbourhood, which doesn’t revolve around guns and drugs...
Clearly that material is already well covered, and it's not of particular interest to me. I find that stuff really boring. The film came into existence from the lives of the kids in the film: they are playing characters who have a relationship to who they actually are. Guns and drugs and abortions and violence aren't the central aspects to their lives, so why should they be central aspects of a film relating to their lives? I wanted the film to be as universal as possible. They are teenagers trying to work out how to live with one another and their families.

What was it like directing Altagracia Guzman, the fiercely outspoken and domineering Grandma?
She's a 74-year-old grandmother from the Dominican Republic in real life, who is one of a kind. She has a massive personality and she is very enthusiastic. When she walks into a room, she owns it, and everybody is one of her grandchildren - she must be a Method actress! She's also a natural comedian, who'd get so carried away in scenes that she'd start turning to the crew to help her with the kids. She'd say to the cameraman during a scene, "Can you believe what I have to deal with?"

Where did you actually shoot the film in Manhattan?
We shot it on the Lower East Side, which is an immigrant community where most of the adults were immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Their children are much more influenced by hip-hop culture, and that creates a vast generation gap. What's interesting is that there are lots of gardens in this area, where people keep animals. New York is not all skyscrapers. Some of the interiors we used were so cramped that we shot the film in 16mm, because we couldn't get the Panavision camera into the apartment. We certainly couldn't get it into the bathtub!

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