Nearly every scene in The Boys of Ghost Town was filmed in San Antonio. Everything but the skyline. The few times the camera rises above eye level, there’s no Tower of the Americas; it’s all stock footage of Houston landmarks (whatever the hell those are) instead. Director Pablo Véliz explains: There’s no way to set a believable gangster picture in the Alamo City.
“You can’t say ‘in the streets of San Antonio,’” he says, and laughs.
Maybe he’s right. Early in the film, ex-con Danny Ortega (screenwriter Manuel Garcia) finds a coke connection by having his friend pull the car up to a guy whose clothing is appropriately baggy, and asking: “You know where I can score some soda?” In some parts of San Antonio, Danny might’ve been directed to the nearest gas station selling six packs of Big Red, but whatever. Ghost Town’s plot — Ortega returns home after 17 years in prison for gunning down his mother’s abusive, child-raping boyfriend, only to immediately get caught up in narcotics trafficking — is probably a narrative the city can do without.
But why film here, instead of on location in the more credible, possibly soda-ridden streets of H-Town? It’s cheaper, and Véliz, who’s shot four other films here (including 2006 official Sundance selection La Tragedia de Macario), none of which is set in San Antonio, has a reputation with the film commission. The film scene in San Antonio shows real potential for growth, Véliz says. “We can’t say, ‘We are the Hollywood of the south,’” he says, (true, but neither can Austin — at least without receiving a very curtly worded letter from the mayor of Hollywood, Florida), “but we can work on it.”
Garcia has had a few years to develop the character of Danny Ortega. Ghost Town is a sort of prequel to another Véliz-directed project, 2007’s 7 Kilos, a film in which Ortega appears as a drug dealer for five minutes or so, before he is gunned down. Ghost Town tells the story of Ortega’s origin, though Garcia admits he didn’t have the back-story in mind when he worked on 7 Kilos. His character-building concerns were much more basic at that point.
“What I needed to understand was, first of all, how the drugs were used,” Garcia says. But interviews with a few “shady people” quickly cleared that up. Garcia says he further developed Ortega’s character, an abuse victim incarcerated at an early age who joins a prison gang for protection, for Ghost Town after watching several episodes of the A&E jail doc Gangland. By the time Ortega is released on the streets of
San Antonio Houston, he acts every bit the damaged individual you might expect, recoiling from eye contact, flinching like a kicked dog. Garcia’s performance is intense but mostly recognizable, and completely unlike his offscreen persona, though it is hampered by emotion-dissecting dialogue better left on a character-development worksheet; most of Garcia’s spoken self-analysis is redundant after watching him interact with the other characters.
Ortega, Véliz says, is re-learning how to live outside of a prison cell in the first parts of the film, and the direction — filmed with an often unsteady handheld, jumping from face to face during conversation — is meant to reflect his inexperience.
“The visual behavior, the way the camera behaves, is infant-like,” Véliz says, and explains he intended the visual storytelling to become more developed “as Danny became more confident.” Here, too, the technique seems effective to the point of being overdone. During the first third of the film, the camera sways enough during relatively inactive conversation scenes to trigger flashbacks of the time my wife threw up a $20 steak outside the theater where Blair Witch Project was showing, but in this case, drawing attention to the cameraman is counterintuitive to the film’s realistic tone.
Occasional motion sickness aside, the up-close, cinema-vérité style suits the film’s first hour or so, in which Ortega is released from prison, moves in with his grandfather, and finds work washing limousines for the same agency that employs his friend Corando (Corando Martinez Jr.) as a driver. Garcia wanted to show Ortega’s softer side before showing him deal drugs, he says, so he looked for inspiration for some of Ghost Town’s earlier scenes in “chick flicks” such as The Notebook and Serendipity.
“I want the audience to like this guy,” Ortega says, “so I didn’t want it to be a gangster movie from the get-go.”
But after Corando’s job gives him the opportunity to become a drug dealer, he convinces Ortega to help him (though the criminal expertise Ortega acquired in jail seems not to extend much past knowing to call cocaine “soda”) and the camera pulls back a bit as the direction adopts a slicker crime-film style to match Ortega’s growing gangster ambitions. As the climax nears and the guns come out, the film shifts gears and adopts the conventions of bullet porn. Véliz explains: “There is a certain vernacular, or language … especially for action scenes, that people understand.” The sudden style change is jarring, but maybe it’s intended to be. The production value throughout it all is impressive, however, and Véliz’s plans to release Ghost Town on Blu-ray make sense — this is a good-looking film, even if you can’t tell it was shot here. •
The movie premieres Saturday, April 4, at Santikos Palladium, and tickets to the show are already sold out. A second screening has been scheduled for Tuesday, April 7, at Alamo Drafthouse, and the film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray early this summer.
The Boys of Ghost Town
7:30pm Tue Apr 7
Alamo Drafthouse Westlakes
1255 SW Loop 410