Writer-Director John Marco Lopez Discusses the Characters and Complexities of PARADISE CITY

If you dig ideological intensity coming at you from all sides, check out Paradise City, the third feature film from writer-director John Marco Lopez. This complex, layered work feels like a full, old-school TV season’s worth of characters and conflicts, yet is every frame a feature film boasting tableaux that — to quote the project’s own website — “harken back to the glory days of NY’s gritty, textured, irreverent ’70s cinema.” Indeed, that. I’m the kind of guy who can spend all day deciding whether to use “hark,” “harken,” or “hearken,” (with an extra day pondering “back”); whereas the cast and crew of Paradise City waste zero seconds making an indelible impression.

While it’s best to go in cold, and you’ll probably want to double-dip to catch its many details and implications, it can be said that Paradise City is a period piece set in the very recent past, a South Bronx-Meets-Westchester tale concerning corruption, religion, and real estate, revolving around the volatile core of a dubious counter-terrorism sting. Its style varies but often leans vérité, and its ensemble cast includes standout performances from Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones, Chris Petrovski, and Laura Kamin, plus a remarkable turn from Hassan “Giant” Bradley.

John Marco Lopez

Considering that his film is designed to shake you up — and it will — it’s a bit of a surprise, and frankly cool, to discover that Mr. Lopez is quite affable, and an enthusiastic movie buff! Having risen up through music videos, commercials, and industrials, representing some rather large companies, he co-founded LPZ Media with his brother, executive producer Kevin A. Lopez, and his love of film is apparent in his work. This includes his first two features, The Inquisition of Camilo Sanz (released by HBO Latino), and The Hudson Tribe (released by Amazon), and it’s on proud display in Paradise City, which debuts December 4th on major platforms including Amazon, Google, iTunes, and Vudu. We had a good chat, beginning with the origins of Paradise City.

“It was definitely challenging, I’ll say that,” Mr. Lopez reflects. “I really wanted to take a snapshot of where we stood at the end of the decade. What I was seeing was the growing wealth gap between poor and rich, I saw growing homelessness, I saw police brutality in vulnerable communities; so understanding that context, I wanted to say, ‘How can I tackle this in an entertaining drama, and connect to characters in these different socioeconomic worlds?’

“Then I researched, and I found true stories of undercover cops going into vulnerable communities in the Bronx, or in Yonkers, or in Upstate New York, essentially what’s happening to some of these Muslim Americans. Just like I read a real-life story about a homeless man who really walked into a mosque one day, and was taken in by the community, but he was actually Caucasian, and he came from a wealthy family. These were all ideas and stories that I was able to aggregate, and kind of jump off from.”

…in contrasts.

And how did John and his crew, as filmmakers, take on the new challenges of this larger-scale work?

“We all felt that it was our most ambitious film. We had multiple locations — we were out in even rural places for the spiritual flashbacks. I wanted to push the envelope, right? To see how far I could take it creatively. Even if I tripped up, or fell flat on my face at times, I still wanted to see where the boundaries were creatively, because I believe that, as an artist, if you don’t try to go out to these places, you’re never really going to know what works and what doesn’t.”

Sticky Fingaz adds a demonic note to PARADISE CITY

Referencing one of his celebrity performers, Mr. Lopez clarifies his views on one difficult character versus a profession in general:

“I have friends that are police officers, and I’m not trying to disparage the hard work and sacrifice, but obviously we know in any profession there are good apples and bad apples. That’s where Sticky Fingaz’ character came from — and Sticky was thrilled: he’s all about taking risks. That’s what he’s done since he was 16 years old and started his rap career. Sticky just loved the idea of playing a war veteran, dealing with potentially post-traumatic stress, and a whole slew of psychological turmoil.

“You’ll find a plethora of cases where guys kind of go rogue, unfortunately.”

Paired against Kareem Savinon’s excellent work as a cop in deep — but is it deep enough? — cover, this dichotomy emerges in part due to Serpico, and other Sidney Lumet films.

Kareem Savinon: Leading a double life in PARADISE CITY

Citing his own previous work with his general team, John is confident enough to mix two gambling metaphors: “We all trusted each other, and said, ‘You know what? Let’s roll the dice, and see where the chips fall.’”

With material as volatile — at times literally — as that of Paradise City, there must be an additional, dual challenge of being sensitive to various cultures, yet also accurate. John responds:

“Absolutely! We actually shot in a real mosque, in Astoria, Queens. We met with the Imam, and he welcomed us in. We told him what the subject matter was, and in fact he instantly lit up, he goes: ‘Oh, yeah, I know a bunch of guys who had to deal with that’ — just right off the bat. They were very welcoming, and they wanted us to share that experience. Of course, this is an even smaller niche, because we were actually exploring the Black Muslim experience here in America.”

Awakening the Giant Within: Hassan Bradley

Mr. Lopez elaborates on one of the leads, the incredibly charismatic (and Giant) Mr. Bradley:

“It’s partly based on his real-life story. He was an ex-convict, he converted in prison, and now he actually runs a non-profit organization where he helps to rehabilitate kids from the streets, or kids who’ve had juvenile delinquency.” [This sounds like Homeboy {and Homegirl} Industries in L.A., albeit with a different religion, and Mr. Lopez concurs.]

“So the gentleman who plays the lead Imam very much is that guy. That really is him in real life. He had never acted before, and I just asked him to be himself — almost like you said, vérité, almost documentary: ‘If I can capture you, as who you are, I think people will believe that.’”

He adds: “I feel, at times, you can capture more with someone who doesn’t have to pretend to be Dracula, or pretend to be Captain America. I’m very thankful that he trusted me.”

Don’t ask him for a chocolate sundae. Chris Petrovski in PARADISE CITY

In sharp contrast — which this movie exemplifies — we also get an actual actor, Chris Petrovski (Madam Secretary) as trouble waiting to happen . . . well, already happening. It’s another standout performance in a project full of them, and a formidable foil for the good-natured Imam.

“Yeah, they’re almost diametrically opposed people, and energies. I always find that when two characters are so different, you get the most friction, and traction. Paul Thomas Anderson talks about that a lot, and he’s one of the filmmakers that I admire. If you think about There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, they’re drastically different from one another, yet when they’re in the same room, there’s an energy that binds them.

“I wanted to explore that with these two guys, but behind the scenes, they got along like a house on fire.”

(Oof! Another metaphor. See the movie.)

I ask about whether there may have been a specific, posthumously Oscar-winning Heath Ledger influence in Mr. Petrovski’s performance. Like much in Mr. Lopez’ work, the answer is not quite so simple:

“I believe there were three main references that Chris and I were exploring. Obviously one of them was Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But there were more. One was Paul Thomas Anderson, and Joaquin Phoenix, in The Master. We really dove into Joaquin’s performance there, and we pulled a lot from that.”

Okay, technically two guys who’ve played The Joker. But wait! There’s more:

“And the other one was Brad Pitt, in 12 Monkeys.”

An obstensibly pat answer, but both revealing and inspiring. We enthuse wholeheartedly over Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film — sometimes overlooked, but when it’s on cable, you’re not going to switch channels.

And this connects to the score of that film (we could go on — a lot — including Heath Ledger’s tragic end during the filming of Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [which I dig — the movie, not the tragic end], but for this article that’s a digression too far!) — as 12 Monkeys is practically built around a simple but unshakeable accordion motif.

With this in mind, I rave up composer Zak Engel and his score for Paradise City — the staccato bits, the sliding strings — because it’s similarly integral to the film.

“Any chance I get, I try to highlight Zak,” says John. “He’s a gift — the fact that I ran into him in advertising: I directed TV commercials to pay the bills, and he also scores for commercials. We bumped into each other a long time ago on a Radio Shack job. I was trying to be as nice as possible, because I knew he was talented, and I said, ‘Is this what you want to do long-term, or where do you want to go in this industry?’ He said it with such conviction, he goes: ‘I want to be a film composer.’ And I instantly lit up, because I had him in mind for my first film.” John unabashedly gushes: “He has really elevated all three of my films, and for that I’m eternally grateful.”

[Note: Mr. Engels’ scores, including those for Mr. Lopez’ films, are available on iTunes, etc.]

Sensing that he’s a good sibling, I’d be remiss not to mention that John cast his sister Leslie Lopez in Paradise City, and in his previous two films. He chuckles good-naturedly.

“My sister. She was on a Starz show called Power, with 50 Cent, for a while. That following, and the people in the Power community, they love her. I have to, like, beg her to join! She’s working on bigger and better things.”

Well. Humility in a director. Impressive.

“You talkin’ to me?” (As a matter of fact…)

In closing, with respect to independent filmmakers and the nuts and bolts of the process, I ask Mr. Lopez about Paradise City’s budget, and how he and his crew made the film happen.

“Under a million dollars, for sure I can tell you that,” he reveals, adding: “The internet, it really allows you to have access to locations, and casts, that otherwise, 15 or 20 years ago, you couldn’t do that much, without having those industry resources.

“It really comes down to having production allies, really being creative — I call it MacGyver production — where you have to look under every rock, and find creative solutions.”

Paradise City is officially open for you to visit.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Images courtesy of LPZ Media.

Writer-director-producer Gregory earned a Cinema degree from USC SCA, worked many industry jobs, and won L.A. Press Club’s top Entertainment Journalism award.