At The Movies
Writer-director Peter Sollett raises
the bar on teen comedies.
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
eter Sollett's ebullient
romantic comedy, Raising
Victor Vargas, about
Hispanic teens in
Manhattan's East Village, began as a
short film about, well, himself.
While tackling his New York
University thesis film five years ago,
Sollett imagined a semi-autobio-
graphical piece about a "10-to-13-
year-old Jewish boy whose life was
like my own at that age."
Like Vargas, it was to be a "first
kiss story" that started at a
neighborhood pool on a sum-
mer afternoon. And it was to
be set in a Jewish-Italian neigh-
borhood reminiscent of his old
block in Bensonhurst.
But when Sollett and his
Barcelona-born producer, Eva
Vives, tried to cast Brooklyn
kids through agencies in 1998,
he says they "saw actors who
were just mimicking what they
saw on TV."
To find more natural per-
formers, they hit the streets,
plastering their lower
Manhattan neighborhood with
fliers inviting teens to audition.
Writer-director Peter Sollett: "We started
"We weren't thinking about
actors, most of them nonprofessionals,
the demographics, so we didn't
blew us away, so we decided
realize that most of the kids
film about them."
who would turn up would be
Hispanic," the precise, articu-
When the short film, titled Five
late director says from his East
High and Rising, won top
awards at Sundance and Cannes in
"We started seeing actors, most of
2000, Sollett and Vives expanded
them nonprofessionals, who really
blew us away, so we decided to make the story into Raising Victor Vargas,
which used the same cast and was
the film about them."
developed in part at the Sundance
One of the most impressive teens
to audition was Victor Rasuk, who
Sollett's shooting style would be as
inspired the filmmakers with an
as his casting methods. "The
improvisation about confronting a
actors never saw the script," he says.
bully who was tormenting his broth-
Rather, he used the screenplay as a
"I expected him to become threat- jumping off point during a month of
rehearsals, throwing out lines or situa-
ening and aggressive, but instead he
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began talking about how much his
brother meant to him and how hurt
he'd be if anything were to happen
to him," Sollett says.
"But the subtext was that if any-
thing were to happen, Victor's
behavior would become that of
someone with little left to lose. He
was complex and unpredictable, and
our interest in him was immediate."
Sollett promptly cast Rasuk as
Vargas; Rasuk's brother, Silvestre, as
Vargas' onscreen brother; and the -
casting director's 74-year-old aunt,
Altagracia Guzman, as their cantan-