It may come as a surprise, given the focus of Rudy Valdez's body of work over the past decade, but the filmmaker has yet to accomplish his childhood dream. "I still haven't done the thing I set out to do when I was a kid, which was work on Saturday Night Live and write comedy," he says with a laugh. "That's all I've ever wanted to do, and I've sort of gotten sidetracked by all this other stuff I've done."
The "other stuff" in question includes Valdez's Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Sentence, an intimate portrait of the consequences of mass incarceration, and 2021's Reopening Night, which follows the cast and crew of the Public Theater as they mount a production of Shakespeare's "Merry Wives." His latest documentary is Carlos, about the life and storied career of Carlos Santana — something of a full-circle moment for the director, who grew up idolizing the musician.
"I want to continue to diversify the types of stories that I'm telling," Valdez shares. He's currently working on a scripted TV series and a narrative feature film, both of which would mark firsts for the long-time documentarian. According to him, that's the point. "I'm trying to be very purposeful about never being pigeonholed into doing just one sort of thing," he says, taking inspiration from Carlos Santana himself. "It's very clear when you see the film: Carlos was paving his own way and blazing his own path all along."
Below, Valdez shares with A.frame the five films that made the biggest impact on him, including the martial arts flick from the '80s that made him want to become a filmmaker.
Directed by: Rob Reiner | Written by: Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside riding my bike and playing sports. We didn't always have cable. We didn't always have access to movies, but one of the ones that I watched a ton growing up was Stand By Me. I watched that film a lot, and I remember thinking, 'Look at this adventure that these kids are going on!' At the same time, in the back of my mind, I did think, 'Nobody in this looks like me. Did we not exist at this time?' Ever since then, I've always said, 'One day, I’m going to make an adventure like Stand By Me that exists in my world.'
Directed by: Michael Schultz | Written by: Louis Venosta
Years ago, I was at this event where I was the youngest person present by about 30 years. All these older filmmakers were there asking each other about their favorite films and saying, 'This is the film that got me into filmmaking,' and they were all saying the obvious movies that we've all heard a million times. They got to me and they were like, 'Hey, young guy, what's one of your favorite films?' And I said, 'You know, one of the films that's really stood out to me all my life is Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon.' Everybody started laughing and making fun of me a little bit, and then they asked, 'Why?' And I said, 'Well, to be honest with you, when I was a kid, I saw all the movies that you're talking about, but the thing is that I never saw myself in them.'
The Last Dragon is one of the first times that I saw a person of color as the hero, the anti-hero, the ingenue, and all these different, classic film archetypes. It made me realize, "Wow. I can exist within this landscape of storytelling where all I've seen previously are people who don’t look like me." Everyone sort of quieted down after I explained that. Ultimately, The Last Dragon is just really important to me. I think it's important for those reasons, and for young people of color to see the things that film showed me.
Written and Directed by: Luis Valdez
La Bamba was important for me for the same reasons as The Last Dragon. I think the POV of the film and the POV it offers within the landscape of music and that era of rock and roll has always stood out to me. It takes place in almost the same period as Stand By Me and The Wonder Years, but it's proof that people of color existed at that time and in that scene. It was really fun for me to watch and see its story unfold from the POV of somebody who looks a lot like me. Obviously, I had a very different upbringing than Ritchie Valens, but it was exciting to be able to watch that film and think, 'Look at this. Look at this story. Look at the possibilities. Our stories are great. Our stories are entertaining.'
Written and Directed by: Gregory Nava
Obviously, in the case of both La Bamba and Selena, the ending is the same. Both characters die prematurely, and that always stuck with me as a kid. But seeing those stories really reaffirmed that we're magic, you know? We can be magic. We can be all of these things, and that's why La Bamba and Selena stick out so much to me. They prove that we were always here. We've always been a part of this. And we're not always shown that, but when we are, it can be very special.
Written and Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Moonlight was a film that absolutely blew me away when I saw it. Every single aspect of it — the storytelling, cinematography and score — is beautiful, and there's so much humanity and empathy within it. That film is really why we're all here, I think — to tell our versions of our journeys and our stories in a way that is relatable, and beautiful, and cinematic, and entertaining, and worthy of all of the things that we're told we're not worthy of growing up. Those are the kinds of films that I gravitate toward.