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Taking ‘Million to Juan’ Shot : Paul Rodriguez Makes a Star-Packed Film With Just $500,000

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

All Paul Rodriguez wanted was a little respect. So when he was given a mere $500,000 to make his directorial debut, with a movie that conventional wisdom said at best should have been a TV film, he turned it around into a nationwide theatrical release with a star-studded cast.

“The budget was so low, it was probably barely enough to cater a Steven Seagal movie,” said the Chicano actor and comedian, who is probably best known for his roles in the series “a.k.a. Pablo” and the feature “Born in East L.A.” But it was enough to shoot “A Million to Juan,” which opens Friday, in less than 30 days, without permits (no budget for those), behind the union’s back and under the pouring rain of L.A.'s 1993 flood season.

The surreal quality of the production mimics the story line of the script, a modern-day adaptation of Mark Twain’s short story “The Million Pound Bank-Note.”

Rodriguez stars as Juan Lopez, a down-and-out immigrant in East L.A. trying to make ends meet to provide for his 8-year-old son Alejandro (Jonathan Hernandez) and his cousins Jorge (Tony Plana) and Alvaro (Bert Rosario). In between jobs--you guessed it, gardener, cook, dishwasher--Juan tries in vain to get his green card with the help of his Immigration and Naturalization Service case worker, Olivia (Polly Draper).

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His luck changes--or seems to--one day while he is selling oranges on a street corner. A white limo pulls up and a stranger (Edward James Olmos) hands him an envelope containing a million-dollar cashier’s check made out to Juan, a sum that the mysterious stranger says is a loan for one month. The other-worldliness of the benefactor, an earthbound angel dressed in white, gives the film a hint of Latino mysticism.

Juan discovers that while the money does open some doors, other things--like love and family--respond in far more complicated ways. Along the way, the viewer is treated to a sweet-natured, family-values-affirming glimpse at a community all too rarely portrayed on-screen, with a tongue-in-cheek humor that it owes at least in part to its source story.

“It’s too silly to be a cliche; it winks at the audience too much,” says Draper, who as one of the film’s two white characters (David Rasche as her condescending yuppie boyfriend is the other) plays the INS agent who befriends and is eventually, and reluctantly, romantically attracted to Juan.

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Rodriguez, who conceived the story and the characters (the script was written by Francisca Matos and husband Robert Grasmere), is the first to admit the film’s low-key ambitions.

“There’s nothing about this movie to be taken too seriously,” he says. Initially, he adds, “it was an opportunity for me to find out if I could direct. If it failed, it could have been a video in Bolivia or somewhere, and at the same time, I would have garnered experience.”

Directing is something Rodriguez, 39, has wanted to do for a long time. Known mainly as an actor and former host of “The Paul Rodriguez Show” and considered one of the premier Latino stand-up comedians, Rodriguez says he is ready to step out of the limelight.

“For the past two years I’ve been looking for something I can do after my youth is gone,” he explains. “I don’t want to be a 50-year-old working the lounge at Vegas with outdated jokes.”

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Rodriguez has in fact produced specials for HBO and CBS and is currently executive producer of “Loco Slam,” a Latino version of “Def Jam” for HBO. His crack at directing came in 1992, when Crystal Sky Communications approached Olivia Ayala, then senior vice president of Jeff Wald Entertainment (Wald is Rodriguez’s manager and partner in I Was Framed Productions), and told her about a project to adapt 12 Mark Twain short stories using first-time directors.

“They asked me if Paul would be interested, and we decided to pursue it,” she said. “It was adapted through Paul Rodriguez’s eyes: an immigrant trying to make it with a child. He made the story come to life.”

Rodriguez thinks having what he calls “the most prominent Latino cast ever assembled” (Ruben Blades, Liz Torres and Evelina Fernandez are also featured) had something to do with the decision to take the project theatrical rather than video. “Once they saw the stars, they saw dollar signs,” he says.

But there was very little money involved in getting them. “These people worked for scale. I called upon all my friends and reminded them that every time they had asked me to be in one of their functions, parties or quinceaneras I had been there and would continue to be there.

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“So,” he adds straight-faced, “after this movie is out I’m booked: I’m going to host parties, I’ll be sweeping floors and I’ll be waxing Cheech Marin’s car.”

Debts to Twain aside, the story is really Rodriguez’s. The Mexican-born son of migrant farm workers, Rodriguez spent his childhood moving from state to state, picking dates, tomatoes, oranges and apples. Because of the family’s nomadic lifestyle, none of the Rodriguez children graduated from high school (Rodriguez later took an equivalency exam). The family was desperately poor but deeply religious. In “Million,” the character of Mrs. Gonzales (Evelina Fernandez), surrounded by candles and icons, is partly a reflection of Rodriguez’s mother, a devoted Catholic who always lit votive candles in her home.

“I would always say: ‘Why are you thanking God, Ma? We don’t have nothing,’ ” says Rodriguez. “But at least we were alive. That’s in my movie, and that came out of my mom’s dialogue.” The character of the indecisive Juan is modeled after one of Rodriguez’s uncles who is “a very funny man, illegal, and always getting arrested by immigration,” says Rodriguez.

Whether “Million,” which is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn, turns out to be “too Latin” for the mainstream doesn’t worry Rodriguez. “Do you think they cared about me when they made ‘Yentl’ or ‘Poetic Justice’?” he asks. “My movies will always be of Hispanic themes.”

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