Originally titled “The Audacity of Louis Ortiz,” Ryan Murdock’s “Bronx Obama” is a study of the American Dream gone wacky. In 2008 a former Verizon worker of Puerto Rican descent shaved off his goatee – unmasking a dead ringer for the 44th president of the United States. Filmmaker Murdock doggedly followed the humble Ortiz over the course of three years, documenting the Bronx resident’s physical and spiritual transformation from unemployed single dad to highly sought after impersonator.
And now the film Stephen Colbert considers “So good it almost made me like Chicago Obama,” releases just in time for the midterm elections (digitally on October 7th and through Showtime on October 28th). For more information visit www.bronxobamamovie.com.
Lauren Wissot: Can you discuss the genesis of the film? I believe it started out as a piece for “This American Life,” which turned into a short, which became “Bronx Obama.”
Ryan Murdock: When I first met Louis I knew I had at least a great short film. I was just getting started on it really – I had shot maybe five or six days total – when I mentioned it to a friend who produces for “This American Life.” He thought it would make a good radio piece, so we did a bunch of interviewing and ended up with a 37-minute story about Louis’ “first term.” That was broadcast in early 2012, just as the election circus started ramping up.
From there we did a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $30,000, and that paid for me to follow Louis around for the rest of 2012. The “New York Times” heard of my film and asked if I wanted to do a short piece right around Election Day. People went bananas. It was hugely popular and sort of made Louis famous as “the Bronx Obama.” I stopped filming for the feature after the inauguration in 2013, and spent the next year combing through the 200 hours of footage with a team of brilliant editors. The film really took shape in the editing room. Our first cut was three hours. Then we kept whittling. My friend Will Butler who’s in Arcade Fire gave us some original music, and we got some great New York hip hop from the band Dujeous. We premiered in Feb 2014 at the True/False Film Festival.
LW: How did you even meet Louis Ortiz – and more importantly, gain enough trust to document him over three years?
RM: A friend had met him and I thought that (impersonating Obama) sounded like a weird experience for someone to have, and also a potentially interesting visual story. The first time I called him we made plans to meet up in a few days. The next day Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed. When I finally did meet up with Louis people all around him were congratulating him, saying “Way to go, man!” He would reply, “One shot, one kill.” He had a shirt on that read “Mission Accomplished” with a photo-shopped Obama giving two thumbs up. The whole thing kind of blew my mind.
So I asked if I could just follow him to gigs and around New York and see what happened – a very light touch at first. I remember that after about a month or two, he asked me if the film was done yet. I tried not to laugh. I didn’t know what the film would become, but I knew there was so much more that would happen.
I tried not to define what the film was or wasn’t about – to just follow my instincts and let myself fade into the background. At first Louis liked to talk about the glamorous aspects of (impersonating Obama). One of the earliest scenes I shot was when Louis was hired to do a rap video for the song “Choppa Choppa Down” by Wacka Flocka Flame featuring French Montana. The gig itself was weird. In the video Obama was being tortured by terrorists, but was eventually rescued by the rappers.
When the gig was over the producers tried not to pay Louis. He had to haggle for a couple hundred bucks. I realized that it wasn’t as glamorous as it might seem. So then we started talking about the struggles – how people yell crazy things at him, take out their hatred of Obama on him. Once we started talking about that stuff I think it was a release for him. I think that helped gain more trust. It was all about just going slow.
LW: The film’s been picked up by Showtime and is set to broadcast end of October – a pretty impressive feat for a debut feature. But you’ve been working in the doc world for at least a decade, including for PBS’s “Nova” and its “StoryCorps” series. What skills did you acquire working in public TV that proved applicable to your first feature?
RM: My degree is in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern, and I might be the only graduate who’s actually worked in all three industries. It’s all storytelling to me, in different forms. I’m relatively agnostic about the specific format. I think each story has an ideal way to share with an audience based on its own inherent narrative possibilities. With “Bronx Obama” it was the first time I encountered a story that I thought could be a feature film. So I took a gamble and spent three years of my life on a shoestring budget making this story happen. It feels good to think the gamble paid off!
I believe very much in the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. In my years in public broadcasting I encountered hundreds of stories, which I think trained me to see when a story is truly unique. I also think public broadcasting taught me how to be a good listener. Patience is key in this field. It’s only by putting in time with your subjects that you get good material, no matter how talented you are at the other aspects of the craft.
LW: You capture some really uncomfortable moments in the film between Louis and his casually racist management. I’m wondering how all those involved reacted upon viewing those scenes in the completed film (that is, if they’ve all seen the doc).
RM: Well, I don’t think the manager has seen it yet, though he knows about what’s in the film. He was not shy when the camera was rolling.
The first time I showed the film to Louis he had to pause it a few times to take a breather. He had either forgotten or moved beyond some of those experiences. Seeing those moments again, and from the unflinching perspective of the camera, I think brought back those emotions again. Now that we’ve shown the film at dozens of venues, though, Louis has had a chance to experience people’s reactions. I think it’s been therapeutic for him.
Reina, Louis’ daughter, even got to see the film at the Sarasota Film Festival. People wanted pictures with her! She got a little taste of fame, but I think she’s happy to just be pushing ahead with her studies.
LW: You also include “Bill Clinton” and “Mitt Romney” in the film – colorful and surprising characters in their own right. Do you plan on delving further into the impersonation profession, or are you onto other projects now?
RM: What fascinated me about Louis – and also about the Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney characters – is that they didn’t really choose this. It chose them. These guys didn’t start out as actors who are stretching a vague resemblance. It was just genetic luck, or a genetic curse, depending on whom you ask. I think there’s a very real question of whether they have much of a choice in the matter – especially for Louis because Obama is so iconic and Obama’s image is so complex. Louis can downplay the resemblance, but still people will constantly barrage him with, “Excuse me – has anyone ever told you…?”
As far as the impersonation profession, lots of that business is celebrity impersonation – Elvis, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe. Their images are complicated for sure, but images of political figures – and Obama in particular – carry a lot more power. They have more meaning to people beyond coolness. I’ve seen people cry when they see Louis in character. It just strikes people at the emotional core. All logic goes out the window. I’m interested in any story that gives people pause, and that hits people at a visceral level. One of my favorite lines in the film is when Louis says, “If you woke up one day and looked like the most powerful man in the world, wouldn’t you do what I’m doing?” Like “Watch out – the next president could look like you!”