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An Interview with Tracey Cuesta, Dominican Republic-based Producer

by Dale Pierce

May 2009

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1. First off, some people may incredibly not even know where Santo Domingo is. Could you tell everyone a little about your country?

 

Well First of all, Dale, its quite a common misconception that our country is called Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo is actually the capital of our beautiful country which is called the Dominican Republic. Our gorgeous country is located in the Caribbean and logistically friendly with its flights of less than 2 hrs from Miami and 3 from New York. We have every type of eco system imaginable from Cactus filled deserts that look like the old west to Arabian Sand Dunes, Tropical Rain Forests, and extensive underwater cave system and amazing waterfalls. We even have white water rafting in Pine tree laden forests. So anything your script may be require we've got it all right here.

 

2. Yet there is room for a film industry there?

 

That's a tough one. There isn't enough equipment or qualified personnel yet here on our part of the island to have any type of a quality local film industry, however for only use as a location, bringing in the majority of the needed keys and equipment from either Miami or Puerto Rico for larger shoots, it's a perfect place for the film industry. We have a limited amount of equipment on the ground, enough for a small independent but lacking for a large studio pic, and can usually fill any need from the best boy and/or assistant down. Third tier is what we call it.

 

3. What is the function of Santo Domingo Film?

 

Santo Domingo Film was first started as a Private Film Commission to fill the need here in the DR to bring in quality projects and thus creating jobs and education for the locals during the administration of President Hipolito Mejia, 2000-2004. He totally got it and understood what I was trying to do and the potential of such foreign stimulation to our economy, and opened every single door for me and my filmmakers that was possible. He exhonerated all of their sales tax, their service tax and even the payroll taxes. He also exhonorated any immigration taxes and fees and even waived the Visas for a few of our European visitors bringing them in under something we created called a Temporary Film Immigration Permit. He allowed for the equipment to be imported on a temporary import basis without any complicated paperwork using a system that we implemented which was basically like a carnet. As most jobs have to have a carnet to get their gear back in the US, he allowed us to just leave a copy of this carnet along with a gear list at the customs port of entry and then the clients just had it returned upon their departure for the ease of not only temporary import, but also the export of the equipment as well. We have now evolved Santo Domingo Film into Santo Domingo Film and Music Video and also branched out as Serie23 Productions, Serie23 Casting, and Dominican Republic Production Support as each and every job wanted to hire me as their Supervising Producer, so I basically had to shut down the Film Commission and start producing again full time. I did this full time until I was approached by the Mayor of San Pedro de Macoris who had been so impressed with the increase in foreign filmmaking in our country that he asked me to create a local film commission and head it up for him. I have been with him since the end of 2004 and he has also created interesting incentives for filmmakers or photographers who use San Pedro as their backdrop for their projects. We can close streets at anytime, use any public space with no permit fee and basically anything we need to. The Mayor is a young man who is attempting to create opportunities for his townspeople through the film industry and we have been extremely successful. We unfortunately aren't allowed any financial incentives anymore as those are only given by the National level of Government officials and the current administration belongs to a different political party than President Mejia and the Mayor of San Pedro, Tony Echavarria, so they don't collaborate with any of their efforts.

 

4. And what is your job with them?

 

I am a Supervising Producer with all of my companies and Executive Director of the Mayor's Film Commission in San Pedro de Macoris and I am President of the Fundacion MVP which teaches and trains people in the film industry to help them suceed in life in an area where on-the-job education is not available here in the Dominican Republic, and the education taught in the local schools is very beneath the level of the International Film Industry for which we train our people.

 

5. What are some of the types of music videos you have produced?

 

In my lifetime I have produced over 200 Music Videos with the majority of them being award winners. However, since coming home to the DR, Alicia Keys Karma - which won Music Video of the Year and was directed by Chris Robinson, Robin Thicke and Pharrell, Wanna Love You Girl with Hype Williams and Benzino, Wide Body with Juan Carlos, are the ones that come to mind. Believe it or not, I am most proud of Karma as it was the very first Mainstream Music Video shot here in the Dominican Republic and won MTV's Music Video of the Year which was an amazing accomplishment for our entire country.

 

6. And films?

 

I served as Production Consultant on Lovewrecked directed by Randal Kleiser which served as the precedent for everything else to come here in this country. They had attempted once to create an industry friendly to foreign filmmakers years ago with The Godfather, but the project was a complete disaster sadly, there were tons of problems with the local side of the production which caused the filmmakers problems with their completion bonds and the DR was placed on the Blacklist of which everyone knows that a studio pic without a completion bond is just not going to happen.

Lovewrecked produced by Media 8, coming off of their big Oscar win for Monster, was the re-inauguration of the DR as it is today as a viable location to film. We were afforded every single incentive we asked for by President Mejia and the film went off without any glitch, it was my first show as head of the Film Commission. From there I served as Production Consultant on The Lost City, Miami Vice, The Good Shepherd, and was Supervising Producer on the absolutely most amazing film ever to come out of the Dominican Republic, Sugar. We are most proud of Sugar as we did everything from finding and casting the star actor, Algenis Perez Soto in a gym and inviting him and his brother to a casting at a Softball Field which they thought was crazy, along with all of the Baseball Principals, to finding each and every location except for Baseball City used throughout the Dominican portion of the film. We spent months traveling all over the country putting thousands of kids on tape before or after their practices to send them off to the directors so that they could have callbacks when they visited. This amazing film was shot right here in all of the areas of San Pedro where the types of people portrayed in this beautiful film actually live and play in. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were the driving source behind each and every move we made. They are absolute geniuses and it made our lives so easy to give them exactly what they needed, as they always knew exactly what they wanted. It was so amazing to see them right out their in the middle of these cow laden fields right alongside us looking for just the right person. None of the actors used here in the DR were actors, they were all just real people and the majority baseball players or had played baseball except of course for the female roles.

 

8. With the economy in many large countries turning bad, do you see people coming to places such as Santo Domingo to shoot films or produce music videos due to economics?

 

Of course, but this is nothing new, in the Fashion Industry people are coming here looking for our exotic locations for their photo shoots, but in the Film and Music Video industry it's basically about their bottom line and always has been. We work an 18hr day for around 50% IATSE rates, but also have 2009 Suburbans in our garage which clients always find crazy. I remember recently working on something for VH1 and one of their executive producers telling me, "Man, how in the world did you get Surburbans in the DR?" He was really amazed and impressed with the quality and the level of the services that we provided for them, we were told that things were even better here with us then they had been for them in the past in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and that they would definitely be back. That's what we're always striving for. The repeat producer, the great word of mouth referral.

 

9. Does your company have any new productions in the preparation stages now?

 

We are currently working on a new reality Do-It-Yourself show called Bringing Home the Spa and we are currently shooting a show called BNN on the Road for BNN in Holland, and have a couple of Independent Features in development we are working with to make their numbers work to get their green light for their producers in the US. And then of course we are always shooting Travel à la Mode for the Travel Channel that airs on American Airlines, Delta and US Air on their coast to coast flights. We've been producing that for the past 4 years.

 

10. How did you come to be involved in the film or music business yourself?

 

I was extremely blessed to have met Rick McCallum of Lucas Film when I was very young and from that very day I always knew that I wanted to be him when I grew up. :-) I may not have reached his superstar producer status of bossing around George Lucas on film sets in my life, but being the absolute best in the International Film Industry for an entire country is pretty cool in itself. I later left his side and worked with the most powerful man in the Music Industry, Suge Knight, where I was able to learn the ins and outs of the most incredible label in the history of Music, Death Row. To this day I am in touch with the man who was our mentor, Darryl Young, and his lessons in both life and the industry are and always will be, invaluable to me. I don't even think that Rick has any idea what I'm doing now or how much he actually has influenced my life and career. I hope to be able to share that with him someday, maybe convince them to shoot something here :-)

 

11. Would not the hurricanes in the area pose a threat to concerts or film making?

 

Not at all. During the filming of Miami Vice the hurricanes were used as an excuse for the crew to get out safely after the famous on-set shooting that was provoked by a member of security that the Governmental Administration of President Leonel Fernandez had hired. It was an extremely sad issue because just because you have all of the governmental power in the country does not necessarily mean you know what you're doing in the Film Industry. On our sets we strictly follow the rule of The Crow based on Brandon Lee's death and we do not allow our security to carry live firearms except on the perimeter. However, when the government steps in and tries to take over your set and says "we are the government, we are all-knowing, you do what we say or you won't be able to do anything", they had to do what the government wanted and hire who the Government said. But a third world military guy is one thing and a Professional Security Staff well-versed in Set etiquite is quite another. Hurricanes don't ruin our projects but overzealous inept Governmental Authorities surely can.

 

12. Anything else you would wish to talk about before closing?

 

The DR is in desperate need for the same types of Governmental incentives that President Hipolito Mejia allowed for the film industry. In the past elections, the opposition candidate Miguel Vargas Maldonado had bills and incentives ready to present to congress had he won the elections. The incentives basically offered a production loan program to foreign filmmakers with the government taking a percentage of profits with the employment of a small percentage of locals. It allowed no fee - no stress imports and exports and exhonorated each and every tax associated with the project in hopes of stimulating the economy with foreign filmmakers flocking to the DR and creating a species of Free Zone for Filmmaking. It even allowed for any public permit fees to be donated to a local film fund to promote local filmmaking for the local Dominican filmmakers who have no big budget possibilities. There was also a program for anyone wanting to build infrastructure such as a studio to take advantage of tax free construction and operation for 15 years, and in addition the government would donate the land or assist with finding private donors. It was each and everything that we needed to be competitive nowadays with the Bahamas buliding $25 million dollar studios :-) for their visitors, Canada with their great programs and every state implementing incentives to prevent runaway production. The Government of Miguel Vargas Maldonado would have donated everything needed to assist foreign filmmakers, helicopters, locations, etc, but along with his loss in the elections the film industry also took a huge hit and lost out on some amazing legislation that could have helped turn the country around from the severe financial crisis it is living and the terrible separation between the classes, and bring it into the present all the while assisting foreign filmmakers accomplish their goals.

 

13. Closing comments?

 

I was born in the Dominican Republic yet had the privelege to leave as an infant and be raised in the US, and my dream for this country when I returned home about 10 years ago with all of my knowledge and experience stateside was to mingle with the local industry, try and bring it to another level and really start a local industry of quality. What happened was anything but, I was attacked from all sides by the local industry and asked "what in the world could we learn from you, you just got here and we've been making projects here in this country for 30 years." So in my defensive on such a senseless attack I responded, "Well, did you ever think maybe THAT'S your problem? You've been producing things HERE for the past 30 years and haven't even been to the Universal Studios Theme Park, much less on a live set on their Back Lot?" So things basically went from bad to worse. The only support I had was from the very President, which was an incredible blessing for me, so I used that to my colleague's advantage and got them to bring in everything and everyone needed for their jobs and use our amazing country as a beautiful backdop for their projects. On a couple of my first attempts to hire locals, things went terriblly wrong and I found out on one occasion that it had been sabotage by a local company who thought they could steal the client away for future shoots. A client and crew that I had more than 15 years experience with in Los Angeles. What happened? It totally backfired in their faces, the clients, who were all friends or referrals from friends all began to ask me, "What in the world are you doing here? Have you lost your mind? Look at the way these people work? Look at this equipment? How can you stand it?" So instead of agreeing that I had lost my mind, I decided to do something about it. What did I do? Started buying my own equipment, so that I didn't have to rent from someone who promised me a 10k HMI yet brought me a homemade Kino Flo. And as for the personnel? I started training people from scratch through the Fundacion MVP in simple positions and for the more technical positions I found really young kids with open minds and great talent potential and put them with some of the great people I have worked with for years and got them even more training and now they are seasoned pros. For any position that I can't promise A List Crew, I take my Production Fee and fly someone in from NY, LA or wherever to get the job done. I love the DR. I absolutely love it and would not trade it for any place on earth, it's a paradise to me, but I have lived through the school of hard knocks here and ever since President Mejia left office things have just gotten less efficient and alot more complicated, however it just makes me stay on my toes and have to get crafty. I pray that someday, someone, somewhere will understand the economic impact that foreign filmmaking can have here in this country and instead of opening their hands for a handout and payoff, will open their hearts and minds to help things work so that everyone can plant seeds of promise together and then we can all continue to harvest for many many years to come. My dream for this country is that in 2012, Miguel Vargas Maldonado will be elected our President, so that we can really get things started here. I'll keep you posted!!!!!

 

Thanks for the interview, and the best of luck!

 

© by Dale Pierce


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