Our interview with talented filmmaker & producer Anthony Thomas “Tony” Estrada.
Estrada earned a B.A. in Screen Arts and Culture from the University of Michigan, introducing him to global cinema and helped him to define his passion for filmmaking. Shortly after receiving his degree, Estrada was presented with the opportunity to teach film, photography and English grammar and literature at his high school alma mater. Concurrent to his teaching position, he worked as an intern for MGM Beverly Hills, where he was offered a job as an assistant to producer Adam Saunders, where he garnered financing for the company’s film fund. Tony produced, wrote and directed his first short film, Martha Cook, which played at the 2014 Santa Barbara Film Festival. During his time with Krieger, he developed pitches and worked onset with Krieger’s first studio motion picture, The Age of Adaline, and shot second-unit coverage for MTV’s Happyland.
In Spring 2016, Estrada wrote and directed his most recent short film Bridesman, starring Danny Trejo, his most successful film to date. The film played at festivals across the United States, including the Academy Award-qualifying LA Shortsfest. The film garnered national attention on both radio and TV networks. Bridesman, Estrada’s first feature film, is currently in pre-production and scheduled to shoot in Summer 2018 in New Mexico. Currently, Estrada writes, directs and produces PSAs for CBS/LA County and internal projects for Niagara Bottling.
Hi Tony, please tell us a little about you?
I’m a filmmaker/producer based in Los Angeles, California. I’m a native Angeleno, through and through, born and raised.
Describe yourself in 3 words?
Passionate. Bold. Loving.
Who is your biggest supporter?
I am so incredibly fortunate to have such an amazing support system behind me from my family, friends and mentors. To say one person is my biggest supporter would be a monumental disservice to all of them. The people that I have in my life are so incredibly passionate about seeing me succeed.
What is your own definition of happiness?
Consistent virtue over immediate gratification in order to live peacefully. I have reconfigured the concept of happiness over the last few months because I never felt truly satisfied no matter how much I chased “happiness.” I was so invested in finding what it was that made me happy that I became obsessive about it.
It wasn’t until I chose a different approach to my life with a toolkit that included deep introspection, personal accountability benchmarks, and an overarching performance strategy, that I saw a more dedicated and disciplined ‘self’ emerge.
I began to feel that I was getting the most out of myself personally, professionally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Staying true to who I am, peeling back the layers of myself, and living to the destiny I feel I am on this earth to honor is my ongoing pursuit.
How did you get started in the industry?
I originally started as a high school teacher, at the age of 22, teaching film, photography, and sophomore English literature. Toward the end of the school year, I saw on social media that a good friend of mine had just accepted a job as an assistant at MGM. I was able to procure a position there as an intern and every Friday, I would drive to Beverly Hills to work. It was such a life changing experience. I learned so much from direct contact with their executives, like Matt Dines and Jonathan Glickman, that I really got a feel for how studios work and think.
It was incredible to be able to sit in on development meetings at that point of my career, where I learned to perform at a higher level of professionalism and productivity. Thanks to a recommendation from Mr. Dines, I went on to work for an independent producer, Adam Saunders. From Adam, I learned how to build an independent production from the financing to production. After my time with Adam, I went on to work under director Lee Toland Krieger as his intern/assistant. It was with him that I learned the work ethic, professionalism, and business intuition that it takes to be a director at the studio level. One of my best experiences as a filmmaker and one that was absolutely crucial to my development was working with Krieger on Age of Adaline. I was able to be there with him when he was developing his pitch on it, to working with him on set in Vancouver, to getting my right hand into the movie holding a wine glass while we were shooting pick-ups. Working on that was like getting my master’s degree in directing.
I’ve also worked as a producer with Blake Salzman, on his short film Midwife. I am so grateful for the incredible people that gave me my first shots and chose to mentor and teach me.
What was your first film?
My first film, when I was eight years old, was a cop and robber shoot out that I made with my cousin while he was visiting one evening. I must say that the fake ketchup blood, ‘pew pew’ sound effects, and emotionally devastating memorial scene at the end with my picture taped on a cabinet doubling as a casket, will always make that movie my first masterpiece (at least, that’s what my mom said). It’s amazing to me, looking back, that at eight years old, my interest was foreshadowing my adult career path. That energy, that creativity, and desire to make content that resonates with people emotionally, still flows through me every day.
My first ‘professional’ film was Martha Cook. It was about a wannabe cowboy, on the pursuit of a killer he made up, only to come face to face with an actual serial killer. We shot that in 2013 and played at the Santa Barbara Film Festival the following year. Making that movie showed me just how little I actually knew as a filmmaking professional. It was a filmmaking boot camp to a far greater extent than I anticipated – and a real character-builder. When I was first starting out, I was so convinced that movies need to be a singular vision. As I’ve grown, I’ve recognized that collaboration isn’t only a more fun way of working, but also, what truly creates a better product with so many incredible minds surrounding you. It was such a massive milestone in overcoming insecurity that I was cloaking as wolf in sheep’s clothing ready to drop an iron hoof.
What is the best and worst part of being a filmmaker?
The best part is the incredible people I get the opportunity to work with. Each time I work with someone who inspires me or breathes new life into a project or is incredibly technically proficient at what they do, that energy is just so awesome and inspiring to be surrounded by. They raise my skills, my proficiency, my passion to the next level and I really get excited by what we are able to create together.
There is no real bad part about being a filmmaker. There’s no way I can bitch or moan when I get to do what I love every single day. It’s challenging yes, but nothing is bad.
What advice would you give to those who want to be in this business?
Don’t get too rooted in idealism. Always be pragmatic. Learn the business of show and the balance of art and commerce. Without art the commerce doesn’t exist and without the commerce the art doesn’t continue. You’ll always have a passion for what you do, but the work comes first. Your passion will always be your fuel.
Best advice ever given?
When I was at the Santa Barbara Film Festival a couple of years ago to watch a director’s panel, Richard Linklater was being bombarded for autographs. Through the dull roar, I said, “Hey Richard, any advice for a young filmmaker?” While still signing autographs, he chuckled and said “Ya, pack a lunch and wear comfortable shoes.” At the time, I took it at very face value, and was confused, but as I look at it now, I see what he was telling me and I’m profoundly impacted by it. I smile every time I think about that story, which is most every day.
I recently met with Paul Feig, who generously provided some guidance to me during our conversation. I asked him, “How were you able to get five women pooping in a bridal shop and still have people care?” He responded, “Earn your comedy. That’s how you get people to give a shit.” He smiled mischievously. And for years, I sat and asked myself why this guy is so brilliant. There was my answer.
Tell us about Bridesman? And how was working with Danny Trejo?
Bridesman has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life both personally and professionally, which I’m very grateful I’m able to say that. From the initial short film by the same name, to the current development of the feature film, I’ve learned so much about myself; specifically my ego and leadership, filmmaking and the art of business. It’s been painful but so worth it. I’ve formed some of the closest relationships of my life, lost others and experienced monumental growth. Who would’ve guessed that seeing day laborers with their shirts off on a corner in Rancho Cucamonga would’ve led me to having this incredible team seeking out $1 million to shoot the feature, and meeting with studios such as Netflix to make my first feature. I’m still astounded that that one single moment, that one brief time, brought me here.
Mr. Trejo was incredible to work with. He was so giving and made us all better in our efficiency and our artistic approaches. He helped us to think differently about scenes and mentored a few of the actors during his time on set. After the release of the film, he even went the extra mile and spoke about our film on national TV and radio. I’m so grateful for all that he has done. The coolest part about working with him—I had to keep reminding myself that I was working with the man I had first admired when I was 10 years old in the theatre watching Spy Kids. To experience that when I was 25 was so surreal.
When will we be able to watch it?
The short film is available now on Film Shortage here!
The feature is targeted for distribution in Spring of 2019.
What other projects are you currently working on?
Alongside the development of the feature length version of Bridesman, my production company eSquared developed and pitched a TV comedy series to CBS, and we are developing a separate concept with the same core theme as a one hour dramedy for streaming networks. We are waiting to see whether this idea will do the comedy direction or the dramedy path. We are also developing a short film called ¡Viva la Revolución! And based on the new life of the Bridesman short, I am excited to see what is born from this most recent short.
I also produce internal corporate work for Niagara Bottling and PSAs for CBA/LA County. I consider these projects yet another creative expression of short-form narrative and am grateful to have corporate clients on that side of the business.
Who is your favorite Actor/Actress? And why?
All time, it’s a tie between Tom Hanks, Buster Keaton and Gene Kelly. Tom Hanks because he brings a warmth and moral apex to each of his characters. Buster Keaton because of his raw ability to mix the perfectly choreographed physical action with the innocence and deadpan face has not been matched by any comedian since. Gene Kelly because every single time I see Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris, I’m reminded of the joy and happiness I want to bring to people.
3 things you can’t leave your house without?
Keys, wallet, shoes.
Your idea of a perfect Sunday is?
Watching several movies in a row that inspire me, at a historical theatre like The Egyptian in Hollywood.
How’s a normal day in your life?
I wake up most days between 5:30 and 6:30. I’ll either read or go for a dip in the ocean or both. I’ll make myself breakfast then head to the gym. I’ll work on the development of projects until lunch, or meet over lunch with potential business partnerships. I’ll usually work on the execution the current development and production projects until about 8 or 9 p.m. I’ll then go to the movies or watch one on a streaming network.
What is your favorite healthy food?
Lean turkey or chicken with almond peanut butter on top…Some call it weird. I call it lean muscle.
And your favorite cheat food?
Spaghetti at Scotty’s Diner in Hermosa Beach. On Mondays, they have all you can eat spaghetti with a side salad for $8. I take a book with me and watch the sunset. I really do love my Monday night ritual.
If you could meet someone living or dead, who would it be and why?
Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or Martin Scorsese. Lincoln and Churchill because they are two of the greatest leaders of all time. I would love to pick their brain and shadow them for as long as I could to learn how they speak, posture and act. Most of all, I would love to see how they navigate adversity and challenges head on to lead other to higher versions of themselves.
I’d love to meet Scorsese because of his sheer brilliance and knowledge of film. I’d love to see how he works with actors, thinks visually, and brings every aspect of filmmaking together. Most of all, I am so interested in his widely-reported addiction and psychological struggles that he overcame right before Raging Bull and how he’s been able to, seemingly, find peace within himself in an industry where there’s not much.
How do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, I envision that I will have grown my production company to a point where I’m running multiple projects out of a bungalow on one of the major studio lots. Most importantly, I hope to be helping to lead the way for Latinos, nurturing their talent and presenting projects for them to take the lead on and grow with.
Something people don’t know about you?
I was on The Price is Right when I was 18. The high point was when Drew Carey told me I was one of the best huggers he’s ever met. The low point was when I lost at Lucky Seven. Everyone knows that is the hardest game on The Price is Right. Winning a car on that game is like finding the ark of the covenant. It’s no Sunday picnic like Plinko.
Do you support any charities?
Currently, I’m helping my sister set-up and launch her non-profit organization, the D.R.E.A.M. Foundation, which provides after school cheerleading and gymnastics programs, to predominantly minority, kids in low income areas.
In addition, I was recently invited by Stanley Brooks to join the organization he founded, called Hollywood Indies Little League, who recently partnered with the Dodgers, and are bringing back baseball to South Central Los Angeles. The organization has been around 22 years and have built an incredible legacy. I’m really excited to get to work with them soon, to help guide kids in both baseball and continuing their education.
Where we can follow you?
Favorite Music: When I’m in my car, I’ll belt out Frank Sinatra, rap to DRAM’s “Broccoli” the next, and find myself playing piano to one of the songs from La La Land. Whatever stirs me up emotionally, I’m all in.
Quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” –Henry David Thoreau
Holiday Destination: Though I’ve never been, American Somoan or Fiji. Not only because of the picturesque landscapes, but mostly because I am fascinated by the culture of Polynesia and their dedication to family and honor. I would love to spend time with people native to the land and get to know how they function within their cultural settings.
Food: My mom’s tacos. I put down about 9-12 each time. In Mexican culture, food plays such a big role in bringing family together and my mom has been such a big catalyst of that throughout my life. Her tacos bring legions of family and friends together at one table and allow us time to really enjoy the company of one another. Her willingness to work to bring us together constantly inspires me to live to serve.
Restaurant: Does my grandma’s house count?
Celebrity Crush: Salma Hayek. Yowza. That’s all I have to say.
Song: Currently, “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars. All time, it’s a three-way tie between “Sing a Song” by Earth, Wind and Fire because it brings me incredible amounts of joy and happiness no matter how down I might be, “Somebody to Love” by Queen because Freddie Mercury’s willingness to be completely vulnerable about his struggles with his life in such an awe-inspiring way resonates with me so deeply and “Georgia on my Mind” by Ray Charles because it reminds me to live with the fire and passion my grandpa use to play this song with.
Sports Team: Los Angeles Dodgers baseball and University of Michigan Football.
Movie: 3 way tie—Singin’ in the Rain, Forrest Gump, Goodfellas