Imagine “Spider Man” as a low-income bouncer smarting from post-traumatic stress disorder. Try to picture Tony Stark limping by with miniscule mind-power and a fistful of dollars to his name. Suppose Bruce Wayne lived in squalor, soliciting crime victims from a crude computer web site.
To borrow a line from fellow vigilante crimefighter Dirty Harry Callahan, “I know what you’re thinking.” We’re talking Will Smith’s new hero-with-a-hangover “Hancock,” right?
Screw “Hancock” and his skid-row crime-fighting shtick. There’s a new, more credible superhero in town – assuming you live in Santiago, Chile – and his name is “Mirageman.”
Slaving away for minimum wage as bouncer-for-hire in a skank-infested South American strip joint, Maco (Marko Zaror) represses memories of a brutal attack on his family that left both parents dead. A near-catatonic younger brother who was raped during the ordeal suffers regular emotional breakdowns in a mental hospital.
A Chilean lethal weapon-in-waiting, Maco pulverizes punching bags from the confines of his low-rent apartment. One fateful evening on the streets of Santiago, he spots a home robbery. Like Charles Bronson in “Death Wish,” this anguished, damaged soul intervenes, wasting a slew of robbers and rescuing Carol, a celebrity newscaster.
With this widely publicized act of heroism, “Mirageman” is officially born. However, as Sam Raimi emphasized in “Spider Man 2,” life as a superhero is often thankless work. The public distrusts this new vigilante. Television stations paint him as a dangerous crackpot. Even Carol, whom he once saved, ultimately manipulates “Mirageman” for high news ratings.
“Mirageman” is, first and foremost, a genre superhero flick. Lead man Zaror, known as “The Latin Dragon” in South America (sample his demo-reel stunt work) is frighteningly efficient as a broken spirit reborn as a pure, brutal vengeance machine. Prior to “Mirageman,” Zaror’s physical fighting prowess and chiseled good looks resulted in obscure onscreen roles (“Hard As Nails,” “Into the Flames,” and “Chinango”) and a Taurus Stuntman of the Year award in 2004. “Kiltro,” a wild actioner from 2006, jettisoned Zaror into lead-man territory.
Two factors set Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s bone-breaking “Mirageman” apart from its competition. The first might be summed up in another Dirty Harry proverb: “Man has got to know his limitations.” The cine verite rawness of Espinoza’s film is so obviously non-budget that it comes across as fresh and unusual. In an age of unrestrained CGI and wirework-gone-wild, “Mirageman” boasts only old-fashioned, fist-to-face rump-punting. The neck-snapping economy of Espinoza’s action set pieces feels real.
Meanwhile, “Mirageman” whips up some wicked social commentary concerning media exploitation. Clearly, Espinoza feels distraught over television’s ability to twist a hero’s most noble intentions into something perceived as stupidity, menace or ill will. “If it bleeds, it reads,” goes the saying, and “Mirageman” certainly buys into this harsh reality.
Alas, all is not lost. Thanks to the encouragement of enthusiastic fans like Pseudo-Robin and Maco’s damaged young brother, this persistent Kung Fu whirlwind keeps his chin up and his fists flying.
Taking a break from the Los Angeles Film Festival, where “Mirageman” screened to sold-out crowds, director Espinoza and producer Derek Rundell (both currently residing in Southern California) granted Film Threat a few words on their new firecracker of a fight-film franchise.
“Mirageman” is someone the audience immediately roots for and empathizes with. Here’s a real good guy trying to do what’s right, but he’s constantly taken advantage of…
Derek: Exactly. We were trying to show an ordinary guy trying to do good. A simple, everyday superhero. What would he be facing?
“Mirageman” was filmed in South America, and features Spanish subtitles…
Derek: Yes. The movie was filmed in Santiago, Chile. Marko and Ernesto are both from Chile. We met in Los Angeles, started working together, and realized we could do a lot more with a certain amount of dollars in South America than we could do here. We said, “We’ve got the main actor and writer-director (in Chile) – we could do some good things down there.” It just seemed to make sense, versus trying to spend the same amount of money in Los Angeles, which would not have gone nearly as far.
Ernesto: I think (the decision to film in Spanish) is because I am from there, and my films are very related to that land, and to how the media influences everything there.
Ernesto migrated from Santiago to Los Angeles, and has lived in both cultures. How is the Chilean way of life different from life in America?
Ernesto: It seems like in Santiago, everything that happens is in the news, and everyone knows what’s happening in town. LA is so big you don’t really know what’s happening (laughter). In Chile, it seems like people always know what their neighbor is doing.
Is this your first project as a producer?
Derek: We did a film called “Kiltro” in South America, as well (currently available on the New Release shelves of Blockbuster Video). The word basically means “stray dog” in Spanish. It’s a slang term referencing the main character, who has a street gang: a “mixed breed” kind of guy. Marko Zaror, the same lead man from “Mirageman,” stars in that film.
Describe Marko Zaror, the muscular martial arts wunderkind who plays “Mirageman.”
Derek: I manage both Marko and Ernesto, and we’re trying to build Marko’s career as an action star. Marko was the stunt double for The Rock in “The Rundown.” The Rock’s cousin typically does his stunts, but for this one they needed martial arts. They couldn’t find anybody as big as The Rock who could move like that. Marko is a 6’ 2”, 210 South American with unbelievable moves. We’ve tried to take a page from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li and build Marko up, to eventually cross over into the mainstream, worldwide action scene.
Is there a big film scene in Chile?
Derek: No. It’s more of an artsy film community. It was exciting for people in that country and in the film community to see guys making a genre film in Chile. That was something that’s not been done down there. There are not many action films in Chile, or coming out of South America in general.
Ernesto: “Kiltro” was the first martial arts movie in Chile and in South America also. “Mirageman” is the first superhero movie from that area.
Can you describe Ernesto’s career as a director?
Derek: I basically consider Ernesto to be the Quentin Tarantino of South America. He’s becoming very popular, and people like his work down there. He has an unbelievable way of writing and directing, allowing some humor in there as well. “Mirageman” starts out with almost cartoonish type action, and gets very real towards the end.
After the success of Kiltro, Ernesto started getting awards and recognition (in 2007, he collected both an audience award at Austin Fantastic Fest, and the nod for Best Chilean Film at Valdivia International Film Festival), leading to several actors calling him about casting them. For example, the actress who played reporter Carol in “Mirageman” (Maria Elena Swett) is very well known in Chile . She called Ernesto and said she wanted to work with him. For us, that was pretty cool. She asked what his next film was, and said, “Whatever it is, I want to be involved.”
Is it true that Ernesto and Marko have known each other since childhood?
Derek: Yes! They were born on the same day (June 10, 1978), in Santiago, Chile. They have been friend throughout their whole lives, and grew up making movies together for years.
There’s almost an “El Mariachi” flavor to “Mirageman.” One admires its energy and inventiveness, despite sensing its low budget. Were there monetary constraints in making “Mirageman”?
Derek: We realized that this was an opportunity to depict a real-life superhero. What would his day-by-day be like? It was nice, because given our budget, we didn’t have the money to create elaborate stunts and scenes. There was certainly no bat cave with cool props. It kind of made sense, given that we wanted to portray an everyday guy trying to become a superhero.
Ernesto: I really am a big fan of the film. It was one of the reasons why I became a filmmaker. That guy (filmmaker Robert Rodriguez) made it without money. His book, “Rebel Without a Crew,” was a source of inspiration.
There’s a hysterical scene of Mirageman struggling to get into his costume for the first time. You don’t consider this dilemma when you watch Superman do his quick telephone-booth morphing.
Ernesto: That scene is the heart of the film – the key scene. I created everything else around that scene.
“Mirageman” features brutal stunt fighting. Is it derived from Kung Fu, or some other martial arts style?
Derek: It’s mostly Kung Fu, but there’s also Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, and other styles. Marko has developed a stunt team in South America. These guys have various different styles. Depending on what the scene called for, we would use whoever specialized in that particular move. We really wanted to keep the action grounded. We tried to showcase the amazing stunts and acrobatics that Marko can do. That’s been a conscious effort.
How much did it cost to produce “Mirageman?”
Derek: It was under $500,000.
How did Magnolia come into the picture as a distributor?
Derek: We approached them, because we knew they had picked up “Ong Bak,” with Tony Jaa. For us, it seemed right, because they had already placed a new martial arts guy in the marketplace.
How large was the “Mirageman” production crew during shoots?
Ernesto: There were usually ten people on the crew. On some days, during the larger fight scenes, there were as many as fifty.
Your film features several gritty fight scenes. Which was the most difficult to film?
Ernesto: I think that the big fight scene near the end, where he rescues Carol (was the most difficult). We did not have much time and did everything very fast. We were getting tired, because we didn’t stop all day. Marko tried to jump and do stunts every five minutes. That whole thing was filmed in two days.
There’s a tremendous amount of humor in “Mirageman,” including appearances by a dedicated fan of the hero, who dubs himself Pseudo-Robin. How did this character come about?
Ernesto: The actor who played Pseudo-Robin (Ivan Jara) was part of the stunt team. I always thought of him as that character because he is really funny in real life. We didn’t know if he was able to do the acting, though, because he’s really shy. We tried him, just in case. I gave Marko my camera and told Marko, “Hey man, interview this guy just to see how he looks in front of a camera.” So Marko interviewed him, and brought the film to my house. We watched it and said, “Man! He’s it!”
What’s your next collaboration?
Ernesto: “Mandrill” is my next project with Marko. The movie I’m going to shoot now is “Santiago Villanta,” a violent crime movie.