Striving to understand the emotions and ideas of differing ethnic and religious has been a long struggle for many people throughout history, particularly when a group holds radical ideas seemingly based in radical beliefs. But once people truly begin to uncover the true motivations and evidence held by the seemingly diverse groups, they may become just as likely to subscribe to the radical beliefs as well. That’s certainly the case for the main character in writer-director Francisco Ordonez’s upcoming film ‘Asher,’ whose growing connection with a religious group he has infiltrated leads him to question everything he has held dear, as well as humanity’s true nature.
‘Asher’ follows Paul Rueda, an ambitious college student who goes undercover in a militant religious organization known as The Black Israelites to write a college paper that he believes will make him famous. The Israelites are known for their fiery sermons on the streets of New York. Their main beliefs are that Blacks and Latinos are the true Chosen People of the Bible; that the world is controlled by a secret society known as the Illuminati who has spent thousands of years plotting the domination of the world; and that the Earth is in its final days.
As Paul enters their world he befriends Zebulon, a rising member who Paul hopes to exploit for information. However, Paul gets in over his head when he begins to uncover evidence that seems to prove the group’s claims, in particular, the belief that the Illuminati has started a plan to kill off the population of the world through biological weapons such as anthrax and diseases like AIDS. When Zebulon reveals to Paul that he and a few others have formed a separatist group, Paul begins to participate in their activities knowing full well that he could be putting his life in danger.
Ordonez generously took the time to talk about writing and preparing to shoot ‘Asher.’ Among other things, the writer-director discussed how his own experiences as a senior in college, when he made the real life Black Israelites the subject of his thesis paper, influenced him to make ‘Asher;’ how his B.A. in Sociology from Queens College helped him understand his characters’ motivations and decisions; and the reports that such famous actors as Danny Glover, Mekhi Phifer and Gina Rodriguez will be appearing in the movie.
Question (Q): You wrote and are set to direct the film ‘Asher,’ which tells the story of a Latino college student, Paul Rueda, who infiltrates a religious sect known as the Black Israelites to write a thesis paper. Why did you decide to pen and helm a film about the beliefs of a religious sect?
Francisco Ordonez (FO): Well, when I was an undergrad at Queens College, I actually did that paper on the group that’s commonly known as the Black Israelites. They’re guys, who are mainly black and Latino, who preach on the street, mostly in Times Square. They have three basic things they believe in-that blacks and Latinos are the true Israelites from the Bible, the world is about to end and the Messiah is about to return.
So as I was studying sociology as an undergrad, I did a paper on them. I spent a lot of time with them, and was trying to understand where they were coming from, from a sociological and cultural point of view. They’re into a lot of conspiracy theories and stuff that a lot of people don’t think about every day.
After spending a lot of time with them, they started to get under my skin. It was interesting, because I was young at the time, and it was a time in your life where you can easily be influenced by other ideas. So the ideas just stayed with me.
When I started thinking about writing movies, it was an experience that stayed with me. I wanted to make a movie where I would explore what it’s like to be exposed to extremist ideas.
Q: Like you mentioned, ‘Asher’ is based on your own experiences as a senior in college, when you made the real life Black Israelites the subject of your thesis paper. How much did you base Paul’s journey in the movie on your won, and did you do any additional research before you wrote the script?
FO: The paper was limited to what I had learned from my sources in the group. Obviously, I had to take a lot of dramatic license to create a story. I just had the scope of the emotional impact. So I didn’t have to do that much extra research. But definitely the basics of what they believe were definitely put into the screenplay. Then I took the dramatic license to explore what would happen when a 22-year-old Latino student infiltrates a group like that.
In real life, I was upfront with them, as I was supposed to be, according to the ethics of the research. In the story, the character thinks he isn’t going to get anywhere with them if he tells the truth, so he lies and tells them he’s actually interested in joining. So he infiltrated the group, which is something that definitely didn’t happen in real life.
Q: You graduated with a B.A. in Sociology from Queens College. Did studying sociology influence the way you wrote the script for ‘Asher?’
FO: Yeah, definitely. To make a movie where you demonize a group like that can be pretty easy and boring. I think my sociology background allows me to take a more of a nuance approach, in terms of creating both characters, including the preachers and the people who believe in these ideas. I was trying to explore and understand their psychology and where they’re coming from, and not just present them as a villain.
Q: Besides from writing and directing ‘Asher,’ you’re also serving as a producer on the film. How has producing the movie influenced your role as a director during the pre-production stages of the movie?
FO: I started writing the script pretty early, and I conceived the story when I was in film school. I wasn’t thinking about anything, in terms of being commercial or financial. That actually made it a lot tougher.
In the end, I am making the film I want to make. But I think if I put financial consideration into the process, I may have made the film differently. But I may not have been as happy with it. I may have been discouraged from doing it, because it’s a very tough film in a lot of ways.
The people who are behind it financially, and are acting in it, are very passionate about it. It’s the type of project where you either have people who are very passionate, or they just don’t get it. If I had my producer hat on from the beginning, things probably would have been different.
Q: Danny Glover, Mekhi Phifer and Gina Rodriguez are said to have joined the cast of the film. Can you discuss the roles they’ll be playing in ‘Asher?’
FO: Now that we’re about to go into production, we’re still locking down the terms of how everything’s going to work. But they’re still attached to the film.
Mekhi Phifer is going to play a member of the sect, who the student meets and befriends. Then the student realizes that Mekhi’s character seems to be splintering off from the main group. He’s forming his own group, and it seems like they’re trying to do an operation, and the main character is trying to figure out what it is. Mekhi plays an informant that the main character tries to befriend, and could possibly be involved in a terrorist operation, which may not actually be what it seems.
Q: In the future, do you wish to continue making films that explore the modern religious and societal issues that will be presented in ‘Asher,’ or would you be interested in exploring other genres, such as comedy, as well?
FO: I definitely gravitate towards darker, more realistic subject matters, but I would like to try a comedy. I think it would have to be the right one for me. A broad, gross-out comedy probably isn’t my thing, but I’d love to try something along the lines of Woody Allen. Due to my sensibilities and where I naturally go, it would probably have to be a distinct sort of comedy. But I’d love to try it.
Q: Speaking of Woody Allen, is he one of the filmmakers you look up to, and are there any other particular directors who have influenced your filmmaking style?
FO: I also love Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin, and ’70s directors overall, as they’re a big influence on me. I also love a lot of Italian directors, like Giuseppe Tornatore.
Q: You’re also attached to direct the hip-hop drama ’16 Bars’ from producer Danny Rodriguez, and the film will star Danny Trejo and Esai Morales. What ultimately drew you to take on helming the film?
FO: Hopefully we’ll be able to put that one together in the next year or so. That’s with a company called Old West Entertainment, which is owned by the rapper, Kid Frost. It tells a Cain and Abel story, set in the world of Latino hip-hop, on the West Coast.
Q: Do you have any other projects lined up that you can discuss?
FO: I’m working on a television series adaptation of ‘Asher,’ which will be like a Latino ‘X-Files.’ It will have to do with conspiracy theories, the paranormal and UFOs. It basically takes the character from ‘Asher,’ a college student who’s interested in this stuff, and is investigating that type of thing.