It takes an immigrant to shoot a film about small-town America in Mexico, which is what executive producer Eduardo Verastegui aimed to do with “Little Boy,” which opens Friday.
“When you’re an independent producer, it’s a lot of work, especially when it’s the most expensive [independent] film in history shot in Mexico,” Mr. Verastegui said.
His film used many of the same Baja California locations as “Titanic,” and required the construction of an entire 1940s Norman Rockwell-esque town from scratch. Mr. Verastegui partnered again with writer/director Alejandro Monteverde: They had produced the 2006 abortion drama “Bella.” Mr. Verastegui starred in that film, which won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
“Little Boy” tells the tale of 7-year-old Pepper Flynt Busbee (Jakob Salvati), who wishes only for his father (Michael Rapaport) to come home from World War II. A priest, played by Mr. Verastegui, tells the boy that the best way to ensure his father’s return is to perform good deeds, which Pepper pursues with a powerful faith. The title of the comedy-drama describes Pepper’s stature and shares the name of the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.
A native of Xicotencatl, a city in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Mr. Verastegui, 40, was a soap opera star in Mexico City before moving to Miami in the early 2000s. His first Hollywood film, the 2003 Latin comedy “Chasing Papi,” paired him with Sofia Vergara and D.L. Hughley. The only problem: He barely spoke English.
“I can barely speak English now, but at that time, I was really bad,” he said with more than a trace of humor. “I told [the casting director] my English is not good. He said, ‘90 percent of the movie, you’re going to be sleeping.’”
Mr. Verastegui moved to Los Angeles and immersed himself in English, barring himself from speaking Spanish for an entire year.
After pitches from his agent invariably called for iterations of a womanizer, drug dealer or bandito, Mr. Verastegui decided he would buck the Hispanic film stereotypes. Although he didn’t get acting work for four years, he knew it was the right decision, he said.
“There are more than 50 million Latinos in this country, and it’s very sad that people think we are what they see on TV and film — the stereotype,” he said. “It’s changing, but very few times you see an opportunity for Latinos to be heroes. I’m not talking about heroes like Superman or Spider-Man, but the everyday hero who comes to this country to work really hard to provide for his family — men of character, men of faith, men of integrity. [And] women most of the time have been reduced to sex objects.
“There’s good people and bad people everywhere,” he said, “but the great majority of Latinos that come into this country are people working a lot of hours who want to serve. I made a promise that I would never again use my talents to offend my faith, my family or my ethnic culture. I want to portray real heroes, people who always are trying to do the right thing.”
This self-promise led him to form a production company, Metanoia Films, to bring to the screen tales of faith and the beauty of the human family regardless of skin color.
Upon reading the script for “Little Boy,” Mr. Verastegui said he imagined the film as a love letter to his adopted country, something “that captures the heart and soul of America. I’m very grateful to this country for helping me build my dreams. This nation has been such a blessing in my life.”
One of the film’s most crucial relationships develops between Pepper and a Japanese-American named Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who faces the wrath of the townsfolk because of the war. As he, too, is an underdog, the “little boy” soon takes a liking to the ostracized man.
“You can talk to someone that is very different from you and have a very different belief system, but if you keep talking, you will find things” in common, Mr. Verastegui said.
“As a filmmaker, I believe that art has the power to heal and to bring people together,” he said. “And that’s ‘Little Boy.’ It’s designed to bring people together. It’s designed to wake up the little boy we all have in our hearts.”
Asked about the immigration mess in the U.S., Mr. Verastegui said distrust of the “other” is not an ethnicity issue but a “human problem.” One way to overcome it is to return to a state of childlike innocence, much like the film’s “little boy,” who embodies the definition of “underdog.”
“I [too] was an underdog in my hometown,” he said of being smaller than his schoolmates and a target for bullies. He got through the experiences by looking toward a better tomorrow.
“When you’re a kid, you love big, you dream big,” he said. “I’m a dreamer. I’m always trying to [achieve].”
Knowing his film faces long odds against major studio movies, Mr. Verastegui said it will take “an earthquake” — much like the one that plays a key part in the film’s plot — for it to find a large audience.
“Let’s make noise,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll make an earthquake so that people can enrich many hearts and facilitate our next projects.
“[I want to] make movies so that when people leave the theater, not only are they entertained, but hopefully [they] feel love, right?” he said. “We’re all created in the image and likeness of God, and we are all equal in dignity, and we are all in one family.”