USC film director strives to represent Latinx community on screen

Fernando Lebrija, after studying film at USC, went on to direct and produce feature films and become a member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. (Photo courtesy of Fernando Lebrija)

Fernando Lebrija, USC alumnus and renowned director of “Amar a Morir,” is unafraid of breaking barriers. 

His breadth of work in the film industry is evidenced by his roles as a director, producer, writer and director of photography, as well as his filmography from music videos to feature-length film projects. His work was something he was proud to share when he attended the 2019 Latino Media Fest held Oct. 2 to 4 in Century City. 

“Right now, I think the Latino voice — storywise, director-wise, acting-wise — needs to be heard a little bit stronger in the U.S., and that’s what I’m doing in the Latino Fest,” said Lebrija, a member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. “I’m going to support my fellow Latino filmmakers to start standing up to Hollywood, to put more pressure to let us have more jobs and tell more stories that we relate to.”

For Lebrija, representation is important. His whose goal is to paint stories of the Latinx community that do not rely on detrimental stereotypes previously constructed and perpetuated by Hollywood. 

“I always put a stamp on the films with a Latino flavor, meaning I either cast Latino actors for some roles or I use some of the most important traditions of Latino [people],” Lebrija said. “[I want to] show Latino people without the stereotype. They can be normal businessmen or lawyers — they are not just gardeners or valets or cooks.”

Yet, Lebrija said he believes there is an important distinction to be made. While he does believe in showcasing a greater voice to Latinx stories on screen, he also said there is a typecast where Latinx directors are not seen as capable of handling films outside of their ethnic community. 

“It’s not about like, ‘OK, you’re Latino, you can just do Latino stories,’” Lebrija said. “No, that is a mistake. We are filmmakers, and we can tell any story, any genre, any ethnicity. We are just trying to get the opportunity to let us shine and let us show them that we can be also Martin Scorsece, we can be Steven Spielbergs here and not just the ‘Three Amigos.’”

Lebrija’s current advocacy, through events like the Media Fest, exhibits a passion for change, and his journey from an immigrant film student to acclaimed director speaks to his influence on aspiring Latinx filmmakers.  

Lebrija first entered the industry in Mexico as a director for music videos and commercials. While these endeavors largely contrast his current work, he cites them as two great steps in his developmental path.

“Music videos help because they are like little short films and you have all the creative liberty,” Lebrija said. “What really helped me in commercials was to understand the professional side of the business, meaning dealing with executives that don’t know anything about film, being patient, being a good collaborator and being very diplomatic.”

Although the surrounding environment did provide Lebrija with essential knowledge, he said, did not fully satiate his desire for a well-rounded film education.

“I came from a world in Mexico where there are not real producers — there are a lot of great directors, great DPs, great art directors — we have a lot of awesome creative people, but we did not have good producers because there was not an education to make good producers,” Lebrija said.

Consequently, Lebrija took the risk to emigrate to the United States from Mexico and attended three programs at AFI, USC and UCLA for a master’s in producing, postgraduate in screenwriting and practicum in directing, respectively. Lebrija is still fearless when following uncertainty and challenges in the film industry.

“I like to take risks. I like to go against the norm,” Lebrija said. “When I did my first movie, it was a thriller-romantic drama, with some action. And then I moved to do a crazy, teenage raunchy comedy. People were saying, ‘Are you crazy? You need to stay in the same genre and show people what you do best.’ I’m like, well, I like challenges, and I don’t want people to take me as a drama director only. I want to be a little bit more eclectic.”

As he continues to navigate his career and stretch his creative abilities, Lebrija hopes to provide insight from his own journey to young filmmakers who are searching for their voices.

“To any filmmaker or Latino filmmaker out there, just don’t stop believing,” Lebrija said. “I know it’s a tough road, and it’s a bumpy road. Even me, I feel like I’m in the middle of that road, I’m not even there yet. Like I said before, my time is just starting now. I just want to tell people that if they have the dream to keep pursuing, don’t stop. Be fearless and take any challenge.”