Edward James Olmos wasn’t looking for a job when he stopped by a friend’s movie company one day, but when offered a screenplay, the actor out of politeness agreed to watch it.
“I didn’t mean to be, ‘Hey, man, send it to my agent; don’t do this to me here, ”Olmos said. “I didn’t want to get a single one. So I read it. And I was very moved by the concept of the play. It was very unusual, very different.
Olmos called Robert McEveety, the writer-producer of “The Devil Has A Name,” told him he was interested, but having been in Hollywood for many decades, he first had a question for him.
“I said, ‘Do you have the money?’” He recalls asking and McEveety saying yes.
“I said, ‘What’s the budget? McEveety told him.
“So I said, ‘First of all, I’d like to know if I can lead,’” says Olmos. Again, the answer was yes.
“And the second thing: ‘Is that true? », Remembers Olmos. “Because I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘How the hell could you get money for this?’ “
“The Devil Has a Name” is based on the true story of a San Joaquin Valley almond grower who discovers his groves have been poisoned by runoff from an oil company. He therefore decides to take the business despite the long odds against him. (Without spoiling any of the film’s dramatic twists, the lawsuit that inspired the film ended after 13 years of trials and appeals with a settlement that did not admit guilt for environmental damage.)
And in the hands of Olmos – and a cast that includes David Strathairn, Kate Bosworth, Martin Sheen and Haley Joel Osment – it is a passionate and political environmental and legal thriller but also dark and comedic.
Olmos says the first actor he chose was Strathairn as almond grower Fred Stern. (The real farmer, Fred Starrh of Shafter, Calif., Died last year at age 89. Family members are the producers and funders of the project.)
“I thought that character’s vulnerability and strength was really in David’s wheelhouse,” he says. “And, whoo, man, [Strathairn] killed me when he got his Oscar nomination for his performance (like Edward Murrow in “Goodnight, and Good Luck”).
“I sent him the script, he came back to me and said, ‘When do you want to do this? Says Olmos, himself an Oscar nominee for “Stand And Deliver”. “And then he says, ‘Do you have the money?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I said, the same thing. We’re really going to do this. ”
Strathairn says the story appealed to him from the start for a handful of reasons. He wanted to work with Olmos and Sheen, for one, but also the subject – a man against a business and the environment damaged by corporate greed and corruption – felt worthy.
“I wasn’t aware of this particular case that the movie deals with, but obviously I was familiar with this stuff,” Strathairn says. “I thought it was an important story, another one that the creative arts can do in terms of denouncing or raising public awareness of certain injustices and corruption.
“Situations that often a community is not aware of arise once they have become very toxic, like Flint, Michigan, or obviously Erin Brockovich’s story comes to mind.
In the film, Olmos plays Santiago, the longtime foreman of Stern’s almond ranch, a relationship the two veteran actors make seem as real and comfortable as a pair of well-worn boots.
“I had been on an episode of ‘Miami Vice’ years ago, and I might have seen it, but we didn’t have any scenes together,” Strathairn says of the ’80s series on which Olmos was a regular. “Since then, I’m just an admirer of his humanity in the characters he brings.
“It was like old people together,” he says of the simpatico nature of their characters in this film. “We met before the film, we talked a bit about the characters. He is who he is – no pretensions and it’s about work and play. You’ve been in the game long enough to do your best, bring your best, and have fun.
“The bells and whistles are out there and you want to apply them, but it’s that kind of guy that just makes you feel, ‘Yeah, we do that, that’s what we do.’ Easy going and all is well.
Olmos, whose past directorial jobs include the feature film “American Me” and episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” in which he also starred, was determined from the start not to burden the film with too serious a style of storytelling. .
“The making is really the vision for the piece,” says Olmos. “Most people would have gone ‘Erin Brockovich’, a lot more reality without really considering some of the humor, because there’s really nothing funny about it. It’s really deadly (thing) that the whole country has to realize because it’s in our food chain.
“But I really felt there was a sense of humor here that can be understood with the aesthetic that we created,” he says.
Strathairn says the mix of seriousness and comics gives “The Devil’s Got a Name” a better chance to get its themes across.
“It goes back to the pantheon of all those films whose intention is to awaken audiences to serious issues that affect our health, our environment, our civic life,” he says. “And I think it works in two ways. It reaches the intestine; it gets you into an emotional experience, and then you start to think, oh, well, that’s what this movie was about.
“If you can mix the two, that’s good,” Strathairn says. “A movie like this is unique because it’s entertaining – it’s a film noir, a mystery, a comedy, a little weird, a collage of tones – but at the end of the day, it’s about a very important subject.