Summer 2019

Local Color

La Vida Autentica

For the Starz series set in L.A.'s Boyle Heights, directors and producers keep it real

By Margy Rochlin

Director Jenée LaMarque, center, is flanked by actors Chelsea Rendon, left, and Ser Anzoategui on the set of Vida. (Photo: Kat Marcinowski/Starz)

Director Jenée LaMarque (Room 104) was watching the premiere episode of Starz's half-hour series Vida when a fleeting visual made her sit up and take notice. At a memorial for their recently deceased mother, estranged Mexican-American sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) were shown wiping vivid red mouth-shaped lipstick marks from their cheeks.

"I was like, 'Oh! That resonates with me personally,'" says LaMarque, whose "big Mexican family" is filled with aunties who wear bright lipstick and always kiss her on the face. "I'd never seen that in a show before. Just little details like that. To me, it felt very authentic."

LaMarque, who directed five episodes in the second season of Vida, credits Tanya Saracho, Vida executive producer and director, with the series' commitment to portraying its central issues—ethnic identity, gentrification and the LGBTQ community—as realistically as possible.

Based, in part, on a short story by Richard Villegas Jr. called "Pour Vida," the series is set in East Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, an area that is predominantly Latinx (a gender-neutral term used instead of Latino or Latina) and concerned enough about its working-class residents being pushed out that during the two-day pilot shoot, a group called Defend Boyle Heights showed up in a Hollywood-go-home protest. As a gesture of diplomacy, Saracho moved most of the primary exterior locations to the downtown Pico-Union area.

But Saracho, who directed the second season's finale, also saw opportunity: As inspiration for scenes involving Vida's fictional Los Vigilantes de Los Angeles, guest directors can look at cellphone footage posted on social media by Defend Boyle Heights and similar organizations. "There are cops around and [the protestors'] faces are covered with bandanas. And we'd say to the directors, 'It looks like this,'" says Saracho.

In season one, Saracho worked closely with a Boyle Heights activist who'd bring in sub-sets of the community—street vendors, mariachis, undocumented residents—so everyone on Vida unfamiliar with the area understood that the historic neighborhood is comprised of not one, but many different stratas. "We are all steeped into the culture," she says. "What it should look like, what it should sound like. And it seeps into the direction."

When it comes to casting decisions and blocking, the directors work hard at reflecting the fact that Caucasians make up only 2% of the community in Boyle Heights. "If there's a white person on the show, that person is very purposefully placed," says LaMarque, who directed a big set piece of a same-sex wedding. "We had drag queens and specialty dancers and [the couple] walked down the aisle to [Mexican indie pop singer] Carla Morrison's 'Eres tú.' It was a very colorful, vibrant, joyful crowd. At the wedding, everyone was brown."

LaMarque describes a sort of wraparound approach on Vida, where almost everyone—the cast, PAs, camera operators, makeup department—share similar life experiences and the language spoken on set flips between English, Spanish and Spanglish, or Spanish-English slang.

"I think the authenticity comes from top to bottom hiring practices," says LaMarque. "There's this feel of camaraderie and comfort that I think everyone feels on the set. For me, as a director, it serves exactly what I want to do. The most important thing for me is to create an environment where everyone feels relaxed and comfortable. When you do that, it enables everyone to do their best work."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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