I was first introduced to Antonio Morales in 2013 when his debut film Por Amor en el Caserío made its New York City premiere at the International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival (IPRHFF). The movie is described as a modern day Romeo and Juliet set in the housing projects of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Yet, what is really impressive is the backstory of how this film came to be. What started as a theater production in the Caserío morphed to a feature film making rounds on the film festival circuit and made history by becoming the first stage play in Puerto Rico to make this transition. ‘LLERO sat down with the playwright/filmmaker Antonio Morales to learn what it took to make this happen.
Growing up in the Residencial Luis Llorens Torres also called the Caserío in San Juan, Puerto Rico Morales witnessed first-hand the civil war that plagued the community. His dad was a drug lord on one side of the projects, his mother addicted to drugs. Seeing violence both outside and inside his home was commonplace. Not wanting to continue in his parents footsteps he sought refuge in the arts – specifically theater.
When Antonio expressed an interest in studying theater, his dad forbid it, saying that was “for the gays and the girls.” Antonio put his dreams on hold until his dad was out of the picture, which happened soon enough when Federal Agents busted into their home and put him in jail. At that point Antonio’s mother enrolled him in Jose Julian Acosta Theatre Arts Middle and High School and everything changed. “When I start attending this school I start discovering this new world and it was exactly what I was looking for, it was what my soul needed. So everything I start learning in school I would immediately bring back and start teaching in my community.” He would go on to start a theater group in the Caserío to give kids an alternative to the perils of the streets.
While furthering his education at the University of Puerto Rico he was introduced to the works of Shakespeare. When he stumbled upon Romeo and Juliet something clicked and at sixteen he immediately had the urge to start writing his own adaptation. Por Amor en el Caserío tackled the social issues facing his community in the form of a love story. Two teens from feuding drug lord families fall in love. The play garnered a huge response from the community who could self-identify with the film it sparked a dialogue about the issues in the community. “After the play was a huge success, first in the community, then the city, then the island, we were certain that this message couldn’t just stay in theaters. So that’s when I decided to make this into movie.”
But how? With no formal education in filmmaking Antonio took a year off to learn screenwriting. He put together a great script and began shopping it around, but to no avail, so he again rolled up his sleeves to produce the movie himself. After more education about directing, he and the cast put on shows for a year to fundraise and earned about $30,000 towards the project.
Finally the right producer came knocking and together Antonio and Cine-Coop made history by making Por Amor en el Caserío the first ever Puerto Rican play to be converted to a feature film. The response has been amazing both on the island and state-side while making its festival runs. Since Morales has held every title from screenwriter to producer we thought he’d be an ideal source for some sage consejos about breaking into film.