Lillian LaSalle is an award-winning producer and president of Sweet 180, a New York based management and production company. LaSalle is the producer of several feature films including Loggerheads, which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and Sweet Land, which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
My Name Is Pedro, the story of an maverick Bronx educator, marks her directorial debut and is now available across various streaming platforms including on Amazon Video, Apple TV and iTunes.
How did you come to select Pedro to be the subject of your film?
I discovered Pedro Santana because he was highlighted in an article in The New York Times that talked about how he impacted and changed this South Bronx Middle School. A school that had students with failing grades, high dropout rates, fights in the hallway – a lot of problems. Pedro came in as a principal, he turned that school around, and the article highlighted that fact, but also, really focused on Pedro’s ‘out of the box’ methods. He didn’t behave in what we would define as a typical principal or administrator in a public school based on our own experience. His mantra was, ‘every kid can learn despite their circumstances’, and so I was really enchanted and called him the next day.
I fully intended to just produce the film; shoot some footage and then show it to directors to see who would come on board, but one of my mentors encouraged me to direct it myself. When I called Pedro, the next day after meeting with him, I said, “I really want to make a film with you. And I want to make a film about you.” And I thought, why would he pick me a first time director, completely inexperienced in that area; but he is a gut instinct person, he’s a feelings person. He said, “Lillian, I really liked you. So let’s just do this.” I was just really taken aback by that comment and I knew that I was going to have a subject that was going to let me into his life in a very open way.
What comes across when watching the film is that it’s a real labour of love. I then read that you’d spent 10 years working on the film. What was that process?
I never intended to have a 10 year part of my life dedicated to making this film. The magic of documentary filmmaking is that you don’t know where the story will go, and if you are inspired to keep shooting, then you should just keep shooting. There were so many twists and turns in My Name Is Pedro, so I ended up shooting for seven years, editing the film for two years, and then coming to our final locked picture. About a year later, I realised I could actually improve upon the film and brought in a new editor. We were going to release the film theatrically – and then the pandemic hit. I didn’t want to wait, we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last and when theatres would open again, so we did a virtual release. And actually, that helped considerably, because we were able to release the film in way more theatres nationwide than we would have if we had done a brick and mortar theatrical release.
After making the film and really getting a close-up view of public school board politics, including the anguish that can happen as a result of some of the decisions that are made; what are your hopes for education in the future?
I think that there can be more Pedro Santana’s out there. In the making of My Name Is Pedro, I was adamant about not including the politics of public school. I wanted to make a character-driven piece about Pedro Santana, and I avoided it for the first couple of years of shooting the film. Then I realised, well, if Pedro lives within this world, and he’s affected by it, not only is he affected, but he has to rally against it in order to improve students’ lives. He has to bend the rules a little bit. For instance, him doing a home visit in the evening to a student who is about to drop out of school, explaining to that student how he’s going to help her stay in school. Those things are not written in the rulebook of how to be a principal. Because of some of his out-of-the-box methods, people either loved him or hated him. The majority of people who came across him, thought of him almost as a guru. He’s got 1000s of people who are behind him. but for everyone that’s loved, they’re going to be a few people who don’t understand or don’t agree. So he does bump up against the system, and in the film you see how his career is at stake.
In general, it’s been a difficult period for learning. I have two kids who are 11, and 14, so I’ve been witnessing this firsthand. As if it wasn’t already challenging with overcrowding in public schools and the economics in certain neighbourhoods, and as you know, Pedro Santana, worked in low-income neighbourhoods. The one good thing that I’m happy about is that there is at least now a focus on bringing student diversity into schools. However, there has been really no change in the amount of money that teachers get paid. One would think that for a person who is so critical in your life, in a student’s life; they’ve gone to school, they’ve paid for university – many teachers come out of those teaching colleges with lots of student debt. And they should be uplifted by all of us, by the community, especially during the pandemic. We have to pay our teachers more.
Pedro believed in making an impact. That’s like one of the first things that we hear him talk about, and he mentions it in and throughout the film. What was the lasting impact that he had on you in particular?
Pedro Santana changed my life. He changed the person that I was. When he says in the beginning of the film, ‘I want to make an impact on people’s lives’, he didn’t say students, teachers, principals, administrators. Yes, he made an impact on those lives, but what he meant was, I want to make an impact on everyone I come across. That could be the gas station attendant, the person at the grocery store, family members, friends. He had this kind of openness, he didn’t take things personally, he greeted everyone with a hug. And that changed my perspective. I think I thought of myself always as a very warm person, but when you see Pedro Santana’s warmth, you realise that there’s a bit of a deficit.
Naturally, we meet new people, and there’s a little bit of defensiveness there, or a feeling of wanting to protect yourself. But when you greet someone with a hug, they get the feeling that you are a listener, and that was probably the biggest change for me; that if I listened more, I could have the opportunity to get closer to someone.
You didn’t originally set out to direct, but were inspired to by your subject. You didn’t set out to make a film about school politics, but so much of that is present in the film. Would you considering doing something similar again?
Yes, I’m already working on my second documentary, which is called Three Brothers. This is going to be perhaps a film that does not involve politics, however it’s a personal story about my family. It’s about my three brothers’ challenges with mental illness and how that impacted our family, But then one could ask, ‘well, if you’re talking about mental health, here’s another system in our nation that needs a lot of help’. So do I get into the politics of that? Do I explain how a mentally ill person gets lost in the system, which I’ve experienced firsthand? Perhaps.
What would you like people to take away from My Name Is Pedro, most of all?
The biggest takeaway is that everyone has a Pedro and so watching this film will remind you of that person. My second message that I want to share is that if you watch My Name Is Pedro, be prepared for completely unexpected twists and turns. Lots of tear jerking moments and a lot of inspiration.
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