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Grounding the Complexity of the American Dream in 'Promised Land' with Writer and Creator Matt Lopez

'Promised Land' creator and writer Matt Lopez discusses his approach to telling this specific story about immigrants, his personal connection to the material, and his filmmaking influences as well as authors. Plus, Matt shares really invaluable advice for all writers when facing the page.

Promised Land is an epic, generation-spanning drama about two Latinx families vying for wealth and power in California’s Sonoma Valley. Written and executive produced by Matt Lopez. Adam Kolbrenner and Maggie Malina also serve as executive producers. Executive producer Michael Cuesta will also direct. The series is produced by ABC Signature, a part of Disney Television Studios.

The new ABC series Promised Land delivers on character, story, and the idea of what the American Dream is, was and it's worth when it comes to relationships familial and business-related. It also delivers on the drama, the charm and sweeping cinematic shots, you typically don't find on primetime television.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Promised Land creator and writer Matt Lopez. We discussed his approach to telling this specific story about immigrants, his personal connection, his filmmaking influences as well as authors. Plus, Matt shares really invaluable advice for all writers when facing the page. 

PROMISED LAND – ABC’s “Promised Land” stars Augusto Aguilera as Mateo Flores, Christina Ochoa as Veronica Sandoval, Bellamy Young as Margaret Honeycroft, Tonatiuh as Antonio Sandoval, John Ortiz as Joe Sandoval, Cecilia Suárez as Leticia Sandoval, Mariel Molino as Carmen Sandoval. (ABC/Nino Muñoz)

PROMISED LAND – ABC’s “Promised Land” stars Augusto Aguilera as Mateo Flores, Christina Ochoa as Veronica Sandoval, Bellamy Young as Margaret Honeycroft, Tonatiuh as Antonio Sandoval, John Ortiz as Joe Sandoval, Cecilia Suárez as Leticia Sandoval, Mariel Molino as Carmen Sandoval. (ABC/Nino Muñoz)

This interview has been edited for content and clarity. And caution, there are brief episode one spoilers.

Sadie Dean: This show is so topical right now, especially about this idea of the American dream, in this political and social Twilight Zone climate we’re all going through. And the idea of what you would do or how far would you go and how much are you willing to lose to gain to hold onto your American dream? What is your personal connection to this and why did this story have to be told now?

Matt Lopez: Thank you for that question. To some extent, there was the original inspiration for the idea, it was a moment of clarity, outside of Home Depot of all places, where I saw a group of men, predominantly men, day laborers, waiting for a foreman to come by in a pickup truck and hopefully offer them a day's wage. And my life seems so different from theirs on so many levels. I went to good schools, and I grew up, no extravagant means but comfortable. But at the same time, I realized on a deeper, more fundamental level, the only difference between me and them was the passage of time. And that's where the idea of telling the story of an immigrant journey at two different places along the timeline came from. And initially, I have to say, I was just like, ‘Oh, that's a good yarn,’ just in pure storytelling terms. It's a little bit The Godfather Part Two, right? You get to see the family Empire at the height of its power, juxtaposed against the scrappy immigrant story of how the Empire came to be. And it's such a great story.

Matt Lopez

Matt Lopez

The deeper significance to it on a personal level, snuck up on me a little bit. And where it really began for me was in the casting process. Where we are pretty much, with the exception of Bellamy Young, it's an all Latino cast. You'd have some actors who would say, ‘My parents were fruit pickers, they picked strawberries in Santa Paula, I've never seen their story on a television show before, so thank you,’ and they get emotional. Then we get the other extreme, where actors would be like, ‘Thank you for showing this wealthy, unapologetically successful Latino family, that's not in the cartel.’ It would get kind of depressing after a while; you get these actors in and you look at their IMDB page, and it's like cartel, cartel, cartel. And even our lead, John Ortiz is just a brilliant actor for 30 years, and he's done a lot of cartel. And he always elevates it. [laughs] He’s the best thing in Miami Vice. [laughs] But that was an eye opener for me. And it really hit me that this show has a chance to really strike a chord.

Another interesting thing, too, you sort of alluded to this at the top, it's not strictly a Latino thing, it's a broader American thing. And it's an immigrant thing. Our stunt master on the pilot came up to me one day, Vietnamese American, and he was kind of borderline in tears, and he was like, ‘I've been meaning to come up to you and tell you this. My parents came here on a boat when Hanoi fell. And this is their story.’ They didn't come over a wall. They came on a boat. But that quest for the American dream in all its beauty, and its occasional ugliness. And that idea of what are the costs in achieving it? What are the costs in maintaining it after you do achieve it, which I think are often even higher? That’s very much the stuff I'm interested in telling in the show.

The show, I don't want to call it unfortunate, but I think it's just true that oftentimes, when there's, not that there have been a ton, but with attempts that have been made to tell dramas with predominantly Latino cast or telling predominantly Latino stories, the first word that comes flying out at you is telenovela. And, and in my earliest conversations with ABC, I said, ‘I have nothing against those shows. There are some great ones. It's just not my voice, I'd probably write a bad one.’ [laughs] And they were like, ‘OK, what do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘John Steinbeck. John Ford. Sweeping, multi-generational, kind of a Western in a way.’ I like that scope, and the scope of that canvas, and the connection to the land. All that stuff. I'm a big fan of John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, it's just very moving. And so, I feel like the stealth weapon of the show is it does deliver the goods on the soap. I don't hide from it either. There are twists and turns and reveals and cliffhangers, beautiful cars, beautiful actors, beautiful homes, it delivers all of that. Hopefully well, but I think at the same time, like Steinbeck’s East of Eden, it was a big inspiration for this. East of Eden, if you saw the logline, it's a 10 o'clock ABC show - there's two brothers and their mother is the town prostitute and one brother finds out and can’t tell the other brother and like these two families - but in terms of what it's going for, in the complexity of character, the depth of its themes and so on, it's aiming for more.

[Writing Stories You Want to See On Screen with ‘Queens’ Creator and Writer Zahir McGhee]

Sadie: Steinbeck, the love of the land and how humans function within it. Goosebumps hearing about your actors and your crew just connecting so much to your material. That says a lot about what you're doing. And we don't need more cartels stories. It's nice to see the change. We need more of that.

Matt: I think with a lot of Latino depictions, and it's not exclusive to Latinos, it's underrepresented groups, but certainly Latinos, where it's kind of a pendulum goes sort of from one extreme to another, either it tends to have been cartel stuff, or it swings the other direction, where it's like, oh, there's only one Latino character in the show, we need to make sure they have only positive attributes. And there's a little bit of sugarcoating. And the cast actually came together, unsolicited by me when it was like, are we going to get picked up or not? The pilot had been completed, and there was this agonizing two-week wait. And the cast wrote a letter together collectively that they all signed and sent to the network. It was lovely. And one of the things it said that resonated with me was because they're so often, these actors are used to being like, I'm the Latino character in whatever movie this is. This is the first time everyone had a similar experience, had a similar cultural experience, language, it's everybody. And because of that, because they're all Latino, the way they put it in this letter is, it relieved them of the burden of representation. So, they can just be messy, and real and grounded, venal at times, and great and beautiful at times and just not worry about like, ‘Oh, let's protect the Latino character.’

Sadie: They get to just be rather than be something else. Again, goosebumps. Did you approach this idea first with the family and built the story around them? And is there any character in particular that maybe you resonate more with or felt more of a connection to during the writing process?

Matt: That's a great question. I had sort of the basic logline version in my head, where it's an immigrant journey, told at two different points along a timeline. Then I started fleshing out the family characters in a very early version, and this will be a roundabout way of answering your second question in an early version, the Joe character, the patriarch character was either going to have just died when the first episode opened, or I briefly contemplated a version where he dies in the first episode. And it would be very much Lettie's story and her journey notwithstanding the fact that Joe was then subsequently reimagined by me and obviously survives. To your second question for me, and I told John Ortiz this the other day, because they put the screws to me at the TCA and I was like, ‘Oh, it is Lettie's show for me.’ It is Lettie's journey that I'm most interested in. You see, like in the first one, the Sandoval’s have achieved this stature and this wealth and so on. And then there's an inciting incident, not in the classic first 10 pages way but deeper into the first hour, which is an undocumented immigrant who has come into their household, a version of themselves comes in, and they are faced with a choice. And Joe doesn't report her to ICE. But he doesn't give her shelter either. It's just as Matteo later accuses him, you climb up the ladder, and then you pull it up behind you, which I think is something very real in immigrant communities, and I don't think is often depicted. I haven't seen it much. So, the way I think of it in narrative terms is for the season, that moment where he fires Daniela and its immediate aftermath and Lettie literally says, "30 years ago that was me," she's basically saying that was us. It's a mirror, it is forcing them to look in a mirror. And they have to, as we'll see, as the season unfurls very different reactions to seeing themselves. Lettie's instinct, when confronted with that reflection, is to peer at it and stare into it and examine it and say to herself, and this is very much her journey, Where did those roads diverge? How did I get so far from the person I came here to be and the goals and dreams I came here to achieve? Do I like what I see when I look in the mirror? And if I don't, is there a way to get back to that person? And that leads her down her path. Joe's path is he cannot face it. And as we see throughout the season, it leads to very different results. And the reckoning that's coming, he is trying to put it off, but he ultimately cannot.

[Curating a Mood and Tone Utilizing Music and Character with 'Yellowjackets' Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson]

Sadie: What inspired you to become a writer yourself?

Matt: I can pinpoint the moment when I was like, ‘I need to be part of this,’ like down to the second and I was a 10-year-old boy. I went with my brother to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. And there's that moment early in the film where Indiana Jones turns around, and there's this classic sort of Spielberg push in on his face. And then there's the reverse and the reverse is this fucking giant boulder booking it at him. And something happened to me in that moment where I was just like, so enchanted. That was when I became aware that movies are made - you can do this for a living. And many years later, when I was making a career transition, because when I first came out here, I was writing on my own time, but I was an entertainment attorney and business affairs executive for DreamWorks studios in the early days of that company, so I worked on American Beauty and Saving Private Ryan, those movies.

Sadie: Love that connection back to Spielberg for you there.

Matt: [laughs] Yeah, I ended up working for those guys, ironically enough. But when I first pivoted to become a screenwriter, the first thing where I ever got any heat was, I had a feature-length script that was a finalist at the Austin Film Festival and they flew me out, when you're a finalist, and they pair you with a screenwriter just to talk about the business, and it was with Lawrence Kasdan, who was an idol. And unsolicited by me, he started telling the story of how when he was a 10-year-old boy, he went with his brother, the similarities were so bizarre to me, and had the same exact thing with Lawrence of Arabia, where he was like, ‘I need to learn more about how to do this.' And I had the satisfaction of telling Lawrence, ‘Oh, my God, you paid it forward brother, because your movie did the same thing for me,’ which was really, really cool.

I went to film school, I was in the first class of the film school at Florida State, which at the time there was not much going on. Now, filmmakers like Barry Jenkins went there, it's become very fancy. And I ended up going to law school at NYU, because I love two things: I love writing and I've always loved the business side of the business, I've always had a brain for it. I was less interested in directing. Now I'm getting more interested in and I think I may try my hand at it at some point. So, I had this very circuitous thing, I was an entertainment lawyer for six years. And what I would do is I wrote for six years; I wrote every morning from four to 7:30 a.m. And then I'd shower and get in the car and drive out to DreamWorks, and be a lawyer, and then come back and do it again, just trying to break in and get better.

Sadie: That's incredible. I love the full circle again in that you were paired up with Lawrence. For those who are setting out to write a TV series that is personal to them, what is something that you would suggest that they include, or maybe really lean into or not worry about so much?

Matt: I would say, lean into - it's gonna sound trite - but lean into the heart of it. I feel like where I've improved as a writer, I've been doing it for 20 years as a writer, I was I was a little too clever. And I tried to hide from the emotion, scared that my writing would be too on the nose or too sentimental, or that the emotions would be too close to the surface. And that is a risk, right? No one wants to be on the nose. But I think what I've learned is people they watch films to be entertained, but also to feel and to see parts of their own experience reflected. And that's when you realize that there's truth in a piece of writing or a piece of film. That’s true and it transcends national boundaries, ethnicity, race, everything. That’s what I'm interested in.

Promised Land is definitely a Latino story and we lean into the cultural details of it. And those enrich the work, but they're not central to me. What's central to me is the human journey. In my home office, I have this card, I keep it by my computer and you can never ask yourself this enough, “What is the simple emotional journey?” Especially in a show like Promised Land, in our first episode, we throw a lot of plot threads out there. The pilot has to do so many things, it's got to check so many boxes and establish so many characters. What's nice about two through ten is to let those stories breathe. If you look at a script page, there's the stage direction and the slug lines and there's the dialogue. And so you just looking at the page, there's all these black letters on a white page, and I've gotten much better at this, and it took a lot of hard work to do it, because I think all writers are in love with words. And I love words like Dickens and Steinbeck, these are my heroes, right? Cinema is different. I believe that movies and television shows, the good ones, at any rate, they actually live in the white spaces between the black words, like that's where something can come alive in a way more than just pure prose fiction can do. And what I've tried to do is learn to trust the blank spaces more, and to let things live in cinema and let them live in looks and so on. I've gotten much more merciless with my red pen, and on the writers on the staff and on myself included - less is more. It's so true.


Promised Land premieres Monday, Jan. 24th at 10:01pm ET.