Associate professor writes, produces, directs HBO film

“Chateau Vato” premiered on streaming services HBO Max and HBO Latino on Nov. 27.
By Kelly Montoya

“Chateau Vato” premiered on streaming services HBO Max and HBO Latino on Nov. 27.

Associate professor writes, produces, directs HBO film

By Kelly Montoya
Tom Musca worked with several University of Miami alumni to produce a movie that is now streaming on HBO Max and HBO Latino.

For Tom Musca, a credited screenwriter-producer-director and University of Miami associate professor of practice at the School of Communication in the Department of Cinematic Arts, making films for Hollywood has been a longtime affair. 

Most recently, the Hollywood hyphenate produced, wrote, and directed the film “Chateau Vato” with assistance from his University of Miami film students. The movie—which takes place in Miami and features the University of Miami campus—is now streaming on HBO Max and HBO Latino.

Karin Wilkins, dean of the School of Communication; Greg Shepherd, former dean of the School of Communication; and Paul Driscoll, vice dean of academic affairs, were able to enjoy an early screening at the Miami Film Festival premiere this March. 

“Professor Musca is an exceptionally talented filmmaker, with an insightful perspective as well as sharp wit,” said Wilkins. “Our students are fortunate to benefit from his inspiration.” 

The production process went through many changes before it finally came to fruition. It was originally titled “Beverly Hills Barrio” and had gone into pre-production in Los Angeles back in 2014, but because of unforeseen circumstances the entire operation came to a screeching halt.

“It all collapsed on top of me. But, as it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise,” Musca recalled. “When I returned to Miami I thought my film career was over, but I heard myself telling my students in class that when they say ‘no’ you hear ‘next.’ So, the professor needed to take his own advice.”

Musca was then inspired to rewrite “Beverly Hills Barrio” for Miami and assembled a production crew made up mostly of his current and former students to help bring “Chateau Vato” to life.  

“My students and former students knew I hadn’t directed a film in a few decades, and they had been enthusiastic about working on one of my projects. I guess they wanted to see if the old man still had the juice,” he declared. “Plus, student filmmakers are starving for professional experience; it was the first time a number of them got paid to work on a film.” 

Musca, a faculty advisor who teaches courses in screenwriting, TV writing, and professional development in film, made sure to make the experience inclusive for all students taking his classes at the time.

“I had table readings of the script while I was developing it and also screened rough cuts to my classes for their comments. It was a great educational experience since they got involved at the script level and now can see it on HBO,” he pointed out. 

He recounted how special it was to shoot the film with his fellow ’Canes.

“My students are used to me critiquing their work, not the other way around. So, traditional roles were kind of reversed,” Musca said. “Filmmaking is a collaboration and my UM students had my back at every step, and they gave me the confidence and support to reach for the stars.” 

The shooting started in the summer of 2017, between the end of the spring and beginning of the fall semester. “Unfortunately, it was the hottest summer in the history of Miami but, in retrospect, that probably added some extra stress which morphed into humor that perhaps found its way into the film,” he added. 

As Musca puts it, the film is “a comedy for unfunny times.” It tells the story of a Miami working-class family moving into a mansion after discovering the death of its wealthy owner. It’s "The Beverly Hillbillies" for the Latino community with a sprinkling of contemporary sociology and class warfare.

The film explores a conflict that is rarely depicted on the silver screen, the fact that there are gardeners who are U.S. citizens at war with gardeners who are undocumented.

“I thought about how we were making a movie for these people, who are always seen, but never heard. Not all, but many are here illegally, and rarely will anybody tell their story,” said Musca. “This movie was an opportunity to explore character terrain that had been previously ignored, or worse—portrayed in a stereotypical fashion.”

The film also shines a light on the emotional roller-coaster citizens go through when acquiring wealth overnight. “I wanted to depict these people not as saints or sinners, but as real human beings,” he said. “A vision of a hardworking family stumbling on a fortune that they didn’t earn, resulting in such incredible conflict that it would tear the family asunder,” he added.

Musca—mostly recognized as the producer and co-writer of “Tortilla Soup,” “Money for Nothing,” “Gotta Kick It Up!,” and “Stand and Deliver,” the popular Warner Bros. film that earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations—encourages any UM students aspiring to be a movie producer one day to get in touch with him.

“Chateau Vato” premiered on streaming services HBO Max and HBO Latino on Nov. 27. For more information about the film, visit https://www.chateauvato.com/

Other University graduates who worked on the film include:

Tim Sparks, Producer, Locations
Lena Mobin, Production Assistant
Karli Evans, Still Photographer
Kayla Balleste, Social Media
Alex Koenig, Publicist, Music Supervisor
Ailin Gong, ADR Supervisor & Recordist, Dialogue & Music Editor, Re-recording Mixer
Yaxu Hu, DIT & Assembly Editor
Brenda Jackie Correa, Space Management, Hand Model
Shane Kinsler, Co-Producer, Editor, Second unit director, VFX
Aaron Agrasanchez, 1st Assistant Director and Associate Producer
Jaydev Hemrajani, Line Producer, Social Media Strategist
Annissa Omran, Unit Production Manager
Samantha Ferrand, Production Coordinator 
Alhassan Abusuwwa, 1st Assistant Camera
Nicolas Punales, 2nd Assistant Camera
Luis Alfiuni, Camera Assistant
Han Chang, Camera Operator
Randy Saint-Louis, Key Grip
Liam Allen-McGoren, Production Design Asst.
Aly Sanchez, Asst. Wardrobe
Gaby Spampinato, Production Staff
Lincoln Rodan, Production Staff
Sydney Gold, Production Staff
Carmen Caruso, Script Supervisor
Emma Fu, Production Assistant
Gaby Gomez, Production Assistant
Vasisth Sukul, Production Assistant
Luimar Neyra, Production Assistant
Alex Musca, Storyboards