Words by Jesse Serwer—
Probably the biggest viral video sensation to come out of the Caribbean to date, Roger Alexis’ “Santana” shorts are bawdy, mini-stage plays brought to life by Trini-accented Crank Yankers. Puppets having sex can be funny enough but it’s the soap opera-like melodrama and character development, and the distinctly Trini accents and situations, that has audiences across the Caribbean and the diaspora hooked into the adventures of the womanizing Santana, his girlfriend Janice and his impotent neighbor Narine. Less than two years after Santana’s first shorts went viral, the dreadlocked, Michael Jackson jacket-sporting puppet is now the star of his own movie, I’m Santana!, out in Trinidad theaters today. On the eve of the movie’s release, we called up Roger for a chat about the movie, the series’ habit of tackling taboo topics, and the real inspiration for Santana. Read on, and catch up on all of the Santana shorts at Roger’s YouTube page or the Lexo TV site.
LargeUp: Is the Santana movie, a full-length feature? 90 minutes of Santana?
Roger Alexis: Actually a little shorter than that. But it’s not a short. It’s about 75 minutes.
LU: To the best that you can explain it, how did this Santana thing grow from a short video on Youtube to a movie in theaters? It’s fairly unprecedented.
RA: Throughout the years, I have been making short films. I actually had one TV show. Most of my friends are filmmakers, or work in the field. I was more content with just shorts, little comedy spoofs. However, when the Santana thing took off, and it was so popular, I linked with my now-business partner, Ian Pantin, and discussed actually making a series for television or a movie. I had people who were able to get on board on the project full time. I left my job at TV6—I started the thing for TV a little before that—and went ahead and did the movie. It was a TV script and we turned it into a movie script. I just had the right resources at that time, together with the popularity of the show, and thought it was the right time to try and move.
LU: Has Santana been on TV in Trinidad?
RA: No. You know the puppet Narine? Narine used to play a character called Herman, and the name of the show was Herman Tales. Herman Tales was more family oriented and a story about Herman going on different adventures. It was puppets and humans. The Santana show is strictly puppets. So I had experience in puppetry and producing.
LU: Tell me about Santana. Is he based on someone?
RA: Actually, Santana is loosely based on my father. He was a little ill-tempered, when he loves a woman he loves a woman. He don’t treat her all the best but he really loves you. I remember one time my father got so mad, my stepmother called me and said you know your father playing a fool, he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Finally I go out there, just to see what’s going on. What happened was my father got mad, rather than hit my stepmother, he broke all the bottles in the house. And when I talk him down and let him blow off steam and so on, he said alright, excuse me, I’m going to the shop. I said why are you going to the shop, he said I’m going to buy a whole heap of bottles. Santana’s something like that. The same Trinidad tripoff. It came from my father. Everybody in Trinidad knows a Santana.
LU: Is Santana good or bad? It’s hard to call…
RA: He’s a good guy. What I try to do with almost all my characters, and I think any good writer should, is make your character believable. Make him human. Make an antihero but you can connect to an antihero, too. Let’s say a character is a smoker and a womanizer, but he has qualities about him that you like. Then you are successful. Make him real. Santana’s real in that sense to me. All of my characters. They’re not goodie two shoes. It’s people who does bad things, people who does good things.
LU: How did you get this series on people’s radar at first. There weren’t too many viral videos coming out of the Caribbean before Santana…
RA: While I attended the University of West Indies, in the film department, from time to time there’d be exercises to show what you learned. I’m one of those students who waits to the last minute to actually put something out. Wednesday before the Friday it was due, I said ‘Oh shit, what to do, what to do?’ I got one friend and some equipment, I used my puppets and I did a little short at home. I submitted it, I got an A and I put that short on YouTube. Nobody really looked at it but one of my friends loved it so much he said I should make a next one. I made another called “The Fete” and I put it up on Youtube, and didn’t pay attention again. One day a guy walked up to me laughing and said, “Man, you’re a fool.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” and he said, “I seen that thing you did on YouTube,” and I said, “Oh, you know how long that up.” Someone else told me they saw it, so I went to look at it. The views went from 11o to 1,200, and a few hours later 5,000. And so on. When I realized how viral this thing was—it was the talk of the town—I said let me do another video, increase the production quality. And I did it and it went viral instantly, and then another one and that was it.
LU: Was Santana in the first one you made, before “The Fete”?
RA: He was. He was this tough guy who came home and he found the house was smelling like sex. He saw his girlfriend Janice and he said, “Somebody’s in this house.” And they made love and then while they were making love, you see a man just running out of the house, which means she really was having an affair. People found it hilarious. People are accustomed to a puppet being for kids but to have an adult-themed puppet show, the people in Trinidad and the Caribbean felt that, outside of it being an adult theme, this was their own thing, and it took off.
LU: It seems to have grown from this undeveloped character in a specific situation, in ‘The Fete,’ to basically a Trini soap opera with puppets.
RA: Exactly. A lot of people didn’t understand that. They want it to be all about laughs all of the time. I’m trying my best to make it all about laughs all of the time but recently I did one call “Meet Sookdeo.” The reason I did that episode is he’s a bad guy in the movie and, unlike most people, I have the opportunity to develop my characters before they hit the big screen. For me, even though I’m the voice of Santana, I really think it is not all about Santana. It is all about the other characters revolving around Santana. Pastor Stewart is very popular, Sookdeo is very popular. This puppet that got killed, Rodney, people were actually angry that I killed off that character. It was kind of funny to me that people were upset, but I guess the mission was accomplished.
LU: Trinidad is a very diverse culture, which we see reflected in the different shades of the puppets and the different accents. Do you strive to represent the whole of Trinidad with these characters?
RA: I was trying to represent all of Trinidad, but make it funny at the same time. Stuff most of us in Trinidad could relate to, and by extension, the Caribbean. We went to Barbados in December and the Santana shorts are very popular over there. It’s popular in Grenada. Everybody in the whole diaspora know about Santana. It’s not like when I do the grassroots puppets and voices, it will be way over their head. Most people understand it. Probably for the first time in Trinidad—I’m not sure—I actually target grassroots people. I think that’s so important. I use my Trini accent.
LU: Is there any sensitivity about portraying certain characters in certain ways. Like the black guy being this aggressive player, and the Indian character being impotent and beaten by his wife?
RA: I get criticized mostly for Narine. Some people say I show East Indians in a bad light. I understand that’s how he felt subjected. He felt I represented his community in this sort of weak manner. And a lot of other people complained. But when they saw Sookdeo, all that changed a bit. I was concerned that I have this guy killing people, and now people will want to say I have East Indians as murderers. But some people actually love it. In Trinidad’s history we had a notorious murderer called Boysie Singh. I did my research and Sookdeo is something like Boysie Singh. He would take his victims out to sea on a boat, murder dem. So you see this whole puppet universe I started, always I want it to grow. That’s why you see sometimes I don’t deal the characters last names.
LU: How did you get started doing puppetry?
RA: It’s something I always wanted to get into. I’m a filmmaker first, I love making films. If Santana and Janice and all of them was real, I don’t think they would have been as popular, or popular at all. So, when I started my career in filmmaking with Herman’s Tales and so on, people would stand and take a look, some would walk away but the puppet in certain situations will always catch people, always. That’s what I went for—that whole novelty of putting puppets in human situations.
LU: Do you have a backstory behind these characters in your mind that doesn’t necessarily play out in the episodes? Like Santana,what does he do for a living?
RA: Some of them have a backstory. Santana, he doesn’t work, his mother is abroad and, as grown as he is, she sends money for him. So some people call him a loaf, but he gets by. Janice, she works, she cuts hair or something like that, and her father is rich but because he abandoned her mother and him when she was small, she really didn’t want much to do with him. But maybe we will explore that in some time. Pastor Stewart, he’s a kind of charlatan. He’s a very good preacher but he’s a womanizer, this is his weakness.
Narine is married to Patsy, Patsy abuses him a lot. People have been criticizing saying that I promote violence against women because Santana hit Janice once in one of the episode. However, nobody cares that Narine is being abused by his wife. Everybody laughs because it’s funny. I remember one time on Facebook I put out a short where Narine is being raped by Patsy, and everybody was having a field day, they were laughing, it was so funny. I commented, saying “Thanks for the comments, folks, thanks for watching but let me ask one question, would you find it funny if it was the other way around?” One person said no and nobody replied after that. So it’s OK to laugh at a man who’s being abused but you can’t laugh at a woman. There are more characters to come. As long as this thing stays popular, I’ll keep turning out stuff. The proper backstory you need, like any good soap opera.
LU: Do you think you will screen this movie outside of Trinidad?
RA: I hope so. We’re doing our very own distribution, and when you’re doing your distribution on your own, it’s so difficult. We’re putting it out in two theaters in Trinidad, and then it will go up the region, but pirates will probably get a hold of it by then. We’re going to market this movie in Trinidad first and then, as soon as possible, take it to the United States to the diaspora.
LU: Trinidad Carnival is coming up. Will Santana be making an appearance?
RA: I don’t know. With the magnitude of the project now, I’ve been asked by a few people to do some stuff but we are a little beyond that now.