Five Questions: Tony Lugo

Five Questions: Tony Lugo-Ponce

Tony is a filmmaker in Los Angeles. (In fact, he recently shot a short documentary about me and Five Questions.) It took us two attempts to get this interview on tape after I failed to hit record during our first talk. Rookie mistake. The second time was a charm though. Meet Tony.

How do you define failure?

I personally define failure as attempts. I appreciate failure because it allows me to grow. I’m someone who has failed a lot. The only reason I graduated high school was because I had to retake a final exam. And the vice principal had to watch me take it to make sure I didn’t cheat. When he graded the paper, he saw that there were some missed questions that were keeping me just below passing, so he was like, “Hmmm…it looks like 21 is A, 22 is B” and he gave me just enough answers to get me to graduate and be able to walk the stage. I never forgot that. To tie that into failure, it showed me that when you think you’ve got it down, you still have more to go. That’s how I’ve kind of approached my life and my personal philosophy since. Failure to me is a great thing. Unless you’re constantly failing. That means you’re not learning. 

Me: Why do you think he did that?

Tony: He always had—in the most professional sense of the term—an affinity for me. I was always a good student. I was the quiet kid, the nice kid, and I would help people out. There were times where he saw me helping older people across the street from the school and things like that. He knew I was gonna join the Marine Corps after I graduated so I think that had a lot to do with it.

Me: Have you ever thanked him for that?

Tony: Oh yeah, I have. I would have been another statistic latino that didn’t graduate, probably would have dropped out if it wasn’t for him.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?

I don’t think I’ve reached it yet. You can look at certain points in my life and see what accomplishments there were. Like graduating high school, obviously, graduating bootcamp, surviving the Marine Corps—I was in during 9/11. Just surviving life up to this point. You realize all the stupid shit you did when you were younger that easily could have put you in a position to not be here any more. Making short films, going to college. I haven’t graduated college yet, but the fact that I’ve been on college campuses like the University of Texas and UCLA. The fact that I was accepted into that world coming from the south side of Austin, Texas. I really haven’t considered those great accomplishments though. Our society in general does a great job of putting a carrot in front of you to keep you running. So I haven’t reached a greatest accomplishment yet, hopefully. 

Me: Do you have an idea of what you want that to look like?

Tony: Being a filmmaker, you always want it to be like, “Oh, here’s my feature film.” 

Me: Your Godfather.

Tony: Yeah, exactly. But then the older you get, the more you realize that Godfather was probably one movie of thousands that were made in that time frame. So it’s just the odds. But being able to say, “I made this.” And I’m doing it little by little with short films and short docs. So working in the film industry has been an accomplishment. 

In what ways do you hold yourself back?

Oh man, there’s a ton! A metric shit ton! [Laughter] There’s the self-confidence thing. When I grew up I was a quiet kid, and in the Marine Corps I was a quiet kid. I went to the Marine Corps at 18, 19 years old, there’s nothing but testosterone flying around. So you have this tall, quiet kid and there was always a way to test someone’s manhood…I was an easy target. A lack of self-confidence holds you back. You look at other things, for example, you look at Godfather and you think, “Will I ever be able to make something like that??” And part of you is like, “Come on, keep going!” And the other part is like, “Fuck you! You’re never gonna get there! So just buy a burger and chill out. Burgers are good.” [Laughter] I think the quick satisfaction things will hold you back. “I’m gonna fail if I do this big thing, so let me just do this small thing and get quick satisfaction.” It’s definitely a confidence thing. And now that I’ve addressed it head-on, I’m able to manipulate it.

Me: How have you addressed it?

Tony: I looked in the mir—I didn’t look in the mirror, that’s so cliché. [Laughter] I looked at myself and—this probably comes from people telling me they don’t like my stuff I’ve written to dating women and failed relationships—but you’re able to say, “Well, what is it about me that I did wrong?” It always came back to not believing in myself. 

Me: So what did you do to get to a place where you could believe in yourself?

Tony: That’s the thing, I still have that voice in my head and I’m fighting that voice every day. The thing is that I realized I could fight the voice. Realizing that it’s just your brain. As humans, we’re just meant to be nomadic and hunt and procreate. We created this great society where we have to keep chasing things. With that comes a lot of stress about success and maintaining and finding your place in the world that we live in. Hearing that voice and telling that voice, “You’re full of shit.” And it’s always gonna be there.

Me: Fuckin A. I have those moments of literally looking in the mirror, and I look at myself and there’s that voice that says, “No one’s gonna want you.” And I go, “Fuck you. That’s bullshit.” I’ve said it out loud. When I started challenging that voice, I would say it out loud. Like, “Fuck you, this is not your show, ego.” Or devil or whatever you wanna call it. “This is not your show. And it’s wrong. Look at all the people who care about me.” So I feel ya, man. I really do.

Tony: Great! I’m glad you can relate. As long as you know that voice doesn’t grab a gun and hold it to your head. 

How do you define being “in love”?

It’s not the way it’s sold to us. I think that’s what causes a lot of heartbreak and loneliness in people…that we’re sold a certain view on love. It’s a terrible thing, like you’re supposed to be happy all the time and you’re walking on clouds, and she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and you buy each other Hallmark cards. I think what’s sold to us is bullshit. I think that being in love is when you’re able to be yourself, and the things you don’t like about yourself, you realize it and you’re able to work on that while at the same time working on the relationship with someone who’s doing the same. You’re able to be content. People can go at it all wrong. Like that question, “Are you happy?” Fuck off! [Laughter] That’s what causes stress and lack of confidence because you’re like, “I’m not happy right now, what’s wrong with me??” No one’s happy 24/7, so it’s just like, are you content? Are you OK? That’s a better question because if you’re not OK, well, I’ll be OK soon.

Me: Absolutely. It’s like you said earlier, you talked about the chase and human nature is the chase, the hunt. Happiness is a carrot. Happiness, money, whatever. I hadn’t thought of it in that context of happiness being a goal. And it shouldn’t be. 

Tony: It’s just an emotion.

Me: Exactly. It’s fleeting. I appreciate your reference to contentment. For me joy is the same thing. Joy is a place where you live from, not an emotion. A joyful person isn’t happy all the time, they’re full and radiating, but that’s not necessarily happiness.

Tony: If you wanna be happy all the time, you’re chasing the impossible. It’s terrible. It comes from us being sold happiness and us being sold love. We have a preconceived notion that no matter how wrong it is, it’s something we have to attain.

What will you miss the most when you’re gone?

I don’t believe in consciousness after death, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to miss anything. If there is such a thing, I would hope I live my life such that I don’t miss anything. I don't know, man. I’ve become such a cynic that it’s hard to say I’ll miss things that are human created. A cynic and pessimistic. I don’t know if my answers reflect that.

Me: We were talking earlier and you were saying to me about not giving up hope. So it’s funny you call yourself a cynic, you call yourself pessimistic, but I haven’t seen that in our conversations. So I’m curious how it affects this specific area of what’s next.

Tony: My dad told me when I first moved out here… I would say things like, “I hope to be a working filmmaker one day.” And he’d say, “Hope is a denial of reality.” He was saying it as a positive…

Me: …to make it happen...

Tony: Yeah, and I just took that saying and I was like, “Fuck, man. Hope is a denial of reality.” It just fueled my cynicism. Cuz it’s easy to take that saying and look at it from both sides. But the thing is, I have nieces and a nephew, and I don’t want them to know me as that guy. I think I would keep alive whatever definition of hope I have for them because the world’s gonna be pretty tough for them. So maybe if they have a positive influence… I guess I just keep hope alive for them, not for any sense of humanity. [Laughter] 

Me: And there’s the pessimism. [Laughter]