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The Strange, Sad Story of Laz Rojas, the 'One-Man Movie Studio'

Laz Rojas' self-shot acting reel—in which the filmmaker portrays over 100 characters—didn't get him cast, but it turned him into a cult favorite of the 1990s.
May 27, 2016, 4:00am
All images courtesy of Laz Rojas

The Cindy Sherman of outsider filmmaking, Laz Rojas is infamous to a small circle of VHS tape aficionados for his One-Man Showcase. By wit and by grit—and by wig—Rojas created one of the most singular films, working out of his parents' living room in the early 1990s. With just a camcorder and costumes, playing every role— man, woman, and child—he shot and edited a four-hour, 52-scene production without anyone else's assistance. In it, Rojas talks to himself; he shoots himself; he even kisses himself in the film's most incredible example of trick photography.

In the 90s, One-Man Showcase was the sort of bootlegged gem that circulated amongst VHS nerds looking for the strangest videos they could get their hands on. It's found a bit of a wider audience in the past decade after being uploaded to YouTube. Sundance programmer Mike Plante, Cinefamily programmer Tom Fitzgerald, and Hollywood director David Gordon Greene are among its fans. But for years the origins of the video have remained shrouded in mystery, until Zack Carlson tracked down Rojas himself.

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In the second episode of VICE's new documentary series Outsider, Carlson finds Rojas in Los Angeles living with his aging mother, the two of them spending the first half of the month in a motel room and the second half living out of their car. For the first time, Rojas explains the story behind One-Man Showcase.

Although many assumed that the scenes were excised from longer works Rojas had completed, in fact, they were the only parts of the films Rojas had produced. The aspiring actor-writer-director had the idea to shoot a range of material to showcase his versatility, and sent the tape out to talent scouts, casting agents, and studios. Although Rojas didn't get the responses he wanted back then, 25 years later One-Man Showcase has found another audience.

We spoke with Carlson to learn more about Rojas's wildly ambitious demo reel that became a cult film masterpiece and his struggles after making films endure through the present day.

VICE: What was your first reaction to One-Man Showcase?
Zack Carlson: I thought, How did this one person accomplished this all by themselves? It's clearly just him doing it. There's no camera movement. And it just feels like a very singular project. But then the other question was, What was his situation? Was this somebody working by themselves because they were completely cut off from other people? It seems like he's a really isolated creative human being. And then it turns out that his parents were ten feet away watching their son play all these characters, all these ethnicities, and both genders. Finding that out makes it even stranger that he was performing in drag while his dad was watching Bonanza on television. His parents were just completely supportive of his creativity.

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It feels like there's a compulsive quality to what he's doing.
And the fact that he made four hours of material and played over 100 characters in just six months is kind of incredible. When you are watching it, you wonder if it maybe took a decade of this guy's life.

Meeting the man behind the tape, were you surprised at all?
I was impressed with how he was so composed and eloquent. He'd been in a really difficult situation for the past few years. It didn't feel like he was putting on airs for the camera. It just felt like he was just born to be a known personality. He seems like he's ready to be a media presence and that is just his nature. He didn't seem like a nut.

And he is still chasing down these projects that aren't necessarily marketable, and he understands the landscape. He is intent on doing his work his way and making a living at it. It is going to be a challenge. He has tenacity but not insanity.

I read online that part of One-Man was featured in Pineapple Express.
David Gordon Greene was fascinated by One-Man and thought it would be fun to put Rojas in a movie. There are 60 characters in a Hollywood film—why can't one of them be this outsider filmmaker? But this happened right when Rojas's father fell ill and the whole family went to Florida to be with him. According to Rojas, that's why he didn't end up with a role in the movie, and instead, there's a point when some characters are watching TV and what's on the television are scenes from the Rojas's showcase tape.

It was heartbreaking for Rojas in a lot of ways. It was what he'd always been hoping for: Hollywood calls, and a major studio wants you.

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In the doc, he's a bit defensive about people assuming he's gay because he dresses up as women. I just wanted to tell him, "It's OK, you can be straight and say you like dressing up like that!" Because it seems like he really enjoys it.
Not to mention that he's incredibly skilled at it! You know, when he first released Showcase there was no such thing as YouTube comments. And then when he uploaded it to the internet, all of a sudden, there were all these faceless people online saying "that guy a homo" or whatever idiotic bullshit. I think it really tore him down. He'd never had the benefit of somebody's serious critical reaction to his work. Now the closest thing he had was some jackass typing with their elbows, calling him names.

He's also a very traditional and very religious 53-year-old man. And his mother was in the room when we did that interview. He's lived with his mother his entire life. He's only been a part from her for six months at one point.

When you decided to have a screening for him at Cinefamily, did you have any misgivings or hesitations about celebrating his work in what might be a different context than the one he intended it to be viewed in?
Irony is a killer. It is the worst. And the Cinefamily crowd is not immune to that at all. But it was really important to us that this showing be something respectful to him. We had a fear that maybe nobody would come. Maybe it would be a flop. We did everything we could to fill the place up, and it was packed.

Miraculously, everybody got it. Even if someone saw a bunch of photos of a man wearing different dresses and went out of morbid curiosity, they still got pulled into his story. He got up onstage and started talking, and he was so open. The evening became so personal.

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Almost everyone who was at the Cinefamily screening said they didn't remember feeling this inspired. It was a feeling of, This guy did this thing in his parents' living room with no money and no crew that we are now watching 25 years later. I can certainly accomplish whatever I'm setting out to do.All these people were slapped in the face by what his work meant, that anyone can, should, and must do whatever they are driven to do without excuses.

And it didn't make him rich clearly. He's homeless. He's living in a car. But in that moment, he had 150 people who were completely impressed by him and totally adored him, and that means a lot—especially to someone who has struggled to have their creativity acknowledged.

Any updates on Rojas and his mother's situation since you finished the shoot?
There's an LA artist named Sarah Johnson who was fascinated by Rojas's story. She helped with the screening and brought flowers to his premiere. She's taken it on herself to try to get a caseworker for him and his mother, and just to try and help.

But then the day after the Cinefamily screening, Sarah got hit by a car and broke half her body so she is still trying to help while dealing with her own recovery. Then Laz's mother, just weeks after we shot the documentary, she fell and broke her hip. Sarah set up a GoFundMe to help them raise funds for his mother's recovery, which a lot of people donated to.

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There was an actor who expressed interest in wanting to let them live in his guesthouse, but it was just a passing thought. Nothing came of it. People have great intentions and everybody wants to help, but Rojas's situation is still the same.

After the Cinefamily and this little doc on him, did you get the sense that he felt validated after so many years?
It's difficult because you do want the people you cover to feel validated, but you also don't want them to assume that this 30-minute documentary is going to lead directly to all of their dreams coming true. It seemed like Laz understood the balance. He said, "This can't be bad for me. It can only be good."

I think right now he is approaching his situation realistically. The first step is to stop being homeless. The next step is for his mother to be stable, health-wise. And then from that point, he will have the foundation to start actively pursuing his filmmaking dreams again. I can't help but be optimistic that he's inches away from being able to clutch onto something that will pull him out of all this crap that he is dealing with.

Friends of Laz Rojas have put together a crowd-funding campaign to help Laz and his mother get back on their feet. Click here to find out more.

As mentioned in the documentary, Laz has a poor credit score, and he and his mother are seeking a guest house or living situation in Los Angeles that doesn't require a credit check. If you have any leads please contact this email: LazRojasHousing@gmail.com.

Follow Whitney Mallett on Twitter.