Fidel Castro's Communist Shadow Inspires First-Time Novelist

Fidel Castro's Communist Shadow Inspires First-Time Novelist

My debut novel, “Mindshot,” opens with a scene that could come from any standard sci-fi film; a massive spaceship hovering over a military base, soldiers scrambling to take action. But as it turns out, this wasn’t an alien invasion, and these weren’t aliens.

Even though they looked like our pre-conceived ideas of aliens–lanky bodies, big heads, black eyes–everyone is horrified to discover these alien-looking creatures are actually … humans. From 3,000 years in the future. This is what man evolves into. 

But what’s more shocking is why these evolved “humans” have travelled back in time to this day. For their arrival signals the end of the human race as we know it.

Yeah, heady stuff to be sure, but I wanted to tell a very entertaining and escapist type story with “Mindshot” that will also hopefully raise some intriguing questions. One of the many questions posed is: What happens if a society successfully creates conditions where man is not only created equal, but also assures that man turn out equal, too? How can that be achieved? How will man evolve if this is achieved?

History is replete with societies trying to mandate fairness and equality for all. My mother remembers first hearing about Fidel Castro as a teenager growing up in Cuba. The stories were everywhere about the charismatic revolutionary waging war in the mountains. The word was that the mysterious bearded and bespectacled man took up arms because he had the people’s best interest at heart.

Utopia was believed imminent by some once Castro succeeded and Batista fell – and fall Batista eventually did. Castro came to power and, for the good of people, soon nationalized education countrywide. He ended up nationalizing every other aspect of Cuban life as well-all for the sake of fairness and equality. Which is why, subsequently, my mother’s Catholic school was shut down and the students, including my mother, were ordered to attend state-run schools now. Which again, was a fair thing, right? After all, in a state run school, every single student in Cuba was going to receive equal education-nobody better than the other, nobody worse than other. This was fair. This was Utopia.

Yet, religion was important to my mother and she opted to drop out of school, branding her a dissenter-an enemy of the state. A few short years later, fearing persecution, she fled in exile to the US, settled in New York City, met my father (also an exiled Cuban), married him, and I was born soon after. 

My experience growing up in Miami, where my parents eventually moved, was quite different than theirs. I grew up very American, immersed fully (and purposefully) in American culture and traditions, while watching American television, listening to American music and seeing American movies. As a result, as much as I understand – and appreciate-and love my Cuban heritage, I consider myself an American first and foremost.

In fact, ever since I was a kid, my mother always reminded me (still does to this day) that I wasn’t Cuban. No, I was American. After all, I was born in New York City, in the United States of America, and that meant something-that meant everything. So never mind that the blood in my veins is 100 percent Cuban, I was not growing up as a Cuban-I was growing up as an American. Except for the scattered cultural lessons about Cuba I received at home, my siblings and I were as American as apple pie.

This is probably why from a very young age, American movies were a huge influence on me, starting with the Walt Disney movies. I was even nicknamed Mickey Mouse, I was so obsessed with all things Disney. Then “Star Wars” came out in 1977 when I was seven, and after seeing that movie, I wondered, awestruck, how’d they do that?

I remember, to this day, asking my parents how “Star Wars” was made, but they had no answers for me. They just said something vague about how “Star Wars” (and all movies) were made in a mysterious, faraway place called Hollywood.

Hmmm … Hollywood – I dreamt about this fantastical city where movies were born and imagined going there some day to find out how “Star Wars” was made. In the years that followed, movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out, deepening my curiosity and passion about Hollywood movies. That’s around the time I started dabbling with my own Super 8 movies, trying to re-create on the small screen what I’d seen on the big screen.

Then in 1982, when I was 12 years old, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” was released, and that single film moved me so profoundly that it literally changed my life. Particularly life-changing was an interview director Steven Spielberg gave that year, which I read in The Miami Herald (yes, I read the Herald at 12) where he was quoted as saying in jest something along the lines of, “Someday somebody will invent a machine that directs movies, and then what will I do for a living?”

Those last words stood out to me. “What will I do for a living?”

Steven Spielberg

It occurred to me at that very moment, reading that interview that one could DIRECT for a living. I rushed to my mother and showed her the article and declared gleefully, “I’m going to Hollywood to become a director!” To her credit, she was very supportive and always encouraged me as I continued to make countless more Super 8 films. I wrote all my short films too, thankfully, I was always able to write-and the fact that I edited and shot my films too, made me a full-fledged auteur before puberty.

All during my childhood and teenage years, as I completed one Super 8 film after another, my mother made me keenly aware that the freedom of expression I was enjoying growing up American, making whatever kinds of films I wanted, was not being shared by kids my own age 90 miles south in communist Cuba. It was inconceivable to me that freedom of expression wasn’t a right all people shared, and as I got older I learned why-for an egalitarian society to function properly, there could be no dissent.

Hence not just any movie could be made by anyone – even a child. It had to all be approved by the state, so as to avoid “subversive” content (read: anything critical of the state). After all, so went the doctrine of fairness, to assure equality, everyone had to believe the same things – hence no dissension was tolerated.

But this idea that all humans could ever be forced to think alike, be alike and believe in the same things at all times was impossible to achieve of course – I knew this even as a teenager-because we’re all wired differently and each of us develop our own individual views and wants over time.

Obvious as that is, when the desired end result of a society is equality at all costs, individual thought and expression and even ambition are frowned upon. 

We as a race of humans, globally, are born equal and all want for the same basic things no matter where we’re from, like love, peace, comfort, etc, yet we all inherently have varying aptitudes and talents, which we can use (or not use) to acquire varying skills and education that in turn can enable us to attain (or not attain) what we desire in our lives. So the question remains: can we ever truly live in a society where we all end up equal in outcome?

Fast forward to 1992. I moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of my career as a director. And as can only happen in America, this son of Cuban emigrants, with no money, no ties to Hollywood, acquired the necessary skills and craft, figured out how the system worked, persevered and as a result, has been very fortunate and privileged since to have directed many movies and television shows, mostly in the comedy and family world.

As a card-carrying member of the Director’s Guild of America, directing has been my main “job” all these years, yet I’ve also written quite a bit of television and film as well.

What I’d never written, however, was a novel. So about a year ago, I decided to do just that. I took all my experience and craft directing and writing comedy and family shows and wrote, what else? Why, a science fiction novel, of course! Makes total sense doesn’t it?

Anyway, I wrote my debut novel, “Mindshot,” for a number of reasons. First of all, to entertain the reader, naturally. I was influenced by those great movies from the ’70s and ’80s that I grew up on from Spielberg and George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, and I wanted to pay homage to them with a cool sci-fi, action thriller of my own.

But as the story for “Mindshot” developed, it became something more for me. Several questions about fairness and equality kept percolating in my head, as if my mother’s experiences in Cuba had somehow filtered into my soul. Questions I’ve asked all my life haunted me still for answers: If all men are created equal, can we all turn out equal too?

Is it even possible for us all to turn out equal?

If the answer is no, then what can a governing body or society do to assure equality for all? Can anything even be done to assure equality in outcome for all? Is it even society’s mandate to assure equal outcome for all, or should the end results of an individual life be left to the ambitions and abilities of each individual?

What’s fair? What’s possible? What’s better for society, survival of the fittest, or social justice for all?

I was consumed by these questions during the writing process and as much as I was crafting an escapist yarn, I knew I wanted to-needed to-include these questions somehow in “Mindshot.” As a result, the book became, in a small way, about what my mother and many Cubans like her experienced living in a society intent with equalizing everything.

My mother hasn’t read “Mindshot” yet, but according to her experiences, as a young woman in Cuba, mandating for equal outcome is absolutely impossible. Somebody will always want more. That’s just basic humanity. Despite theoretical good intentions and perhaps even the noble aims of leaders trying to govern compassionately so as to assure equality for all, the question is: will they just end up creating equal misery for all?

Maybe “Mindshot,” to be released next month, will answer those questions, maybe it won’t. But one thing I feel it will do is entertain – at least I hope it will. It’s a fast moving sci-fi/thriller at its core, after all. But if there’s one key thing I’ve learned over my auspicious career here in Hollywood is that my first job, whether I’m writing or directing or both, is to entertain. But in the case of “Mindshot,” if I can entertain and also nudge a reader into asking questions about equality and fairness, well, then maybe the experiences of my mother (and all Cuban exiles) can be as profound for them, as they were to me.

“Mindshot” will be available in January 2013. Visit Narrow Bridge Films’ Web site for more information.

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Joe Menendez is a film and television director, writer and producer. His credits include the Lionsgate film “Ladron Que Roba A Ladron,” “Three Holiday Tails” (a.k.a. “A Golden Christmas 2”), and “Hunting of Man.” He’s also directed/written/produced many hours of television for Disney, Nickelodeon, FOX, PBS, HBO, Spike TV, BET and Telemundo. Menendez currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.