Headhunting with Benicio del Toro

Juan M. Silva ’88 and Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro collected iguanas and South American alligators while growing up

Juan M. Silva ’88 and Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro collected iguanas and South American alligators while growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Friends since childhood, Silva and Del Toro have abandoned reptiles and are now teaming up to make a movie, slated for release in 2003 by MGM.

In the upcoming weeks, Silva, who is a lecturer on history and literature, will begin writing the script to a remake of the 1974 Sam Peckinpah film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in which Del Toro will star.

Silva expects to spend the entire summer writing the script, which he plans to model closely on the original with room for his own innovation. “The ending will change, most definitely,” he says. “And no hints.” Silva pauses to reconsider. “Well, maybe one word—redemption,” he adds cryptically.

In the original script, written by Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Gordon Dawson, the protagonist is a white American in Mexico City. The film is usually described as a cult classic. “It’s very violent. It’s also tragic in its own way,” Silva says. “Some have called it a strange, weird masterpiece.” In his version of the masterpiece, Silva plans to make the protagonist a Chicano—a Mexican-American. “He becomes a man of two worlds,” he says. “This way, you don’t have the Anglo-American who is being assailed by the evil Mexicans.”

Parts of the plot will remain the same. A powerful man discovers that Alfredo Garcia has impregnated his daughter, and he wants Garcia’s head. The dirty job falls to the character Del Toro will play. “It becomes a question of conscience, not just action,” Silva says. “The basic plot is like a football game, only with someone’s head instead of a football.”

Silva first got into this game when Del Toro recommended him as the man to do the rewrite for director Sam Bayer, but this project is one in a long line of collaborations between Del Toro and Silva. The two attended school together in San Juan and could often be found shooting hoops or watching movies at Del Toro’s house. Silva recalls that Del Toro had an extensive film collection. When Del Toro moved to Pennsylvania in high school they stayed in touch regularly. Since 1992, they have joined forces on several scripts, none of which have been produced yet.

Though Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the first movie he’s worked on that is on track to actually get produced, Silva is not daunted by the difficulties of writing for Hollywood. “I already have a film to work with, so there’s less of that blank page effect,” he says. “And I like the potential that it has. I’m excited about it.” Nor does Silva fear that his script will be corrupted by Hollywood commercialism. “I’m working with a friend, and he has a good team working with him,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to have Benicio Del Toro as a collaborator. I have learned a lot from him.”

Silva is an atypical Hollywood scribe. He holds a Harvard Ph.D. in romance languages and he has an academic explanation for what it means to live in the ivory tower and write for the silver screen.

He has ready his copy of Critical Essays by German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger to corroborate his belief that writing movies is a valid intellectual pursuit. In a passage Silva calls “very well put,” Enzenberger claims, “Retreat from the media will not even save the intellectual’s precious soul from corruption. It might be a better idea to enter the dangerous game, to take and calculate our risks...We must know very precisely the monster we are dealing with.”

Silva is not too concerned with the corruption of his intellectual soul from this part-time screenplay-writing gig. “I’m still a teacher. Teaching may be more important than writing.” It’s not as glitzy, though, and his colleagues get a kick out of the Hollywood connection.

“Let me just say it’s a privilege to share an office with a celebrity,” says Neal L. Dolan, also a lecturer on history and literature, with a wide grin on his face. “I consider it an honor.”