Ricardo Islas - Senior Producer

Nov. 27, 2013 by Nicole V. Rohr

ricardoislas1.jpgRicardo happy making movies on set in Louisiana in 2008. One of the many things we pride ourselves on here at WYCC PBS Chicago is that we come from all over the globe, and speak many different languages. Senior Producer Ricardo Islas has been at the station for 14 years, and is known by many for his distinct accent, his passion for filmmaking, and his sense of humor at staff meetings.

Islas was born in a small town in Uruguay, South America. He said that his experience watching television during his childhood (on only four stations) inspired him to work in film. “Back then, growing up in the 70s in South America was pretty much like growing up in the 50s here in America. Same values, same lifestyle…” he explained. “I played outside by myself when I was a little kid, like you see here in some small towns. I was a very happy child.”

After being raised by his working parents, his aunt, and his grandmother, and helping to raise his brother 13 years his junior, Islas first visited the United States in 1995 for the Chicago Latino Film Festival.  On that trip, he met the owner and president of the popular Hispanic newspaper La Raza. “He told me, ‘Uruguay’s fine, but you should probably come here, to Chicago.’ He offered me the chance to come here and do some work with him, and I came back a couple of times. The third time I decided to move here,” Islas said.

A Colombian producer working for Mexican television then hired Islas for a miniseries, and after completing that project, Islas ended up in a somewhat strange role. “With Xerox Corporation, I was in the collections department, so I used to make phone calls and my clients were film studios,” Islas said laughing. “So, my first introduction to film here in America was calling studios asking for money.”

In 1999, WYCC called Islas and offered him a field production job on the Spanish children’s show Nuestros Niños (the English version was called Small Talk for Parents). Islas then became the director and editor for the series. “When you think about it,” he said, “I was born in a small town in South America, thinking that would like to maybe work in TV. Maybe make movies. And I ended up being a producer for the third [largest] market in the United States. I feel fortunate.”

Islas also said that when he began working on Nuestros Niños, he was not yet a parent. The show taught him a lot about raising children, which is now putting into practice with his wife and two daughters, Giuliana and Jessica. “In the beginning, I felt like a stranger to that [parenting]. The show was mostly about problems that parents have with children 0 to 12, and I didn’t have any children when I made those shows,” he said.

“For a parent, PBS is a great option. For me, and for everybody. And like I used to love my brother when he was younger, these girls are the light of my life. And the reason I work,” Islas added.

Islas has known his wife since 1992, and as a busy filmmaker at WYCC and on independent projects, he is pretty thankful for her dedication over the years. “My wife is my long-time companion, so she has had to put up with a lot of things because of my work. What can I say? I don’t think any other person that I’ve known in my life would have lasted that long,” he said, smiling.

And for the past year, that work has included a new independent film project on which he has spent many, many evenings and weekends. But for this filmmaker who most admires Italian director Federico Fellini, making movies is where he is happiest.

“When I’m making a movie, I feel like I’m walking on clouds,” Islas said. “I feel healthier. I notice that at home, too. I play with my children and I play with my cat.” He explained that because there is very little distribution opportunities for the “middle class” of films that once existed – around a budget of $1 million – that filmmakers have to choose to make small films or to shoot for the big Hollywood project that may or may not work out.

“It’s either you go high or stay where you are and maybe find an alternative kind of close-to-what-you-like job, and you don’t sleep at night and make movies when you can,” he said, categorizing the two groups as the “Spielbergs” and the “Ricardos.” Islas also said his work at WYCC on The Professors and Musicology: Live from the Old Town School of Folk Music has been ideal because it encourages non-partisan, educated conversation that falls in line with the overall mission of PBS, and because he loves art and is able to interview artists.

“PBS for sure gives producers the opportunity to tell stories in a more conventional way, which I think is the best way,” Islas said. “I wanted to be where I am today, because I like this style, and I love educational television and I love PBS. As a viewer… and as a parent, absolutely.”

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