Edward James Olmos: Oil, Agriculture and Climate Change Collide in “The Devil Has a Name”

The Iconic Latino Actor’s Latest Directorial Work Emphasizes the Environmental Threat That Seeps from Reality to the Screen
Edward James Olmos (center) directs and stars in the new drama and dark comedy, “The Devil Has a Name”. Photo Credit: Momentum Pictures

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

“The Devil Has A Name” is a new thriller and dark comedy starring David Strathairn, Kate Bosworth, Edward James Olmos, Katie Aselton, Haley Joel Osment, Martin Sheen, and Alfred Molina.

Directed by Edward James Olmos, the film’s meaty ensemble was put together with help from the director’s friendships with some of the actors, in which he called on a few friendly favors to get such talent together.

In “The Devil Has a Name”, which is based on actual events, a farmer named Fred Stern (David Strathairn) faces off against an oil company polluting the water supply in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Recently I had the great honor of talking to Mr. Olmos about his work on this film and how he turned a very important subject matter, though it serves as entertainment as well, into a voice for a troubling environmental and human catastrophe that is happening right before our eyes.

“The Devil Has a Name” is now streaming on VOD.

Hello Edward, thanks so much for the time. To start off, I wanted to know how you became involved with “The Devil Has a Name”. I read that it is based on some historical events, and I wanted to know how that affected you choosing to work on this project?

Well, yeah, this project was brought to me. I was very surprised when I got it. I’m usually very grateful that I get to work in this industry. But it’s very seldom that you get a project that really does fall right in line with who you are as a human being and what your beliefs are, and your feelings are.

This film deals with some very difficult subject matters, but they allowed me to make a film that wouldn’t beat you over the head with the subject matter, because the contamination of water is very, very hard to take. And that’s the life line of our existence as human beings, water.

And so, like in “Erin Brockovich”, it could become very depressing to find out the truths that are going on. And in this case, it does, too. But it’s not given to you, it’s not fed to you. They allowed me to put humor in it and allowed me to make a buddy movie, a movie about two people who have a strong relationship over 30 years. And they find themselves in the middle of all of this, having to understand and fight what I consider to be the most difficult aspects of living, which is, quote-unquote, ‘the contamination of water by the oil companies.’

It’s a major, major problem that’s happening in the Central Valley of California as we speak in the year 2020, in October – right now while we’re doing this, this is happening and it’s happening in a way that is very destructive, [and] very difficult to take.

So, as you said, it is a drama but it’s also a buddy film. How did you approach directing the very real and troubling subject matter in this way?

Well, like anything else, you start from the understanding of the story. It’s about story. And I was very lucky, like I said, to do this kind of a movie.

And when they came to me with the script and they came to me with the idea, they had the money and I said, ‘Excuse me, you have the money for this piece? Who gave you the money for this picture?’ Because, you know, it was millions of dollars and how did [they] do it? And they go, ‘Well, the person who actually lived this life is putting up the money to make it.’

I go, ‘Wow, can they do that?’ And I said, ‘My goodness, didn’t you sign some kind of a non-disclosure contract?’ The attorney said, ‘Don’t you worry about that Ed, you can go ahead and do this movie.’ I said, ‘Okay.’

So, the attorney that actually fought the petroleum for like 13, 14 years is the person who was still with them and still handles the work for this farmer and his family. And they allowed me to do it. And I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is happening.’

I was very fortunate to be prepared for the opportunity, that’s called luck! When you’re prepared for the opportunity and you can actually pull it off.

Can you talk about the casting within the film?

I’m very grateful because I got my friends involved. I got David Strathairn to play the farmer, I got ‘Marty’ Sheen to play the lawyer, and I got Haley Joel Osment to play the young guy that helps to try to convince the farmer to sell his property or sell the water rights to the oil company so that they couldn’t be sued. And of course, we find out that [it] was all a trick. They tried to sell them out and it was not legal, what they were trying to do. But at the same time, they did [anyway].

And in the story and in real life, you find out there’s some troubling things going on in corporate oil?

There’s a thing that happened that’s very interesting. There is a reality that came out in this when we were looking at the transcripts for the court trial. And I said, ‘Wow, studying this is amazing. What in the heck does the ‘net present value’ mean?’ It comes out in the story, the attorney uses it, and then he explained it to me.

Amongst corporations and people that make a lot of money, people who actually are working, say, in banking or say in anything that makes extraordinary amounts of money, billions of dollars weekly or monthly or yearly, the ‘net present value’ means that if you make more money than it costs you to fight any lawsuits that come against you for doing the work you’re doing, continue doing it.

I said, ‘what?!’ Yeah, it’s that simple guys, if you make more money than it costs you to fight it, continue to do it. I said, ‘Oh, my God.’

And it’s true. I mean, I saw major, major banks that were caught laundering money into the trillions of dollars, end up getting charged billions of dollars, and they paint it as if it was no big deal and they paid it off and they continue to do what they’re doing.

How can this be possible? Same thing with the oil companies. They’re still doing it today. They’re still contaminating water as we speak right now because it costs them less money to, you know, to fight it than it does what they’re making, so they’re gonna keep on trying. It’s crazy. It’s really crazy.