PISTOLEROS: DEATH, DRUGS AND ROCK’N’ROLL Filmmaker Steven Esparza Interview — Documenting Truth

PISTOLEROS Steven Esparza
Filmmaker Steven Esparza

“... the more we share our stories, the more we realize we’re not alone on these journeys.”

So says filmmaker Steven Esparza of his film Pistoleros: Death, Drugs and Rock N' Roll. He documents the story of Doug Hopkins, Lawrence Zubia, Mark Zubia, Scott Andrews and Mark Riggs-- boys from Tempe, Arizona who felt a lot of joy in the music they made with each other. In Esparza’s film, we learn that with some minor success, a taste of fame, and an image as The Pistoleros also came clashing egos, disillusionment, and drugs.

In this writer’s view, Pistoleros isn’t just interested in the history of the band, it is an unflinching and sensitive profile of how familial bonds can save or be severed. Above all, Esparza’s film seems to assert that the truth is worth documenting, no matter what difficulties present themselves when clashing personalities come into play

Here Picture This Post (PTP) talks to Steven Esparza (SE) about The Pistoleros, and the power and importance of documenting the truth.

(PTP) What did you deem important in introducing the Pistoleros to a wider audience not familiar with their work?

(SE) This isn’t a story of superstars where the audience already knows much of the story. So we needed to give the viewers a chance to fall in love with and become invested in the brothers. Mark and Lawrence came from a closely knit Mexican-American family and their father’s musical influence immeasurably shaped their future. That influence carried through to their deal with Hollywood Records.

… Mark and Lawrence Zubia are two of the most beloved Latino voices in all of Arizona. Their music embodies so many parts of the state. There’s a Western influence, an Americana influence, a Mariachi influence and so much more. These guys have been telling their stories through music their whole lives. I really hope viewers connect with their songs and that the film exposes their brilliance to a wider audience.

Were there interview techniques you used that you feel helped to keep the subjects honest, without imposing your own views?

We were very lucky to have interviewees that were brave enough to tell their truth. It’s not easy to re-open old wounds, especially when you know that your pain will be seen by multitudes. From my perspective, the most important component to a successful interview is building trust and making the interviewee feel safe.

From the onset, Producers David Hilker and Jeff Freundlich, were upfront with everyone that this was going to be a story about truth and the importance of speaking the truth. It was not going to be a fluff piece on how wonderful everybody is. I think that set the tone. Most importantly, Lawrence was on board with this as he wanted his full story told. It was cathartic for him. From an editorial perspective, we strove to always show the stark contrast between an addict’s perception of reality and everyone else’s perspective of the same event.

PISTOLEROS Steven Esparza
Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms
PISTOLEROS Steven Esparza
Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets
PISTOLEROS Steven Esparza
Former Arizona AG Grant Woods

What do you hope the film teaches by showcasing Lawrence’s challenges with drugs and communication?

It’s important to be honest from the beginning. If Lawrence was honest with his thoughts and feelings in his youth, he could have seeked help at an earlier age and possibly prevented some of his future anguish.

We didn’t go into this project with the goal of making a film about how drugs affect the ability to communicate. Quite honestly, we wanted to tell a powerful story of redemption. Unlike reality TV, this story unfolded before our very eyes as we were filming. There were many revelations unbeknownst to us prior to deciding to make this film.

How does Pistoleros reflect your personal experiences with (and thoughts on) drugs and music scene?

I worked for KUPD FM in Phoenix, which was the state’s largest Rock radio station. I also served as the photographer for the major concerts promoted by KUPD. I saw a lot of excesses and watched how some of these individuals’ careers seemed to unravel. Some musicians use drugs and alcohol as a crutch for creativity. 

Lawrence Zubia, the lead singer of Pistoleros, didn’t need that crutch. But he was an addict. That is what is so painful. Having said that, the purpose of the film wasn’t to create a socially conscious narrative. It was to tell the truth. The power of the truth is that it entails all the highs and lows of Lawrence’s life, as well as his family and bandmates; most importantly, his brother Mark Zubia, a brother and a bandmate.

I have a direct family member who is an alcoholic and I have experienced firsthand how it affected his mental health, as well as the mental health of everyone around him. So at times, creating this film was difficult for me. It triggered a lot of emotions and anxiety because the subject matter was so personal. It hit so close to home. But the pain was worth it because the more we share our stories, the more we realize we’re not alone on these journeys.

What main messages, particularly around drug abuse, did you want to convey in the film?

[A quote from Dr. Ken Fleisch] was “A lot of times, they look at the drug as the problem; but it’s the symptom of the problem. It’s caused the problems but it’s still the symptom. ”

I didn’t seek out the Pistoleros’ story to convey that drugs are a symptom of another problem. However, the best part about making a documentary is that you get to interview so many fascinating people, including experts. Every now and then, someone says something so noteworthy that you know right away it will make the final cut. Dr. Ken Fleisch’s insight was brilliant because in one sentence he summed up how drug abuse can be a form of self-medication of other problems while exacerbating the current situation.

[...]I think different themes will resonate with different viewers. For example, there is a quote in the film from Cris Krikwood of Meat Puppets talking about recovery: “Where there’s breath there’s hope.” For me, that’s one of the big takeaways as I have witnessed it in my own life.

For more information visit the Pistoleros website.



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All images courtesy of Pistoleros: Death, Drugs and Rock N' Roll and Steven Esparza.

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Yash Pathak
Yash Pathak

About the Author: Yash Pathak

Yash keeps an extensive back catalogue of ideas circulating around his head and his room- papers and papers of impractical but still meaningful thoughts written mostly in English, other times in Hindi, and sometimes in gibberish. There was a lot of his mind he found represented within the medium of film. Ever since discovering the likes of Truffaut and Godard, he started theorizing, thinking, and reading as much as he possibly could. He has a keen knowledge of niche facets of its history, and can give a lecture on just about any decade of movie-making. He keeps an eye and an ear on the heart of San Francisco, his home, and when he isn't writing he is working on making films, playing music, repairing old film projectors, curating art for small venues, sewing, or just relaxing in a park he will eventually get around to learning the name of.

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