We had the good fortune of connecting with Alberto “Mojo” Peña and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi “Mojo”, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
I flew the coop from Kissimmee, FL to Los Angeles in September 2020. I’m a filmmaker and currently enrolled in UCLA’s Professional Program for Screenwriting and TV Writing, with plans to hop onto the directing and acting program next. I’d like to quickly address that my birth name is Alberto Peña. But to family, friends, and colleagues, I’m better known by my childhood nickname – MOJO. I became Mojo in 2005 when I moved from New York to Kissimmee (south of Orlando) because I kept reciting lines from my favorite movie: Austin Powers in Goldmember, making all my classmates laugh. For Austin Powers, mojo is a sort of swagger. For me, it’s a reminder and a link to my desire of film. This nickname was the start of my entertainment career. Not literally in show business, but I realized that I loved getting a reaction from people on something I did or said. This led me to be more creative on how to “entertain” my classmates and family. Back then, it was in the form of jokes and drawings. My love to tell stories and entertain soon evolved into filmmaking and screenwriting. I pursued an artistic career because it’s all I could see myself truly doing. In the summer of 2019, I was lucky enough to find a job straight out of college at a telecom company that took a chance on me. Fast forward to August 2020, after more than a year of hard work and dialing 60+ calls a day, I’d come home mentally fatigued. My creative juices weren’t flowing because all I thought about was my routine of showering, eating, and getting enough rest to go hard at work the next day. I loved the competitive nature of being a salesman, but after a while, making money and meeting quota started to take more importance over my film career and projects. In March 2020, working from home because of the pandemic gave me a lot of time to think about my career and future. What I started to worry about is the one thing none of us can defeat (except Dr. Strange). And that’s time. I always knew I was going to be a filmmaker, that was never in doubt. The question was when? When was I going to fully commit to a 24/7 grind of creating this art? When was I going to move to the mecca of film – Los Angeles? I made moves by applying to UCLA’s Professional Program for TV Writing and was accepted! A pivotal moment indeed, as I knew my life was about to flip open to a new chapter. At the young age of 24, I know I’m far from my prime. I consider that a good thing because I’m hungry and want to keep learning so I can improve at my craft.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I specialize in filmmaking. I feel confident using the word “specialize” because when Shan Karemani, Drini Karemani, Gilberto Peña (my brother), and I started shooting on iPhone’s in 2011, we had to learn how to do everything ourselves. I would watch YouTube videos as references, study movies, and then go apply what I learned. Working as an actor, director, screenwriter, producer, gaffer, prop master, cinematographer, editor, and much more for our short videos and films, I’ve appreciated getting my hands dirty. Playing multiple positions on my own sets has definitely molded me into a well-rounded filmmaker. Since 2011, we’ve made over 80 videos and short films. I have aspirations to soon shoot my first feature film. In the last 2 years, I’ve had two important moments in my early film career. The first being in 2019 when my team (Shan and Drini Karemani) and I had success with Stories of the Kosovo War (2019). Connecting with hundreds of people because of the documentary felt like a huge leap for us. Some viewers would message us saying they watched it with their families and cried. Being able to bring families together with something we created is an unbelievable feeling. Another proud moment came in 2020 (the year of the infamous coronavirus). With only a few weeks before making my big move from Kissimmee to LA, I wanted to dedicate that time to making “one last” short film with the team. The Hitman (post-production), is the project we came up with. Big shout-out to Alberto Diloné (Director), Kevin Garcia (Cinematographer), the wonderful actors, and the rest of my Kissimmee team who helped us on set as crew. I’m so proud of this project because instead of directing/acting, I got to play my hand as Producer, 1st AD, Screenwriter, and whatever else we needed on set. From assembling a crew to funding money, this was my first experience investing more than a couple dollars into a project. Overseeing the entire movie, I got a real-life taste of what the business side of film is like. I realized how much pressure producers go through to make sure a film gets completed. We wrapped shooting two days before I drove cross country. So my mind was excited on what other possibilities lay ahead for me in LA if I was able to pull that off in Kissimmee. Like every filmmaker, a big indicator of “success” would be getting an Academy Award nomination, which I plan on winning with my close friend and colleague, Jacobo Fe (Screenwriter). Of course I dream about giving a speech after winning an Oscar, but I know I have a lot of hard work to put in before I get there. I’m looking forward to the next few years when I look back to see how far I’ve come. In the oncoming years, I want to keep creating quality work, but also watch myself grow as a filmmaker. I’d love to work or sit down with filmmakers from across the world to pick their brains. I’m not only talking about the stars we all know and love, but young aspiring filmmakers like myself. It always baffles me that Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas became good friends and colleagues in their youth, and all went on to change the film industry…together. I’d like to be part of a new generation of filmmakers that shake things up and make some of the best stories to ever grace the big screen.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, it’s funny because I actually got to experience what it’s like to be the best friend visiting town. In the summer of 2020, one of my best friends, Jensen Westerlund, gave me the one-week tour of a lifetime, leaving a good taste of what LA had to offer if I moved out here. So my itinerary for a friend would be very similar to what he planned for me.
FOOD: – Diddy Riese – Vegan restaurants: The Grain, Veggie Grill, Honeybee Burger, SunCafe, Amazebowls, Monty’s Good Burger (the best burger in the world!!!….in my humble opinion).
ENTERTAINMENT: – Regency Village Theatre – Drive around to site see (Staples Center, Nispey Hussle Square, LA’s iconic murals, Beverly Hills, Sunset Blvd, Malibu, Universal City Overlook) – Museums – Libraries.
ACTIVE: – Walk on UCLA Campus – Santa Monica Pier – Venice Beach (including the Venice Canals) – Hikes: Brush Canyon Trail (Hollywood Sign), Rustic Canyon Loop (Will Rogers State Park), Topanga State Park
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’m really excited about this question because there have been countless people that have made me into the young man I am today. Firstly it started with my parents, Alberto and Placida Peña, two immigrants from the Dominican Republic. They raised me to treat everyone with respect. The principles and ethics they instilled in me is a monumental reason for my success thus far in my professional career and social life. Being born from Hispanic/LatinX descent, I often think about how far my fellow first-generation Americans and I have come. Our grandparents and great-grandparents worked grueling hours and degrading jobs in their home countries to give us a chance to live better in the USA. So I couldn’t answer this question without giving my grandparents a big shoutout. Rosa Tavarez, Juan Colon, Maricela “Marina” Peña, and Manuel “Chichi” Peña, thank you so much for all your efforts. I won’t ever let them go to waste. It’s my goal to make something of my life to pass on to my kids. They’ll be a product from the fruits of your labor. The next three mentions are rolled together, because without one, I would not be in LA right now. So I’d like to give them a collective shout-out. First up is one of my best friends from high school, Shan Karemani. My spark for cinema started in 2011 when we both had the same “crazy” idea of making skits, something none of our other friends wanted to do. We filmed hilarious comedy bits on our iPhone’s until we upgraded to a real camera and took the craft more serious. We formed Boggy Creek Films on YouTube to post all our content. After a couple years of filmmaking, Shan had a great idea for a documentary which turned into our first hit – Stories of the Kosovo War (2019) – https://www.amazon.com/Stories-Kosovo-War-Shan-Karemani/dp/B083F6BYNL It was nominated at CENFLO (Central Florida Film Festival) for Best Foreign Film and has gotten 410,000 views on YouTube, including international viewers from all around the globe. If it wasn’t for meeting Shan at an early age, I might have not found that spark for cinema. The next shout-out goes to my other best friend, Jacobo Fe. If you believe in destiny, this is a story for you. In 2017, I met Jacobo in Bangkok, Thailand while we were both coincidently studying abroad. The young Spaniard from Madrid and I talked about our ambitions. His goal was to win an Oscar. So was mine. We had a bro moment. Although, I must admit, that dream of an Academy Award was almost destroyed…until I saved his life! Near the end of the program, Jacobo had a crazy pain in his abdomen. I joked around and said “what if this turns into the scene from Alien?”… Little did I know I wasn’t far from the truth… According to doctors, Jacobo was about 24 hours away from his appendix bursting. Luckily, I went into Superman mode and after visiting two Bangkok hospitals, talking with Jacobo’s mother and insurance company, all while trying to understand the back-and-forth translation of the Thai doctors at 2am, Jacobo successfully underwent surgery. A big help in this fiasco was Kat, a nice Thai friend that drove us to the hospitals after there were no taxi’s and translated the Thai doctors words to us. Today, Jacobo and I are writing partners and roommates. We dedicate much of our time towards our elusive goal of winning an Oscar. He’s paved the way for me to come to LA by introducing me to the UCLA Professional Program as well as my third shout-out, the building we both live in. The last mention goes to the current place I live – UCHA Co-op – https://www.uchaonline.com/ Without this place, I couldn’t afford moving to LA, no matter how big my dreams were. Located in Westwood, I’m a 5-minute walk away from UCLA campus grounds. This co-op is the perfect place for young students, like me, who are trying to establish themselves in their industry all while attending UCLA. A quick list of pros: affordable housing at $600/month rent (includes Wi-Fi/utilities/gym/3 meals a day/parking garage/etc.), common minds to interact with on a daily basis, and it’s in a safe location where you’re not too far from the best parts of LA. The ONE con is that it’s dangerously close to Diddy Riese in Westwood Village… sometimes the temptation is too great to resist. But in all seriousness, without the Co-op, I wouldn’t have been able to establish myself in LA as working filmmaker and work with likeminded individuals. I’ve made a lot of new lifelong and amazingly talented friends by living here, which has helped me feel at home in such a big city. It’s truly a place where people from different countries, studying different fields come together to form a small and supportive community.
John Santoro; Jayme Burrows; Jacobo Fe; Drini Karemani; Ana Karotkaya; Amanda Nelson