Eva Longoria’s feature directorial debut, “Flamin’ Hot,” had audiences on fire at its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11 — while deftly navigating the controversy surrounding the film’s subject without ever addressing it by name.
The movie is based on the life of former Frito-Lay executive Richard Montañez, played by Jesse Garcia (“Quinceañera,” “Narcos: Mexico”), who has said that he was responsible for inventing the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand when he was working as a janitor for the company.
Before “Flamin’ Hot” went into production in 2021, however, Montañez’s claims were disputed by a Los Angeles Times report in which Frito-Lay stated that an internal investigation turned up no evidence that “Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market” in 1990. Instead, the Times’ story attributed a Frito-Lay factory in the Midwest with spearheading the Flamin’ Hot brand and credited Montañez for helping to bring to market the Flamin’ Hot Popcorn brand and a line of spicy products called Sabrositas.
After Montañez disputed the Times’ story in an interview with Variety — “All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen,” he said — Frito-Lay parent company PepsiCo issued a lengthy statement expressing support for Montañez while not substantively challenging the Times’ reporting.
The movie itself, written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, works around this issue by incorporating much of the Times report into its story, acknowledging the test marketing done at a different factory while still crediting Montañez with pioneering Frito-Lay’s efforts to expand into the vastly untapped Latino market. At one point, Montañez says in voice over that, while he was testing out adding spicy flavors to Cheetos in his family kitchen, he was unaware that other company executives were using chemical additives to create the same effect; Longoria then cuts between lab-coated officials experimenting with test tubes and Montañez’s family working with classic chilis and spices.
In the audience Q&A after the premiere, Longoria managed to address the Times story without ever doing so by name, emphasizing her interest in Montañez’s experience above all else.
“We didn’t want to do the history of the Cheeto,” she said. “We wanted to do Richard’s story. It’s an amazing story. It’s compelling. It’s inspiring. It’s complex. It was easy to honor that.”
Although Longoria has been directing in television since 2014 — including episodes of “Devious Maids,” “Black-ish” and “Why Women Kill” — she says it wasn’t until she encountered Montañez’s story that she even considered directing a movie.
“I was so blown away by the adversity Richard faced and how he overcame it throughout his whole life,” she said. “It feels like he shouldn’t even be alive, much less successful. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, and he’s Mexican-American, like me!’ I was like, ‘I have to tell this story.’”
When they introduced the film before it screened, Longoria and producer DeVon Franklin (“Miracles From Heaven,” “Breakthrough”) said they strove to hire as many Latinos as possible behind the camera.
“Every step of the way in the filmmaking process, our north star was authenticity,” Longoria said in the Q&A after the film. That started with Longoria’s decision to bring Chávez, creator of the Netflix series “Gentefied,” on board as a writer.
“When [Eva] came in to meet with me the first time, she had the script in a binder and every page was torn up,” Franklin said with a laugh. “‘This isn’t right! This isn’t right!’”
Chávez also credited Longoria with wanting a writer “who understands this story to its core” to help shape the script, in which the characters slip between Spanish and English with ease and Montañez’s background — including his lack of a high school diploma and past selling drugs — is treated with compassion and understanding.
Montañez and his wife Judy both attended the premiere; he spoke briefly from the audience about what it felt like to watch his life story be played back to him.
“I’ll tell you, I’m just crying,” Montañez said. “There’s been a lot of pain in our lives, but this movie showed us the purpose for our pain.”
Searchlight Pictures is set to debut “Flamin’ Hot” on Hulu on June 9.