Special Interview Excerpt: Kenneth Castillo: Post-Modern Movie Mogul
By Al Carlos Hernandez
Excerpt from Herald de Paris, March 17, 2013
Hollywood, CA– Kenneth Castillo is a gifted post-modern filmmaker who is proving to be a theatrical force to reckon with. His first two features in the series Sidewayz and Ghostown are currently available for purchase at Wal-Mart, Target, and Blockbuster stores across the country. Ghostown was awarded Best Dramatic Feature at the 2010 Reel Rasquache Film Festival. His third feature in this series is entitled Confession of a Gangster and was released in the fall of 2010 along with ten new episodes of his short film series. In 2010 all three films in Kenneth Castillo’s Drive-By Chronicles feature film series were picked up by Comcast and Time Warner Cable for VOD distribution. Kenneth just wrapped his fourth feature 2012.
Castillo began his writing/directing career in 1996 by producing theatrical productions at the Two Roads Theatre in Studio City. After producing, writing, and directing several full and one-act plays, he turned his full attention to film. In 2000, along with his producing partner (and now wife) Karla Ojeda, he formed Valor Productions. Their first venture was a series of short films entitled The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin – a series of silent short films shot in the style of the serial shorts of the 20’s and 30’s and set in the world of The Day of the Dead. Several different episodes went on to screen at film festivals across the country including HBO’s New York International Latino Film Festival and the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival. In 2007, the episode entitled V-A Day at the Theatre was accepted and screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France; the following year it won the Imagen Award for Best Theatrical Short Film.
Castillo stays busy with half a dozen projects or more in various stages of pre-production, shooting, or post-production. “I’m proud of the process I’ve developed over the last twelve to fifteen years,” he said. “Proud that the actors want to continue to work with me after they’ve worked with me.”
Comedy or thriller, short or feature film, Castillo’s stories are always told from the Latino perspective.
“A major problem with Latinos in the film business is we are not engaging our own audience. We are assuming that if we do a Latino-based film, Latinos will flock to it and we can’t assume that,” he explained. “If you open a business in a Latino neighborhood, even if it’s geared to Latinos, it doesn’t mean they’re going to walk in the door and start spending money. We need to have that same mentality and honestly, and we don’t. That’s what I’ve tried to do with every single one of my projects: engage the Latino audience.”
As, Deputy Managing Editor at Herald deParis, I had a great conversation with Kenneth about his arduous post-production schedule.
Tell us a little about your upbringing and your family. What kind of kid were you in school?
Kenneth Castillo: Wow! I haven’t thought about that kid in a long time. I grew up pretty average in a small town in the port of Los Angeles called Wilmington, aka Wilmas, aka The Heart of the Harbor. I played T-Ball, climbed fences, got into dirt rock fights, got chased by big dogs, broke several bones (I’m a little clumsy), worked at my pop’s auto parts store, and of course watched movies. At age eight my dad introduced me to movies like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Patton and at the same time my mom turned me on to musicals such as West Side Story, Oliver! and Yankee Doodle Dandy. That’s when I met my hero and favorite actor: James Cagney. I had good friends growing up but always felt like a bit of an outsider everywhere I went.
In high school, I discovered William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and, in a lot of ways, that was the beginning of my creative career. It may sound funny if you know my work but they are two of my biggest writing influences. Shakespeare introduced me to rhythm and iambic pentameter and I found Dickens’ stories to be very urban. The first play I read was Henry V and I loved it. I understood it and that gave me some confidence.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a filmmaker? What types of films inspired you along the way?
KC: I remember the day. Two of my academy [Acting Academy at Los Angeles City College] friends and I were watching Clerks on cable and I just thought, “Hey! We can do that!” At the time I was producing one-acts at the Two Roads Theatre in Studio City, two of which I wrote. The audience responded to my writing and that gave me the confidence to begin working on my first screenplay, Who’s James Cagney? When I started to do the research and found out what things would cost, reality set in. It was not going to be cheap. This was 1998 and the digital revolution was just beginning. I started looking at that as an option. I knew nothing of the aesthetics of filmmaking and wasn’t interested in spending money for film school.
My attitude was: if I’m going to spend that kind of money then why not put it towards my own equipment? At the same time I had just gotten engaged to my longtime girlfriend and we were planning our wedding. I remember telling her that I was going to give her the wedding she deserved and then I was going to take whatever money we had left and buy a camera and shoot my first screenplay. We got hitched on June 24th in 2000 and that July I spent our last 4000 bucks on a Canon XL-1. We began our life with no money in the bank.
My biggest movie influences have always been gangster or urban type films. Going as far back as Michael Curtiz’ Angels with Dirty Faces starring James Cagney to The Godfather, Goodfellas, Boyz in the Hood, Scarface, and American Me. By far the biggest influence of my work to date would have to be the urban Latino film Boulevard Nights. I remember seeing that film on laser disc at a friend’s house. I think I was ten years old at the time and I just responded to the authenticity and complexity of the relationship between the brothers. The fact that it took place in the barrio was irrelevant. I wanted Raymond Avila (Richard Yniquez) to be my big brother.
Tell us about your first adventure producing at ‘Two Roads’ in Studio City doing one-act plays?
KC: Karla (my girlfriend at the time, now wife) and I decided we would start producing one-acts. At first they were published plays from the Humana Festival and a couple of one-acts from Luis Valdez. The only full-length play we produced was a Vietnam drama entitled Tracers. I brought in all my academy friends and some actors I had worked with at the Knightsbridge. I directed and acted in it. After that, it was mostly original works that I had written. I took a couple of one-act plays I had written and turned them into a screenplay.
How did the theatrical experience parley into doing film?
KC: It was a pretty natural progression. We had produced theatre for five years and I was ready to put my time, money, and energy into something that I could show people after closing night. There is something sad and beautiful about doing theatre: once you have closing night, it’s done. I liked the idea of producing something that I could watch and share with people long after we wrapped. My first feature went absolutely nowhere but it was my own personal film school.
Tell us about The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin? How did it feel to get your first short into festivals across the country?
KC: Cholo Chaplin is my middle child and my Mickey Mouse. He’s a character I created based on Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character and set in the world of The Day of the Dead. It is a series of ten silent short films that were shot in the style of the serial shorts of the 20’s and 30’s. We screened at a handful of film festivals and the response was great. It’s a project that continues to evolve and change. We were only accepted into a few film festivals, one of them The Reel Rasquache Film Festival and the other the Tela Sofa, both have been our biggest supporters of my work.
How does it feel getting a film screened at Cannes?
KC: A Day at the Theatre was the fifth episode in The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin. We heard about the Short Film Corner at the Cannes film festival and decided to submit it. When we got in I really didn’t know that much about it. We were very excited and had no idea what to expect. We had no money but felt that it was something we should participate in. It was decided that I would go. My parents helped out with some money and some really good friends of ours paid for Karla to join me. One of those good friends also provided me with a ton of marketing materials such as cardboard cutouts of my characters, posters, and business cards.
Once we got there we came to the realization that anyone that submitted got in. We learned so much at Cannes. Since then I’ve been working pretty consistently applying the knowledge that I learned there to my career. I learned about self-distribution from a man named Peter Broderick. He was someone who was totally against putting your work on the web for free. It was the best advice I got. When we got back I packaged The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin as a DVD with a case and cover and sold them online and at any Latino bookstores that would sell them. That got the attention of Plus Entertainment and they wanted to distribute the series.
The problem was it was only thirty minutes of content. They were five to six minute shorts. They then asked me if I had any feature film scripts that were in the urban Latino genre. Of course I said ‘yes’ and our relationship was on its way. I suggest every filmmaker go to Cannes at least once. You will learn so much.
Tell us about the Drive-By Chronicles and your deal with Walmart and Target – that’s big!
KC: “The Drive-By Chronicles” is a series of urban Latino feature films. They are slice of life stories about the neighborhood. Sidewayz was the first one that set the relationship with those buyers—credit needs to be given to my distributors at Plus. They formed that relationship. Luckily, Sidewayz did well and we continue to get on the shelf. Nothing is guaranteed though; it’s project to project.
Tell us about Sidewayz.
KC: This was technically my second feature but the first time I had a production company behind me and I wasn’t using my own money. We shot this movie in ten days! I really started to develop my process on that film: from casting to the way I wanted to work. It was an impossible schedule but we did it. I also got to meet and cast Alvaro Orlando and Yeniffer Behrens, two of the many actors that I continue to work with, project after project. This one started it all for me.
Tell us about Ghostown.
KC: Ghostown was based on an actual location. It was a part of Wilmington that was a hub of all types of illegal activity, mostly drug and gang related. I remember being in pre-production for Sidewayz and reading an article in the L.A. Times that the ATF had busted everyone in Ghostown. Now, I knew about this place and what went on there when I was eight years old. This raid took place about five years ago. Way to go ATF! So I decided I wanted to set my next story in that environment. The twist was it was going to be a love story with a happy and hopeful ending. Ironically, it didn’t do as well as Sidewayz but it did win Best Dramatic Feature at the Reel Rasquache Film Festival in 2010.
Why Cholos? How do you react when people say you are reinforcing negative stereotypes about young Latinos?
KC: I don’t let movies, TV shows or news broadcasts dictate to me what it means to be Latino. And I am not responsible for the ignorance that comes with people making those generalizations about an entire group of people based on a movie or TV show. My movies are not about cholos or gangsters. They are about people. This conversation takes place a lot in the Latino film community but I find the discussion to be hypocritical and schizophrenic. I find that the people who complain the most about Latinos being stereotyped are the first ones to applaud when their friends, family or a celebrity is cast in what would be considered a stereotypical role. I also find that male Latino performers get a pass from our community more so than female performers when it comes to this issue. Essentially, what it comes down to is a few things. Is the script written well, cast well and acted well regardless of the genre? The audience will decide if something is stereotypical and false. My characters are multi-dimensional (even the cholos) and have resonated with my audience. Is the storytelling genuine, emotional and authentic? That is the question I ask myself when creating a script.
Is there a problem being labeled as a Latino filmmaker?
KC: Label away! I think there is more of a problem of being an ignored, irrelevant or obscure filmmaker. I embrace the label. What’s funny is that when I shoot a movie in Mexico, I’m labeled an American filmmaker and the press and resources come pouring in.
Kenneth Castillo is a fascinating man. Read the entire Herald de Paris interview where he shares insights on The Hearts of Men, Confession of a Gangster, the fascinating story of how Counterpunch came to fruition, and about attracting talent and film funding:
Excerpt Edited by Elia Esparza