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Kenneth Castillo: Post-modern Movie Mogul

Director-writer-producer of Counterpunch", "Hearts of Men" and "Ghostown" is a filmmaking trailblazer

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: March 18, 2013


Kenneth Castillo: Post-modern Movie Mogul


Kenneth Castillo is a very gifted post-modern filmmaker who will be a theatrical force to reckon with in the very near future.

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 recently awarded Best Dreamatic 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 June of 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 this past April.

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 a film production company called Valor Productions. Their first venture out 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 20s and 30s 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 Festiva and the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival. In 2007, episode "V-A Day at the Theatre" was accepted and screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France and 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.

He said, "I'm proud of the process I've developed over the last twelve to fifteen years; 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 says that his stories are always told from the Latino perspective. He believes that, "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. 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 honesty. We don't. That's what I've tried to do with every single one of my projects: Engage the Latino audience."

LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had a great conversation with Kenneth in the midst of Ken's arduous post-production schedule.

{b}Al Carlos (AC):[/b] Tell us a little about your up-bringing and your family. What kind of kid were you in school?

Ken Catillo (KC): Wow! I haven't thought about that kid in a long time. My up-bringing was pretty average. I grew up in a small town in the port of Los Angeles called Wilmington, aka Wilmas, aka The Heart of the Harbor El Editor's Note: My hometown, too!. 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.

It was interesting when I got to high school. It was a private Catholic school. My dad owned his own business and it was weird because I always had more than the kids in the neighborhood but less then kids I went to school with. I was in the middle of a cultural socio-economic clash. I remember one incident in particular, when the L.A. riots were happening. The principal came over the loud speaker to announce the cancellation of school and everyone cheered. I remember leaving class at that moment to call my dad. His business was in downtown Wilmington and there was some looting going on. Luckily my dad was armed and was respected in the neighborhood. Once I got word that he and his business were okay, I got back to class to hear students talking about going down to South Central to get a TV or some new Nikes. These were kids who lived in Redondo Beach and Torrance and drove BMWs to school. I couldn't wait to graduate.

AC: What was high school like for you? What kind of training have you had?

KC: That was the longest four years of my life. I was in my head a lot. It wasn't something that I enjoyed. I was very insecure and angry. I had no creative outlet. I didn't participate in a lot of things. I think my biggest problem with high school was that I felt I was smarter than most of my teachers. It wasn't until I became an adult and had gained some experience and better judgment that I came to the realization that I WAS in fact smarter than most of my teachers.

It wasn't all bad. I did meet my best friend for life there and I did discover 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. My English teacher - Patricia Lynch - would have us memorize Shakespeare's famous speeches and recite them in front of the class. I chose the St. Crispin's Day speech in "Henry V" and could still recite it word for word today.

As fate would have it, four years after high school the first play I got cast in after I graduated from an acting academy was "Henry V". I was cast as The Boy and during rehearsal one day I had to exit out to the lobby for my next entrance. There, sitting on a bench, was my English teacher from high school. No lie. The last time I saw her I was dressed wearing a Raider starter hat and baggy jeans; now I'm wearing tights, a ruffled shirt, and a leather vest. She was there with her husband who was an actor and was auditioning for the theatre company.

Two years later he would play my father in "Richard II". I played Hotspur. It was my second play at the Knightsbridge Theatre in Pasadena and my second time working with director Christian Noble. He was a huge influence on me as a directing mentor. There was absolutely no ego involved with him. I loved his approach to the work and the way he worked with actors. It was always about the story and the best most interesting way to tell it. He had a quiet confidence that I admired.

AC: What about the college experience?

KC: I didn't go to a traditional four year university. I completed a three year program at an acting academy that was on the campus of Los Angeles City College. It was a lot like the TV show "Fame". For a punk kid from Wilmington, who at that point didn't have an artistic bone in his body, it was the place I was able to break myself down and build myself back up. It was a safe environment. The first place I had been where I could be myself and not be judged.

I was immersed in a creative environment from 7:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. I was introduced to playwrights like Anton Chekov, Moliere, Carlos Morton and Luis Valdez. It was there that I developed a love for the craft of acting. It was one of the best times of my life. Met my best friends there too, not to mention my wife.
 
AC: 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 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 entitled "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 at the La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes and that July I spent our last 4,000 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 Y?£iquez) to be my big brother.

AC: Tell us about your first adventure producing at 'Two Roads' in Studio City doing one-act plays? What were the plays about?

KC: I had just graduated from the Los Angeles Theatre Academy and I was ready to work and create. I hated the audition process and having to wait for an opportunity to do something. So Karla (my girlfriend at the time, now wife) and I decided we would start producing some 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.

AC: How did the theatrical experience parlay into doing film?

KC: 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.

AC: 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. It's on the back burner for now because of my feature film schedule but something that I will always go back to. We were only accepted into a few film festivals, one of them being The Reel Rasquache Film Festival. That festival, as well as the Tela Sofa film festival, have been two of the biggest supporters of my work.

AC: Tell us about meeting your wife Karla Ojeda, about forming Valor Productions and its mission. How is it working with your wife?

KC: I met Ms. Ojeda at the theatre academy I went to. She was a year ahead of me. She was talented, intelligent and cute as hell. She was dating a tech major at the time but I put an end to that. Once we had both graduated we formed Valor Productions as a way to control our own destinies as artists. We produced one feature film and the ten episodes of "Cholo Chaplin" under that name. That company doesn't exist anymore but my current producers at Plus Entertainmet are always trying to get her involved in producing my features with them. That may happen in the near future, just not now. We were nineteen when we met and, with the exception of a three month hiatus, have been together for the past twenty years.....and she's still cute as hell.

AC: Tell us about how it feels getting your film screened at Cannes. Did you go? If so, how was it and if not, why not?

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 cut-outs of my characters, posters, 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.

AC: 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. That 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.

AC: 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. It resonated with the audience and to this day my lead actor still gets FB messages about that little movie. I get a lot of flack for the ending from the audience but that just validated the fact that they connected to the character. You'll have to buy it to see what I'm talking about.

AC: 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. Very proud of that movie.

KC: 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 someone's ignorance when it comes to 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 shizophrenic.

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.

AC: Tell us about "The Hearts of Men".

KC: I shot this movie on location in Tijuana, Mexico. It was a great backdrop for the fictional border city of Nazareth that I created. It was a crime thriller about a corrupt DEA agent that was trying to get a twin brother to take the place of his murdered twin to infiltrate a drug dealing organization. A lot of twists and turns. It was a fun movie to shoot. Again, I was blessed with a great cast. It was a whirlwind shoot. I love shooting this way and having the freedom in Mexico to do things that would be just too expensive to do here in the U.S. I produced that film as well.

AC: Tell us about "Confession Of A Gangster".

KC: "Confession" is about two girls with an intense friendship whose dream is to move out of their neighborhood and to Hawaii. One of them decides to rob the local drug dealer to help them get there faster and all hell breaks loose. Shot this on location in Ensenada, Mexico and Montebello, Ca. The chemistry of the entire cast was great. Almost too good. Two cast members from that shoot are currently engaged and have a beautiful baby girl together. We shot this in February of 2010 and it was released that September.

AC: Do these types of films glorify the street life?

KC: Absolutely not. Anyone who watches my movies and comes to that conclusion is not paying attention.

KC: There is a real buzz about "Counterpunch". What do our readers in Europe need to know about this film effort?

KC: Two words: Alvaro Orlando. It's his story. Very proud of him and his resolve to get his story made. I co-wrote the script with him and I was honored that he entrusted me with directing it. We began that journey in July of 2010 and now it's being distributed in the U.S. and Canada by Lionsgate. I think one of the things I'm most proud of is the fact that we didn't have a film festival run for this film and still got picked up by a major distribution company.

I feel like filmmakers get locked into this idea that they need a ton of press or a screening at a major film festival in order to get their films out there. I think if your readers get anything out of this conversation it's this: I'm a nobody. I'm not the guy who gets into film festivals or gets a ton of awards or recognition or even support. I'm an outsider among outsiders. But that hasn't stopped me and it shouldn't stop you either.

There are no gate-keepers. Just fences to hop over. And I've been hopping fences since I was six years old. I've broken some bones sometimes in getting to the other side but they heal stronger and have prepared me for scaling even higher walls. I mean that literally and figuratively. When I was thirteen years old, I broke both my arms at the same time scaling a wall. It was the summertime. Let's just say, my mom and I got to know each other REAL well. Just thought I'd throw that in there.

AC: I understand you have a list of new projects planned. Can you give us an idea of what is to come?

KC: I'm always writing. I begin shooting my next project on March 18th and I'm slated to shoot one after that this July. The budget will dictate which script will get made. I have one for $50,000 and my other baby would be my first million dollar production. I have a political satire I'm working on also.

AC: How hard is it to attract talent and funding for these projects?

KC: It just depends. Some actors only want to get paid. I try to attract talent with the script. The actors that work with me respond to the characters and my approach. My vision has never just been about making a movie but forming a troupe of talent that enjoys working with each other and stretching their acting muscles. Funding is always a challenge. That's why I have several different scripts and budgeting models.

AC: 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.

AC: Do you think the industry tries to exclude young Latino filmmakers and/or do they not understand the market potential?

KC: I don't think there is a conscious effort on Hollywood's part to exclude Latino filmmakers or artist. That doesn't mean that they don't do it sub-consciously. They absolutely don't understand the Latino market but neither do some Latino producers/distributors.

There is enough content out there that fills the schedules of Latino film festivals across the country. Some get theatrical releases and bomb. I think it's a combination of not having a marketing budget and the film itself not engaging the Latino audience. Then again my pursuit has never been Hollywood. My pursuit has been to get my stories made.

If Hollywood wants to participate, then great, but I never put myself in a position of weakness by seeking validation. My goal is to be un-ignorable with the work.

AC: What do you say to critics who claim you are exploiting and glorifying a deviant lifestyle when you show violence?

KC: Simple. I tell them not to watch my movies. I never approach the work with any caring about what critics say, good or bad. People will always come to their own conclusions in spite of what you may be trying to communicate to them. I just try to make the best movie possible with the time and budget that I have.

AC: I understand you are actually casting today for another film. Tell us about the project you are working on right now.

KC: It's called La Guapa. I begin shooting on March 18th. It's a story about a mother who has to take some extreme measures to get back to her daughter who is being raised by her ex-gang member husband. It's a very tight and intimate story. Very excited to work with this cast and get back on set.

AC: I know you look up to Robert Rodriguez. Which other filmmakers do you admire?

KC: Okay. Here we go in no particular order. Michael Curtiz has to be one of the most prolific filmmakers of all time. Not to mention he directed a ton of classics across different genres. Jim Sheridan started as an actor in the theatre like me. He, like no other, gets performances from actors that are so visceral and honest. I don't think it's a coincidence that Daniel Day Lewis has done a lot of movies with him. My favorite Sheridan film is "In America" - see it. It will break your freaking heart.

Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay in a town called Carson right next to my neighborhood of Wilmington. His writing, dialogue, and characters are so rich that you could take any one of them and write a book about them. No one puts together a cast like him. Michael Mann's attention to detail, the pacing and rhythm of his films. Also, I always get a sense the environment is a character in his movies. There are a lot more but we would be here all day.

AC: If money was no object, what kinds of films would you like to make and what kinds of stories still need to be told?

KC: I would love to do a movie on the scope of something like "Lawrence of Arabia". I have another script I'm working on right now about three sisters that takes place in India, Vietnam, and Egypt. This is way out there but what the hell. I would love to direct a "Star Wars" film! And I can guarantee you there would be a lot of Latinos a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

AC: How has new media changed the way you used to do things back in 1996 when you first started out?

KC: It's far easier to get yourself out there and let people know what you are doing. But you still have to do the work and you still have to engage your audience.

AC: What advice would you give filmmakers starting out? Looking back would you have done anything differently?

KC: : I get asked advice from filmmakers all the time but they rarely use it. Which is totally fine. I think any artist needs to find their own way and learn from their own mistakes. I'm working on a book right now that I plan on self distributing by mid-next year and in it I give some guidelines in an artist's approach to this business.

Here are some of them for your readers: Know the difference between arrogance and confidence - the difference between being insistent and persistent - the difference between hype and buzz. Also, I adhere to these three tenets: Don't let your ego get bigger than your career. Don't make promises you can't keep. Lastly, when it's all said and done, never let more be said than done. The people I know who don't get opportunities do the exact opposite of these three tenets.

There is nothing I would do differently. Every mistake I've made and failure I've had led to an opportunity.

AC: When it is all said and done what would you like your legacy to be?

KC: I would like to be known as someone who genuinely blazed a trail for Latino talent in front of the camera. No image, no talk, just a storyteller that did it his way, who wasn't image conscious and is who he says he is. And when it was all said and done, that less was said and more was done . . . and hopefully done well.

Kenneth Castillo's Website

Kenneth Castillo on IMDB

About Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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