What Possessed the Filmmaker? An Interview with Sixto Melendez (Part 2)

For part 2, independent filmmaker Sixto Melendez and I look back to the good and bad of filming a feature film, and forward to the future. Click here for part 1.

What was your most challenging day while filming The Conduit, and how did you overcome it?

Through some connections in the town of Globe, AZ, where we shot 90% of the film, we were allowed use of a conference room in a local hospital for a couple of days. The plan was to shoot two different scenes that occur at different places in the narrative during the movie. One takes place earlier in the film and the other is non-consecutive and takes place much later in the film. The scenes involved group therapy sessions where our troubled protagonist meets his opportunistic antagonist and their lives become connected. Anyway, we had our cast, a number of extras. Among our cast we had an actress playing the therapist that was leading the sessions. Well, the first scene went off without any major issues of note and we got it "in the can" as we filmmakers say.

However, when we went back to shoot the second scene, the actress who played the therapist on the morning of the shoot informed us that she would not be able to get back to Globe from Phoenix where she was from.

We jumped through a number of hoops to get use of the hospital conference room and we knew there was no way we'd be able to arrange for another day within our schedule. The clock was ticking and we were playing phone tag with this actress, begging, pleading, crying, stressing out but at the end of the day we finally had to accept the fact that she was not going to make it. We were about to lose the day and our only option was to replace her, but we had already shot her in the other scene so we would potentially have to re-shoot that scene as well, which would have been impossible. It wasn't just getting the hospital location but also coordinating all of the extras who had already been shot in the previous scene.

After much stressing and time lost, we finally decided to move forward with another actress that we found on extremely short notice. As for the continuity of the two scenes with different actresses playing the therapist … I simply chalked it up to the notion that this is an ongoing therapy group that meets regularly and will often have different therapists in the lead.
I think I got an ulcer just recalling this.

Conversely, what day was the most fun?

It was a while ago, but one night stands out in my mind as particularly exciting. We were shooting a small but pivotal scene where our protagonist Eddie (played by Wes Martinez), after much difficulty and confusion, finally turns to the mysterious character Gabriel (played by Mike Watkiss) that has been stalking him for answers. In the scene, Gabriel enlightens him on the mysterious backstory of the femme fatal who is tormenting him.

The scene was very small and simple. Just two characters, one small room, and a broken down shed where the character Gabriel lives. We had a very small skeleton crew, just me directing, Javi our DP, and Eric our sound recorder.

As writers we put word on the page, describing the images we see in our minds as we try to convey a narrative to the viewer. Our minds can fool us sometimes because what we are trying to express is clear in our minds so while it makes narrative sense to us in our own heads, what we put on paper and eventually on the screen doesn't always translate as you imagined.

However, when it does and when two of your strongest actors begin to deliver a scene and the chemistry between them is working and the scene is already working and coming to life right before your eyes, before you've done any of the cutting or sound design, or color grading or any of the post effects that you will eventually add, there's just an amazing, fulfilling sense of gratification that I wish I could bottle and sell.

Sometimes when you're shooting and everything is just falling into place, the actors are delivering, the crew is functioning smoothly and things are going as they should – you can already sense it working. Rather than hearing the voice in your head ask "Will it cut together?" the voice actually changes and says "I can't wait to cut this together!" Because you just know that it's working and you're capturing a moment.

Shooting this scene was one of those special moments that I'll always treasure.

Now that The Conduit has been released, I assume you're conceiving your next film. What are you thinking about doing next?

I have an idea that I'm kicking around, but it's a pretty deep spiritual idea that I have not quite found my path with yet. So, I don't want to divulge too much. It has to do with altered states of consciousness and a spiritual quest seemingly gone awry. I need to have an altered state experience before I will allow myself to write a script because I do believe in writing what you know, or at least have enough experience or good research to speak with some level of understanding and not just dream things up.

If money was no object and you could choose any actors/actresses you wanted for your cast, what would be your dream film to make?

The idea that I mentioned above is a one that I would love to see developed and executed with a real budget as opposed to the shoe-string on which we made "The Conduit". I'm taking lots of notes and compiling my thoughts at this time but I am not ready to tackle the script just yet. Although I am getting close to possibly starting a rough treatment.

In my head, I imagine Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. I've been drawn to him as an actor since Donnie Darko, and this idea that I am kicking around is similar in that it deals with cosmic mysteries. I'm not sure what it is about him. He's definitely a solid actor but there's an everyman quality about him that I appreciate, especially for a character like this. A grown man able to make his own choices yet on some level young enough to make the wrong choices. I'm not sure if that truly sums up the qualities I like about him but at the moment that's what comes to mind.

And honestly, if I found myself on a set directing Jake Gyllenhaal, I would have to take a moment to revel in the moment because he's definitely an A-list movie star, so if ever I'm lucky enough to find myself in that situation I'll be able to say "I made it."

For now, it's nice little fantasy. It's important to dream.


Watch the trailer for The Conduit here:

And to buy the Conduit, visit Brain Damage Films.

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What Possessed the Filmmaker? An Interview with Sixto Melendez (Part 1)

It’s always a pleasure to discover and promote independent talent in the arts, especially since they don’t benefit from the huge marketing budgets of Hollywood studio productions. So by way of his short film Laberinto Infernal, let me introduce to you to Sixto Melendez, who just completed his first feature film, The Conduit.

And now on to part 1 of our interview…

I understand that personal experience plays a big part in your storytelling. What experiences inspired your new film, The Conduit?

I've always been terrified and fascinated by the concept of demonic possession. The idea that some alien entity can enter your body, suppressing your essence, soul or whatever it is we believe comprises us beyond our physical bodies and take the wheel is absolutely terrifying. But it's like a train wreck, as scary as it is you can't look away. I can't, anyway.

I remember being a kid and discovering the novel for "The Exorcist". I must have been 10 or 12. It was beat up old paperback that someone, maybe my older brother or sister, had brought home. I was reading this terrifying novel and it was getting under my skin. I remember my mom hiding it from me when I had trouble sleeping. I would lay in bed thinking about it and my heart would race and I swear it felt like the bed was shaking, which scared me further, increasing my heart rate which only made it feel like the bed was shaking harder.

It was a powerful curiosity based on the fear of knowing that while some people chalked it up to superstition many others truly believe that this is real and if it is real, well, then there's the mystery of why? Who is susceptible? Can it happen to me? That kind of thing in the naturally creative mind of a child led to long nights staring into the darkness and listening to the silence.

Sixto Melendez
I also did have a short spell in my early 20's where I personally experienced sleep paralysis. It happened about 4 or five times in the span of about 5 or 6 years. I just remember slowly drifting to consciousness from a deep sleep. Being aware of my surroundings, perhaps even seeing the room through partially open eyes but not being able to move. My body felt like lead. I didn't know if something was wrong with me physically or if something was happening to me in a metaphysical, spiritual sense but it was exasperating. It was a panic that I can't properly convey. You can't imagine what being perfectly aware yet not having control of your body is like unless you experience it.
Of course, my first thought was that something was trying to possess me. I mean it's human nature to jump to the absolute worst-case scenario conclusion. Which is interesting because when I finally looked into it and found that there actually is a recognized, documented condition called sleep paralysis. I then learned that, in the middle age, when people experienced this they, too, drew the same conclusion that it was an early stage of demonic possession.

The book, the movie, the experiences the concept became part of the fabric of my existence. Something I would always return to. Somewhere along the way I learned about the concept of demonic transgression. The idea that an attached demonic entity could be passed from one person to another and that led to the idea of comparing demonic transgression to a sexually transmitted disease. Imagine passing a demon to a lover like a really evil herpes! I loved the idea and had to explore it.

How would you describe your storytelling process?

For me the creative process is a struggle that requires too much effort for me to just "like" an idea. I need to be obsessed with it on order to see it through. After that it's a long slow process of kicking an idea around, taking notes, reading books or whatever material I can find on the subject, studying movies and whenever possible actually experiencing the subject matter as closely as I possibly can in order to understand it enough to where I don't feel like I'm just spewing bullshit. Often times my friends and creative partners will throw ideas at me about film topics. While they are often very interesting ideas that would probably make great movies, if it doesn't intrigue me personally, I can't commit.

Which all comes from my love/hate relationship with writing.

If the idea is crystal clear in my mind. If I know my story and my characters and where everything is going, I absolutely LOVE writing. It's so gratifying to take this idea from within my head and put it on the page, giving birth to it and making it so that others can take the ride. It's a wonderful experience when the idea is ready and when I'm ready to tell it.

But if the idea is half baked, if I still have questions or the narrative is unclear, I absolutely DETEST writing. I'd rather have a root canal than sit at a computer trying to dream up a story and so for that reason, I don't write much. I scribble notes. I have two physical notebooks filled with stuff. Concepts, scenes, characters. I collect and compile as I ponder my concept. Sometimes for months. Sometimes a year will go by or longer before I feel confident enough that I know my story well enough to bring myself to sit down in front of the computer and put words on a page.

How different was your approach to conceiving and producing/directing a full-length feature film compared to your previous shorts?

The process was not really that much different other than as one would figure with a feature everything is just a little more of the same. You have to research a little more because you're going to develop your story and characters to a greater degree than you would in a short. So essentially it's the same, just on a bigger scale. You research more, you develop further creatively, you produce more because you're going to shoot more, everything translates to just a bigger version of the same things.
The problem I found with this was that while this translated in many respects from writing to pre-production, the one area where it really hurt us was during actual production –  and that was due to simple human limitations of stamina. Often times when you make a short film, a group of friends will get together for a weekend or two on their days off and engage in the fun and sometimes exhausting process of shooting a short film. You easily push past an 8 hour day carried through by the excitement of the simple fact that you are working on a passion project. Something you love doing so that carries you past the exhaustion of 12 or 14 hours of working on the project. It's easy when you're shooting on a weekend or two. You know that if you just hang in there for a little longer, you'll soon be able to rest and recuperate and you'll have a hopefully wonderful little film for all your efforts after pushing through.

While it's easy to push the boundaries of stamina for a weekend, it becomes extremely exhausting when you wind up pushing the boundaries for weeks on end. I remember a number of times getting home filthy, exhausted and on the verge of tears due to the hoops we just had to jump through. You make a plan, you set things in place, you move your team and gear into place, you get started and then any of a million unexpected things will happen and your carefully laid plans are slowly coming undone. So, you learn how to deal with the stress of having things fall apart as you try to salvage them to the best of your ability. But you push on.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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losing it in La La Land

La La Land is one of those movies that can’t possibly mean what it says, no matter how much marketing and overheated critical acclaim might wish otherwise. The last such movie I can think of that similarly blinkered audiences was Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro’s exquisitely crafted cinematic work that posed as an anti-fascist parable but ultimately affirmed a nihilistic preference of fantasy over reality. It could have been a film about imagination’s power to inspire action against oppression. Instead, its final shot casts an escape into a fairy tale world as the reward for a child’s suffering and sacrifice. What Nietzsche wrote about Christianity applies well to Del Toro’s fairy tale: “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in "another" or "better" life.”

But Pan’s Labyrinth, at least, is diminished by a philosophical error that can be overlooked given how otherwise magnificent it is as a film. La La Land, for all the effervescence of its sensational score or the chemical reaction of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is illusory in almost every aspect –  and has nowhere near the craft of a Pan’s Labyrinth. Although presented and structured as a romantic comedy, the film proves itself the opposite of romantic. Romance presupposes a commitment to love, whether it’s the love that conquers all, as comedies would have it, or love worth suffering and dying for, as the tragedies declare. “Love is the drug,” as Roxy Music puts it. La La Land initially plays the melody of a romantic comedy – unlikely couple meet and fall in love – but ends on a melancholy note of regret over the path not taken. (Woody Allen purposefully explored the same theme in Café Society with greater focus and emotional heft, despite a similar tendency to trade in clichés and hackneyed insights.) The turn towards the bittersweet feels like a wrong note in La La Land. Partly because it’s tacked on with a 5-years-later epilogue, but mostly because writer-director Damien Chazelle splits his leads – a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own nightclub and an aspiring actress struggling for her big break – for the flimsiest reason: an inability, or unwillingness, to reconcile their relationship with their career dreams in a situation where no sacrifice is necessary. We can interpret it in two ways: either they choose their careers at the expense of their relationship, or the film manipulated the scenario so that pursuing one’s dream requires sacrificing love. Neither option is romantic; romance is understanding that one’s dreams are best achieved when the journey is shared with the people we love.

The other deception La La Land foists on audiences is that it is an homage to Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. But Chazelle, who hails from the East Coast, falls into a common trap when trying to make a character out of a city like LA: equivocating the distinct character of specific places with the persona of the whole. Sure, La La Land opens with the familiar cliché of LA’s notorious traffic, then graces us with scenes at the iconic Griffith Observatory. But LA is not defined so much by places then the connection between places. Films like Swingers and LA Story understood this, and remain even today insightful portraits of a sprawling metropolis and what it’s like to live in it. La La Land, however, retreats into advertising a tired Hollywood promise: work as a barista and fruitlessly audition for parts long enough, and maybe, by chance, you’ll meet the right person at a party or casting call who’ll give you that almighty break. The Hollywood Dream, brought you to by the Golden State lottery.

Here’s the thing: if it’s a film about the magic of movies you want, Michel Hazanavicius delivered it a few years ago with The Artist, an imaginative and quintessentially cinematic revival of the silent film that also succeeded in actually being romantic. So did Martin Scorsese with Hugo. And if it’s Los Angeles you want, the aforementioned Swingers and LA Story are worth revisiting. As for romance, there’s no shortage of films to inspire all the lovers in the world.

Yet for all that La La Land really amounts to Hollywood loving itself, it’s an enjoyable revival of the movie musical –when we stay on the surface. The song-and-dance numbers are energetic and captivating, beginning with an opening scene on a gridlocked Los Angeles highway with happy motorists demonstrating that we’re about to watch a fantasy. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone succeed in creating genuine characters we become vested in, even if Chazelle ultimately undermines them. La La Land isn’t Best Picture material but, with the understanding that this isn’t a romantic comedy, it isn’t a total write-off either.


Book Review - The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambala

Book Review - The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambala

As with many books thick enough to serve as masonry units, The Explorer’s Guild is slow to start and all too easy to set aside for more appealing distractions – and this despite the fact that the book is part graphic novel. Where there’s a case to stick with for the first few hundred pages or so, it lies in Rick Ross’ clean artwork and, most of all, Jon Baird’s beautifully crafted writing mannered after the style of Victorian/early 20th Century. Unlike Susanna Clarke’s clever but twee pastiche of English literature in her Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Baird’s prose succeeds as a charming recreation because it emphasizes the earnest rather than the ironic. It succeeds perhaps a little too well, however. The narration, set as a personal relationship between the narrator and the gentle reader, casts us along the lines of a guest of the Explorer’s Guild. All that’s missing is the brandy and cigar as the narrator regales us with the tale of adventurers in pursuit of a mysterious city alternately known throughout history as Shambala, El Dorado, Atlantis, and so on. But this approach creates a distance between us and the characters, precisely because the narrative is explicitly narrated, which means it is also interpreted. And when characters are filtered through the narrator before reaching us, there is less room for one of reading’s best delights: interacting with the characters through our own perspective and imagination. The result is that even by the time we reach the book’s end, it’s hard to feel all that vested in the characters’ welfare and purposes except in the most general, abstracted sense.

Still, when the going finally gets adventurous, the adventure gets going with increasing gusto. Alas, where it leads is straight to an anticlimax. As we follow John Ogden, a British major and force of nature during World War I, along with his rough band of dragoons on a global hunt for the fabled Shambhala at the behest of his brother Arthur, we are treated to an artful catalog of perilous classics: airships, underground cities, strange machines, hidden castles, and nostalgic parties inhabited by the closest approximation to zombies Old Europe could muster, namely, displaced and obsolete Aristocrats. Along the way, Baird treats us to innumerable details of this and that, many of which only serve to create a mood rather than develop characters or kick the plot forward. Yet none of that changes the fact that the narrative is resolved, not by the protagonists whose journey we followed, but by a quasi-antagonist who essentially shares the same goal yet operates on information the narrator purposefully withholds from the reader. In other words, our protagonists are sent on a wild goose chase only for their rival to swoop in and complete their task – for obscure reasons. It’s a sleight-of-hand, which isn’t at all like the charming deception of a stage magician but rather that of the con artist playing a shell game in a dingy back alley.

Baird’s, and fellow co-creator Kevin Costner’s, muddled conception of Shambhala does little to salvage an enduring sense of satisfaction from the ending. Never defined or described concretely, we are given oblique references that present the mystical city as surprisingly unappealing despite its supposed heavenly character. The city, which only appears at specific times in various places around the world, comes across as an elitist by-invitation-only paradise that offers amnesia, or death, to interlopers. Baird attempts to relate the city to the course of history, with Arthur’s early foray to the city serving as a violation of metaphysical etiquette that has to be redressed at the risk of some kind of cataclysm. Yet the final panel, which implies the restoration of world order brought about by our protagonists’ rival, rings false given what we know of the 20th Century after World War I: a century of horrors that Alan Moore grasped more keenly in From Hell than Baird and Costner do in this book.

Also unfortunate is how Shambhala is presented as a rebuke to science’s ability to know the world. For a book that celebrates adventure, it misses the point: science isn’t a dogmatic collection of facts, but an active pursuit of the unknown infused with a sense of awe.

Even if we were to be charitable and apply Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria, assigning science and spirituality their own territories, the book succeeds even less as a spiritual journey. Where the exploratory scientific aspect is given some weight thanks to the Explorer’s Guild concept – despite Shambhala looming over the narrative as the universe’s way of spanking materialists – none of the characters approach their quest as a spiritual one. And by the end, they certainly don’t achieve any sort of enlightenment. The mystical might as well be called by its real, if not entirely accurate, name: MacGuffin.

Finally, and this is a minor grievance, the book isn’t even really about the secretive yet globe-spanning Explorer’s Guild, that august club of adventurers (or perhaps genteel drunkards with a talent for fanciful storytelling). Other than launching the narrative when one of its members, Arthur Ogden, sets out to deliver a comeuppance to a hated social rival by setting out for adventure in the North Pole, the Guild puts in but cameo appearances. For the most part, the book’s major characters really have little to do with the Guild except for sporadic encounters.

Altogether, The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambhala is a handsomely printed book with more potential than is realized and little incentive to look forward to further volumes.

What are you reading? Join me at GoodReads!


a soundtrack for 2016

My pal Becky Haltermon Robinson, punner extraordinaire and inventor of the Amazing Pump-o-matic Defrumpanator, posted her annual musical encapsulation over at her blog, Pump Up the Frump. Good stuff.

Now I'm inspired to offer a musical encapsulation of my own. I leave it to you to interpret the mix vis a vis the dreadful year that was 2016 in any way you like. Or you could just enjoy the music for its own sake.

Without further rambling, here's the list:

  1. Little Swing - AronChupa 
  2. Dancers - Faderhead 
  3. Dead Stars - Covenant 
  4. Sex Beat - Sex Beat 
  5. Shelter - Icon of Coil 
  6. Arena - VNV Nation 
  7. The Window of Appearances (from Akhnaten) - Philip Glass
  8. Lazarus - David Bowie 
  9. You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen
  10. Sound of Silence - Disturbed 
  11. B()NES - M△S▴C△RA 

Go ahead, have a listen over at YouTube.

And if you have a musical commentary on 2016 to share, please do so in the comments below. I'd love to hear it.