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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