Kenneth Castillo: Absolutely Independent

Kenneth Castillo, Independent FilmmakerSe Fija! has a private encounter with a busy and brilliant young writer/director/producer

It was a rare day in Los Angeles–a day after a real rain, when the sky was scrubbed clean and there was an extraordinary and rare clarity to the air. For a few minutes that day, Se Fija’s publisher Angela Ortíz had a chance to sit down and talk one-on-one with Kenneth Castillo, the independent writer/producer/director.

Kenneth has built an impressive portfolio over the last decade or more. In 2000 he and his now-wife Karla Ojeda formed a film production company called Valor Productions; their first project was The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin, a re-framing of the Charlie Chaplin silent shorts of the 1920’s and 30’s set in the Mexicano world of the Day of the Dead. Some of the Cholo episodes screened at film festivals across the country, and one appeared at the 2007 Cannes film festival and won the Imagen Award for the Best Theatrical Short Film the next year. Since 2008, Kenneth has written and directed four feature films, a series of “urban Latino” films under the group name of The Drive-By Chronicles. The first two, Sidewayz and Ghostown are available at Walmart, Target, and Blockbuster, and Ghostown was honored at the 2010 Reel Rasquache Film Festival. Meanwhile, the third feature in the series, Confessions of a Gangster, was released this fall, along with ten new episodes in his short film series. All three have now been picked up by Comcast and Time Warner cable for Video on Demand distribution.

Kenneth Castillo, Karla Ojeda, Independent Filmmakers

And that’s just the beginning.

By any measure, Kenneth is a busy filmmaker, with half a dozen projects or more in various stage of pre-production, shooting, or post-production. And in spite of all that activity, he doesn’t begin to fit the stereotypical image of the young Hollywood hustler. “I’m not a networking guy,” he said.“I believe in building relationships. They’re truer and they last longer, and they’re more solid than ‘networking’ relationships. 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.”

Kenneth Castillo, Cholo Chaplin, Independent FilmmakersAnd there’s plenty of work to be done. Castillo is finishing up post-production on Hearts of Men, an action thriller, and Counterpunch, about a Cuban boxer out of Miami who suffers from bipolar disorder. “I’m editing the trailer for that,” he said. “And then we go into post. I’m planning on a screening soon.” The cast of Counterpunch has a number of well-known names in it: Danny Trejo, Steven Bauer, Yeniffer Behrens, among many others. “A really great cast of established and up-and-coming talent,” Castillo says, and a real challenge for him both creatively and organizationally: he served as writer/director on Counterpunch, and the budget was three times larger than what he normally works with.

Part of the adventure was shooting Counterpunch in Los Angeles vs. Mexico. “It’s…a balance,” he said. “I have a lot more resources in T.J. The permit situation there is a lot different. I have unlimited resources. There’s a lot of red tape to get a permit, but once you get it you can do a lot with it. I can close down the equivalent of Ventura Boulevard with it, and I can do it that fast,” he says with a snap of his fingers. “In L.A. obviously, I can’t do that. I’m able to provide a little bit better for my cast in L.A., and we’re local, but everything else goes up. And even when you have all that, they’re still trying to shut you down.”

Because these are his own personal projects, Castillo is involved from beginning to end–beginning with the financing of the film. And on Counterpunch, he’s working with just one investor. “I’m honest with all my investors,” he said. “I tell them, ‘This is the worst possible investment you can do, but it’ll be the most fun, it’ll be the sexiest. And I promise at the end of it you’ll have something you can be proud of. Can I guarantee you it will make money or get into the film festivals? No. But I can guarantee what I have control over, and that you’ll be proud of your investment Absolutely. Will I make it look like more than your investment? Absolutely. I can do that.”

That’s Kenneth Castillo: the anti-hustler. “I laugh when I hear filmmakers say, ‘We have a good chance of getting this into Sundance,’ and I say, ‘Really? You haven’t shot one frame. That’s a pretty bold promise to be making somebody who might be spending six figures on your project they’re going to call you on that.’ I always say, ‘don’t let your ego get bigger than your career.’ You have to let your project generate its own hype. Nobody likes to be told how great a project is; they want to find out how great that project is. That’s where the’ discovery’ thing comes from.’

“…comedy or thriller, short or feature film, Castillo’s stories
are always told from the Latino perspective.”

What’s next on the agenda? Plenty. “I have five scripts right now,” he says, each with a different financing structure and budget. “Whatever gets finance first,” he said, “I’m going to go with.” There’s a political satire, a war film, a comedy. He even has “this fable type of film I want to do, based out of Wilmington,” with the biggest budget of the lot. “I’ve already had interest in the comedy,” he said. “It’s a very different Latino-type comedy, and if that’s the next one, that will probably be happening in January or February of next year. Real soon.”

For Castillo, it’s not about a single project–though he has plenty to his name. It’s about a body of work. “Filmmaking is a craft; You only get better at it by doing it. Other filmmakers want their first film to be a Picasso and it’s just not. They put everything into that one project. But if I’m shooting something that means I’m already writing the next project, and if I’m editing then I’m getting ready to shoot the next project. I never feel like ‘This is the one.’ I never know, I just know at this moment, I have to do the best with what I have. I don’t play this game like the lottery.”

…and comedy or thriller, short or feature film, Castillo’s stories are always told from the Latino perspective. “That’s a major problem with Latinos in this business,” he said. “We’re not engaging our own audience. We’re 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 honestly, we don’t. That’s what I’ve tried to do with every single one of my projects: engage the Latino audience.”

It’s this productiveness and consistency that accounts for such a large body of work for this insistently independent Latino filmmaker. Beside Cholo Chaplin and the most recent films, Kenneth has been deeply involved in Encounters, the web series produced by Mauricio Mendoza and Miguel Torres. “I’m especially proud of that work,” he said, “and no matter what, I’ll work on Encounters. I like working with actors like this. Here, too, it’s just a matter of them finding an audience.” (You can see Castillo’s and other directors’ involvement in Encounters any time, by clicking on the banner in the right column or clicking here.

Whatever comes next, one thing’s obvious: Castillo just does not play the Hollywood game. Two things drive him: his family and a lifelong love of telling a story and telling it well. “I can’t raise my children to go after their dreams, to have big dreams, if I’m not willing to do that myself. But it’s a juggling act. I have my career in one hand and my family in the other; my right hand is my family and they absolutely cannot fall. That has to stay stable. When I talk with my producers, they know from the very beginning that this is an issue; if we say we’re going to finish on a certain date because I have something planned with my family, then that has to happen. They understand that.”

Kenneth Castillo, Cholo Chaplin, Films, Independent FilmmakersAs for the storytelling, it’s always a part of him–but he has to tell that story his way. “There is a clear void of us in the industry, but I don’t go the negative route in terms of why this is happening or isn’t happening. I try to do it myself; I don’t rely on someone else’s plan or seek validation from anybody else. I’m very specific in how I work, the way I work, and that has served me well. It’s taken me longer, but served me more. I have a foundation going into the crazy industry.”

You can see Kenneth Castillo’s work improve with each new project, and he knows it. “I get that comment a lot,” he acknowledges. “You can see that on my trailers, on my web site. (which you can visit here. I have them lined up from my earliest work to the most recent, and you can see the quality improve. Budgets haven’t increased, but the process is getting tighter and cleaner. I’m able to work miracles with what I’m given.”

And after the current projects are completed…what’s next? Where will Kenneth Castillo be in ten years? “I have a TV show concept I really want to see done,” he said. “it could be done in ten years. My hope is that in ten years, people will know my name, that I’ll have an impact within the Latino community especially, not just in terms of films that are being embraced by the community. I want to be able to usher in a whole new group of talent that we don’t normally see all the time. I feel like Robert Rodriguez set the bar, and I want to go beyond that. Not that I’m trying to do it better than him, but different. What he has done has been pretty amazing, but I think we can go even further than that. There’s no reason this can’t happen. Because I don’t give up.”

You don’t have to spend very long with Kenneth Castillo to believe that’s absolutely true. And no matter where he goes and what the does, you can tell that he is quietly, continually, confidently going to do it his way…just as he should. “I’m not worried about offending anybody or hurting my career,” he says. “There’s nobody out there that can do that. It’s a sad thing, but there’s no one in the Latino film community that help you or hurt you; though there are a lot who think they can, and that becomes a distraction. The one person that can help you or hurt you the most in this business is the person you see in the mirror.”

Photo of Kenneth Castillo: Angela María Ortíz S.

Photos: Courtesy of Kenneth Castillo