When it comes to both quality and quantity in movies, nobody does it better then filmmaker Kenneth Castillo. Having made a serious name for himself with the famed "Drive-By Chronicles" series and more importantly as an authentic voice for Latino themed projects, Castillo follows in the quick shooting footsteps of greats like Robert Rodriguez who pride themselves in getting more bang for the movie buck. His latest film "Counterpunch" (out early next year from Lionsgate) is no different – it’s a flick with big stars and big themes all shot in a mere fifteen days. (Hey, even Rodriguez ain’t that fast!) It’s a personal tale of an aspiring boxer who must overcome obstacles like a rough upbringing and being bipolar to become a champ. The film stars Castillo regular Alvaro Orlando, but also features great work from the likes of Steven “Scarface” Bauer and Danny “Machete” Trejo. (Not to mention tough siren Camila Banus as a determined promoter!) And Castillo’s actors have nothing but praise for the young filmmaker, with the seasoned Bauer telling us, “Kenneth really has a nice touch as a director, he trusts actors and encourages them to be bold. He really knows the Latino culture how to portray them in a positive manner...I would love to work with Kenneth again.” It’s quite a compliment from an actor who has worked with the likes of Brian De Palma and Steven Soderbergh, but shows the level of quality Castillo has achieved in such a short amount of time. So with "Counterpunch" being the most daunting and high profile film Castillo has undertaken to date, we were very excited to chat one-on-one with him about some of the challenges bringing the true story of "Counterpunch" to the screen, working with such iconic actors this time around and the future of his brilliant "Drive-By Chronicles" films. Jab left, then right – here’s "Counterpunch" helmer...
"Counterpunch" was based on a true story – what was it about the real events that inspired you and how difficult was it to co-write the screenplay?
Kenneth Castillo: There were a lot of interests for me when Alvaro came to me with the idea of writing his story. First, I have a tremendous respect for him as an actor and wanted to work with him again. Another thing is I have a true passion for boxing and always wanted to write and direct a boxing film. Also as far as the bipolar II element I’ve never seen a boxing film where the person’s biggest enemy in the fight is with themselves. Part of a lot of his struggle is the environment, but also his own demons and people in his life of course. But all those aspects and the fact that I’ve got a true love of Cuban culture and that this was going to be a Cuban family I was drawn to that story and the characters. The difficulty in co-writing is I’ve written six or seven scripts on my own so here I am responsible for someone else’s story. But my commitment was to tell a great story in a great movie and be as true to his experience as I possibly could.
Were you able to talk with any of the other real life folks involved?
KC: I met Alvaro’s grandmother Daisy, a wonderful woman and I knew a lot about her. The same with his mother and his uncle – I knew a lot of them but I was telling it from his perspective and I wanted to keep that pure. In regards to the actors portraying real life people they had incredible access and help in shaping their characters.
You always shoot very fast, so what was your experience like making this film?
KC: It was a huge challenge. A fifteen day shoot is always going to be difficult, particularly when you’re dealing with children and animals. Plus you have boxing choreography, so it always seems impossible but then I remind myself this is how I shoot my movies. People ask me how do you shoot a movie in fifteen days and I say you can’t – it’s impossible! (Laughs) Even though I’ve done it five times, it still seems impossible. I’m not in the filmmaking business – I’m in the impossible business.
"Counterpunch" marks another collaboration between you and actor Alvaro Orlando – would you say he’s the De Niro to your Scorsese and have you two now developed a shorthand while working on set?
KC: I always try to avoid those comparisons, but there’s no avoiding it. As an actor for his age, Alvaro has to one of the most versatile actors of his generation. You can see that pretty much in everything I’ve cast him in just in my work and also other work he’s done in other projects. He can do lead work, he can do comedy, he can do drama and I think that stems from his lack of vanity. It’s not about looking cool, but finding the truth of the character. I think probably one of his bravest and authentic performances was as Mariposa which was a red headed transvestite. A lot of people who follow my work don’t really recognize a lot of my actors for one film to the next because I write completely different characters for them.
This time around you also have heavy hitters Steven Bauer and Danny Trejo on board – how did you get them and what was each like to work with?
KC: Essentially you end up going through the agents, but hopefully you have an in before that and we did with both. With Danny Trejo it was a friend of a friend. I have to say his own story is incredible and I’ve followed him pretty much my whole life watching him in movies. We did a lot of improve in this film, he had a lot of dialogue, and he basically drew off his own experience. It was great as a filmmaker to watch he and Al work together, especially getting to know each other through this process. Danny Trejo’s day was probably one of the best days of shooting that we had.
With Steven Bauer, Mauricio Mendoza and Yeniffer Behrens both knew him and so we were able to get him a script and submit it to his agent. So Steven agreed to do it and for me to work with Steven Bauer was incredible because this is Manny from Scarface. What sucks when you’re making a movie is you really don’t get to enjoy that because you’re worried about making your days and you don’t get to sit back and enjoy it. But Steven was amazing – he brings an authenticity and vulnerability. He and Yeniffer knew each other so there was already a short hand with them in terms of forming the relationship between his character and Yeniffer’s character, but he understood that this was Alvaro’s story. That day that Steven came in for his shoot was a very tough day for Al – it was a very emotional day and scene. It’s one thing to go through something, but then to completely recreate it for a movie and relive it, that’s a tough thing to do.
I also loved the sassy yet sexy performance by actress Camila Banus – was it hard to walk the line with her character being both tough and touching?
KC: Yes. That’s a great observation and I feel so validated that you said that. (Laughs) That was the trick because we saw a ton of actresses for the part of Talia. When Camila walked in I was like okay she’s beautiful, but can she act? She read and I was like this is too good to be true. So we chatted with her and got to know her a little bit and got to know her history and it was pretty obvious that she was Talia. Funny thing is I didn’t know she was on "Days of Our Lives" as she came in on a blind submission. I didn’t find out until later...but there was a lot of teasing her about it on set. But I’m very particular about whom I cast and she really brought beauty, toughness and vulnerability.
What’s next for you and will you be continuing with the "Drive-By Chronicles" series?
KC: Yes. I thought I was done with it, but they’ve been doing really well. I’ve been contacted by Plus Entertainment, who produced the first four and they asked if I’d be interested in doing another one. And I said it just so happens I do have another one! It will probably be the last one, the fifth one in the series. It’s gonna start shooting next year – I’m working on the script right now. Then I’ll be moving into pre-production for my seventh feature in the summer and that’s my baby.