Scenic vistas of mountain landscapes and surrounding hills nestle close to surround a beautiful, bountiful, rural valley area. Blessed with vegetables and fruit trees, livestock, hops, and the booming industry of vineyards, the Yakima Valley in Washington State seems a long way from the bright lights of Hollywood and the L.A. film industry. But sometimes, paths cross and amazing things can happen right in your own backyard.
Such was the case with J. Rick Castañeda’s film Cement Suitcase. Rick is a Yakima Valley native who traveled from L.A. to return to his roots and create his first Indie Feature Film using the valley as the setting for his homegrown tale. With the film now touring select Film Festivals and winning multiple awards, I was able to catch up with Rick, find out about his journey in a film career, and him being the first filmmaker to feature the stunning Yakima Valley, home to not only Rick, but myself as well!
First off, a synopsis of the film and a trailer to get a feel of what Rick and his team have created…
“CEMENT SUITCASE is an “anti-romantic comedy” about Franklin, the best wine salesman in the Yakima Valley. He hates his life, his girlfriend is cheating on him, and he doesn’t even have the self-respect to tell her that he knows. When he meets the “other guy,” who turns out to be terrific, he decides that it might be time to let go of some baggage.”
So, hello Rick! Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share with us a bit. We’d like to get to know you and your journey better, so how about a little of your background. How early in life did you realize you were interested, and then career bound, to the film industry, specifically the production side?
For me, it’s really all about storytelling. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Fleming, encouraged us with prompts to be creative storytellers, and I knew right then that I was hooked. It was the best feeling. Later on in high school, with some videos I made with my friends, I realized that filmmaking was just a more collaborative way to tell stories. Those same friends who helped me make karate movies in high school (Patrick Ibarra, Faustino Villanueva, and Daniel Wyknenko) also came onboard to help me make Cement Suitcase. It felt like a terrific journey, to be able to come back to where I grew up and make a film with them.
Did you undergo any education/training, and what aspect do you think benefited you the most, if any?
I studied creative writing and film at the University of Southern California, which was a great experience, but one of the best things I ever did was join a group of fellow filmmakers called Six Finger Fist. We made a pact to get together once a month to make one short film in the span of a weekend, and truly that was the best education you could ask for. We made over 30 short films together. One of those filmmakers, Dwayne Bartholomew, is the lead star of Cement Suitcase, and another, Lawrence Everson, did all the sound for the film.
Any influencers/role models or possibly even events that impacted the direction of your journey thus far?
I co-founded a production company in Los Angeles called Psychic Bunny, and I have to say the other partners in the company have all been extremely influential. I think they taught me a whole new level of quality. A big part of being a director is refining your eye, and deciding what looks good to you, and they had a big, big part in that. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for them.
You are credited as a writer/director/producer. Do you find it challenging to wear multiple hats on the same project?
Truthfully I am only credited as a writer/director. Our producers for the film – Doug Spice and Stacey Wilson – were extremely incredibly during the shoot by shielding me from the producing as much as possible, so that I could focus on the directing. Along with our Co-Producer, Sonia Pineda, they’ve done a million things for this film, and I only know about some of them.
What is your most favorite thing about directing?
My absolute favorite thing is seeing something I’ve imagined in my head, especially something silly, come into being. Creating an incredible moment with a group of people, and saving that for all time.
Any advice you could give someone new to filmmaking?
Make stuff. Make as much stuff as you can, as often as you can. Show it to as many people as possible, and get their honest feedback. It’s the hardest thing in the world, but it’s the only way to get better. And you’ll definitely get better.
I just knew that the community would be really supportive, and they were supportive to the extreme. All of our locations were donated, and there were times when drivers stopped their cars voluntarily so as to not ruin a shot. You don’t get that kind of support in Los Angeles.
Let’s chat a little more about the film specifically… how long did it take you to write the screenplay and did it evolve once you started filming?
It took about a year to write the script, and it evolved a lot during both the filming, and the editing. We kept working on and refining the story as much as we possibly could. I think it’s a challenge to keep making a story better, without changing or ruining that essence that drew you to the story in the first place. You’ve got to trust the feedback that other people are giving you, and at the same time, you’ve got to stick to your guns. It’s a balance, and you’re the one that has to decide what that balance is.
When developing characters, most writers seem to draw from influences around them. Did you base any of Cement Suitcase’s characters on any specific individuals from your experiences?
I think Cement Suitcase is what happens when you take my experiences, and everyone I’ve ever met, and shuffle them up a bunch, and see what comes out. Every small thing in the movie is based on something. Sometimes I can actually remember what those things are.
And speaking of the characters, the cast brings a great mixture of personality and variety of skills to the screen. Dwayne Bartholomew, who plays the protagonist Franklin, comes from a background of stand-up comedy and Kristina Guerrero is a correspondent for E! News, just to mention two. Can you share a little about the cast and how they fell into place for the parts?
As I mentioned, Dwayne and I had been making films together for the last 10 years, so I knew I wanted him to play a big part. As for Kristina, she’s also from the Yakima Valley, and we even had a class together in high school. I got back in touch with her, and talked to her about the film, and to my surprise she said she wanted to audition for it. As you can see, almost everyone I’ve ever met in my life had some part in helping me with this film.
The scenery shots look amazing for the film. When it came time to find the actual locations, did you have any difficulty gaining access to achieve the look you envisioned?
We had an incident where we filmed in the middle of a corn field, and thought we had gotten permission, but had gotten our fields mixed up. A big huge truck drove right out to us and this big guy gets out of it, yelling at us and asking us what the hell we were doing. It was a little scary! I thought we were gonna get kicked out for sure. But once he calmed down, and it turned out somebody on our crew knew his father, we got the permission we needed and were able to carry on without too much of a delay.
Music is something that is an important quality in filmmaking. Can you touch on the role it plays in Cement Suitcase and how you went about making musical selections?
Music is the glue that really holds the film together, and makes it feel like a real film. Two amazing musicians, Nick Jaina and Austin Wintory, came together to make the soundtrack, and they partnered together because I asked them to. I just had a feeling that if we mixed the two together, it would create something that would fit perfectly. I was lucky that they both trusted me enough to work together – I’m very proud of what they created.
The film is billed as an “anti-romantic comedy”… could you expand a bit about that description? Thinking at first that it would be a “hate on love” scenario, I was very pleasantly surprised at the way the pivotal scene played out.
We’ve honestly had a hard time describing this movie. Some see it as a comedy, and others as more of a drama. I am always the first to think that life is funny, so I see it as a comedy. We definitely knew it wasn’t a “romantic comedy”, because this is not the story of two people coming together. But we thought it would be interesting to riff on that.
For the film, you incorporated animated graphics as well as breaking the fourth wall to chat with the audience upon occasion, bringing a unique stylization to the story telling. Are we seeing the beginnings of a writer’s trademark here, to surface in future projects, or was this a needed voice specific for this production?
I wanted this character, Franklin, to be all thought and no action at the beginning of the movie, and I really wanted us to get inside his head and see things from his perspective. So the animated graphics do a lot to show us how he sees the world. As he starts to interact with his world a bit more, and get out of his own head, he doesn’t need those graphics as much, because now he’s showing us by his actions. As for my work, I could definitely see using techniques like this again, but I think my next movie will be much simpler, just because that’s what the story needs.
You opened your project up to crowdfunding on Kickstarter...what convinced you to go with this type of a program and what was your experience with it?
I love Kickstarter, and I love all the supporters who donated and helped us finish this movie exactly the way I envisioned it. It took a lot of work to raise that money, but it was an amazing experience. I could see using it again for another project, but I also believe in karma, and I think there has to be some balance in how much you’re giving and how much you receive. I’ve been trying my best to give back to a few other crowdfunding projects, but I still have quite a ways to go.
With the success of Cement Suitcase, any new projects in the works you can fill us in on?
Right now we’re looking for investors for Modern Living, a film I wrote about a group of families that live together in a furniture store. It’s all about leadership, and the struggle for power, and what it means to stand up for yourself, all set inside the bizarre little world of a furniture store.
Wow Rick, that sounds amazing as well! I’m looking forward to keeping up with your work and being able to share your progress with everyone! Thanks again for chatting, it’s been so great to share something that is local for me. Cement Suitcase is a gem not to be missed… it is available to view and/or purchase on Amazon and iTunes, and more information is available on the film’s website and YouTube Channel. And now, as always, a bit of fun before we go…
Fast Five – Questions for Fun
Favorite food indulgence? Jack in the Box.
Which Superhero would you choose to be? Anyone that could read minds. (**I’m sensing a theme here with Psychic Bunny!)
Favorite guilty pleasure? Sleeping for over 12 hours.
Happiness in one word? Happiness is many words.
**Thanks and shout out to Laura from Cement Suitcase for all of her assistance! J xx