Portrait of the Artist
Indie Film Director Kenneth Castillo Embraces the Struggle
Martin Scorsese’s seventh feature film was The King of Comedy released in 1982; Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature was Inglorious Basterds released in 2009; Kevin Smith’s was Clerks II released in 2006; and Kenneth Castillo’s seventh feature is Marigold the Matador, an urban fable about a single mother, a schizophrenic homeless man, and an 11-year-old matador. With luck, Marigold will be released later this year. If you haven’t heard of Kenneth Castillo, he’s not surprised.
While Scorsese, Tarantino and Smith found success within the film industry almost immediately, Castillo is still working to find his. It’s not that he can’t find an audience because his movies are extremely popular within the Latino community.
His problem lies elsewhere.
Castillo grew up in Wilmington, CA, and he originally wanted to be a fighter pilot. He was really into airplanes as a kid: the SR-71, the WWII era P-51, the Harrier jump jet, “and the YF-17. We don’t need them, but they’re fucking cool!” Eventually, he fell into acting and after a bit, he ended up producing and directing all the scenes he was in at his acting studio. Then, when he saw Clerks in 1994, he knew for sure where he wanted to put all of his energy into: directing. “Kevin Smith got a career with that movie. I thought to myself, ‘We can do this.’”
He released his first feature in 2009, and he remembers with pride seeing it on the shelf at Blockbuster. Drive-By Chronicles: Sidewayz follows the story of a man “who fails his initiation into a gang, while his workaholic brother tries to help him get a job and go straight.” As of recently, you can even find this film among the Latino films at Target.
Sidewayz was a big hit among the Latino community, though his second feature was more personal. “Ghostown, although not biographical, is my most personal film and the one that I watch from time to time. It was all about having the courage to get out of the neighborhood and go after what you want.”
Like Sidewayz, Ghostown and the rest of his movies have all been popular rentals at Redbox among the Latino community, such as Confession of a Gangster, Hearts of Men, Counterpunch, and Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Castillo feels somewhat slighted by “Latino Hollywood,” as he calls it.
“Latino Hollywood always tries to discredit the urban genre,” he says, “unless, of course, it stars a Latino celebrity. My movies are easy targets by certain groups because I’m not famous. I take pride in the fact that a lot of Latinos I’ve put in front of the camera have moved on to bigger and better things. That being said, if a white dude does a film in the Latino urban genre it’s called art and gets into festivals that have rejected my work.”
A good example of this might lie with the Disney movie, Coco. “Don’t even get me started about Coco,” he says. Since the days of Castillo’s earliest shorts called The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin (all of which can be found on YouTube, and the first of which is posted below this paragraph), Castillo has utilized and featured makeup inspired by El Día de los Muertos. It is used in almost all of his movies, including his most recent, Marigold the Matador.
“Until recently, The Day of the Dead was something that was truly Mexicano,” Castillo says. “It was something that was uniquely of our culture. Death is not something to be afraid of, and The Day of the Dead is about celebrating life.” He laments that it has been so broadly appropriated, including everything from tequila to Disney movies. “It’s different now. In 2004, it made people curious. Now it comes across as copying everything else.”
Then again, his kids really enjoy Coco, so he doesn’t want to knock it too much.
Still, it doesn’t put him where he wants to be.
So, after making six features using the standard model of writing a script, seeking funding, finding and hiring actors, and still not being where he wanted to be as an artist, Castillo decided it was time to break the mold with his seventh feature. (There was a fact that all his leads had gone on to make their own features after having been shown the way by him.)
“Having seen a lot of my lead actors go off and make films of their own, I became alarmed that maybe my process was too simple and too easy to replicate. So with Marigold I decided to start from scratch and do something that even if I wanted to I wouldn’t be able to do again.”
He promised himself the next feature would be different, even if he didn’t entirely know how it would be different at the time. After shooting his first six feature films with budgets between $50,000-$150,000, he wanted his next movie to be smaller. He needed a purge.
He got the idea for his seventh feature while working at his job as a head bartender at a restaurant in downtown LA. There’s a giant window that gives him a view of the street and sidewalk, and late at night he sees women walking back from the garment district to catch their bus home—a lot of times they would have their children with them. Those sights on a nightly basis sparked the idea that would become his next movie. He started to take the point of the view of the child, and he added his own memories from his own childhood. He took a character from a previous script and modified that character for this movie. Thus, Marigold the Matador was born.
“Even though Marigold deals with issues such as homelessness, mental illness and single motherhood,” Castillo says about his movie. “I didn’t want it to be a message movie. I don’t want to beat people over the head with it. I want to punch them in the fucking heart with it.”
Even ahead of its release, Marigold is already getting rave reviews. This one from Film Threat magazine: “In his curiously engaging new film Marigold the Matador, director Kenneth Castillo boldly throws caution to the wind and uses magic realism to tell this moving story of an isolated girl who befriends a homeless man lost in the trap of mental illness.”
However, in keeping with the theme of wanting to do things differently, Castillo did not want to work from a script—which is not to say the movie is full of improv. No, though there are only two scripted scenes, the other scenes are discussed before they’re shot. There is still an ebb and a flow; an arc to each scene. The actors know what they’re going to say as they go into each scene, and it is rehearsed before they shoot it.
“Marigold is very much inspired by the French New Wave. No script. Good actors, good scenarios. A DP who can shoot on the fly.”
Castillo also wanted this movie to have a smaller crew. He used the DP he worked with years ago on his Cholo Chaplin short film series, and he used a coworker as his AD. He also cast his daughter in the pivotal role of the little girl who is the main character of the story.
What made him want to cast his daughter?
“My daughter is great on camera. She is not a trained actress, but she is a very talented and multifaceted artist. Her mind is always going and you can see it in her eyes. This worked well for the character who is introverted and alone a lot. I also knew that it would take me at least two years to shoot, and I didn’t want to have to worry about casting a young actress who may lose interest in the part over time or who would be unavailable when I needed them. Casting my daughter had it’s own challenges though. There were times where she just didn’t feel like shooting that day, which for me, was unacceptable since it would take two weeks of prep for two days of shooting. The line between father and director would shift from time to time, but ultimately she came through for her old man.”
Unlike his other movies, Marigold features an element called “magic realism,” a storytelling technique that is frequently seen in Latin films. For the initiated, Castillo describes magic realism as “how a child sees things. They’re bigger, more dangerous. Things are easier to deal with when you can imagine them to be bigger than they are. The dog in The Sandlot, that’s magic realism!”
Also, unlike his other features, he considers this one to be a fable—a fable being a simple story, but with complex undertones. “That is definitely Marigold the Matador,” Castillo says.
Along with Marigold the Matador, Castillo has also been working on an autobiography/memoir called Stereotypical, which he plans to release at the same time as Marigold.
He also wants to do an urban opera a la Godfather II. He has also been working on a doc about the Japanese internment camps, specifically the Manzanar camp, which is three and half hours north of LA. He is working on this doc because it is his way of not forgetting. “There are a lot of parallels to kids being separated.” He shot that in April.
You might figure Castillo’s favorite movies include a long list of intellectual films and foreign movies you’ve never heard of, but Castillo loves popcorn fares. He loved Black Panther, he considers Mission: Impossible – Fallout to be the best movie of the summer, and he loves Solo. “It’s better than The Last Jedi and Rogue One.” Additionally, his guilty pleasures are Commando (“Even though it represents pretty much everything I hate about the way Latinos are represented on film.”), Real Genius, and Roadhouse.
“Roadhouse is definitely my guilty pleasure movie. It’s got a great villain, a super simple premise, and Sam Elliott. Say what you want about that film, but Patrick Swayze sells it. If I get home late and it’s on TV, I’ll watch it till the end.”
At the end of the day, Castillo enjoys the struggle and finds inspiration in it. “2010 was a rough year. My son got run over by a car on January 2nd of that year and ended up in the hospital. We lost our house, but I still managed to put out two features that year.”
He finds inspiration in Francis Ford Coppola, who never once put his family on hold during the early days of his career. “To do the films he did and raise a family at the same time, to be a good dad, and to maintain a marriage.” We all know the havoc Apocalypse Now wreaked on Coppola’s and his family, but through sheer perseverance, Coppola held it all together. To that end, Castillo has been with his wife for 25 years and has been married to her for 18.
Though sometimes he admits the daily grind of a job does get to him, he discovered a trick to get him through those low points. “I would go out the back door of a restaurant I used to work. I did it because then I would have to pass by the dishwasher. I would leave around 12:30 or 1:00 at night, and I would have usually a couple hundred in cash in my pocket. I see the dishwasher who still hands mountains of dishes to finish, and I know there is no way he is getting out before two. I had it easy compared to him.”
“Embrace the struggle,” he says. “There are people with a lot less resources who have done it. Be unapologetic in your pursuits and seek neither validation or permission from no one.”
Certainly, he is not seeking validation or permission from Latino Hollywood.
“Success in this town is all about doing the work and then crossing paths with that person or persons that connect with it, and then reaches out to you to help you get to that next level. After seven feature films, I have not met that person yet and I’ve reached out to everyone that I know that can help me. At times it can be discouraging, but I still push forward.”
There is no doubt Kenneth Castillo will keep pushing forward. Let us hope Marigold the Matador rewards him for all the hard work he has done thus far.
Keep on struggling, Kenny.