Hello fans of Coffee!! JG Blodgett here, and I am happy to report that I was able to catch up with Producer and Director, Tony Mendoza!! Tony had a lot to say about filmmaking and I must say, I learned a ton about him and his filmmaking philosophies. I really enjoyed his story, which is full of helpful tips for up and coming filmmakers like myself, and I know you'll find his story helpful and entertaining as well — so lets get right to it!!
JG: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Tony: Going back almost 35 years, I have always dabbled with different forms of film and video production. I remember my mother having to do an 8mm animation film for one of her college classes. I was allowed to watch as long as I stayed out of the way. I was fascinated with the whole setup. The sound of the camera rolling, all of the lights, the handmade props and of course the final product. The whole process blew my mind!
The first media project I made was for an 8th grade art class. Like my mother’s project, I broke out our 8mm camera and did various animations. I learned from a book I checked out from the local library that animation ran 12 FPS but unfortunately our camera didn’t shoot single frames. So I compensated by counting off seconds as the camera rolled. The technique was adequate. But I took my production one step further. After the film was developed I attempted to make a soundtrack with a tape recorder as the film played. My plan was to start the soundtrack recording at an early part of the film to help keep it in sync during playback. It worked out moderately well. The toughest part of that whole project was having to carry both a film projector and tape recorder over 3 miles to school.
From there I transitioned to video cameras. The first one I ever worked with was a borrowed component from my uncle. It was basically a camera that plugged in via RCA cables to a VHS player/recorder. Most of my first projects took place in my living room where my friends and I would lip sing to old gangster rap music.
As time moved on the technology evolved. By the time I graduated high school I was making short comedic bits with friends from school with an ENG type VHS camcorder. Fast forward 5 years, I meet my wife, joined the military and had 2 kids. While in the military I earned college benefits but to use them you had to declare a degree. It was my counselor who started probing me with a series of questions that told me about a film degree. I never knew or ever thought about pursuing a career in film production. But after that first semester of school taking Video Production 101, I knew I found my call.
JG: Where did you go to film school?
Tony: I’ve been in film school off and on for the past 17 years. Between work, family and film projects, I have been learning the various aspects of film production and culture for the past decade or more. In 2014 I did earn my Associate of Arts in film production through the College of Southern Nevada.
One of the most influential instructors there was man by the name of John Marsh. He was an old HBO producer who taught with great enthusiasm and knowledge. He also was extremely honest about work submitted. For almost 3 years John asked me after every submitted project if making movies was really something I wanted to do. He gave notes that addressed both good and bad. Unfortunately for me, it seemed I was getting more “needs improvement” comments than accolades of greatness. But that all changed at the end of one of my advanced production classes.
My short film For the Family made a great impression on John Marsh. It took mobster perspective on how it might look when God hears prayers and orders action. By all rights it was relatively cheesy. But it had all of the important aspects. Story, costumes, locations, sound design and great editing. After the required Q&A every student goes through for submitted assignments, John whispered in my ear that it was time for me to start making feature films. Something unlocked in me that gave me the fire to move on to bigger projects.
I eventually graduated the program and moved to my 4 year program with Nevada State College. The beauty about this school is that you don’t only focus on production but there is a strong curriculum for the theory of film. I used to squawk about theory classes until I started doing assignments that required me to analyze everything to do with director motivations. Whether it be influenced by politics of the day or sub-conscious metaphors created to play off the human psyche, my understanding for film became richer and started showing up more in future productions.
JG: What films influence your style of filmmaking?
Tony: I’ve always struggled with defining my style per say. I think I’m a little too pragmatic to have a style. I’ve done faith based films, raunchy comedies, psychological thrillers and action. So nailing down a style is a bit difficult. There’s usually some type of physical conflict, the stories are rooted in traditions of the cultures being portrayed and there has to be some hint of comedy.
The films that I really try to pay attention to are single location films. I’ve been turned on to these types of films because they translate easier for me as an independent to finance. It also challenges the writers of these stories to be more creative when stuck in a single space. There are certain latitudes with the definition of single location.
For example, my last film Ride Hard – Live Free (IMDb), the single location was a 1 acre lot that had a rundown mobile home and RV on it. 85% of the film took place there. The other 15% took place on a road right off the property. Whereas my second film, Life in the Hole (IMDb) took place 90% in a warehouse with 10% in an Airbnb house the cast and crew were staying at. I admire productions that are forced to write good stories and make good movies with a lean, quality crew.
JG: You are in post-production on your third film, Ride Hard-Live Free. What advice can you offer up and coming filmmakers?
1. Stick to your guns when it comes to the type of film you want to make. But make sure the film you want to make is within your reach when it comes to cost. When developing Ride Hard – Live Free, I went into it with the idea that I wanted to have the whole film take place in a bus. I wanted to stay indoors in order to minimize sound and lighting issues. But I was talked out of it and was encouraged to use more of the space. Well, that space needed to be filled so we filled it. Thus a $10K project ended up at $40K plus the additional cost for the extra day of shooting due to weather.
2. You don’t owe the actors shit. New filmmakers feel they need to keep their actors in the know on all things with the business side. We feel obligated because we’re paying either very little or nothing at all and we want to show them we appreciate their labor of love. Here’s the truth, when the film is over, they’ll have more footage for their reel than if they paid for 10 days of production itself. Trust me, I understand the little bit of guilt you feel for working them for 10 days for free but you’ll be working this film for 1 year if not more, and how much are you going to get paid? Probably nothing. So everyone’s contributing. As long as you’re upfront as to what’s going on, we can only hope everyone will respect their commitments.
3. The more pre-production you do the better your shoot. Scripts, shot list, storyboards, timelines, sides, etc. will all help for your production to move along. Nothing will be smooth but your pre-production will give you direction. It will be the lighthouse in the midst of the storm.
JG: How did you meet JG Blodgett and what was your first major project with him as a writer?
Tony: If I remember right, one of my family members introduced us. He came out as an extra for my first film Pitching Hope (IMDb) and it went from there. As to major projects, between both of us, we rewrote and optioned one of his scripts to Lions Gate, extended his original idea of an audience interactive web series that produced 7 episodes and have punched out 2 feature films. Out of the two of us, he’s calmer than myself but brings just as much hustle to the set than anyone else. I would literally struggle to a point of failure doing what I do if I did not have him in my corner. I am very much excited about working together again on his upcoming film, Coffee: a Hitman Story.