The spirit of independent filmmaking is alive and well in America. There is no better example of that never-say-die attitude than writer/director Gil Medina and screen legend Danny Trejo. The passionate duo, who were fed up with a broken system content on lumping films together only to turn a quick profit, have launched their own unique strategy to bringing their high-octane revenge flick, ‘Vengeance’, to the masses. They are bucking the system and giving back to film lovers by doing something that’s never been done before in the movie business: giving the film away for free. Enter the “Vengeance Army” – legions of dedicated fans hell bent spreading the word about the the film. As part of the movement, the fans who give away the most DVDs – which are free, with a small shipping and handling fee – will be given substantial speaking roles or even an opportunity co-direct a scene in one of ITN Films upcoming features. Medina and Trejo’s motivations are simple: Show that you can successfully make and distribute a film on your own terms and to give back to those who got you there. Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently caught up with Gil Medina to discuss the challenges of making the film, what Danny Trejo and the rest of the cast bring to the table, the power of The Vengeance Army and along with all the other exciting things that surround this up-and-coming director.
What first made you decide to pursue a career as a filmmaker?
I guess what made me decide to pursue a career as a filmmaker is the love of story, the love of telling a story, the love of just stories period. And then, growing up in the ghetto, my mom used to drop me off at the movie theaters all the time while she would go out and party [laughs] so that’s kind of how I grew up: in the movie theaters. And so that was a place to take me and drop me off for the day and let me see movies while she partied all day.
Who or what were some of the outside influences that helped shaped the filmmaker we are seeing today?
My outside influences would definitely be Scorscese, definitely De Palma and I would definitely have to say Spielberg. But basically De Palma and Scorscese, definitely Spielberg, and a lot of the Spanish movies that I used to watch when I was a kid with my grandma.
You wrote and directed the film ‘Vengeance’, how did that process originally start and how did the script come about?
Well Danny and I met in 2000 I guess, when he was shooting a movie. I owned a nightclub and they had a pre-party before the movie started for everyone to get to see each other, there were some pretty heavy stars there. But I had been a fan of Danny Trejos from ‘Heat’ and ‘Dusk til Dawn’, and I saw him and I was like “Aw man, how ya doin? I like your work.” I got him a table so he could sit down and I said “Hey let me get your drinks for you, you don’t have to buy drinks all night.” and he said “Look I don’t drink I’m an NA guy.” I’m like “Oh, that’s cool.” So at that point I gave him my number, he wanted my number because he was in the city and he wanted to know where the good places were to eat. He stays in shape and works out everyday and eats right, so he called me and I took him to a lot of different places to eat and we hung out. The greatest thing was that a lot of people were trying to take him out to bars and nightclubs, and I think it was a Friday night he called me and he said “What are you doing?” and I said “Well I’m gonna go to church tonight do you want to go?” and he said “Church?! Everybody’s tryin to take me out to party and I don’t party.” So I said “Come on I’ll meet you.” and we went to church together, and I think that’s when we started bonding together because it’s about life and movies are a job. So we just started hanging out and became good friends, and I told him that I like to write and had written a couple of screenplays. Back when Ice Cube was shooting the movie ‘Friday’, Cube and I had been friends from the music business for quite some time, and he invited me down to the set of ‘Friday’. I watched how they shot it and saw how it worked, and it was like “Wow, this is pretty cool!” and Cube said “Look man, you can do this! What I’m doin for the brothers you can do for the Hispanics. You can do this” I said, “That’s great Cube I appreciate that.” and he said “Research the industry and I’ll help you.” So I ran into Trejo and we started hanging out, we were at Sundance I think it was 2005 and we went to Kevin Costner’s screening of ‘Upside of Anger’, we were just hanging out doing the whole “Hollywood thing” and the conversation was that Danny should be doin his own thing. And that he could carry something like a vigilante type of film and then I thought of Charles Bronson and one of Danny’s friends said something about Bronson, and we started talking about him. I said “Danny, hey look you should do a vigilante film you could really pull this off and make it happen.” So he said “Well put it together.” and so I started putting it together and I got a hold of a guy who knows how to format stuff, I’m more of a dialogue person I’m not really a typer, and he just kind of formatted it for me and put it together. I got Danny to sign and I called studios. They were like “Nah, Trejo is a character actor, it’s not gonna work.” and everyone just kept telling me he was a character actor and it wouldn’t work, I said “It worked for Bronson, he was a character actor!”. You know Bronson was a character actor with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and all the films he did, but he finally did ‘Death Wish’ and boom he blew up and it worked cause he was that bad ass that everybody liked. I kept telling them “It worked for Bronson, Bronson’s properties made like $120 million dollars between the five of them in 1980.” I even called Paramount because I wanted to buy the license for ‘Death Wish’ so I could use the name ‘Death Wish’ because it would’ve been great, but they said no they wouldn’t give it up. So we decided we would go our own way and I sold my interest in the club, I sold some cars and some property and I put the money together. I got a few investors and I went after it. People just kept saying “Nah it isn’t gonna work, Trejo can’t do it he’s not a star he’s a character actor.” I kept telling them they didn’t know Trejo and they haven’t been around him. If you go anywhere with him, let’s say a restaurant, the busboy, the dishwasher, the cook, the waiters, the valet will shut that restaurant down to take pictures with Danny. That’s the audience he has and the studios are asleep, they don’t get it. So that’s how it came together, we shot the film and it went through it’s stages and it’s trials and we got it to where it’s at and that’s where we are.
I wanted to say something about this: I read an article in Variety Magazine where it said that there were no takers at AFM and someone said that there were none because this film will probably put you to sleep, but there were no takers at AFM because we wouldn’t accept offers because no one had a gameplan. None of the distributors had any kind of gameplan. We got offers from everybody, but the problem was they wanted to bundle it up with ten films and throw it against the wall. That’s not a gameplan. They didn’t have a marketing plan. You know independent distributors don’t have marketing plans, they just throw as much stuff out there as they can and hope to sell something. That’s the sad part about independent film. If I didn’t have a guy like Danny Trejo that I was working with I would’ve done what every other independent guy does and give up the film for five or six years and watch it flop. But Danny said “No uh uh, we can’t do that. We’re gonna flop because no one has a marketing plan?” So it’s not that we didn’t have any takers, it’s that we wouldn’t accept any of their offers because no one knew what they were doing. I just wanted to clarify that.
What do you think that Danny Trejo brought to the table performance-wise that you think others might have overlooked?
That’s really good, because in this picture it was very important for me to bring a side out of Danny that no one has seen. There’s a lot of really dramatic stuff in this movie where he really had to play, he has to really act. He does a good job of it, he has to break down, he loses his wife and daughter so he has to feel that emotion. We brought, I think, a real humaness to that bad ass, a real understanding of the character in the sense that this character was wronged and he goes out and seeks vengeance but he’s a nice guy and he’s only takin vengeance on the bad guys. Kind of cleanin up the streets you know? So I think people are asleep when it comes to Danny’s depth.
In addition to Danny Trejo you also have a bunch of great actors in the film: Jason Mewes, Robert Burke, Diamond Dallas Page, how did you go about getting the right mix of people together when you started the film?
I met Dallas Page on the set of ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ with Danny, and I really liked his intensity. I said “We’re looking for the adversary, we’re looking for Danny’s enemy in this film. Are you interested?” And he said that anytime he could get an opportunity to work with Danny he was going to, so he came into the game from that. I met Jason Mewes because their was a character, a tattoo artist from prison, that Danny really liked and he wanted to give Jason a shot to do something other than being a stoner. So that’s how that call went out. And Donal Logue, who’s Danny’s friend, just fit the Buzz character. He played it well so he worked out. Robert Burke, that was the luck of the draw because I think he was doing ‘Munich’ at the time, I don’t remember what it was but he was doing something big at the time. But he like Danny and he wanted to work with him so that’s how we got him. Everybody wanted to work with Trejo, it’s kind of Trejo’s “coming out”.
What did Baby Bash and Tech N9ne bring to the mix?
Baby Bash has been a friend of ours for years and he’s never been in any film situation so I thought it would be good if we got him. So we just called him and asked if he wanted to do something and he said “Yeah!”. Noel G who played in ‘Street Kings’ and ‘Training Day’, who plays Diablo in the movie is a very very intense actor, he came along and I thought he and Bash would “work” together and that’s how that came about. Tech N9ne is a very interesting story because I’ve known him for about ten years from the music industry and I knew him from a friend of mine named Roger Troutman from Roger and Zapp who had passed away. Tech N9ne and I were good friends of Rogers, and being in the music business I’d been to a lot of shows with Tech N9ne and watched him grow. Nobody knew, nobody could have even foreseen, that at the time this movie is getting ready to come out that Tech N9ne is the number one independent underground rapper in the world. He is underground like Eminem was underground before he became a household name. Now Tech N9ne is a household name, but he’s a household name to the underground. So what’s happening is the underground always had their finger on the pulse, the big scene, and Tech is huge! He’s got millions and millions of fans, he did a a download and got like ten million people to download his music for free. He’s huge, and we’re really lucky to have Tech N9ne. You know Danny did Tech’s video “Like Yeah”, that’s his latest video and Danny was in that. So Tech is a really good friend of ours and as a matter of fact Tech is giving us a song for this movie.
That was my next question: What can you tell us about that Tech N9ne track?
It’s intense. It’s crazy! We’re working on putting a couple of songs together and that’s one of the reasons that we’re doing a push. We’re pushing back the release of ‘Vengeance’ because we’re getting a lot of people who have joined the Vengeance Army who are saying “Look I need a chance to push this out and I need a deadline on the Vengeance Army.” We have so many people who are signing on to give this away that we have to be fair to them. We’re pushing our release to 2010. Plus, who wouldn’t wait for a track from Tech N9ne from a movie he is in. So hopefully we’re going to get that straight. There is another friend of Danny’s who’s in the movie business and the music business who we are waiting to see if he’s going to give us a song but I can’t say who that is yet. But I will update you because I’m hoping to use you for our updates.
That sounds great! For you as a director, what were the biggest challenges in making this film?
Oh man, the biggest challenges…that not only as a writer, but as a director, as a producer because it was so independent I sometimes has to be the guy who had to drive people back and forth, sometimes I had to go pick up food, I had to do everything. You know, as well as being Danny’s partner, it’s hard. When I go on movie sets with Danny he’s like “What do you think about this scene? Watch this scene.” and if I’m like “This doesn’t look real man.” he’ll go “No no I gotta shoot this again.” So it was that thing where I’ve been on sets with him before and it was tough because I couldn’t focus on what I wanted to do, which was direct. I got great stuff don’t get me wrong, but next time I’m only going to write, direct and produce. I’m not going into the executive producing, I don’t want that responsibility.
You previously mentioned the Vengeance Army, how did that idea originate?
The Vengeance Army came together because we picked up a hitchhiker, the kid was going to L.A. and he was like “I’m gonna make it, I’m going to be big in the business!”. We dropped him off on Hollywood Boulevard and the reality of it is that there are a million kids on Hollywood Boulevard with guitars. People who move from Kansas City and all over to world to L.A. to get their big shot and their waiting tables right now. They have talent, but their waiting tables. Their not ever going to get their shot because this business is tough, and if you get a lucky break it’s because you knew somebody or they saw your reel or somehow you caught lightening in a bottle. So we said we’ve gotta do something and whoever gives away the most movies will win a speaking role in the next movie, and if your thing is not to speak and you don’t want to be an actor then we’ll give you something to put on your resume. Whether it’s hair, makeup, wardrobe, whether it’s PA, whether it’s co-directing you know we’ll let you do a scene, but you’ve got to give away the most movies in order to do that. And you can see that, it’ll be on our next movie on YouTube.
You mentioned earlier that you are pushing for a theatrical release, is that correct?
Yes, we are pushing for a theatrical and because of what’s happening with ‘Machete’ I really believe we’re going to get theatrical because I’m getting calls from different people, different studios are calling. Let’s face it, ‘Machete’ is going to be a monster, that’s Danny Trejo’s ‘Rocky’. It’s going to be huge, and we have the only other film starring Danny Trejo as a vigilante in the U.S. ready to go. We’re hoping to get a nice theater release out of it but we’re still giving away the free movie and we’re not changing that. We’re not going to sell out to the studio, that’s not going to happen. We might do theatrical with the studio but we’re not going to stop our gameplan. We need to build that distribution channel and that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this because we’re collecting emails and that fanbase and we’re going direct to them so we can give them product. Not just ‘Vengeance’ but ‘Vengeance 2’ and all the stuff we’re doing, because Danny is going to do studio films but he’s doing his independent stuff over here. Dannys got a five film deal to do five vigilante films, five ‘Vengeance’ films with this company and that’s what we’re doing. These are exclusive deals.
When do you think fans will be able to get their hands on the film?
You know what? It’s going to be in ’10 but a lot is going to revolve around ‘Machete’. Because if their going to release ‘Machete’ this year then we’re going to hold, we’re going to hold for the fans because it’s going to be more exciting to see ‘Machete’ then to go get a free film. We’re hoping to run the ‘Vengeance’ trailer before the ‘Machete’ movie, or the ‘Machete’ trailer before the ‘Vengeance’ movie, whoever goes first. And I think, we’re figuring it out right now, if Rodriguez releases ‘Machete’ this year then ‘Vengeance’ will be slated for the first of next year. But if they don’t release till the first of next year then we’ll slate for this year. It’s a really cool thing for us, it’s a great thing because here’s the reality: I went out and took a risk a long time ago knowing Trejo was a star. When everybody kept saying he was a character actor. I put my money where my mouth was and we went out and did it! So here we are, and we told everybody that it was going to happen and it was gonna go but people didn’t believe us so we went out and did it and here we have it.
What can we look forward in you directing next?
‘Vengeance 2? is ready to go, I’ve written a script. Danny is doing some touch ups on it on what he would like to see, stuff he wants to change. We’re casting in late September. We’ve got some of the cast coming back, we’ve talked to four or five people that want to come back and do their role again.
What advise would you give to someone in the industry who is just starting their career out in that field?
Stay away from independent distributors. Don’t give them your product, do not do it if they don’t have a gameplan because you will hate yourself later. I know that the twenty-five grand or twenty grand or fifty or hundred grand that they offer you sounds big but it’s not big because they don’t know what the hell their doing. As a matter of fact I’m going to have a funeral for independent distributors. I’m just looking for a plot right now, I’m going to literally have a funeral for ’em! Because it’s over with, those days are over and it’s not like that anymore. I don’t know if you remember when Rick Rubin had a funeral for his label but it’s the same thing, I’m having a funeral for independent distributors. It’s changing man, it’s over, stay away from ’em! Because they don’t know what their doing, you’re going to lose your dream you’re going to lose your hard work, you’re going to lose all that to some guy that has no plan or clue. It’s not his fault, it’s just the way the economy is shifting. Unless you have studio distribution you’re not going to make it. If you’re lucky enough to get some sort of Oscar nod you’re going to be fine, otherwise you need to find your audience and you need to build your audience and become your own distribution. Cause you know, Blockbuster might not be here next year. So you just don’t know. Stay away from independent distributors, they’ve got great sales pitches and if you’re new in this game you’re like “Yeah!”, they’re going to tell you “It’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be on the shelves and it’s gonna blow off.” They’re gonna hit you with the pitch to sign your product because they need as much as they can get. What they’re not telling you is that they don’t have the money to promote your product. That they can get you in Target and Wal-Mart, and what’s going to happen is their just going to bunch you together with ten other titles and get you out there. You’re going to end up in the discount bin, you’re going to get charge-backs and all kinds of videos back. You’re going to be hating life and your dreams going to get killed. Don’t do it! Be prepared when you write your first bit of dialogue, be prepared when you shoot your first scene, know that you may have to do this yourself, that you may have to distribute this yourself. That’s the reality of it because you could have never told me from the minute I came up I didn’t want it to be like this “line”. You could have never told me that we were going to have to distribute this ourselves. We have stars! You just gotta be careful man because with these guys it’s not like it used to be, and if there’s a bunch of filmmakers that want to be part of the independent distributor’s funeral let me know! [laughs] Let’s get together and have a funeral in everybody’s city.
I think it’s going to turn out great! Is there anything that you’d like to add?
I think I clarified that it’s not that we didn’t have any takers, it was that we didn’t believe in the song and dance. You know, Tech N9ne did the same thing. He was trying to get major record deals and they just weren’t listening to him. So he did a campaign and it was “Fuck the Industry”, and he actually did a good job because now he’s big enough that he doesn’t need the labels. [laughs]
You know I think if I could say anything it would be “Fuck the independent distributor.” Let’s go to war with them that’s how I would say it, you know what I mean?! Let’s battle because that’s what’s goin on. I was talking to Tech and I was like “Look, I really like what you did and I think I have to do the same thing in the movie business.” I can’t get a major studio because you have to prove to them that things work then they come along. And it’s bad. So I’m like I gotta take the same anti-approach, fuck the independent distributors we’ll do it ourselves. That’s from me, not from Trejo, I’m coming out that way saying it. I can’t speak for Danny, Danny speaks for himself. But that’s the route we’re taking and it’s sad. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that type of situation but man it’s horrible for people! There are filmmakers out there that are just broken because no one ever told them “Hey, wait a minute, be careful!” With all the big dreams you’ve got to get out and hustle your product. And that’s why we’re doing ‘Vengeance’ where you can be in the next movie and we’ll probably continue to do it. You never know, we may find the next Danny Trejo out there, we may find the next Marlon Brando out there, or Nick Cage, or Meryl Streep, we may find a great one they just need that shot. If they’re willing to go out and tell the world about this movie so they can win this contest then you know they’ve got some hustle in them and that they really want to do something.
Thanks for your time and we will be spreading the word about ‘Vengeance’!
For all the information on ‘Vengeance’ and the Vengeance Army, visit the official site for the film at www.vengeancearmy.com. For some insights into the film from Danny Trejo and other members of the cast, check out ITN’s Official YouTube Channel at www.youtube.com/itnflix.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.