An Interview with Mark Cantu – By Philip Smolen

 

Writer/director Mark Cantu knows how to put together an action scene. His previous movie, 2014’s “Now Hiring”, was a wonderfully kinetic superhero adventure about an everyday guy who leads a team of superheroes to victory over a powerful villain (for my review, please go here). The film was full of high energy battle scenes that were just wonderful to watch. Now, Mark is back with his new flick “Elite’ which will have its premiere on June 12th in San Antonio, Texas. When I heard about “Elite”, I got really excited because it sounds like a throwback to some great classic action movies. So I reached out to Mark and he graciously filled me in on the details of his new project.

RC: Mark, “Elite” looks awesome! Give me a quick rundown on the basic plot.

MC: Thanks so much Phil! The film is a military thriller that follows a newly promoted NCOC Investigator, Lt. Abbey Vaughn (Allison Gregory) as she tries to uncover what happened to an elite team of soldiers on a classified rescue mission. Her investigation leads her to the only surviving member of the team, Lt. Sam Harrigan (Jason Scarbrough). As they begin to dig through leads, their trail leads them to an elusive drug cartel leader, Reynaldo Benitez (Larry Garza).

I wrote the film with (actor/co-writer) Jason Scarbrough, and we really designed the film to be a throwback to films like “Lethal Weapon” (1987), “Man on Fire” (1987), “The Last Boy Scout” (1991) and “Top Gun” (1986). We’re both tremendous fans of all those films so we wanted the writing to reflect a bit of love for the buddy-cop genre.

RC: The trailer positively crackles with incredible action sequences. Were these hard to film?

MC: I would love to say absolutely not, and that action is old-hat for us, but honestly, action is always difficult. Every action sequence is unique in its own way and the challenges it presents from just a logistics standpoint. But the biggest decision we made for ourselves early on was to make sure that the each action sequence moved the story forward. So that way, you’re no longer doing action for action’s sake, and you’re actually using it as a storytelling tool. Once you start down that path, it does make the arc of each action sequence a bit easier to understand, but you still have to go out and actually shoot it.

One of the best action sequences towards the end of the film is a no-holds-barred fight between Jason Scarbrough and pro-wrestler “One Man” Mike Dell. Our fight choreographer, Reynaldo Rodriguez, is also an MMA fighter as well, and that was probably some of the most fun we had while shooting. With Dell’s background, it made it a lot easier to choreograph and sell the viciousness of the fight and make it really gritty.

RC: Mark – you’re a San Antonio man. Did you film all around the city and if so how much help did you get from the town?

MC: Absolutely. San Antonio will always be my home, and it’s such a diverse city, you can’t help but utilize everything we have to offer. The city and the Film Commissioner’s office have always supported our efforts. Due to the range of locations here in the city, including our historic Mission district, we were able to make some of our local parks (literally ten minutes from downtown SA) to look like the deepest regions of Central Mexico! For those locations we were fortunate to work with Janet Vasquez from the SA Film Commission Office.

For our big finale, we were able to utilize the brand new spaces offered by Alamo City Studios through filmmakers Kerry Valderrama, Bryan Ramirez and Apple DeLaFuente.   The space is a massive new studio right in the heart of SA, and it provided us with exactly what we needed. So if any filmmakers out there are ever in need of gracious filmmakers willing to open their facilities to accommodate any production, you can’t get much better than Alamo City Studios. San Antonio is fast becoming a filmmaker’s paradise.

RC: Mark, what was the toughest part of making this film?

MC: Honestly, the hardest part of making the film was just writing our two main characters: Abbey Vaughn and Sam Harrigan. They are the heart of our film and it was crucial to get that relationship just right.

From a director’s point of view, you’re hinging the entire film on these two characters; whether it’s through their chemistry, their development as characters, or how they begin to complement one another as the film evolves. The film is more a character driven action film, and if we didn’t get that relationship right, then it didn’t matter what we did with the action set pieces or jokes. The film wouldn’t have gelled if our audience didn’t like these two characters and their evolution. Luckily, we were able to cast both Allison Gregory and Jason Scarbrough, and they’ve got some of the easiest chemistry I’ve seen.

RC: Tell me about your incredible cast!

MC: Allison Gregory is hands down one of the best actresses in Texas. Period. She’s sharp, extremely prepared, and is able to walk that fine line between vulnerable and tough at any given moment. As for Jason Scarbrough, we’ve worked together for so long that it’s almost like we can speak each other’s language and if we need to make adjustments, all it takes is a nod or a look. So I trust him completely on set and consider him a brother.

The rest of the cast is a great mix of people we’ve worked with before (Claire Tablizo, Chris Quante, Javier Medellin, Jason Lee Boyson) along with some relative newcomers to our team (Ione Rousseau, Shawn Brooks, Mike Dell). However, everyone was cast because of what they brought to the table.

In our casting process, I really do consider who everyone is as a person, and whether they’ve got the willingness or spirit to take on any given role. I also look at the actor’s instincts and I never try to impede that; only guide it if necessary. Once we see that edge or instinct in an actor, 90% of my job is already done for the shoot. At that point, all I have to do is turn on the camera and get hell out of the way.

RC: So when and where does “Elite” premiere and are you hitting the festival circuit with it soon?

MC: “Elite” will be premiering June 12th at the Palladium IMAX in San Antonio, TX.  Tickets are available through Eventbrite by searching “Elite World Premiere.”  After our screening we’ll be entering several action film festivals, including the Alamo City Film Festival.

RC: Thanks Mark and good luck with “Elite”!

MC: Thanks Phil and we’re already moving forward on our next film, so we’ll definitely keep you posted on that as well!

For more information on “Elite” and to watch the trailer, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/directormarkcantu and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSw6dduvhSk