An Interview with Mark Cantu – By Philip Smolen

Writer/Director Mark Cantu is a ball of energy. The young filmmaker tackles every task he faces (even answering interview questions from an old timer like me) with dedication and passion, and after watching his last movie “Now Hiring” ( For my review, please visit http://www.roguecinema.com/now-hiring-2014-by-philip-smolen.html ) I really believe that moviegoers will be hearing from Mark for a long time to come.

“Now Hiring” is a great cinematic spoof of the superhero genre. It’s clear from watching his movie that Mark loves the genre and he loads the film up with great jokes and sly satire. The film tells the story of a regular guy named Joe Martin (Jason Sedillo) who’s been unemployed for far too long. Answering an ad for a superhero, Joe unwittingly joins a real group of superheroes who are trying to save their city from the evil Lord Menace (Camden Toy). Unprepared for the danger, Joe doesn’t know what to do. But the loving husband eventually realizes that he has to suck in his gut and become a superhero, even if he doesn’t have any real super powers!

I needed to know more about this great action comedy, so I contacted Mark and asked him to fill me in on his latest cinematic epic. The San Antonio native graciously agreed to answer my questions and told me how he made this great indie flick.

RC: Hey Mark – thanks for taking the time with me. Give me a little bit of your background. When you were blinded by cinema’s great pure light?

MC: Absolutely, it’s my pleasure. I actually started out, much like everyone else my age: bitten by the VHS filmmaker’s bug. My dad was a Sears repairman and used his employee discount to buy us a VHS camera when I was in elementary, and the first thing I remember doing when it got home was grab my bandana, machine gun and start acting like an action star. 200 plus homemade movies later and now I get to dress up my good friends as action stars. In all honesty, I didn’t really start taking it seriously until I got into college. That’s when I started to realize I had a very specific voice, and I wanted to see what I was made of as a storyteller.

RC:  How did you choose San Antonio to work out of? (a great town btw – I was training at Fort Sam Houston just around the time you were born!)

MC: I don’t know if that makes me feel old or young! I was born and raised here, and with the large boom of filmmaking coming out of Austin about that time I started to really take filmmaking a bit more seriously, I always had that chip on my shoulder in a way that felt like, “Why can’t a film be about our city for a change?” Then we just took it one step further and said, “Why can’t a superhero film be set in our city?” San Antonio is known as a tourist destination for sure, but we have a great mix of down home; small town vibe mixed with absolute professionalism, military ideals and a massive boom of creative artists that are starting to put their stamp on the city. San Antonio has its own style, and for me as a filmmaker, I don’t feel the urge to go to L.A., when there are tons of unique stories to tell right in here the city that I love.

RC: What do you think that you bring to a film or video project?

MC: I know my voice always centers on family first; whether it’s doing music videos, commercials, or feature film projects. My instinct, even before I was a husband and father was that I knew I wanted a family and I wanted my work to reflect that. On top of that, I’m a huge fan of Tony Scott, and his look, especially from the 90s stretch of “The Last Boy Scout”, “True Romance”, and “Crimson Tide” always bleeds into my work, whether I’m aware of it or not. On top of that, since my background is in stage, and my ears were sharpened on things like David Mamet and Neil Simon, I’m a sucker for quick, punchy exchanges. So it really is a ton of heart, mixed with the need for action and funny dialogue. It’s definitely an odd mix but it keeps things interesting.

RC: You and your wife Elizabeth have become a tandem movie making team. Tell me how this came about. Did your professional or personal relationship develop first? How do you keep the two from complicating the other?

MC: That is always a work in progress. Especially when you’re dealing with passion projects, you can’t help but bring your work home with you sometimes. But Elizabeth didn’t start out as a filmmaker; her background is all business and making sense of numbers. We actually dated briefly in 2007, and then made an official go at it in 2009, and I trusted her opinions completely at the time. I don’t think it’s something she ever planned on, but she’s actually flourished as a producer on her own and she’s become someone that other productions have called in from time to time to get them back on track. So she’s definitely earned her stripes. But with “Now Hiring”, one of the biggest keys for both of us is that the story really is our story, so that’s kept us going. We’ll argue like mad sometimes, but have a mutual respect for each other that definitely needs to be there.

RC: You bit off a huge chunk of indie cinema with “Now Hiring”. Tell me about the first inkling of the idea and how it developed.

MC: It started off initially as a silly short that I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…..” But even in that smaller incarnation, I had the inkling that there was more to it somewhere. After we completed the short, I spent time on a few other projects, had my daughter….but it was never really far off from my mind. I knew I had something more to say with the material about men and their wives, and what it means to be a family. And going in, I knew it would be a bitch of a project, and even if we had $200 million it would have kicked our butts to shoot it. And I think that was actually part of the challenge that excited me: could we do it on an indie budget and take it seriously and not have it look too cheesy.

RC: How different is the final version of “Now Hiring” from your initial vision?

MC: There are definitely sacrifices you make as an indie filmmaker, whether it’s costuming, props, etc., and those come down to timing issues, budgetary constraints, or just the feasibility of the idea. So I really do compartmentalize my process: as a writer, I don’t worry how I’m going to pull it off technically; I just write. Then as a director and editor, I curse the writer for making my job extremely difficult, and just try to find a practical way of doing it all. The reality of what you see in your mind is never going to be where you end up, even on a major film. But I will say we got 70 to 85% of what I truly wanted, even days when we’re doing old school, in camera tricks.

RC: One of the aspects that I loved about “Now Hiring” is the delicate balance that you successfully walk between following the rules for Superhero moves and spoofing them. How were you able to keep that?

MC: That’s a pretty early decision I made in the writing process; you know you’re in superhero territory, so you have to figure out the rules of what that audience wants. You’re essentially in Joe’s origin story: he has to “discover” his calling, he has to have the loss of confidence, and then he has to get his call to action, you have to have a “training” montage. But the part that keeps it exciting for me is figuring out all the rules of a genre, and then bending them, breaking them, or turning them around in a way that the audience doesn’t expect and keeps it fresh for me as a storyteller and filmmaker. It’s that Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright way of making films; by understanding the genre completely, you’re then able to invert it on itself to keep it fresh but still ring true with audiences that speak that language.

RC: The idea of a regular Joe being called upon to be a hero is just brilliant. Did you feel that this had to be the central theme for the film?

MC: That’s always been the heart of the entire film. In any other film, Joe would have no business suiting up and fighting crime, and my take on the material was I wanted him to join a superhero team that honestly didn’t need to be together or have a real sense of what heroism really was. They all have superpowers, but they have no idea about what it takes to be a team or a family. And that it took an honest Average Joe from the city with no powers to show these heroes what real heroism is all about. It’s also a very deliberate thing we do with his blocking throughout the film: in the beginning of the film, Joe is sort of kept on the fringe of the team and discarded. By the end of the film, he is front and center, leading the team as their rightful leader.

RC: The San Antonio locations give your film a first class look. How cooperative was the city with your shooting schedule. Tell me; is the town proud of you now that the film is finished?

MC: Our film commissioner, Drew MayerOakes, has always been 100 percent supportive of our creative team, and half of our locations downtown would have never happened without him. Since the film has been previewed there has been a tremendous outpouring of support and excitement for our film, even in its early stages. I was even at a Walmart once and had a random guy walk up and ask how our movie was going. At that point, I knew we’d saturated the market and that everyone in San Antonio knew about us.

RC: How long did you film for? Post Production?

MC: Overall, I think we spent about a year and a half from shooting to the final touches in post-production. Getting a lot of the visual fx right, or as close to complete as we could on our budget, took about 6-7 months of me just locked away in a room by myself trying to figure stuff out.

RC: The film is perfectly cast (and perfectly acted). How did you decide on Jason Sidello as Average Joe?

MC: Jason, I’ve known since 1997, and he’s just always been that guy in my life that you just automatically love. We did some local stage shows together and then we sort of went our own ways until about 2010, when he came back to San Antonio and we were able to reconnect. He was just slowly starting to get back into acting, and I was writing the rough outline at the time. We saw him at our SA Film Christmas Party, and afterwards I immediately turned to Liz and said, “I think Sedillo can play Joe.” Jason’s always been extremely accessible and friendly to everyone, and he’s got that playful spirit that most adults lose along the way somewhere. I love him immensely for that, and that was also essential for the audience to feel that way about Joe. You have to care about him.

RC: You can’t see Camden Toy’s face since he’s in makeup, but he brings a terrific energy level to everything.

MC: I told Camden, he got to be the first real Hollywood actor that I directed, so it was truly special getting to work with him. He is without a doubt one of the most professional men I’ve ever met, and to see his process, to see the time he took in really creating the voice for Lord Menace, you’re lucky to get that in an actor. And I always got the sense that it wasn’t just another gig for Camden, and he never approaches it that way. It’s always creating a character, creating performance, and dedication to craft. The fun part for me was that I had written his lines as Lord Menace months before. I’d replayed those speeches in my head, and you sort of lose touch with the meaning behind the words after a while. But then on the day, when Lord Menace is actually standing in front of you, and that voice comes out, well there were a few takes where I became an audience member, just watching Camden perform and forgot I was directing. I’d have to remind myself to call cut with him!

RC: What was the most fun you had during shooting? What was the most difficult part of shooting?

MC: Bar none, it was a tough stretch, but the most fun I had was shutting down major streets in downtown San Antonio for the big final battle. Not a lot of crews get to shut down the streets in their own hometown, so I kept stepping back every once in a while to enjoy that part of the shoot for sure. There’s no telling when we’ll get to do that again. It was exciting, and we felt like rock stars, because people would be driving by and staring at what we were doing, and we had people on rooftops taking pics.

The most difficult day for us was one that comes across as the most energetic and breezy: Joe’s first mission out with the team. That entire sequence is the end of the 1st act, it’s about a good 5-6 minutes of screen time, and we had to get it all in one 8 hour stretch. The heat outside was about 104, actors in full costume, no cover from the sun with no cloud cover, you had to keep actors and crew hydrated, make sure the scene is working for you, and you can’t go over because you don’t have the budget to come back the next day and get that sequence. But that’s a great example of our actors and crew being professional: you don’t see the exhaustion throughout that whole sequence. It’s one of everyone’s favorite bits of the film.

RC: Who did you lean on the most during production?

MC: My wife Elizabeth. She’s the one that definitely knows my quirks the most, knows when I’m getting excited, knows when I’m getting frustrated, and she would really troubleshoot problems before they even got to me. At the same time, she was always the first one that got to read new pages, and I’d ask her if something sounded right, or wasn’t working. And when it came to the editing process, she was always the first one to see a bit put together. So without my wife, I’m not sure this movie would have been made the same way.

RC: Tell me about the amazing score by Dave Anson?

MC: Dave Anson is the man! We met him through another director (Jesse Salazar III) who had worked with him on a short, and I just happened to ask him about the score. Dave actually lives in the UK, and I added Dave as a friend on Facebook. We just started talking about scores and what he liked and what I liked. After browsing some of his work, we definitely felt like he was the one to bring that voice to life for the film. One of the biggest things we talked about was Average Joe’s theme. It’s not heard a lot in the film, but he definitely “earns” his theme, so we were selective with playing it too much. But I admit the first time I heard the track, it made me so emotional because it was everything I had asked for: a little bit of “Top Gun” rock n roll in there, a little bit “Superman.” Dave’s work always feels emotionally driven and that’s what makes him such a great composer.

RC: Are you submitting to festivals now? How can everyone at Rogue Cinema find “Now Hiring”?

MC: We are in the process of going the festival route right, and submitting to distributors for acquisition. There’s no news on release dates yet for DVD as of yet, so keep checking back on our website for updates on screenings (http://nowhiringthemovie.com)

RC: Have you had enough time to consider what you’ll be working on next?

MC: Absolutely. Jason Scarbrough (who plays the Nightwatchman) and I are in our 2nd draft of an action thriller called “E.L.I.T.E.” It’s equal parts “Lethal Weapon”, “Bourne Identity”, and “The Raid”, with the spirit of 80s buddy cop movies alive and well in it. Scarbrough is the lead, and we’re extremely excited to be working again alongside some of the same cast and crew and tackle another genre piece that elevates our game yet again. We’re still in the early stages of screen tests and casting, but it’s shaping up to be an even bigger project than “Now Hiring.”

RC: Thanks a lot Mark and everyone here at Rogue Cinema wishes you success with “Now Hiring.”

MC: Thank you all for supporting independent filmmakers. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Phil!