Beginning its theatrical run soon, Leon Rodriguez’s “Double Tap” is a “color conscious” tip of the hat to detective film noir, starring Pepe Serna from “Scarface,” “American Me” and “Caddyshack II.”
We recently spoke with Rodriguez about “Double Tap.”
Where and when did you start filmmaking? ^ My father was my first inspiration since infancy. That’s where I fell in love with the sound of that magical flutter of the shutter advancing film through the gate. So in my mind I started making films watching Dad shoot 8mm and 16mm films. He learned in the service during WWII. His cinemagraphic training never has left him. Our vacation films always looked good enough to be documentaries. Even now when we watch a film together we talk about the nuances of the cinematography. I wrote my first play at age 8. I shot surf movies on 8mm since about age 14. I shot a lot of stills too. I had a black and white darkroom in the laundry shed out back with all my Dad’s passed down gear. It was an awesome way to learn basics. Dad is a great teacher. He’s 81 and knows all about Eyemo’s, Bell & Howell’s, Mitchell’s and others. Movie cameras are a common bond. We both love them.
I came to film opportunities through music really. I had a long and rewarding career in the music business. So when music videos came around, I was greatly influenced by this. This was before MTV. I was working for Frank Zappa in El Ley. He had a sound stage at Producer’s Studio on Melrose. The movie biz was all around us. It just brought out my already substantial love for film. I had a career going in music biz but I always knew film is where I belonged. Yet, at the same time, I also knew Hollywood was not where I wanted to be. It’s a different culture. I’ve always found that staring into a mirror at myself impedes my view and subsequent perspective on the world. I’m a Texan. I make no apologies about that.
What inspired you to make “Double Tap”? ^ It’s a true ‘labor of love’ tribute film to our legendary Hispanic icon, Pepe Serna. After forty years in Hollywood, Pepe deserved to carry a through-line all the way to fruition. Pepe is an amazing actor with fathomless depth. He means the world to all Hispanics who work in film. He did what was impossible to do at the time that he did it. Things were bad for Chicanos when he split Corpus Christi, Texas for El Ley.
It’s actually not much better now. If there is a disparity in Pepe’s fame among the common press vs. the Hispanic World. That microcosm is a clear Polaroid snapshot example of the isolation of the Hispanic American world in the view of America at large. This observation is offered without any regret, malice or expectation, but only as an insight from a fellow American for the sake of clarity.
Pepe and I grew up in the same “barrio”, (a heritage specific neighborhood) in Westside Corpus Christi, Texas. He was the big brother of Richard Serna who was more my age in school. Pepe was the guy from the ‘hood’ who just up and decided that he was going to Hollywood because he was born to be a player. Just a guy who believed the American Dream straight ahead with no fear of the actual existing difference between the ideal and the real social structure of America at the time when they were still lynching Mexican Americans for falling in love with the wrong person’s daughter. That’s about more than acting. That’s about courage and character and faith. That’s Pepe. Ask anyone who knows him.
How did you assemble the leads in your cast? ^ First, Pepe brought in Fabian Carrillo, whom he had done ‘The Latin Dragon’ with. Fabian is the first Latino Martial Arts Hall of Famer. The three of us formed the core of the production. Reni Santoni was a good friend of Pepe’s for many years and he agreed to do it strictly for Pepe. He had actually acted with Pepe in his first Hollywood movie together, The Student Nurses. Evelina Fernandez and Pepe had done Luminarias and American Me together and are great friends. She was generous to me with her knowledge and just plain fabulous. She’s a great filmmaker in her own right. I respect her immensely. Pepe had introduced me to Jose’ Jose’ at a L.U.L.A.C. Convention in San Antonio a couple of years back. He had my DP demo and we had planned some live performance stuff together so when Pepe told him that we were going to do this thing, we asked if he wanted me to write him in. He said, “Sure, let’s do it”.
Fabian knew Rebecca Grant and Daniel Baldwin. Fabian also brought in James Bruner and Elizabeth Stevens to co-produce with him. Jim had written and produced all those Chuck Norris films and has an elegant touch for action visualization. John Farley, who is brother to the late, great Chris Farley and just as funny, is Jim and Elizabeth’s Son-in-Law, so I wrote a pivotal part for him with a comedic core. Fortunately for us, he responded to it. When I went to El Ley to do the read through I met another actress who read with us. She’s an ex-model for Victoria Secret’s named Theresa San-Nicolas. I loved what she did with the read and I offered her a part on the spot. I’m glad I did. She was great. When it’s right it’ right. I’d recommend her. Actually I won’t have to. You’ll see for yourself. She’s brilliant. Easy on the eyes too.
There are also a whole parcel of very reputable martial artist stars in this picture that worked with us out of respect for Fabian Carrillo. Guys like James Lew (Collateral, Traffic) and Tsuyoshi Abe, (Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3). Tsuyoshi brought 18 black belts with him. It was like watching a lethal ballet when these guys were working. All that aerial hang time was one reason I decided to shoot it on the Panasonic VariCam. I knew I’d need frame rates but we couldn’t afford film. Tsuyoshi directed the action sequences. He taught me some great stuff about shooting fight sequences. He is a master of the fight genre. I count myself fortunate to have watched him work.
What do you think drew these actors to your film? ^ It wouldn’t have been me. I’m nobody. I really think it came about as a response to Pepe’s getting his first lead part after 100 + features and 300 + television parts. Just professional respect. Unspoken respect. It was a cool vibe. It was a joy to witness, a pleasure to shoot and even more so to direct. I’m just lucky that Pepe saw something in my work and in me. He’s has been an advocate of my filmmaking for many years. I’m really here for the same reason those actors are. Massive respect for a lifelong film professional who deserves to finally call himself a ‘star’. I’ve wanted to write him a part for years. I sent him a script I wrote in 1998 called The Accident that I wrote for him. We came close to getting it funded a few times but it’s a bigger movie and it will be a while before I get the credibility to do that one. I really like it though. A friend and I also wrote an episode for him when he was ‘Tio Jorge’ in the Kingpin T.V. series. I don’t know if the producer ever read it. The series didn’t get picked up again for second run. The series didn’t get picked up again for second run. I’m writing another small budget feature for him and Bryan Jennings, another actor friend from Rude Guerilla Theater in El Ley called Infinite Shades of Gray. I also wrote him a short called A Change of Career, which is pretty cool as shorts go, but then we figured, I ought to just be writing him an affordable feature. So that’s what I did. I wrote it in three and a half weeks as Clean Sweep, doing continuous rewrites as new cast members came on board. Apparently there’s also a cable show about maids or something with the same name. A fact I couldn’t possibly know since I can’t afford cable. Fabian got attached to the name Double Tap from a cool line that Jim Bruner gave us.
What were some major lessons you learned in making this film? ^ Technically, I’m pretty solid but I’ve learned the hard way that the most valuable thing any Indie can have on his crew is loyalty. It’s also the hardest thing to find. I regard everyone in my crew as filmmakers and a creative filmmaker can learn how to do the specific job to which he or she is assigned if he or she can see the final objective. My keys are highly experienced and they’ll guide on set. Nothing wrong with a fresh viewpoint on how to do something. Eventually I hope to have a crew I can trust and that trusts me. I’d so much rather deal with a bit of inexperience from a loyal person with high potential who’s glad to be there than the constant stream of guile and betrayal that comes from disloyal and nefarious ranks. That’s the biggest thing that keeps Indies down in my opinion. That kind of nonsense is enough to frighten away investors.
I’ve spent 3 times the amount of money to protect myself from dishonesty and greed in my crews than I have Hollywood sharks. I think I understand it too. It’s about hunger. It’s because the farther down the Maslow scale from which one must operate, the more the persistence of survival pushes the line of immorality someone will cross to conspire for a piece of the already insufficient budget which is clearly allocated for the film.
It takes faith to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Faith is an attribute of loyalty. My goal is to have a group of filmmakers with a common vision collaborating to an identified end. I’ve yet to be blessed with that. I could tell you stories that would make your jaw drop. I’m paying off a legalized blackmail as we speak, whereby an unscrupulous A.C. ends up with more money than the rest of the whole crew put together including the DP and Director because he slipped me a document to sign at 4:00 am in the middle of inventory prior to catching a red-eye flight to a shoot. After being paid his weekly wage every Friday on location, he had been planning throughout that I came home to a lawsuit! He had plugged in his own numbers for a huge balloon payment and even wanted to be labeled the producer of the show! The document that he slipped to me to sign clearly stated that he didn’t even have to be able to do the job for which he was hired to do. So his incompetence was protected. Impeccable planning! It wasn’t even my film! I was just the hired Director. That’s a true story. That particular film never got finished because of that guy. I don’t get it. I can’t even think like that. That kind of nonsense makes an already tough situation near impossible. Can you image pulling food out your kid’s mouth to pay this kind of person? Who can afford to be fighting guys like that in court all the time?
One hates to give up the internal desire to trust. I can’t give up that critical quality and still create art. Not possible. I have no skill at detecting con artists and it has always hurt me. It’s not fair to the real troupers in the crew who give 100% every day for their fair pay, meager as it is. It’s an enormous drain on the total and finite reservoir of energy and limited resources that could be otherwise optimized to the greater advantage of the film. It’s about the damn film! Not the individual collaborators. That includes me. The film is the thing. I hang on tenaciously because I believe in the film itself. I mean, why are we here if not for the film?
From a business perspective, Independent filmmakers exist in a world that is not supported or protected by an organized set of rules that have been fostered by the business of a century of filmmaking. Rules that understand and default to what’s best for the film itself. Our support generally comes piecemeal from sources that often have nothing to do with filmmaking. Sources trying to find their place in the business and wondering what their investment is going to buy them. Hence, the dichotomy surfaces whereby, on the one hand, you will try to accommodate the investor’s vision for themselves in the industry and still get your picture made regardless of how it impacts the original vision, trusting that the vision is strong and unique enough to survive the outside influence or on the other hand, retain a purist approach that risks never getting the project onto the screen at all. Every Indie has to deal with that very personal decision at one time or another.
I am a Father and Husband so I don’t have the luxury of total altruism. Although I’m obliged give weight to the ‘Cheerio’ factor, (i.e. Are there enough Cheerios for the kids in the pantry), The artist in me tends to set pretty fixed limits. I’m protective of the film’s integrity. The film is the master whom we all must serve to benefit from our collective collaboration.
Who are your influences? ^ As a writer, I grew up with J.D. Salinger as a big literary hero, Jack Kerouac too, There’s David Mamet, of course. I like Beth Henly, Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neil, Paddy Chayefsky, Edward Albee, Rod Serling, Neil Simon, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekov, Woody Allen, Robert Towne, Larry McMurtry, I could go on and on. My taste runs the gambit. What I care about is the human adventure. What is the sequence of events and emotions that unfold the greater truth beneath? All great literature is really about that. Truth. That’s it. Just a lot of ways to track it.
My favorite directors are John Cassavetes, David Lean, John Huston, John-Luc Godard, Nora Ephron, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Billy Wilder, Steven Soderbergh, Francis Coppola, Tony and Ridley Scott, Coen Brothers and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. These directors, among others, really know the human condition and more importantly know how to communicate this to the audience in their own personal style. To the future, I think George Clooney is going to surprise the world with the films he will bestow on the world before it’s all said and done. I see the integrity of his work. He gets to me.
My favorite cinematographers are too many to name but right off the top of my head, John Alton, Gordon Willis, Bruno Debonnel, Janusz Kaminski, Edwardo Serra, Robby Mueller, Ted McCord, Guillermo Navarro, Rodrigo Prieto, Conrad Hall, Reynaldo Villalobos, Vilmos Zigmund, Raoul Coutard, Darius Khondji, Sven Nykvist… too many to name. I tend to be touched by cinematographers with a voice. I’m not afraid of color and I’m not afraid of the dark to use as critical elements to the story telling.
Even though I’d rather be directing one of my own scripts, I make my living as a cinematographer. There’s more work as a shooter than as a director. I’m practical that way. When I was in the music biz, I found I could make a more consistent living mixing than playing. When I’m a DP, I absorb the director’s vision and try to interpret it. I forgo shot designs that I myself would do personally in favor of designing shots that interpret my director’s sensibilities. Austin has a zillion young directors and working for them keeps me fresh. The pay is abysmal but I’m not in it for money. A fact all too easy to prove.
Consequently, on my own scripts, I direct and DP simultaneously. I’m interpreting me. I’m so clear about how I want to light it and shoot it; I would hate to put a creative cinematographer in a position where I’m constantly making adjustments to his creative contribution. That would be wrong. When I’m DP’ing for that kind of a director, I find it very trying. I really just need great operators who can fend for himself if I need to attend to the actor to get over a dramatic hurdle without having to worry that someone is trying to hi-jack my cinemagraphic vision. The art of getting the shot itself would have to be the payoff. I’ve yet to find my ultimate collaborator. Someone willing to accept my vision of the storytelling. I want a technician, not a mentor. Many horror stories in that station. I’m taking reels if anyone is interested.
I hear this is a “color conscious homage to film noir detective movies.” What triggered this style choice? ^ The decision to create a Film Noir vehicle for Pepe came from the same reason that the original film noir pictures did. They were ultra low budget projects and they had just so many lights. We had less than a one-ton light package. So that was the first very pragmatic decision. Dark is cheaper to do. My worry was that with a dark tableau, the film would look small and feel confined. I conferred my concern with my Production Designer Chuy Carrera. He is a critical member of my team. He is really such a huge part of the soul of this picture. Big man, big talent. I said, “Chuy I want to write a film noir piece with a detective comic book look for Pepe. How can I make it feel bigger on a tiny budget?” He thought about it for about 2 minutes, then said, “Let’s take him around the world and we’ll shoot it in New Braunfels.” I said, “O.K.” And we just started working. Just like that.
I realized early on that with as much black in the picture as there would be, I was going to have to do something with the light we had so that it would pop and liven things up. So I set out to do two things. One was a style thing for the Black to White range. I guess you could call it a contrast plan. And the other was how I was going to color the light we let through. I didn’t let the fact that we didn’t have a lot of lights get to me. Rembrandt and Vermeer didn’t have a 5-ton grip and electric package either. In fact it lent itself to the idea of positive and negative space so I used ECU’s as forced perspectives in ACT I scenes to exaggerate my expectations of the audience participation in the mood I was creating. Two different moods that continuously play with and against each other. It really came together in my head while I was writing it as I recognized and responded to the fact that this was going to be a detective comic book like I used to get at the neighborhood Tienda in my barrio. The kind of detective comic book with purple pistols and bright green suits and spotlights against brick walls. I was writing the screenplay as we were planning the shoot so everything influenced everything else.
I can’t claim to understand color like someone like Storaro. The associated psychology and all that. I’m the same kind of filmmaker that I am a jazz musician – I just know what feels like it needs to be there. I try to practice trusting my intuition. Lighting a scene is a lot like playing jazz. You’re improvising on a theme with certain harmonic guidelines. Same thing.
For the color side of things I went after a vibrant saturation. I loved the way Robby Mueller used color to make a sad story in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas. It was vibrant but dark so I studied that one. Vilmos Zigmond shot a picture for Peter Fonda in 1971 called “The Hired Hand”. His night scenes were electric with color and blackness. I love the thrill of the color pops inside fields of black in Dario Argento’s work. He’s like a sinister Maxfield Parrish on the brown acid they warned us about at Woodstock. I’m Mexican American and some people still want to associate us with black velvet and florescent paint. It’s very tongue in cheek kind of humor about my heritage without puffish aggrandizing. Sometimes I visualized off of that campy, impulsive perspective just to mix it up. I’d hate to be predictable.
On the contrast side of the picture, I knew we didn’t have the budget to do a full out period piece so I just played it like an homage to film noir. I love the way cameramen like John Alton, George Barnes, James Wong Howe and Charles Lang would use shadows to break up the back walls. Since I was shooting HD with that awful depth of field, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I threw a Source 4 gobo or cookie pattern on the far plane to reflect the genre but I also softened the shadows to give it an artificial shorter depth of field. Other than that, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to make it look like film. I didn’t put any diffusion on the lens. I hate that kind of thing. In that case I might as well be out of focus. I just let it be what it was. No apologies about it not being film. To be honest I don’t think that’s really possible. It wasn’t film, so why fake it?
We had to shoot about six script pages per day with no pick-ups so there wasn’t a lot of time to mess around. It wasn’t run and gun but I rarely did more than three or four takes. There were times when all we had was enough lights to create a silhouette so that’s what I did. I’d just let myself go to how Sid Hickox shot the Bogart and Becall’s silhouette in the opening sequence to Howard Hawk’s “The Big Sleep”. I remember seeing that for the first time and transposing it to the opening to Disney’s Fantasia with the conductor in silhouette and vibrant color behind him.
I soaked up my favorite Film Noir movies nonstop for three weeks prior to starting up principle photography. If I wasn’t writing the script I was studying the shots. The ones I went back to time and again to tune in my sensibilities were Mildred Pierce, Big Combo, Laura, Casablanca, Touch of Evil, Dark Passage, D.O.A., The Big Sleep, On the Waterfront. I love Ted McCord’s interior lighting on Johnny Belinda. It’s not Film Noir, it’s just good dark lighting and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler although it’ not film noir per se, I like Eugene Shuftan’s shot of Jackie Gleason appearing and disappearing in and out of the pool table overhead lamplight. I used it for the conference room scenes. Greg Toland’s night exteriors in Long Journey Home will always be a part of me. Some images are for life.
When can audiences expect to see “Double Tap”? ^ Man, that’s a great question. I really don’t know. I’m guessing late summer, but that’s purely speculation. The film is being edited and finished in LA, but I’m not privy to any details nor am I in touch with the folks finishing out my picture. I’m hoping I’ll get invited to the premiere but they haven’t called me yet. Frankly, I don’t allow myself to have any expectations. I’m just the filmmaker. I’m the little guy in all this.
I’m just hoping this theatrical release will provide me more opportunities to make more of my own pictures. I have scripts that I really want to do. Scripts that I feel are important to all of us universally. I’m writing two more now that I’m very attached to. One of them is a true story about a horrific injustice that can still be corrected! Now that’s a reason to make a motion picture! I’ve got a very specific look in mind planned for each script. I see and hear it all at once when I write it. I’ll make films until the day that I die. Hopefully, not from starvation.