“I’d recently become obsessed with this photo of Lori Maddox and Jimmy Page; it just tripped me out how cavalier he was about their whole thing… I mean, fuck… that and Satanism.” Rising filmmaker Gilbert Trejo is talking us through the influences behind his upcoming debut feature, China Test Girls. Needless to say, its something of a wild watch.
A thriller with a killer wardrobe, China Test Girls’ aesthetic is unsurprising given Trejo’s exposure to an array of influences and industry from an early age; his father, Danny Trejo – who also stars in the film – introducing him to its ‘smoke and mirrors’ mystic and its reality. Also starring the likes of Sasha Grey (The Girlfriend Experience), Cade Carradine (Deadwood) and Kumar Pallana (The Royal Tenenbaums) – to name a few – the film’s independent assembly instantly gives off the quality of a cult classic.
Directed by Frankie Latina (Modus Operandi) and the first release for Manimal Films – subsidiary of Manimal Records (Warpaint, Bat for Lashes) – the likes of Yoko Ono and Peter Bjorn and John soundtrack its dark 70s arthouse motif, following a fashion photographer who lands in hot water after uncovering a murder on an undeveloped roll of film. Shot through an absurd lens, the viewer watches the crime unravel in eccentricity and a slightly offbeat approach.
From being glued to his desk in New York, to roaming around with a camera in LA, Trejo’s eye for detail, careful thought and creative expression are noted in the film’s written concept and its cinematic intrigue. It’s about expressing a different voice and reintroducing the film world to concepts perhaps forgotten or lost overtime.
Clementine Zawadzki: When did you first begin to write stories and develop your skills in the film world?
Gilbert Trejo: My Godfather was a writer, his name was Eddie Bunker and from when I was about three years old he made damn sure I read every possible thing I could. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure it’s possible to read voraciously and not conceptualise stories of your own. I’m not sure if my style has changed, I definitely love to play around with genre, like, “Let’s try a crime story… now a romance…” I’ll read something new, and play with motifs as much as possible. It’s all fun.
Clementine: Where did the idea for China Test Girls come from?
Gilbert: The idea for China Test Girls came from a few places. Frankie’s first film, Modus Operandi, was his version of a spy picture, and after that he’d really wanted to make a De Palma thriller. I’d recently become obsessed with this photo of Lori Maddox and Jimmy Page; it just tripped me out how cavalier he was about their whole thing… I mean, fuck… that and Satanism. Throw all of that together and the film starts flowing pretty easy.
Clementine: Do you feel any pressure with it being your debut?
Gilbert: When it’s a Frankie Latina picture, we all kind of serve as vessels for his vision. He has such a distinct sense of himself as an artist; it’s really easy to allow yourself to create through the filter of his mind. This new picture we’re in production on, From a Son, I’m directing my dad as a father, I’m playing the son, and it’s based on our own family’s experience with drug addiction, I can feel the pressure 100%
Clementine: What were you seeking in a cast and crew?
Gilbert: Cast and crew were pretty set from jump street, Frankie has a whole slew of Milwaukee cats that he’s always worked with, we’d had a picture fall through that Sasha was gonna star in, so we definitely wanted her. My dad made me promise that no matter what I was working on I’d write him into it, so…
Clementine: What was the visual aim of this project?
Gilbert: I’ve always said that if Frankie has one true fetish, it’s symmetry. He’s a visual director, down to his core. I was never worried about him shooting something completely beautiful… the way that might become something you could consider a problem, is that Frankie won’t shoot if he’s got nothing to shoot… we’d cruise around for hours and hours, scouting, and if we didn’t find anything… shoot it later. I don’t consider it a problem; because what more could you want than riding round for days on end with your best friend making movies, you know?
Clementine: Whose work do you most admire in film and why?
Gilbert: Oh shit… that one changes day to day. I grew up on the John Ford westerns; he’s my ace no matter what. Grapes of Wrath is the greatest movie of all time; it perfectly skirts the line between despondence and hopefulness… that’s America. Gregg Toland was a genius. Right now I’ve been stuck on John Huston’s early stuff with Bogart, and a lot of Latin American cinema, La Balandra Isabel is my favourite South American picture visually, and I’ve been digging into the whole Azteca catalogue from Mexico. I’m hoping to start up some screenings soon in LA… doing a monthly night somewhere for the history of Latin American cinema.
“I’d trip around set and ask as many questions as possible. That was school for me. I don’t know long division, but… I know the minutiae of every job on set.”
Clementine: What do you find inspires you?
Gilbert: Every film can be inspiring if you’re open to it. I’ve got friends that write movies off before they go and see them, in my opinion you can always internalise something from the story, even if it’s just what not to do. There’s always a shot or two in there that can trip you out if you’re not too busy scoffing. My friends will clown me because I can get excited about anything, but to me, film is to LA is what General Motors used to be to Detroit. I see a movie like Transformers, or those Marvel movies and, I mean… they’re not Howard Hawks, or Bergman, but I get stoked. I don’t want those to fail. Fuck the guys that made millions off of them, there’s a dude that fed his family for like three months because he booked that gig as an art pa.
Clementine: What have you learnt from your dad along the way in terms of the industry?
Gilbert: I don’t even know where to start. First off; hanging out with my dad is like a master class in how to compose yourself on set. I’ve never seen anyone work with him that didn’t have a new standard. He totally raises the bar, and forces you to rise to the occasion. As far as the industry goes, when I was a kid, if we drove past a set on the way to school, Dad would always stop in to see what they were filming. He was just starting to get some bigger roles and everyone was still scared of him, so they’d just let us onto the set. I’d trip around set and ask as many questions as possible. That was school for me. I don’t know long division, but… I know the minutiae of every job on set.
Clementine: What’s the scene in LA like for artists and writers like yourself on the other side of the camera?
Gilbert: I dig the scene in LA for guys like me. There’s always something to do, there are so many theatres doing retrospectives, the New Beverly’s always got a great calendar. It’s all out there if you want to find it. Everyone has their vision, and if you’re down to dive in feet first and help, you can always find someone who wants to help create yours. When I’m home in New York, I’m glued to my desk – write in NY, shoot in LA [laughs].
Clementine: What appeals to you about being behind the camera?
Gilbert: I just love the planning and execution that goes into any picture, all of the stress. I love six-hour production meetings and puzzling everything together. Every decision has to be the right one, it’s the best kind of pressure. Also, I’ve never really fancied myself an actor, I always end up falling in love with every character in a script for different reasons– I couldn’t imagine having to focus all of my energy on one.
Clementine: China Test Girls is Manimal Films first production. The soundtrack seems like a real focal point in creating the atmosphere of the story…
Gilbert: I’d met with Manimal about this super rad, biker-chick movie called Death Valley Hell Cats they’ve got in the works with Mandy-Lyn, and introduced them to Frankie. He showed them an early cut of China Test Girls, and they tripped out. His whole aesthetic is so immersive, and he creates this entire world, music is a huge part of that.
Clementine: Did anything surprise you along the way?
Gilbert: If anything surprises you during production, you’re in the wrong field [laughs].
China Test Girls is expected to be released in Fall 2018.