I sat down with Catholic filmmaker James Pinedo to hear more about his inspiration, the interplay of faith and art in his life, and his latest film, Extrovert.
Q: So, tell me about how you got interested in filmmaking, and what made you want to pursue it.
A: I became interested in being a filmmaker back when I was 11 or 12 and I started reading a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. The way I got into Chesterton, and I think he was the guy that pushed me first, was my godfather died, and he had this book about the Complete Father Brown Stories at his bedside. He died unexpectedly of meningitis, and so when we went to his home and found him there, it was a big shock to the whole family, and we were all just trying to put together the pieces and what happened, because my godfather was my uncle, so he was my dad’s best friend, because they were brothers and really close growing up. And it was really…it was huge for our whole family, just came out of nowhere. So we’re trying to find the pieces of his life just so we could remember him better, and there on his bedside [table] is the Complete Father Brown book. And I still have the book, I’ve read it, I don’t know how many times, countless times, it’s falling apart now, I’ve taped so many pages back together that you can see rows of tape upon tape upon tape just trying to keep this thing put together, but I loved it. It was amazing. It got me interested in acting, because in particular the secret of Fr. Brown was…I think every actor needs to read that book, because that’s the most method idea of acting that you can get. And I was totally captured by this man, G.K. Chesterton, who told stories that had these shatter points of truth. He was a philosopher that was a brilliant storyteller. And that has still caught my imagination to this day, how a philosopher can tell stories and give specific ideas through his plot points, characters, and dialogue. And I was thinking, “Okay, if G.K. Chesterton were here now, what would he be?” And 12-year-old me thought that he’d probably be a director, he’d probably be a filmmaker, so I thought, “I want to be a filmmaker like him.” And definitely, the 12-year-old me could have been wrong, but the 27-year-old me is still thinking that that’s probably what he would be, and so, I’m still trying.
However J.R.R. Tolkien, with his imagination that he had was another influence. I started reading Tolkien about that same time, about 11 or 12. But I started appreciating him even more when I was in college and studying all the philosophy that underpinned all of his fantasy. And the phrase in particular that he said that made me think he could be a filmmaker, was that in fantasy, talking about storytellers, "we may actually assist in the effoliation of creation". And I realized, "that makes me on the level of a co-creator,” and that gives me just visions of a garden, getting to actually till the soil and grow these things, the essence of the universe, and adding to that through fantasy. And I thought “this is amazing, this is what I want to do, what I want to be.” And it still propels me to keep on going with film, somehow, some way.
I guess a third guy that propelled me to want to go into film was Stan “The Man” Lee, the comic book writer. For people that might not know him, he was the guy that made Spider Man, Fantastic Four, and all the Marvel superheroes that are coming out in movies, like X-Men and things like that. The stories that he created were brilliant. I remember there was one Avengers comic in particular that I’ll never forget. It was one of the more popular Avengers that came out. It’s a bunch of superheroes gathered in a room, and it’s the Earth’s mightiest heroes, like Thor, God of Thunder, and Captain America and Iron Man, and Stan “The Man” Lee finishes the comic with this line: “But still, the most powerful weapon in this universe is prayer.” And that’s the final line of the comic book. And I thought, "that is amazing, I love this!” He had this depth of imagination, but still grounded in these values that made these points that I’ll never forget my whole life long. You know, when Thor says something like that, or it might have been Captain America…I don’t remember which superhero said it, but that’s what they said because one of the characters was dying and they were all gathered in the room trying to pray for this character to not die, and I still get chills just thinking about it… Yeah! Thor’s right!” So Stan Lee’s kind of a combination of Chesterton and Tolkien where he’s all about the fantasy…superheroes that stand for larger values and messages behind them. And that’s really what I think resonated with the audience when they first came out, which was that they were good literature, built upon archetypes that you see in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance. Fairy tales have always been built on values that we apply to everyday life, and that’s what Stan Lee would do so wonderfully in these epic fantasy stories about these superheroes.
So those three guys really were a big influencers and my little brain concluded, “I want to tell stories like them in film, because that’s what they would do if they were in this day and age.” Now, I could have been wrong, and Stan Lee might think completely differently, “No, I’m a comic book writer.” But that’s how my ambition got started.
Q: So now that you are a filmmaker, how does your faith inform your filmmaking? Does it work vice versa as well, your faith being impacted by filmmaking?
A: Yes. I feel that my faith informs everything that I do, even if I’m not consciously thinking about how my faith needs to inform when I’m waking up in the morning, or things like that. But I am someone who strives to live out his faith and if I’m being consistent, that needs to translate into everything that I do... so if it’s going out with friends, if it’s dating, if it’s my job as a filmmaker, it carries through, just to be consistent. There’s not an off switch that I can pull. Now, on a more practical basis, how does my faith inform filmmaking? It means a lot of the time that I am often dreaming of my own stories to tell more than dreaming about telling other people’s stories because a lot of time, those stories don’t connect with me as much, probably because of my faith background.
Q: What do you mean?
A: Well, I’m not going to be as connected to a story about a stripper and a drug dealer sort of thing, which, you know, going to UT [University of Texas] film school, there was a lot of that. Many people were interested in telling those kinds of stories, and I was more interested in fairy tales about literal fairies. That was one of the stories I told, about a fairy and a little girl, or a kid playing baseball or stuff like that. So I guess I don’t take as many jobs, I guess you could say. That would be one practical way that my faith affects me as a filmmaker. But in a more motivational way, I think it’s a little deeper, because in filmmaking things get rough a lot. You have a lot of moments of doubt, and a lot of moments of crunch time. Every profession has that, but in filmmaking it’s a lot of “hurry up, hurry up and wait, wait, wait.” And when you’re hurrying up, it’s like do or die, you tear your hair out, you’re gonna not sleep for days and days, and when it’s wait, wait, wait, there’s no money, I can’t do anything now, so just wait, wait, be patient, be patient, be patient.
So in both of those times, I think something that really informs patience and affords me to continue is the motivation for why I’m doing this. Sometimes I often catch myself doing things selfishly, and I realize that’s when I’m most unhappy about being impatient or about just crashing on a project. But when I can remember the motivation behind the reason why I’m a filmmaker, then I’m able to actually do my job better and be a happier person. And my motivation has to be informed by my faith, because the only way that a filmmaker can do something that I’ve found is worth doing, is if he’s doing the job of a Chesterton or Tolkien. In a very crude way of me putting it, they’re bringing souls to Christ, because they’re showing those shatter points of truth. They’re showing the audience that they speak to these shatter points of truth. And so on just a very, very broad spectrum, if I can sit back and say, “Okay, I’m crashing on this project because souls cost. Each soul costs something.” And if I’m doing this project for that, that maybe one soul can watch this and say, "This is interesting. I want to think about this more.” or maybe “I want to actually appreciate my family more.” Or do something with a little more cognizance about why they do it or who they do it for, then that’s worth something, because we’re bringing souls to Christ maybe one step closer, and that’s something that’s lasting, and that’s something that can sustain me even when I want to just go be a bartender in Costa Rica, which is my go-to fantasy when things get bad. So I think that faith really informs the motivation for me behind the scenes, even if I’m not talking about a faith-based project or working on [one], I can find the reasons, like “Okay, this scene in particular, or this line in particular, this is what I’m hoping brings maybe one soul a little bit closer to Christ .” And it’s a motivation that I try and hold onto in my day-to-day work.
Q: Has your faith been informed by filmmaking?
A: Yes, absolutely. My favorite thing about being a filmmaker is being on set. I love being on set. And there are certain moments when you can hear the music of the scene even though you’re shooting it, and obviously there’s no music when you’re shooting a scene, but you can hear the music of it, and you can feel the flow of the editing, the flow of the actor, and you can feel the flow of the cinematography and the DP and the sound guy, and it’s all these different people working in unison. And you feel this collaborative effort. You can hear the composer composing and the mixer mixing and everything coming in. And it could be a complete fantasy in my own head, but when there’s a moment like that, it’s almost…it’s hard to explain, but it’s like you can see between the cracks of the mountain, and it's like, “Oh my goodness!” This moment of beauty right here, this moment of truth that I’m experiencing…the audience may never get this, the audience might never reach this little moment that we had, and I hope that they do, but that little moment of beauty changes me as an artist. Because whenever you encounter beauty like that, it has to change you. It’s like seeing a sunset that you never forget, or having a conversation with a friend or a loved one that you’ll remember to the end of your days, because art is objective truth, or can be objective truth, in a way. And when you experience it on set like that, which I have on a few occasions, it does change me. And that might be my way, there are other people that have their own way of experiencing God in their work, and I believe that everyone is called to experience God in different ways, but there have been times when I’ve felt like that was an experience with God on set, and that’s really informed my faith in a lot of ways.
Q: What is your current project, The Extrovert, about? What inspired it?
A: Yes, The Extrovert. In The Extrovert, Thomas wakes up in a darkened hospital ward with no memory of his past besides a few glimpses of a beautiful woman and an inherent fury at God and all who believe in Him. He soon faces the reality of Hell as his soul teeters between this world and next while he witnesses through an out of body experience the struggle his wife faces as she feels the pressure to make the terrifying decision to pull the plug on his life support, but a young hospital chaplain, Fr. Peter, who somehow is able to communicate with Thomas, strives to stave off pulling his plug and pull him from death’s door.
The inspiration was a lot of different things that came together. The inciting incident was, I was working on a documentary called The Choice Wine. It was an hour-long session and it had a big section about near-death experiences. And in that there was this one particular study that was shown in a book called The Lazarus Project, in which scientists are actually trying to come to terms with the fact that when someone dies and then they’re resuscitated and they come back, they have this knowledge of things that are going on in the room, or even outside of the room sometimes. People are hearing these things that, since they’re dead, they were not conscious of or shouldn’t have any knowledge of it. And the scientists keep on having these documented cases where this happens, people are resuscitated with this knowledge, and they don’t know what to do. So this book in particular called The Lazarus Project was trying to come to terms with the "why" of all this, and in the end of the book, they express, “Eh, well, there’s something out there that we’re not quite sure of.” I thought their shrug was so very boring. That’s a boring ending. However, as a faith-based person, this is a really interesting story, let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about how there IS an after-life, and what does that look like, and what if someone was having a near-death experience, and they’re experiencing all these things, and they can’t communicate with anyone because they’re in a comatose state, or they’ve just died or something like that…let’s talk about that. That’s kind of a seed for a story. So that’s kind of what started me writing and where the script took off, and it went on different paths after that, but that was the inciting incident.
Q: So what is your hope for this film?
A: Well, I hope that it finds an audience, that it’s able to speak, to connect with people. I mean, I think every artist wants to connect in some way with an audience, and, you know, that’s the big hope. And then beyond that, there’s that primary motivation that we talked about earlier, that it might come into play. That would be amazing. But when you ask that and I answer like that, I want to just say that there’s a group of artists that came together to make this film, and it’s almost completed and artists are still working on it now, but the fact that these artists have come together and they’ve collaborated and told this story…I know it changed me somewhat, and I think it changed several other artists as well, just by working with each other, and telling this story together. And so, even if it doesn’t find an audience, it’s not like I view The Extrovert as a failure. So when I say that my hope is to find an audience and connect and be able to hopefully fulfill that primary motivation somewhat, I’m also saying that with the realization that it’s not something that has to happen for it to be a success.
Q: Were you influenced by the debates about euthanasia?
A: Yes…but…I come from a very pro-life family. My dad was pretty much weekly going out to the abortion clinic to say the Rosary or just be there, and I would often go with him, and, you know, for a teenager, a middle school kid, to get up on a Saturday morning at six in the morning to go to an abortion clinic, which is probably the most boring thing ever, I had to really come to understand the whole idea around what does it mean to be pro-life? And so, as I was trying to figure this stuff out, that definitely informed me telling this story. Most of the people that have really been inspired to work on this story have been inspired by the idea that every life is precious, even ones that might be comatose or ones that might not be able to speak for themselves. So I guess…I don’t know if I can say directly that I’ve been influenced by the debate, but I’ve been very influenced by this embracing of life, from the moment of conception until natural death.
Q: And what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a Catholic filmmaker, both with this film and in general?
A: Well with this film, one of the big things that I wanted to do with this film was work to a strength, where we tell a very confined story that is within our means to tell very succinctly and very well, and then working with a lot of means that we have on hand…locations, equipment, actors, things like that. So I would say that being a filmmaker who is Catholic has actually been helpful, because the whole idea was conceived when I was breaking it down to make it work to these strengths. I think it would not have been able to get done if not for the fact that it involved working with a lot of other filmmakers of faith, not just Catholic, but filmmakers who want to glorify God through their artistry, or at least filmmakers of good will. And so I don’t think that it’s negatively affected this project. I think that there’s a lot of upheaval going on now where there are a lot of filmmakers who are Catholic, people of faith, that are really starting to make a difference in different ways. So I think that a lot of artists are going to rise up and start telling a lot of wonderful stories. They’ve started already, but I think there will be even more. There’s like a revolution going on. So I want to preface with that. But on the other hand, there aren’t much established means of production. And once you have something produced, there are not established arms for distribution. And so there are a lot of people that when they invest, they want a guarantee that the project is going to be shown in theaters, when the only way we can guarantee that is if we make a project that gets shown in theaters, and we need investments to make that happen, and it’s like a circle of pain that is hard to break out of. And so I think that that’s one of the big challenges, there’s that lack of established means of production and then after something is lucky enough to be produced, for distribution. It’s not just faith-based filmmakers that have that, on the other hand, I mean, everyone has that problem. It’s just that traditionally, since like the ‘50s or so, it’s been harder to get those stories and film ideas told in the studios. So I think there’s been a feeling that there’s an underrepresentation of that type of viewpoint for a long time, but I think that’s changing. I really do.
Q: So is that the reasoning behind doing an IndieGogo campaign?
A: Indirectly, yes. The IndieGogo campaign kind of came about where we showed the first 30 minutes back in Houston, where the film was shot and where I’m from, and there were a lot of people that said, “Oh, we really love this, this is awesome, we want to help you guys finish up and get the rest of the movie done because we want to see this thing.” But they weren’t in the position where they could qualify as investors, they were people that just wanted to help out with the project, and so the IndieGogo campaign is something where we thought, “Okay, let’s give them the means to help out very simply and easily and contributors can see what there is left for us to do.” And since we’re so close, even those small contributions are super helpful.
Q: What do you need the funds for?
A: We’re working on visual effects. That’s the last thing. There are some really cool scenes actually at the end of the movie that I won’t tell you about because you have to watch the movie to see—they’re awesome, though—that we need to get the funds to finish up. There’s a stigma about faith-based artists or people that work on faith-based projects where that means that you have to work for free, but that shouldn’t be the case because artists still need to feed their families. So we need to get enough so that the artists can feed their families and work on the project, the final few scenes. And there’s also some rotoscoping that we need to do.
Q: What is rotoscoping?
A: Well I can tell you how it applies to this film, because it’s a pretty cool story, and then I’ll explain what rotoscoping is. So we were shooting in a medical school back in Houston, and it was probably a convoluted way, but we had the actor look like he was hooked up to a vitals machine, but we didn’t want his vitals to be displayed on the machine, because it needed to be a specific story point that there’s a different type of vitals. So instead, the nurses that were helping us set up the vitals to a medical dummy, like a $75,000 medical dummy that you just press the button and it’s in cardiac arrest or whatever. So we had the vitals on the screen, and we have some very intricate camera work and scene…a lot of people are yelling and screaming because it’s a super dramatic scene, and the dummy, which had been running all day, which we were scared to touch because all the nurses were like, “Oh, this is a $75,000 dummy, so don’t break it.” Everyone on set was thinking, “we are not touching this dummy because the nurse, the professional, is here.” Well, it started to overheat. So you can imagine this $75,000 and there’s smoke coming out of its ears. Well, the nurses weren’t happy, and we weren’t happy because when the nurses weren’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, and so the machine that was supposed to display the vitals for that scene broke down, and we didn’t have the time to reset and bring in another dummy, because crunch time was going and we just had to shoot the scene. So in this case, often times it’s easy to superimpose vitals onto a screen, or whatever you want, but since the camera work is so intricate and there are so many people crossing in the foreground and background, we’ll have to cut out from that frame and mask whatever’s passing in front of it, basically cut out whatever’s coming in front of it so we can display properly what the vitals are supposed to be for that scene. And that’s what rotoscoping is, it’s when you go frame by frame to put something in or cut something out which should be there or shouldn’t be there. So we have to do that for a couple of scenes because the dummy started overheating. But not all of them, thankfully, because we got the dummy working again.
Q: The dummy was saved?
A: The dummy was okay, it was just put on ice for a while, but there was an unhappy nurse and I had an unpleasant meeting with the dean in which she was reprimanding me, from one dummy to another.
Q: Thank you for sharing your insights and experience as a Catholic filmmakr, is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you very much for interviewing me and I hope that people get to watch the Extrovert really soon.
You can find out more about James Pinedo here and more about The Extrovert here, and to contribute to the IndieGogo campaign, go here.