Be generous — I don’t think I need to explain this one much. Be generous with the people around you. Filmmaking is a tremendously collaborative process and you need people to trust you. I have found that the more I pay attention to what the people I am working with need and want, the better I can work with them.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing James A. Castillo.
James A. Castillo is an award-winning Director and Designer based in London, UK.
His work ranges from Illustration to art direction for virtual reality projects and everything in between. He has an interest in anything artistic that challenges the limits of what animation can achieve and loves exploring new styles and techniques.
His latest projects as a character designer include Mitchels vs the Machines, the new animated project by Sony Pictures (2020) and 3Bellow the new show on the Arcadia series by Guillermo del Toro for Netflix (2018). In the last few years, James has worked extensively on virtual reality projects: art directing Melita (2017), which amounted to more than a dozen international awards and, most recently, directing Madrid Noir (2021), which premiered at the TRIBECA Film Festival to outstanding reviews by both the critics and the public. The film was also screened at the Annecy and Cannes film festivals, among others. Madrid Noir is available on the Oculus Quest store right now.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
It’s an absolute pleasure!
I grew up in Madrid, Spain to an Irish mother, Carmen, and a Cuban father, Sergio. I am the oldest of three siblings.
My family was one defined by immigration. Both of my parents left their countries very young; one running away from a communist takeover, and the other following her ex-pat Irish family.
I had a pretty conventional Spanish upbringing. In the 90s Spain was at the height of its economic growth and everyone was feeling optimistic about the future. Franco had died only 14 years before I was born and, although it adapted really quickly to what was expected of a modern European capital, Spain was still coming to terms with its troubled history.
This is something you don’t fully comprehend as a kid, but it shapes the way you grow up.
Thanks to both my parents being international and from somewhat creative backgrounds, I grew up not really engaging with that side of the Spanish history. It also meant that I was a kid that belonged in two words. Most of my cousins, uncles and aunts lived abroad. I had cousins that were Mexican, half-Irish-half-Chinese, Cuban Americans, the list goes on. I was exposed to all sorts of cultures from an early age, which made it hard to fully understand the idea of nationalism because my family refused to choose a flag or to set roots anywhere.
Spain went through quite a lot of difficulties as the 21st century started and my demeanor quickly shifted from that of a careless happy kid, into a frustrated teenager as I saw the optimism of everyone around me turn into cynical pragmatism. My family in particular went through some very hard times. My father lost his career and my mother was trying to start a new one. Meanwhile, my siblings and I were aimlessly trying to find a way out.
I had only one ticket out; my passion for drawing. Early on I made a choice that I was going to develop my skills to make a living out of drawing. So, when the time came, I took the opportunity to learn animation and started my journey into the film industry.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I kept drawing, painting, and building maquetes through my youth and never stopped wanting to explore my ideas and have an artistic practice. But it wasn’t until my uncle Claudio brought a camera to a Christmas dinner that things started to change. It was 2001 and The Phantom Menace had just come out and, like every 12 years old at the time, I was obsessed with it. Claudio, who worked as a cameraman/editor for a news channel in the US back in the day, brought me some action figures of the main cast of the film.
Claudio had experimented with animation in his time and knew enough to explain to me the basic principles. We opened the toys, he set up the chunky video camera on the table and we proceeded to make a short stop motion film with the toys. We presented our rough film to the whole family that same night to roaring applause.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that that moment was crucial in forming a relationship with animation.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
Probably one of the weirdest and most unexpected things that happened to me early on in my career, was meeting Phil Lord (21 jump street, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse) at a family Christmas dinner in Miami.
He was just there, eating a tamale, a Hollywood director! I had just started working in the animation industry and he was positioning himself as one of the biggest animation personalities out there.
Turns out, Phil grew up in Miami and his family happened to be good friends with my uncle. The story goes that apparently my uncle, having had some animation experience, played a part in Phil’s career early on when he was in school. I had no idea about this and, as you can imagine, I was totally confused as to why would someone like Phil know my uncle!
In his favour, I will say that Phil was very kind and talked with me about the making of the Lego movie for a bit.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
For a very long time, I had this idea in my head that interesting people were all travelers, entrepreneurs, artists, daredevils and such. That there was no way anything interesting could come from suburban, small neighborhoods.
I have been lucky enough to have traveled quite a lot and met people from all walks of life and from very diverse backgrounds in romantic and mundane settings and have come to realize that there are interesting people and interesting stories everywhere.
The specificity of our lives is what makes all of us able to relate to one another because we have a shared human experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely, it takes a village. I have already talked about my uncle quite a bit, he is pretty much the front runner for “the most supportive uncle” award. I am very lucky that my family has supported me on this journey but there is also an army of teachers, friends and colleagues that together have been pushing me forward.
Someone that is worth mentioning is my friend Juancho Crespo. Sometimes it’s easy to think about the big names, those father figures that extended a helping hand, but recently I have been thinking much more about those friends that choose to accompany you along the way. I have known Juancho since we were teenagers and he has been supporting me and indulging me on crazy adventures for years. He is someone that has been there through thick and thin and I would not be where I am today without him. In fact, we were able to work together formally on Madrid Noir. He was our Art Director and it was fantastic working with someone from my hometown, who understands Madrid and was able to breathe that Spanish style into the VR experience with all his little nuanced touches.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mom, a very wise woman, used to always say to me that “you will never be aware of an opportunity until you are able to take it”.
So if you can see a path appearing in front of you, you are most likely ready to walk it. That idea helped me to believe in myself in moments of doubt because I always thought that, even if it’s scary or unclear, I was ready to go through the challenge and come out the other side a new person.
It’s an important mindset for anyone who wants to champion a creative life. I am constantly being put in situations that I think I am not ready to tackle but it is through the journey that you learn.
For example, there is no way I could have been ready to direct a project as big as Madrid Noir when we first started developing the project, we didn’t know it was going to be this big.
But I had a clear path to follow and I knew that I was going to make it to the other side, becoming a director.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I could give you a hundred reasons why!
The term “entertainment industry”, in my opinion, labels what we watch merely as a distraction. I think that definition is wrong.
We are not making entertainment, we are making culture. There is a responsibility attached with creating films, video games, music, tv shows, etc.
There is a long history of art and social movements going hand by hand, inspiring each other. We would not have the films, the music, the art from the ’60s if it wasn’t for the civil rights movement, for example.
Who can deny that the art we consume shapes the world we live in?
Here are three reasons why i think it’s important to champion diversity:
· Fresh perspectives:
Talking as an audience member, rather than as a creator, I am always looking for a fresh take or a new twist on the stories we are all familiar with. Bringing diversity to the table will guarantee that the stories are looked at from a new angle, making them more interesting, more honest and more compelling.
One of my recent favorite shows has been RAMY. A coming-of-age comedy about a young guy in NYC, but from the angle of a practicing Muslim. It’s fantastic and it brings something so fresh to the format, something that as an audience member, I had never seen before.
· True mirror of today’s society
Sometimes, when I hear people arguing about representation and diversity, it is clear that they live in a bubble. I have to do nothing but look out the window to see a plethora of colors, races and sexual orientations walking around and living their lives on the same street as me. It’s maddening to pretend that art should ignore so many sides of society. We are members of a diverse society and our cultural exports MUST reflect that.
· New stories
This one is the most obvious. How many versions of the exact same story have we watched over the years? Again, talking as an audience member, I am dying to watch new stories. Open the door to new worlds and realities that I am unaware of, I beg of you!
One example of this would be the show POSE, a beautiful drama about the transgender community of NYC in the 80s all framed around the world of voguing. I knew nothing about that world before I saw the show and I absolutely loved it.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I can’t say much about new projects, they are all still very much in the air. But what I can say is that I am working towards telling stories that uphold the values I have been talking about in this interview. I feel very strongly about our responsibility as storytellers to leave behind films that inspire and represent the new generations.
There is another personal goal of mine, which is to bring genre filmmaking into the animation industry, something that I see a lack of and that, as a consumer, I miss a lot.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
Until Madrid Noir was released I would have said that my favorite part was the development phase, the early on confusing mess of an idea that slowly starts crystallizing into something that people can get on board with and make. But I have now experienced something totally new, which is having people connect to the work you have done on a very personal level.
Recently I was on a podcast promoting Madrid Noir and I was overwhelmed by the sheer passion by which the two presenters were talking about the project and its characters. They were two grown men that confessed to having cried while engaging with the VR experience! The story I had written took a person through an emotional journey and came out the other side touched and emotional. I had never expected something I made would do that, it’s amazing!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
·It’s OK to explore.
Early on I was extremely confused about what I wanted my career to be. For a long time, I was aimlessly moving around, doing different jobs, changing countries, etc. At first, I felt quite guilty for not having a more concrete plan but as time passed and opportunities became visible I came to understand that all those obstacles and steps I took in the past were formative moments that taught me valuable lessons on leadership, creativity, versatility, communication, etc. If you feel as though you are still not the filmmaker you want to be, that is ok. As long as you are moving forward, you will be ok.
I don’t think I need to explain this one much. Be generous with the people around you. Filmmaking is a tremendously collaborative process and you need people to trust you. I have found that the more I pay attention to what the people I am working with need and want, the better I can work with them.
·Built a community, not an army
No one wants to work with a tyrant, especially early on in your career. Help your colleagues, collaborate and be supportive of other people’s efforts. It will not only help you learn more stuff, but it will also help you build a small town of people around you who want to see you succeed, who are invested in creating things with you. It’s the best way to make sure a machine runs smoothly.
·Everything is about the story.
This one took me a long time to come to terms with. Story is king. It’s so easy to get lost in the hundreds of other aspects that involve making a film, such as cinematography, casting, production design, marketing, etc. Especially for people like me, who come from the design world, a lot of the time we start with visuals first and get lost in the world building or character design when, really, the number one thing that you should be thinking about is the story. There have been plenty of situations where I have been going down the wrong path because I fell in love with one drawing and then realized that it wasn’t what the story needed, so get yourself “save the cat” by Blake Snyder, “Story” by Robert McKee or (my personal favourite) “Into the woods” John Yorke and learn a bit more about how stories are told.
·Keep it personal, it will make it universal.
I always felt growing up that I was the least interesting person on the planet. That’s why I was consumed by impossible fantasies and stories growing up. I think we tend to refuse the idea of “write what you know” because it feels very limiting and constrictive when instead we should be looking at it as the opposite. Writing what you know is the way to tell any story you want, not the other way around. If you can tap into the emotional core of what you want to tell, then it doesn’t matter whether there are aliens, dragons, cowboys or vampires, because their motivations, their inner journeys are what matter, not the other, more plot-driven stuff. Dig deep and you will find that you hold the key to every story ever told.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I have come to understand that no one is going to put money forward for me to make a film if they don’t see anything to gain from it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean profits, it could be exposure, recognition, awards, etc. Making films, animated films, VR films, live-action films — it doesn’t matter. These are tremendously expensive endeavors, and a lot of times you will have multiple financiers and they all have different expectations for the film. So, after having gone through the financing of my first film, I have a hard time putting my own personal, intimate, artistic dreams first and foremost. There has to be a balance.
For me, it’s a balance between the audience and myself. As a director/ writer you develop an interesting relationship with the way the world reacts to what you make. Whenever I am writing something I try to look at it as an audience member first and I ask myself whether I would pay to watch it. I also pitch it to friends and colleagues to measure how excited they are for it and if it’s something that they want.
A lot of the time the first motivation to make something is precise that I am looking for films, shows, games that don’t exist yet, so I go ahead and start making them up, some of them, end up becoming something.
I have grown to believe that, If I can make a strong enough case that there is an audience for the kind of films I want to make and that I am deeply and personally connected with the material, there is a high chance that someone will help me make it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I don’t know if I would be the right person to start a movement; I daydream too much.
I hold beliefs that I think will resonate with most people. Any movement that levels the playfield, that decreases the gap between the rich and the poor, that fights for the rights of the under-represented and tries to add value to our culture, has my support. I guess that means instead of me starting my own new movement, we all should be out there supporting the ongoing movements in whatever capacity we can offer; whether that is to show allyship alongside the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, or environmental activism.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
There are few filmmakers right now that make more interesting work than Guillermo del Toro. If I could catch a meal with him and talk about folk tales, myths and the power of storytelling I would jump on a plane tomorrow.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!