A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to of meet writer and film director, James (B.J) Pinedo II. He had just completed his new film, The Extrovert, and had flown in to host a theatrical screening for his cast and crew, and their family and friends. I had the distinct pleasure of being tasked with facilitating the screening and have to say James is genuinely one of the warmest filmmakers you will ever meet. It was a busy night but James was gracious enough to afford me a few minutes to answer a few questions for our Influx Magazine readers.
Tonight was a packed house for your screening. That’s got to be great validation for an aspiring filmmaker. James, or do you prefer B.J., tell me how you decided you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Through high school, I was B.J. But when I went to college, no one would believe that was my name, so ever since then it has been James – so James is perfect!
Around 12 years old, I read The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien. It changed my life; I couldn’t eat or sleep until I finished that book. Thankfully, I finished it in about a day and a half so it did not seriously endanger my health. Tolkien captured my imagination so vividly that I saw the book unfold as a series of scenes that played within my head. I basically shot the LOTR films inside my head before I watched PJ’s works of art. Around that time I started to read a lot of G.K. Chesterton’s novels – The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Ball and the Cross, and, although these books did not similarly effect my appetite (my copy of the The Ball and the Cross does still bear the mark of the meals that I ate while I read it), they left the same mark upon my imagination. They awakened a desire within me to tell stories, that is, to be a storyteller as these men were, but in a way that would give outlet to the scenes that were now parading up and down my brain. Using that same little brain, I reasoned that the tools that I saw filmmakers using in movies today matched the breadth and depth of imagination that Tolkien, Chesterton and Stan Lee (who also really effected me, but I have been reading him since before I could read) had, and so I decided that if they were in their prime story telling years in this day and age, they would be filmmakers. I also looked around me and saw that most of my friends could care less about reading, even though that was what I did most of the time, and so I wanted to speak to the world as I found it and for the world that I perceived. That is why I decided to be filmmaker. I have been trying ever since.
That’s definitely a great foundation for the process. Though you've done some shorts and episodic work, this is your first feature. How did it feel seeing your work on the big screen?
Oh man, the first time I saw The Extrovert on the big screen I was SO nervous that something would go wrong! I thought for sure that at any moment the projector bulb would blow, the sound would cut out or an earthquake would hit and the screening would be a failure. I was so sick to my stomach with the anticipation of disaster that it was pure torture. It didn’t help that all throughout film school my work would resonate well with my professors but would generally fall flat with my peers, (I still don’t understand that) so I was worried what the audience would say. But then about halfway through the third act I realized that we were going to make it through the screening. No one had walked out, and the movie was almost to the best part. So I started to really enjoy it. I realized that this moment was a gift. I was able to tell a story to a group of people in the way that I had always wanted to tell a story… through a movie. That was really cool.
I’m glad the screening went off without a hitch. Did you ever think this is where you'd be back when you were an aspiring film student at the University of Texas?
Randy, I thought I would be telling stories though movies when I was a snotty nosed, little, 12 year old kid! I have never had a problem with delusions of grandeur. It’s one of my best and worst qualities. Of course, I didn't imagine any of the heartbreak and suffering it would take to tell even one story like this. So I didn't imagine everything.
So you pretty much always knew you wanted to be a filmmaker, or storyteller in some fashion. So I would say you saw yourself as being successful in your endeavor, even if you didn’t anticipate what you would have to overcome through the process. But I think you’ve done pretty well for yourself so far. You’re not only a director, but a writer as well. As both, tell me a little bit about your film, The Extrovert.
Thank you, Randy! I like how you divide the two. You feed my schizophrenia. Well, the writer in me saw this as a segmented Sixth Sense, told from a faith-based perspective. I say segmented because we tell the story from three different perspectives that really allow us to use the same big reveal at the end of Sixth Sense in completely different ways that makes the plot and story structure a fun place for a writer to play. The Extrovert is the story about a man, Thomas, who wakes up in a hospital ward and can’t remember who he is or how he got there, and no one will talk to him. He keeps on blacking out and has to come to grips with the afterlife, and he is not ready for it. Then he meets a girl, Bera, who talks to him and who wants to help but is also going through her own problems, as her mom is in a coma and the doctors don’t think she will recover. Finally, he meets the hospital chaplain, Father Peter, to whom Thomas takes an instant dislike, and Father Peter doesn’t seem very interested in helping either. We drop into each of these three characters perspective as we tell the story of Thomas – trying to figure out if he lives or dies, whether he will remember who he is and go back to his life while there is still a life to go back to.
What about the title? Can you tell me about the title of the film?
The title was inspired a lot by the The Exorcist (though mine is not a horror film). Father Peter has a lot of similar qualities to Father Karras, and so the title is a bit of homage to that film. There are other tongue-in-cheek reasons for the title, though you will have to watch the film to find them out!
When working on a film like this, how do you come about assembling your cast? Are these actors you've known, did you call them in for readings, what was the process?
As I was writing the parts for the leads, I did have specific actors in mind for some of them – actors with whom I had worked in the past, and I approached them with the script, did a few scenes and was lucky enough to get them. For some of the other parts we made casting calls and went through the entire audition process. We drew from Houston and Los Angeles primarily for this production.
As a director, I love working in moments that we can improv with the actors, so I try to have an element of this within the audition process to make sure that whomever we cast is comfortable with something like that. For example, I might only give the actors half of the scene, and let them figure out how it ends. I really love that audition process. It is so exciting when someone comes in with something that you weren't expecting. But that only works if you know exactly the limits of the world you created and the condition of the surrounding circumstances of each character. Otherwise, the story will not match up, so I really have to do my homework to allow actors room to improv like that. In productions such as this, where I have to wear so many different hats, I might not have enough time to do that much legwork. That's where I'll cheat, and have actors that I trust to draw up character bios and background stories, and then make a few factual adjustments using my full knowledge of the world and then let them go interact with other potential cast-mates in a scene. That way my actors really join into the process of creating the story, become more invested in their performance and allow me breathing room to do the thousand other tasks that must be done. In this story the two female characters, Bera and Martha, really grew from letting the actresses create backgrounds during casting and preproduction. I actually included a few major elements to the script rewrites based upon what they brought me in this part of the process. It made for a way better story, just don't tell them that.
Needless to say, a process like this really limits me to working with people that I trust completely. I have to know that they are going to submit to what I know about the world and trust the decisions I draw from it so I can give them freedom to run around and play. I can't wait until we can do this even more in future casting processes. Hopefully that opportunity will come again soon, but circumstances are always sliding in this business!
Fascinating! So, you're from the Houston area, correct? But you make your home in L.A.?
I am from Houston, and yes, for the moment I live in Los Angeles. But I live wherever the work is, and that can change quickly in this business in my experience.
But you do the majority of your filming in Texas?
For the past few years I have done a lot of filming in Texas. There are a lot of ways that I have found here to save costs and get a higher production value for your budget. Plus, I love this state and try to find any reason to come back to it.
There are a lot of filmmakers who have production offices in Texas, so I’m glad to see you’re helping in making us the Hollywood of the Gulf Coast (okay, that may be asking too much), but I am glad you’re doing some work here. As I said earlier, you are also a writer. Can you tell me something about your writing process? I'm a historian by trade, so many of my ideas are rooted there, what about you?
Great question! Well, my ideas come from everywhere, songs, books, people I meet, etc., but once I have an angle my process is generally very structured. My favorite (and I think best) script I have written yet was a historical fantasy from which the main seed for the story was inspired by an argument I had with my childhood best friend, and then to flesh the story out I drew from a lot of primary sources of the Civil War. I outlined the plot carefully and then dove into the meat of the story, littering the room with little piles of books and documents of historical accounts and theoretical physics. I do not like looking online for sources. That gets really distracting, so when I can access hard copies of things and keep myself away from Google I love that, and I really hope in the future I can spend more resources immersing myself in the research of the story but also staying off the internet. In this movie’s case, The Extrovert was inspired by a book called The Lazarus Project, but I allowed myself a lot more freedom for writing this one. I didn’t outline or anything, I pretty much figured out where I wanted to go and banged out the story as quick I could, as I had another idea for a script that I wanted to get down at the very same time and yet did not want to leave this story in an unfinished state. It took me about 10 days of making excuses and apologies for all other obligations and really digging into the story. Of course, I rewrote it later when we got the funding to shoot it. I generally have to do a rewrite two or three times before I am closer to being satisfied.
So I suppose my process is a bit eclectic, if that makes any sense.
Yes, that totally makes sense! It’s incredible the process by which someone comes up with a story, starting out as just an idea in their head, and then is involved all the way through the process of getting it produced and completed. Kudos to you, sir. So, what's next for The Extrovert? Film festival submissions? What are your plans for the film?
We are talking to a couple distributors in Los Angeles, but I have always wanted to have a film premiere at SXSW, so I am definitely going to try to go the festival route as well. I’ll have to see what the best decision for this project is and make the call based on what is available to me.
I know you’re busy and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I hope I get the chance to see the film soon. As you know, I was able to see bits and pieces during the tech check process with you (as well as peeking in every now and then during the screening). It looks great and I can’t wait to see it. Thank you again, James.
I hope that you can sit down and see the film soon, Randy. Thank you for interviewing me!
For more information on filmmaker James Pinedo II, you can drop by his website, www.poetandlunatic.com