J Rick Castaneda, American film maker, in conversation with Khalid Ali, film and media correspondent
Rick Castañeda is a writer, director and producer. His works have been around the world to festivals in London, Canada, Japan, and Romania, as well as festivals in the US such as SXSW. He made over 30 short films, earning recognition from YouTube, Crackle, and Funny or Die. The 10-episode web series he wrote and directed, ‘Coma, Period’, starring Rob Delaney as a man stuck inside a coma, was given a rave review in the New York Times, and has over 1,000,000 views. He has also directed videos for Disney, MSN, MTV, Riot Games, The University of Southern California, and the US Army. His 2013 feature film, ‘Cement Suitcase’, won 5 film festival awards.
His latest feature film ‘All Sorts’ (2021) is a poignant love story between two marginalised characters Diego (Eli Vargas) and June (Greena park) working in a small office for Data-Mart Company. As the two make their way into the secret world of underground filing, and speed-filing competitions, they discover their passion for love and finding happiness the little pleasures of life. When life gets tough, escaping to a fantasy world can be liberating; Diego says to June “If two people believe in the fantasy, doesn’t that make it real?”
‘All Sorts’ is a poignant story of mindfulness, and joy in the weirdest of places. Full of eccentric characters such as Vasquez (Luis Deveze), Jason (Mike Markoff), and tender moments, the film can be seen as a surreal re-imagination of ‘Fight Club’ meeting ‘Being John Malkovich’.
Rick uses humour to explore stress, anxiety and disenfranchisement in the office space. In this podcast Rick reflects on his childhood and time spent as an office worker, and how these experiences inspired his creative writing and film career. He stresses the importance of portraying human beings from different backgrounds in his films to encourage a dialogue between cultures.
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DR KHALID ALI: Hello, and welcome to this new edition of Medical Humanities Podcast series. This is Khalid Ali, the film and media correspondent at Medical Humanities, and it’s a great pleasure to have with me here today Rick Castañeda, filmmaker and director of the film All Sorts that has premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London in November 2021. Rick, it’s great to have you here with us today. So, over to you!
RICK CASTAÑEDA: Khalid, it is so nice to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
ALI: Thank you. Can you please share with the listeners, Rick, just a bit about yourself, about your background, about your passion for film, and some of the films you’ve made before? And then that will lead us into talking about All Sorts, your most recent feature film.
CASTAÑEDA: Sure, no problem. So, I grew up in a really small town in eastern Washington state. So, that’s about three hours away from Seattle, which more people have heard about.
CASTAÑEDA: And it’s a really small farming area. We didn’t have any McDonalds. There were no streetlights. It was a very small place. And I think that that’s partly where my creativity comes from. I grew up in the countryside and there weren’t a lot of friends around. My brothers and sisters were all much older than me.
CASTAÑEDA: And so, I was kind of on my own playing on this farm, and I had to make up a lot of things for myself. And I think that that kind of went into when I first started writing in school, I remember getting assignments for creative writing and I just loved them. It was like a key sliding into a lock. I loved the feeling of writing those stories. And every time they gave us a prompt like, “Write a story about this,” I was like, wow, this is the best thing in the world. And I knew that that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. But it’s a very tough road to become a writer or to become an artist, to try to get paid for ideas. And so, it’s been very, very long, but I’ve been pursuing it all my life.
CASTAÑEDA: And this movie itself actually is about, you know, when I graduated from college, I had a degree in creative writing and a minor in filmmaking.
ALI: How did that lead you into the film world and making features and shorts? And how did you make the transition? Is that through studying, or were you exposed at an early stage, watching films either on TV or the cinema? How did that begin?
CASTAÑEDA: Well, it’s all storytelling.
ALI: Yeah, right.
CASTAÑEDA: And so, you’ll see a lot of times where a lot of the films and movies that we do have, they all came from books, and it’s because it’s, I don’t know, it’s kind of the same stuff, in its essence.
CASTAÑEDA: And so, I would write a lot of stories when I was a kid. And like, there’s not really too much you can do with them. You can have a few friends read them and whatnot, but not so much happens. And when you’re writing, it’s a lonely process. You’re just sitting by yourself alone.
CASTAÑEDA: And when I started making films in high school, I realized that it was really a great way to work with other people. I could work with my friends. We could have fun. We could make things together.
CASTAÑEDA: And then at the end of it, we ended up showing the entire high school our film, and it went over extremely well. We got so much applause, and it was such a different—
CASTAÑEDA: Such a different experience having a whole audience applaud your story than having someone kind of finish reading the pages, and they look up and say, “Oh, cool.”
ALI: Yeah. So, it was a collaborative process.
ALI: So, you enjoyed that aspect of working with others and developing this creative side together. So, that probably would lead us into your most recent feature film, All Sorts. How was that received at the Raindance Festival? And perhaps before that, tell us about the inspiration behind it and why this particular story, beautiful story of love, friendship, and loneliness between Diego and June. Tell us about All Sorts.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah. So, this movie really began, the idea for it really began about 20 years ago. And I graduated from film school and creative writing, and I just could not find a job anywhere.
CASTAÑEDA: I was applying for jobs where all you do is drive packages around the city, and I couldn’t get any of those.
CASTAÑEDA: And I finally got one job. I would get these, like they’re called temp jobs.
CASTAÑEDA: So, they’re just temporary office jobs where you’re working in a cubicle. You go in for a couple of weeks. It was usually really, someone was gonna be sick or traveling, so they just wanted someone to fill in for them, or they had all this data that they just wanted to digitize. And so, you’re sitting there with like 10 pages of spreadsheets, and all you do is typing numbers into a computer all day long, you know, 46785, and then you go to the next cell: 64327.
CASTAÑEDA: And you’re just trying not to make any mistakes or anything, but you’re really becoming a computer. [chuckles]
ALI: Indeed, indeed. Yeah.
CASTAÑEDA: And I had a few jobs where it was very lonely. The office was a very quiet place where people were kind of afraid to talk to each other ‘cause they didn’t want to get in trouble. And it was just a very weird experience. And I started writing a lot of stories in that time where something magical happens in a cubicle space. And as I look back on it now, I think what I was trying to do was I was trying to escape. I was trying to get out. I was trying to find a magical escape route out of the cubicle world. And one of those little stories that I wrote at that time was about this woman named June who was an incredibly fast filer. So, she could take file folders and just like, you know, really fast. And I invented this world of underground competitive folder filing where people meet in basements, and they bet on it. It’s funny ‘cause someone came up to me after seeing the film, and they told me that they worked at a grocery store. And that in the western United States, there are these big competitions for how fast you can bag groceries.
ALI: Right, right.
CASTAÑEDA: But I always thought about this idea of people betting and there being cigar smoke all around. And that image just really stayed with me all over the last 20 years where I was just like, I’ve gotta do something with this.
ALI: So, tell us about, so, for the listeners who haven’t watched the film—I’ve watched it at least twice by now—so, tell the listeners about Diego and June.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah. So, the main story’s about this kid, Diego, who, he enters this office, and it’s a very strange office where it’s kind of like a Harry Potter world where things can happen. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense. And he finds this really fast filer named June, and she’s just amazing. She’s the fastest filer he’s ever seen. He finds out about this underground filing competition, and he’s like, well, June has to be part of this. She’s like, she would be the best, right? And so, he becomes her coach and her manager in this world.
ALI: Yeah, and mentor. Yeah.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah. And they start to fall for each other, and that’s kind of what the center of the movie is about. Now, there’s a lot of other characters. One of the meanings of the movie’s name is that there’s all sorts of people in this office. And he does kind of, like, Diego and June joining this competition, in a way, kind of brings them all together. So, there’s a lot of other little stories going on, but the main part of the story is the romance of June and Diego, yeah.
ALI: And they start off as very lonely characters, and then by working in this boring, mundane environment and space. But they find maybe their passion for life through these competitions. So, while watching this underground mysterious world of the filing arena and competition, it felt, while I was watching, it felt like a surreal version of Fight Club. So, perhaps here, I might ask you, apart from your lived experience and working in similar office space and environments, was there any film inspirations or literary works that inspired elements of the story?
CASTAÑEDA: It’s funny because a lot of times I create these stories. And then I look back at them, and I was like, oh yeah, I did watch Fight Club around the time that I was thinking about this, or I did see this movie. But I think what we do as humans is we kind of, you know, if there was no world around us, we wouldn’t create anything. We would be nothing. We’d be blank slates. I kind of describe it as breathing in and breathing out, where it’s not the exact same air that you’re creating, but it is, you know, you do have inspiration. And so, yeah, I look back. I think that we did look at Fight Club as kind of a model like, OK, this is maybe how, maybe this is how the lighting should look, for instance.
CASTAÑEDA: Because I think the juxtaposition of taking a movie like Fight Club and then remaking it with filing, I think, is just hilarious. So, I think that’s one of the things that we were thinking about. But my inspirations are Brazil with Terry Gilliam. I love the movie Being John Malkovich.
ALI: Oh, yes, indeed. I was thinking of that as well. Yeah, carry on.
CASTAÑEDA: The director Michel Gondry’s a big inspiration. And as well as I just, I think I really liked this idea of this surreal office environment because I think it just feels that way a lot of times. Because it’s this other world where it just feels a little bit strange, like almost 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in an office cubicle.
ALI: But there is connecting themes about All Sorts, your first feature, Cement Suitcase. And I’ve seen one of your shorts, Bear Story. They all happen, the narrative and the storyline, all unfolds within an office. So, again, is that a theme, like an area that you want to express your vision and the world and this fantastical world?
CASTAÑEDA: I guess so. It’s not really something I’ve thought about consciously.
CASTAÑEDA: I think that for me, I had a really difficult transition coming out of college and going into the quote-unquote “real world” where I was really, that was one of the most depressing times of my life. I had all these big dreams about becoming a filmmaker, and it really didn’t look like it was working out. I worked at this, you know, it felt like a very dead-end job. Everybody there wanted to be making creative— You know, someone was in a band. Another person was an animator. Another person was writing scripts. None of us wanted to be there. [chuckles]
CASTAÑEDA: But we couldn’t find jobs doing what we wanted to do. So, we were all kind of in this office stuck together. And the boss was just yelling at us all the time.
ALI: It was Vasquez in All Sorts. [chuckles]
CASTAÑEDA: [laughs] Yeah. And we just really…. You know, I had this thought that like, is this how life is?
CASTAÑEDA: You really don’t have any, you don’t have any reference when you’re a kid and you haven’t had a job before of what working life as an adult is really like. And so, you look around, and you see people who are like 30 years older than you, and they’re still stuck in this job that you don’t like from the first week, right? [laughs] And so, you wonder, is this really what life is? So, I think that basically, I probably write about work stories because I think work takes a third of our life. We have a third of our life to sleep, a third of our life to work, and a third of our life maybe for ourselves.
CASTAÑEDA: And so, that really does become a large part of your existence.
CASTAÑEDA: And I think kind of figuring that out was very difficult for me, and it’s something that I, it’s maybe something that I tend to focus on.
ALI: But still, I think it’s a huge creative background to your films because all those stories, the experiences of yourself and those who worked with you, they all fed into the stories that made your films.
If I may ask, although the story and the main action happens inside the office, but there were beautiful scenes again between the Diego and June in their car journey. They’re looking at nature. There is a palpable sense of connecting with nature and the avalanche and the sounds of nature. So, tell me a bit about that.
CASTAÑEDA: I think in this movie, that’s kind of set up as a juxtaposition where, when you’re stuck in this very climate-controlled office that’s usually quite cold and dark and no windows, then all you yearn for is to be back in nature. I remember when I was growing up, I grew up on a farm. So, we had lots of chores, and we were working outside all the time.
CASTAÑEDA: And I remember thinking one day while we were burning weeds and it was smoky, and I was dirty and I wasn’t enjoying myself outside.
CASTAÑEDA: So, I said, someday I’m gonna have an office job.
CASTAÑEDA: And I remember thinking that was gonna be the best thing in the world. And then—
ALI: How, at the time, did you know, though? [chuckles]
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah. And then fast forward to this office, and I was looking out the one-square-foot window that looks outside. And then I would go by that just to get a little bit of sunshine and look outside at the construction that was happening next door and look at the construction workers and think, aw, I wish I was working there with them.
ALI: [chuckles] Yes. But that’s very much apparent in the comments made by Diego. He says, “I wish my office had the window.” And then Vasquez, their boss or manager, he opens the blinds, and there’s a wall. There’s a wall behind it.
CASTAÑEDA: [laughing] Yeah!
ALI: There’s that sense of entrapment, I wanted to say.
ALI: But still, that may be reflecting again on your experience. It lets their minds wander into what another life, a happier life could be. And that is again in June’s exchange with Diego in the car when they were heading to the filing competition. She said, there is, “How can we make the fantasy a reality?” And the notion of it is possible to be done, and people can rewrite or reimagine their lives and be in a happier place and in a happier, with other people who share that experience.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah, I think that’s kind of where I come from as a writer. I think that’s one of the things I enjoyed about it most when I started. And one of the things I still enjoy is that it’s kind of about creating a reality. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien creating an entire world for Lord of the Rings, he wrote this book called The Silmarillion, which is basically the Bible of that universe. He created languages in that universe, and he really just spent a lot of his time in that place that he created.
ALI: That universe, yeah.
CASTAÑEDA: But I think that we all create our own realities. We all have our own perspectives of how we think people are treating us or how we think we should be treated. And the ideas we have about that really changes what our reality is. If we think that we deserve to be treated with respect, we might demand that respect, right?
CASTAÑEDA: We might act like we deserve respect. And if we don’t, then people won’t treat us that way. And I think that my writing, I’m always trying to get people to think about their own worlds, how can they have some control over their lives and how they are viewed, and also how they view the world as well, ‘cause it’s the same thing.
ALI: Indeed. But the notion of how they view themselves and how they view the world is that internal reflection and analysis, critical interpretation of their position in the world and their relationship with others. I felt while watching the film that this is a call for adopting mindfulness and this meditation style to living. So, was that part of the psychological background to the characters?
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah, I think that there’s so many different ways to come at it.
CASTAÑEDA: You can come at it through religion, you could come at it through spirituality, you can come at it through Buddhism, or you can come at it through psychology.
CASTAÑEDA: You can reflect on it with your psychologist or your counselor, or you can talk about it with friends. Or you can, you know, I do a lot of journaling to understand, try to understand who I am and what I want and how to get there and how to interpret the world. But yeah, that’s all part of it. I think that I would say there’s a lot of storytelling inside this movie where Diego’s boss tells him that, “Oh, you have to help me write this book.”
CASTAÑEDA: And so, Diego starts writing this book, and he kind of starts thinking more about his own reality. And I think that’s what I wanna impart is that the more that you think about your life as something that can be written, that’s something that can be edited, and something that can be, you know, that you have influence over, the more that you will have those things.
ALI: And more in control. But again, there is the notion of the humor in the films that I’ve seen that you’ve made. And especially in All Sorts, there’s the odd, quirky, funny moment, that attention to fine detail and how Diego manages to break into the secret filing competition world. They’re very humorous, funny moments that were really unexpected, but they tackle serious issues. So, tell me about your approach to using humor. Does it come organically, or do you intentionally want to write it, so it is more accessible to the audience?
CASTAÑEDA: I think I’ve always been fascinated with humor and comedy. That’s always what I’ve been drawn to. I’ve tried to write thrillers or more serious movies. And there, it’s not, you know, I don’t think I’m a bad writer in those areas. But when you’re, you know, this film, it took me a year to write it. It took me a year to produce it, a year to edit it and finish it. And then it’s gonna be another year of getting it out to everybody and putting it on all the platforms so that people can see it, right?
CASTAÑEDA: And so, if you’re gonna spend four or more years on an idea, then it really has to keep connecting with you. And I think comedy always connects with me where I can read back at something that’s funny, and it’s still funny to me. It never loses that humor. And so, I think that that’s just the way that I operate. I don’t think I can really have a choice to not try to be funny. But I also think that that’s what I enjoy most about life. And I think that when I’m down in the dumps and I’m having a horrible day, and then something even worse happens, where someone drives by and splashes a puddle on top of you, like, that’s almost like a comedy moment from a movie or something. Then I have to laugh because I’m like, OK, now it’s just funny, you know? They say sometimes that there’s a hill of the further dramatic, the more dramatic you go, worse and worse things happen until it actually becomes funny again. [chuckles]
ALI: That’s true. It only gets better when it’s really bad [laughs], in a way.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
ALI: The humor you use cleverly in exploring some serious themes and subtext: the stress, that anxiety that office workers feel, the marginalization, the oppression. So, you use it to explore with the audience some real problems that office workers, not necessarily office, all professionals working with a team, they experience some of the problems that Diego and June felt.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah. I think that you put a good note on when the boss, Vasquez, opens his blinds. There’s a moment where he opens his blinds and looks out the window as if there’s the beautiful scenery outside. And he says, “Ah! Beautiful.”
ALI: [laughs] Yeah.
CASTAÑEDA: But all it is, is a brick wall. His only view is a brick wall right outside his office. I think I put that in ‘cause I thought it was like, I thought that would be really funny. And I think that that’s how Vasquez’s character would work, where he would just be like, “Ah! Beautiful!”
ALI: Yeah. [laughs] Yes.
CASTAÑEDA: But I think one thing that you made me notice was that, when I look back, there was a reason for that, right? That Diego has an idea, says that there’s no windows. And there’s this idea that like, kind of where it’s not like there’s some grand king who is making us work in these cubicles. We’re the ones. We’re the humans creating these office spaces and putting ourselves inside them, right? And so, it’s kind of like, it’s not like a mouse in a cage. It’s like, we’re the mice walking into these cages ourselves.
ALI: And that’s again, I remember the scene when Vasquez was looking through the CCTV cameras and making sure that all the staff are working. And then he sees himself and the mechanic who came in to fix the cameras, actually. And he said, “Oh, these two are not working, and they should be fired.” And he ends up firing himself.
ALI: I thought that was quite, quite funny.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah! [laughs] Yeah, that was. I really like that part. The actor who plays Vasquez, his name is Luis Deveze. And here he just came in, and he was just, he is just brilliant. He just knew exactly how the character operates, and it’s a very strange character. I kind of describe him as a bit of a Catch 22, where he believes in nonsense and then somehow makes it happen.
ALI: But he’s the narrator. He sort of sums up the whole story because the film starts with him saying “This is a story”—so he’s setting the scene—“this is a story about love, friendship, and loneliness.” So, you’re immediately drawn in. And I really like the music as well because you’re immediately drawn into this enclosed space. But there’s all those rich characters with their fears and disappointments, but there’s still hope within all that.
Now, if I may move on to your intentional inclusion of diversity. So, there’s Africans, Hispanics, Chinese Americans in a few of your films. So, again, tell me a bit about that.
CASTAÑEDA: I mean, honestly, that’s how the world is, so that’s how I try to portray it.
CASTAÑEDA: And I grew up in this small eastern Washington town called Granger that’s about 90 percent Latino. And so, that was kind of my world growing up. I’m half Latino as well. I think that one of the reasons that there’s a lack of diversity in a lot of films is because just the ability to go out on auditions is quite a privilege. You can’t really go out on auditions if you’re trying to get money to eat, for instance.
CASTAÑEDA: And so, I really do try to build that into the script itself.
ALI: I see, yeah.
CASTAÑEDA: And I think that unless you do, it’s really easy to go kind of with an actor who isn’t diverse because there’s so many of them, right? It’s easier to, you have a bigger pool to cast from because there are more. More actors are privileged than not, right? So—
ALI: And they introduce a richness because they reflect, as you said at the beginning, the diversity of people around us.
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah. And honestly, I was more afraid to, when I was a young filmmaker, to have diverse casts. And I think one of the reasons is that when you do have diverse casts, then a lot of people end up thinking about race. So, if you have a Black actor as your lead in your film, then suddenly, everything changes because you’re thinking, OK, how are people gonna react to that?
CASTAÑEDA: How does he react to other people? And also, a lot of people just see color. So, are they going to be racist against your movie because of that? Are they going to assume that this character and that character, the reason they broke up was because they were from different backgrounds or something? And so, it adds a lot of complexity, actually.
CASTAÑEDA: And people will judge your film along race lines that, a lot of times I don’t necessarily wanna deal with race because we deal with it so much, right?
ALI: Yeah, yeah.
CASTAÑEDA: Sometimes you just want a little break. But if you have diverse casts, that’s one of the things that you really have to think about is, how does that play into it? So, with Diego, for instance, I wanted him to have a Latino background. And I wanted June’s to be different because I wanted a little bit more that they’re trying to understand about each other than just personality, necessarily.
ALI: Yeah, their ethnic backgrounds also.
ALI: And so, Rick, so, coming to the end, I’d like you to just to sum up for, I’ve seen the film. I loved it. I recommended it to my friends when it was showing at the Raindance Festival in London.
CASTAÑEDA: Thank you. Thank you.
ALI: Thank you so much. It was a pleasant and enjoyable experience. I really loved it. If you were to recommend the film to the audience in two lines, what would you tell them? Why should they go and watch All Sorts?
CASTAÑEDA: Give me one moment. Let me think about that.
ALI: [chuckles] Yeah, yeah. Take your time.
CASTAÑEDA: I would really like you to go see All Sorts because it’s a movie about transforming your world and making it more magical. I think it’s a funny, entertaining movie. You won’t be sad and depressed throughout it. It’s funny, but it’s not….
CASTAÑEDA: Yeah, it’s funny, but it means something, I guess. And it’s not trying to be too sweet. It’s not trying to, it’s not like an annoying friend. It’s like the funny guy you wanna hang out with.
ALI: Frankly, it’s an uplifting film. There’s a lot of joy and fun to be had while following Vasquez, Diego, and June, and yes. And all of the characters were beautifully written, beautifully described, and you connect with. We didn’t talk about the others. Maybe we need another podcast interview, Rick, to talk about the others.
ALI: Because they all have their own niche sort of fascinating traits and quirky traits, if I may say so.
Thank you so much, Rick. It’s been a wonderful experience watching the film and talking to you and learning more about the background and the inspiration behind the film. So, thank you so much, and we hope we can host you again soon, either in London or somewhere in the world and celebrate your new film as well.
CASTAÑEDA: Oh, thank you. Any time! This has been wonderful, and thank you so much for taking the time to watch the film. I can tell that you really got inside it.
ALI: I did indeed. Thank you.
CASTAÑEDA: And as a filmmaker, that’s your biggest dream right there. So, thank you so much.
ALI: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Rick. You take care. The best.
ALI: Lovely. Take care. Thank you. Bye-bye.