ELITE (2017) – An Interview with Action Director & Writer Mark Cantu

In ELITE (2017), Naval Investigator Abbey Vaughn (Allison Gregory) reluctantly partners with former Elite team leader Lt. Sam Harrigan (Jason Scarbrough) to bring a savage cartel leader to justice.

The 92-minute long action film produced by Live Wire Films (rebranded to Cineworx after relocating the company from San Antonio, TX to Pittsburgh, PA) and distributed by Lost Empire Films was released on February 1, 2017 for sale on Amazon.com (US, Canada, UK), Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and many other outlets internationally.

 

Mark Cantu, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Elite.

It is absolutely my pleasure.

 

IMDb lists your credits as writer, producer, director of photography, director, and editor.  What was it like wearing so many hats on this project?

Abbey (Allison Gregory) and Sam (Jason Scarbrough) on the verge of cracking the case wide open. Photo courtesy of Cineworx.

It teaches you to stay sharp at any moment during all phases of the production.  To be fair, I’m a co-writer on ELITE with my partner, Jason Scarbrough (who plays Sam Harrigan in the film).

This really was our baby from start to finish, so wearing all those hats allowed us to have a lot of control over the final product.  It taught me more than anything to be absolutely prepped going into every shoot day.  But knowing how I would shoot and edit things ultimately allowed for a very free shooting style as well.  It can be pretty daunting, especially coming from the world of low-budget filmmaking, but it forces you to talk to your partners more and really make sure you are all on the same page, so that not a moment is wasted.  In films of this size, waste can make or break you very quickly.

 

What inspired your vision for this film?

The initial idea actually came from Scarbrough, since he wanted to do something that was a nod to old ‘80s action films like TOP GUN and DELTA FORCE.  My favorite director of all time is Tony Scott and I will contend that one of his greatest films is THE LAST BOY SCOUT.

For the longest time, I had my own script that was a nod to that film, and so when Scarbrough pitched me his idea about an elite commando unit and drug cartels, we took some of his idea and merged it with the film that I wanted to make and it sort of became this hybrid of buddy-cop meets drug cartel/military thriller.

 

Is there an underlying theme or point that the film boils down to?

Mark Cantu, action director & writer at Cineworx.

Definitely.  As a director, I go into each film knowing I want to say something about relationships – good or bad.  So throughout the film, at least from my perspective as a director and editor, it really was a story about people who devoted themselves to a cause, were burned by that system, and simply needed closure.

Each one of our main characters in a sense is an orphan, left out in the cold after tragedy.  So once the story throws them all together they have to become a makeshift family unit and really band together in order to make it out alive.  Family is always a big part of my films in general, so this really was an extension of that.

 

Why should people watch it?

It’s like LETHAL WEAPON on a shoestring budget.  We really did try to structure the film like a classic buddy cop film, with the awkward meeting to their first mission together and then ultimately trusting one another and realizing they’re better together than apart.

We were able to rely on amazing performances throughout from Jason Scarbrough (Lt. Sam Harrigan) and Allison Gregory (Abbey Vaughn).  Their chemistry on-screen was genuine and I’ve never seen two actors feed off one another better than they can.

Plus we’ve got tons of action and lots of late ‘80s homoerotic action fights (i.e., sweaty men grunting and thrusting themselves into each other), so there’s something for everyone.

 

 

Was there anything in the film that was adlibbed or otherwise unplanned that made it to the final cut?

We usually try to keep a pretty loose set in terms of allowing inspiration to find us on the day, but there is one scene in particular that stands out.

As our film is winding down and our heroes have come to serve justice to one of the government bad guys, our hacker character, Jazz (Ione Rousseau) reaches over to a Senator Warren’s (Peggy Schott) desk, grabs her glass of Scotch, and downs it as the bad guys are led off in handcuffs.

It was a complete middle finger to the Senator character – totally adlibbed on the day and it gets a laugh every single time we see it with a crowd.

 

Filmmaking – from concept to completion – is a long and arduous process.  Tell us a bit about some of the biggest challenges and victories you experienced, and what it feels like to finally cross the distribution finish line.

I guarantee it’s never easy.

The biggest hurdle for us is always the script because everything lives or dies with that.  If you don’t get the characters or their arc right then no one cares what you shot on or how much you spent to shoot that day.  They care about the faces and moments up on that big screen.

Lt. Abbey Vaughn (Allison Gregory) in a moment of calm before meeting with NCOC. Photo provided courtesy of Cineworx.

Scarbrough and I wrote about 4-5 different drafts of the script and there were constant adjustments.  We knew the overall plot, but there’s always something you can adjust in terms of the trajectory of the characters, so we were always aware of that.

In fact, we actually shot one of our emotional scenes twice because the original placement of it didn’t make sense in terms of how it flowed into our third act.  But that choice came from constantly staying sensitive to what the material needed to make it better.  It’s never about my ego; it’s simply about what’s best for the story we’re telling.

Outside of that, the hardest part on this was getting the pacing right because action films have to have a specific pace.  Audiences are smart enough or aware of pacing enough to expect an action beat every five or so minutes.  We couldn’t bog our film down with too much talking because we wanted to shape it like a bullet.  So it was staying aware of the rhythm of the film as a whole that was probably the most time consuming portion.  But ultimately it’s also what made the process even more fulfilling.

 

What, in your opinion, makes for a good action movie?

Characters make or break anything.  It seems pretty simple to say but it’s the truth.  If an audience invests in your imaginary characters, half your work is already done.  And they have to be great, compelling characters who aren’t perfect.  Those are the characters that continue driving the plot forward because of the choices they make.

 

What makes for a good action character?

Damage.  You can’t have a perfect action hero who is never hurt.  They have to be willing to put themselves on the line, risk their bodies and minds for the greater good.  If you look at LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, or even DIE HARD, the leading characters in all those films are flawed, damaged men.

 

If you had to shoot the film again, what – if anything – would you do differently?

Honestly I would maybe have waited just a bit longer to get a more substantial budget.  Shooting without money can sometimes mean having to compromise fantastic ideas.

To be fair, we made everything work on ELITE, but money would have made those wheels move a lot more smoothly and closer to what we imagined.

 

How is shooting an action film different from shooting, say, a drama or a comedy?

William Benedict (James C. Leary) in the midst of a dangerous mission to track down drug lord Reynaldo Benitez. Photo provided courtesy of Cineworx.

When shooting action sequences, you always have to be aware of the law of diminishing returns since you’re dealing with actors using up massive amounts of energy each take.  It can get extremely draining very quickly, so you’ve got to go in with a great game plan and be ready to execute because that’ll be your focus the entire day.

I’m a big believer in no wasted time on an action film shoot because it shows your actors that you’re ready, you care, and you want them to be valued.

 

Do you have any advice for first-time or aspiring action filmmakers?

Tell a story you love because that will carry you through, and definitely make sure you understand what you want to say with the characters.  Once you figure that out you can actually create fight scenes around those motivations because you understand your characters and why they’ll do one thing over another.

Also, I will say with action, don’t be afraid to get dirty and take it off a tripod.  Action is energy.  It’s loud and it’s in your face.

Lastly, I’d say fuck the budget.  Just write.  Once you’re done and you’re ready to start prepping, then let reality sink in.  But in the writing stages, let the imagination run wild and inform you where the action should head.  Rules were made to be broken.

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