Erick Castrillon was born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, but lived most of his childhood in Bogota. At the turn of the millennium Erick and his family immigrated to the US, displaced by the Colombian civil war. He lived in South Florida where he graduated from university as a Bachelor of English. In 2012 he was admitted to the prestigious school of cinematographic arts at the University of Southern California. He's currently completing his M.F.A. in writing for the screen and television.
In this interview Erick talks to Dariel Suarez, Letters Editor at Middle Gray Mag, about screenwriting, his influences and the responsibilities of a writer.
Dariel Suarez: What was it that initially drew you to screenwriting and film?
Erick Castrillon: Movies have been very important for me. It’s a form of storytelling that I find completely fascinating. I have vicariously lived the lives of many, many people through film. I love audiovisuals. I love seeing drama on a screen, perhaps because it’s so immediate. I love the way that cinematographers are able to construct narratives that can potentially change their audience’s mentalities and, if lucky enough, hold them in awe. I love the idea of acting...of projecting your emotions according to what’s on the page. The audience really reacts to that.
I also like the idea of being done with a story after two hours or so. It’s a feast of information—the music, the sound design, the color correction, the screenplay, the setting, the props, the lighting, the angles, the camera movements, the animations . . . it’s a very delicate craft that requires a lot of practice and a lot of planning. Every single scene that’s in a good film (ideally) should be there. I like to think that film and television might be the most efficient form of literary entertainment for the modern audience. I’m in that boat.
DS: You're currently studying at USC School of Cinematic Arts. Can you briefly describe the process of getting into such a great program? What advice would you give to young, aspiring writers who are hoping to attend a good school?
EC: I applied to four film schools right after I completed my undergrad. I had about six months between the application period and hearing back the results. During that time I got the great chance to travel to China, to learn Mandarin. Six months later, I heard back—I only got accepted to one of the four universities that I had applied to. My least favorite one.
It sucked, of course, getting rejected. So after thinking about it and discussing it with my family, I decided to wait another year so that I could re-apply for the 2012 fall. During the time that I had off, I polished the work that I wanted to send; I re-wrote all of the materials and exercises that USC asked for...and voila! The following year, I got accepted to all of the universities I applied to.
My advice to aspiring writers who want to get to a good program is to really commit to the work that you’re sending. Start writing your shit months (plural) before the application is due. Write it and re-write it again if it’s not working. Most likely it’s not working yet. So...be humble. Show it to somebody that will actually give you helpful notes. Your mom and your girlfriend don’t count. After you get the notes, revise the material again. Treat this process as a very important investment. This is your chance to be with the future pros. And the pros, you gotta know, don’t have a life other than their craft. I’m exaggerating a bit, but not really.
And most importantly, write confidently. Write imaginatively. Write honestly. Display that you can create complex and nuanced characters. Display that you have a sense of humor. Being able to make people laugh with your words is gold.
DS: You're originally from Colombia. How has your background defined you as a person and writer? How does it influence your writing?
EC: Being Colombian and growing up in Florida has set the stage for most of my writing. I’ve been committed, in a certain sense, to documenting my insight on the immigration process/experience. Immigration has been the backdrop of my life—therefore it is what I know, and you always wanna write about what you know. I had problems adapting to the cultural shift when I was a kid. Therefore I gravitated towards the ugly crowd. The freaks, the metalheads, the weirdos, the people from the edges, etc.
I had a true identity conflict when I was around 17 or 18 that shaped a lot of the themes and characters that I’ve been exploring. In Strange Spaces, for instance, I deliberately chose that the movie would take place in both Colombia and Italy...I made this choice when I was first developing my characters, because I had just come back from Italy, and I wanted to see how a Colombian man and an Italian man who don’t have much in common would behave. That’s the kind of objectivity that I was granted with my double culture and the experiences that I’ve had abroad. If anything, being Colombian-American has given me twice the tools to interpret and understand situations and people.
DS: When I first met you, you were a member of a heavy metal band. Do you still play music? Does music have any kind of influence or impact on your writing?
EC: I had been playing the drums in bands since I was very young—12 or 13 up until I turned 23. Rock and metal music have been pivotal in my life, really. Being a metalhead as a teenager comes with certain clique conventions, certain perks, certain mentalities… Playing out every weekend in dive bars and restaurants, you’re bound to meet some very interesting people.
I once wrote a short story where the main character was called “Metal Dave”. The Story is called Safety. Metal Dave, a 25-year-old, offers two pre-teenage girls a ride back home after a local nu-metal show where all the kids are young teenagers. The engine of the story is whether or not Metal Dave will take them safely back home, or kidnap them. Metal Dave ends up taking them home.
I worked on another story once about this guy, Andy. I used to play with him when I was 15 and he was 25. He looked JUST like Dave Mustaine from Megadeath—the story is about the time when he married our keyboard player so that he could get his U.S. papers… I fictionalize these people, and when I do, most of the time they are enveloped in this atmosphere of youth, rebellion, alienation, misunderstanding, and magical realism. There is something magical about the freaks.
I think that being in those bands has helped me experience a lot of personalities. It was very intense being in all those rooms with all those musicians, each with their touch of eccentricity, trying to coexist and write music that nobody would ever listen to. It was also hard maintaining the discipline of your instrument and your place in the band while at the same time managing emotional/financial/academic pressures from real life. But experience is the stuff of drama, or at least, in my opinion, of truthful drama.
When you met me, I was in a band called “Alexandria.” I wanted to make a power metal group that would break the cycle of negativity that you often find in this kind of music. So we mostly wrote about self-empowerment and positivity. I had a lot of fun back then. I look at the whole experience, and rather than seeing guitar strings, I see faces, or at the very least, I see a mine full of emotions that one day will be tapped. I find myself going back to those days all the time, in search of characters, situations, atmospheres, places, textures… etc.
As for the music itself, lately, what I’ve been doing is I’ve started listening to film scores as I write. Sometimes, the grandeur of a crescendo, or a simple violin melody, triggers a certain mood in my brain that allows me to inhabit the space that I’m writing about. For instance, while I was writing Strange Spaces, I listened to the Overture to “Tristan and Isolde” by Wagner over and over again. I must have listened to it dozens of times because I wanted to give the film the same feel as that piece. It’s a romantic classical piece, but when it crescendos, it has a very tragic feel to it. So I would play it when I was writing key scenes, such as the climax of the script.
Also, drawing helps a lot. I started getting more into painting and sketching. It's a really good exercise to externalize subconscious images and to maintain your brain creative. I'm enclosing a canvas that I was working on as I was writing Strange Spaces, and a sketch with some notes that I made for the screenplay that I'm working on right now. It's pretty cool how you see your subconscious manifest as you put pen to paper. Like writing.
DS: A lot of your previous work has been in fiction. Do you think of yourself as a fiction writer as well as a screenwriter? What are the major differences you have found between both mediums?
EC: I was lucky to have had a background in fiction prose writing before I started getting into screenwriting. When I went to FIU, as you know, I took many semesters of creative writing workshops. This primed me, so to speak, to write truthfully. Or at least, to aspire to write from my gut, about things that really mattered to me. That’s half the battle when writing any story. Finding what to write about. That was the most valuable lesson from studying fiction at FIU.
When I started the program at USC, it was hard for me at the beginning to make the shift, though. I had several problems with my instructor because my actions were too wordy. You really can’t have paragraphs on a script. Also, my style was clunky… I was having issues because I was trying to incorporate techniques that I had been developing in fiction, and that I was starting to get good at—like narrative voice, internal dialogues, ambiance and locale descriptions, gestures, etc… In fiction you’re allowed more tools. You can do a lot of things with the language, and you have more words to get your point across. In contrast, screenwriting is a very squalid form of writing. It aims to be as brief as possible, only showing what is absolutely necessary in order to paint the canvas and set the action.
Raymond Chandler said to a friend, "I suppose you know the famous story of the writer who racked his brains about how to show, very shortly, that a middle-aged man and his wife were no longer in love with each other. Finally he licked it. The man and his wife got into an elevator and he kept his hat on. At the next stop a lady got into the elevator and he immediately removed his hat. That is proper film writing. Me I’d have done a four-page scene about it."
Screenwriting is all about clarity and tightness. You have to develop a very efficient narrative voice that is clear and on point, while keeping a poetic voice for the dialogue. Poetic in the sense, that… your characters are going to be doing the talking, and they better have something important or something really cool to say. Your poetry is your dialogue. The poetry also comes out, not with the individual words of the script, but by the beauty of each of the scenes—the situations, the dramatic predicaments, the ways in which the conflict gets riled up. Every scene needs to build up, either with open confrontation, or dramatic irony (lies are dramatic irony. Open conflict, sometimes, means passive silence, when the character should speak the most).
Since a screenplay is not a final product to be marketed or published, I think of my ability to write voices as my most important asset. That’s what will sell the script. Point of view is crucial. Good characters let us know their points of view. Everybody has a very particular outlook on how things should be. Attitude is also a good tool. For instance, a 15-year-old girl seeps with attitude, and will say things that reflect that attitude. My uncle, however, said to me, “Kid, I just have one advice for you: fuck a lot of women.” What kind of person is he? Ah, we already know!
DS: What themes are you most interested in exploring in your work? What draws you to these topics?
EC: I’m interested in exploring stories about family dynamics, family taboos, grown-ups who are aware that they are lost, people who are alienated, people who can’t contain their sexuality, people who are unhappily married . . .
I don’t particularly choose a theme before I write. It sort of forms as the puzzle starts coming together. What I do purposely, though, is I pick an abstract and difficult topic so that I can try to explore it. In Strange Spaces, the abstract topic was the discovery of the Higgs boson. I tried to externalize the complexity of this concept through a narrative about two people, paralleling the collision of two particles at the LHC. When I phrase it that way it sounds terribly abstract and grand . . . but having a difficult problem is key to having a complex narrative. In this screenplay I wanted to put into perspective the complexity of human life, given the knowledge that was released to the public last year at the Large Hadron Collider.
DS: What would you say is the responsibility of a writer in today's America? How should they see their work within the society they inhabit?
EC: You have a tremendous responsibility in shaping public opinion because you are the one who creates content. It means that a person’s mental schemas, prejudices, sexuality, life-style, etc, will be at a constant play with what’s “out there”—what they see, hear, and read.
Writers should be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes that are toxic. They should portray, in a fair and ethical manner, the nuances and complexities of their specific characters. Writers should respect the intellect of their characters, even if the characters don’t speak a word of English, or haven’t gone to school, or live in Bolivia, or Tanzania, or Finland. DO YOUR RESEARCH! Learn about the people and the world that you want to write about so that you’re giving a truthful and complex account.
Don’t write post-colonial narratives.
Refer to a scientist if you’re writing science fiction.
You should be keenly aware of how powerful narratives can be at persuading/dissuading the masses.
DS: What can readers expect from you in the near future? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
EC: Well right now I’m working on a feature screenplay that takes place in the near future. It’s 2043, and the oil crisis is raging. Two C.E.O.s of oiling companies are at odds with each other as they try to exploit one of the last reservoirs of crude in the jungle of Colombia. The antagonist poisons the protagonist, causing him to go into a coma. So the screenplay jumps between the story’s present (the year 2043) as the oil war goes on, and the protagonist’s subconscious.
I will also be working on my thesis this semester. It’s also going to be a feature screenplay. But this one is going to be a dramedy about a Muslim-Colombian family living in the South Florida suburbs.
Eventually this year, I will also be working on a TV pilot that I’ve been developing. A sci-fi series. I don’t dare to disclose the concept yet, though, because I haven’t written any of it, and I don’t want the words to come out wrong. It’s gonna be epic, though, if I’m able to pull it off.
This semester I will be re-writing a screenplay that I wrote a year ago called Deconstruction!, and finally, I think, I will be shooting a few short films as I go. Let’s see…
I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 5 or 10 years. Hopefully writing movies and/or TV shows. I really hope so.
You can read an excerpt from Erick's screenplay "Strange Spaces" in the first issue of Middle Gray Magazine.