The 2021 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is underway, showcasing 92 feature films in its first-ever virtual festival, which runs until this Sunday, April 18. One of those films is All Sorts, a sentimental and surrealist comedy unlike anything else I've seen at the festival. It's the brainchild of J. Rick Castañeda, a writer, director, and producer originally from Granger, Washington.
All Sorts follows a protagonist named Diego, played by Eli Vargas, who is desperately in need of work (relatable). He manages to catch a break, getting a position at a dreary yet peculiar business called Data-Mart. Trapped in the confines of a bland office, Diego meets June (Greena Park). The two form a bond, and then they quickly get involved in an underground speed filing competition where they begin to make their way up the ranks. It's wonderfully absurd and silly.
Castañeda shot the locally produced film around Yakima in 2018, taking around a month and getting a big assist from a successful Kickstarter campaign. Castañeda's first feature film, Cement Suitcase, was shot in and around the Tri-Cities, as well as Yakima. Castañeda now goes back and forth to Los Angeles, though he says he's always enjoyed coming back to Washington to cast people from the area.
"We were able to cast from Granger and not because that was more convenient; those were the best actors," Castañeda recounts to me over a video call. "Maybe because this is such an ensemble piece with just really different kinds of characters, I think that character shines through from real people."
The cast making up that ensemble had similarly gone out to try to make it elsewhere, but the Pacific Northwest ended up being their tether.
"It's funny because a lot of the actors we worked with in Eastern Washington and Seattle, they had lived in L.A. before as well. They'd gone to L.A. to do the whole acting thing, decided they really didn't like it that much and came back," Castañeda said. "We were able to snag them for our movie so that was really nice."
The story of how that movie got into SIFF was initially a surprise for Castañeda, though it ended up being a welcome one after a year of Covid-related festival cancellations.
"We finished the movie about a year ago, but as we were submitting to different film festivals, they all ended up canceling. Seattle was one of those," Castañeda said. "We were thinking that we were going to hold on to it for even longer because we were like, 'Ah, let's just wait until actual theaters are going to play.' Then Seattle called us up and said, 'Hey, you're in our festival for 2021.' We're like, 'We didn't submit this year,' and they said, 'Well, we're taking your submission from last year.' It was cool that they remembered us from a year previous, and there was no way we could say no; it's such a big festival."
When discussing what inspired the film, one of the films that came up was Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep from 2006. Gondry's film also contained elements of magical realism and surreal visuals.
"Gondry is a big hero of mine," Castañeda said. "When he was promoting The Science of Sleep, I was writing for a magazine, and I got to interview him about it. That was just an amazing experience. I was in a room with him for fifteen minutes to ask him about, you know, why he made it."
While still very different, the two films share a similar thread about a desire to escape.
"My mind was always trying to imagine an escape route, and it was always a magical escape route out of that cubicle," Castañeda said. "I ended up writing a few stories there, and some of those were the inspiration for this movie twenty years later."
The parallels between Castañeda's work and Gondry's are hard to miss.
"[Gondry] actually made [The Science of Sleep] based on himself when he was younger, when he was working in offices and depressed. That's probably my inspiration as well," Castañeda said.
That inspiration came when Castañeda struggled to make his way as a filmmaker after graduating from USC in 2008. It was an already challenging task made even harder by the recession.
"It's really hard to make a living in film. I graduated during a recession and it was hard to get any job. I was interviewing for courier jobs and couldn't get anything," Castañeda said. "I started doing a lot of temp jobs and office jobs. Some of those were so boring where your mind is on autopilot while you're streaming through these spreadsheets."
When it comes to shooting locations, Castañeda considered himself lucky as he could get support from people in the area who were just excited to see him making a project there.
"One of the reasons I go back to Washington to make movies is because people just love movies there," Castañeda said. "Here in L.A., people get a little jaded about movies because there is literally one filming out on the sidewalk right now; there's probably another one a few blocks away that is also filming."
If he had shot in L.A., Castañeda estimated it would have cost nearly "three or four times" their budget to get those locations.
"Everybody is excited to help," Castañeda said. "There in Yakima, I was able to find someone who just really loves movies and was willing to cut us an extremely great deal on this building."
The space where they filmed was multipurpose, as the team had the whole building to themselves throughout the shoot.
"Some offices became the production office, some offices became the camera department," Castañeda said. "My cinematographer decided he actually wanted to stay at the office rather than commute half an hour there and half an hour back to where the rest of the cast was staying."
Castañeda says the team eventually moved a mattress into one of the offices, turning it into a bedroom so that the film's cinematographer could have more time on set to plan out the next day's shots. He soon wasn't the only one.
"Our art department lived there too," Castañeda said, laughing. "They brought this big truck and said, 'Oh, are people doing that, can we do that too?' It became kind of this summer camp except during the winter."
Hearing about the recent news of King County working to woo over Hollywood with a new production studio and Steven Soderbergh coming to town, Castañeda told me the most significant thing aspiring filmmakers can do is just to begin making projects.
"I think that if you're creative, you just have to keep making stuff. It'll just keep getting better. You start to find other people who are making stuff, and it just builds and builds and builds," Castañeda said. "You can't just wait around for someone to come find you and say, 'You're the one! You make a movie!' That's just never going to happen. You have to be your own engine; you have to be your own generator to make things."
Read about more of our SIFF recommendations here. The digital fest runs through April 18.