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An Interview with James and Robert Dastoli, Directors of El Quetzal de Jade

by Mike Haberfelner

May 2015

Films directed by Robert Dastoli on (re)Search my Trash

Films directed by James Dastoli on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie El Quetzal de Jade - in a few words, what is it about?


The plot and characters spring from noir archetypes, and the world that we put them in is a sort of romanticized exotic adventurous place. That sense of placing you in a world that never was, but always will be, that was very important to us.


El Quetzal de Jade uses quite a few film noir mainstays - is that a genre at all dear to you, and some of your genre favourites?


When we started to really get into film in high school, noir really appealed to us more than anything else. We immediately started making films with little boys running through the brick alleys of our hometown of Stamford, CT saving very young damsels in distress and having fights with acne faced thugs. Some of our favorites are Murder My Sweet, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, The Maltese Falcon, just to name a few.


Other sources of inspiration when dreaming up El Quetzal de Jade?


Other than noir, we are big Hitchcock fans, and that definitely shows up there. Of course there is the action element which goes back to films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. Another very important genre that we called upon was the Spaghetti Western. You can see that particularly in the flashbacks. I think that genre really contributed to the operatic, atmospheric quality that some parts of the film have.


Even though El Quetzal de Jade features quite a few exotic locations, most of it was actually shot in your apartment - so do talk us through the process of how that was achieved, and what were the advantages but also challenges filming that way?


I would never suggest anyone make a film this way if they've got an alternative. It really wore us down, making something out of nothing in every single scene, and always having the fear of the whole thing falling apart if an effects shot didn't work. The total budget of the film was $10,000, and that was all our own money, no investors, no Kickstarter. It all went to the actors and the composer, we did everything else ourselves for free. We already had a camera, greenscreen, a few lights, and our computers, so that didn't have to be budgeted. We wrote the entire film knowing exactly what we had access to, and what we could do with VFX. I (James) had visited Guatemala and Quebec, and I shot tons of material that would eventually (after an intense VFX process) be suitable for background plates and establishing shots. We probably used every wall of our two apartments to be different locations, and ran around the neighboring streets. It certainly did help that the area that I live in can actually double for Guatemala pretty well. When it comes to greenscreen, the key is to always be scared. We did everything that we could to de-emphasize the shots by making them darker, or quick cuts, or out of focus. You always have to assume that it is not going to work, and figure out every possible way to hide it. Many scenes had to be completely reworked again and again and again because they didn't look convincing enough.


What can you tell us about your directorial approach to your story at hand?


The flashbacks were probably the most interesting parts to direct because they're so dynamic. We really wanted it to feel like a combination of dream and memory, and we knew that we could make them really stylized. We're not crazy about doing talking heads. There ended up being more dialogue scenes at tables in this movie than we originally thought. A lot of it ended up being standard coverage for practicality, but the most interesting dialogue scenes for us are when the characters aren't looking at each other, or their eyes are covered in shadow. With the action sequences, we really worked very hard to try to string them together from nothing. We couldn't actually have stunt performers, so its more about putting together competent chases where the geography makes sense and then leading up to whatever big gag we could do.


What was the collaboration between the two of you like, actually?


Sometimes one of us would have a clearer idea of what the scene would be like than the other, so that one would take over. It usually ends up being that one of us takes a big scene and just finishes it because if the other one came in to try to figure it out from the beginning, it would waste time. One important thing is that no shot is actually finished until we both see it. Sometimes one of us will kill ourselves on a shot, and then when the other one sees it, they say its unacceptable. That impartial review is very much necessary. Robert's role on this film was somewhat less than usual because I (James) developed and guided much of the project with my wife, who is Guatemalan. We worked together to take the experiences from our trip there as well as her knowledge of the texture and character of the culture and put in into the scenes wherever we could.


What can you tell us about your key cast, and why exactly these people?


They were extremely cooperative, which is strange to me because they're coming into some idiot's apartment and these two punks are there telling them to run in front of a green bedsheet. They didn't know that any of it was going to work, but they trusted us. It was difficult to find a lot of non union actors that were fluent in Spanish and would be willing to do this.


Do talk about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


I have a sense memory of sweating profusely under extreme heat in a very tight space. The apartment was so insanely small, and the greenscreen needed sufficient light, and we couldn't run the air conditioner because we would trip the circuit breaker. It was just a terrible shoot. Whenever we were outside, we were paranoid of someone seeing us and kicking us out, so we had to go so fast and keep looking over our shoulder. On weekends my (James) wife was there, so it was a little better. That's when we did most of the dialogue because I barely understand Spanish, and Robert doesn't have a clue. By the end though, we trusted the actors so much that we shot some dialogue on weekdays and my wife didn't see it until we were cutting.


A few words about audience and critical reception of El Quetzal de Jade so far?


So far the comments have been fairly positive. I don't really think many people will ever see the film because it has no name actors. We pretty much knew this going in. Throughout the production, we would often wonder who the audience would be. We were afraid that the running time would be so short (66 minutes) that it would be unmarketable as a feature even if someone was interested. I'm just happy that it's on Amazon now, and I can tell people that it's available. We don't usually make films with much regard to marketability. We just make what we would like to see ourselves and hope that there's someone out there with similar tastes.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


Since this film, my wife and I made two animated shorts. Everything that we have done is on our YouZube channel (dastolidigital). We have no plans for features, and I really can't see us making another one. Our concepts are mostly two minutes, or five minute web series episodes. Making a feature like this while having full time jobs and giving adequate attention to our families just doesn't sound appealing. It's difficult enough finding the time to make a two minute short. The one large project that we have been developing for many years now is a live action sci-fi web series that we would definitely want to kickstart, rather than putting up our own money. That's years away though.


What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?


We do have Film BFAs from the University of Central Florida, but in terms of VFX, we received no formal training. We started out in high school by making Star Wars fanfilms and James Bond knockoffs with our friends. It was so innocent back then, and it used to be fun. Now, the fun parts are few and far between, but it sure as hell beats working in an office.


Besides writing and directing movies, you've also done tons of effects work - so what got you onto that side of the filmmaking process, and what are some of your preferred techniques?


The VFX came simultaneously. It's part and parcel with doing a Star Wars fanfilm. Back in 1999, when The Phantom Menace had just come out, there was this amazing sense of camaraderie on fanfilm forums like TheForce.Net. All the little boys and girls helped each other out with tutorials and sharing of ideas in a way that was really inspiring and exciting. I don't think you'll ever have a time like that again in filmmaking, because now it's everywhere. Back then, digital indie filmmaking was in its infancy, and the technology had not matured yet. We used VFX back then not only to do lightsabers, but to accomplish things that would be simple for films with a modest budget, but impossible for little boys with no budget. We just always think of every shot in terms of a possible VFX layer breakdown just because we've been doing it for over a decade. We are not very good with 3D, so we always have to hide it, and be very disciplined. We prefer using miniatures when it comes to things like spaceships. That's one part that is still fun, when you've just built a huge model spaceship and you get to fly it around the room.


What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to El Quetzal de Jade in whatever position?


We made tons of films when we were in high school and college. We always just did every crew position, but in college we would help out our friends in whatever capacity they needed. None of the stuff that we did back then really holds up now, but its interesting to watch the beginnings of ideas that we developed in El Quetzal de Jade.


How would you describe yourselves as directors?


I think many directors treat performance as the most important aspect of everything and ignore the actual use of cinematic language. For us, the way that a scene is lit or composed is just as important because it's giving you so much subconscious information. It goes back to what I was saying about having characters looking away from each other or obscuring their eyes in a dialogue scene. Design is also really important to us. You rarely see us putting normal looking people in front of blank white walls. I feel like there's too much of that in indie film. El Quetzal de Jade is a rare example of a film of ours that takes place in the real world, rather than an imagined one.


Directors, writers, special effects artists, whoever else who inspire you?


Our favorite director is definitely Hitchcock. Star Wars has always been our favorite franchise. Recently we read The Making of Star Wars by J. W. Rinzler, which is a magnificent look at the making of this B-movie that nobody thought would work before it actually became the Star Wars that we know. Reading that was such an inspiration because you're looking at interviews of people while they're making the film and all of the failures that they are going through on set and at ILM, just trying to piece together something that is comprehensible. Of course now all of these people are legends. Another main source of inspiration for us in whatever we do are theme parks. We consider theme parks to be a serious art form, and any time that we can't think of anything and are out of ideas, all it takes is a trip to Disneyland to fill our heads with possibilities.


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Aside from the noir mentioned earlier, some would be Star Wars, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Star Trek, Aliens, Terminator, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Fistful of Dollars, Blade Runner, 2001, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, Danger Diabolik, The Goonies, North by Northwest, White Heat, there are just too many...


... and of course, films you really deplore?


The films that anger us the most are the bad entries into the franchises we love. In general, there's no reason to remake, reboot, or even to make more than a few of these films that are already perfect.


Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?


Everything can be seen on the dastolidigital YouTube channel.

We also have a Dastoli Digital Facebook page.

And our main website is


Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


Just that I'm glad that this film is finally out there for people to see. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about it.


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide


A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD



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