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The Wild Ride of Neon Flesh

Spaniard Paco Cabezas talks sex, violence and the heart behind it all in his passion project. Now on VOD.

Featuring wild humor and a distinctive visual style, Neon Flesh is a high-energy crime thriller centered on Ricky (Mario Casas), a young thug with a heart of gold, and the dark world that surrounds him. Although he was abandoned by his prostitute mother, Pura (Angela Molina), when he was 12, Ricky holds no grudges. Upon her impending release from prison, he intends to honor her by opening up a brothel. He enlists a pimp, some  prostitutes, and a transsexual to help him set up this family business, but when the location Ricky chooses for the brothel encroaches on the territory of El Chino, a ruthless gangster, mayhem ensues.

Neon Flesh, with its surprisingly successful blend of genres, provides a twisted journey into the criminal underbelly of Buenos Aires that is visually interesting and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying.

Credit: Daniel Aranyo/Courtesy: Tribeca Film

Director Paco Cabezas sat down with us stateside to discuss the influences, inspirations and moviemaking process behind Neon Flesh. Plus, he has some advice for all you budding filmmakers out there…

Tribeca: Neon Flesh first hit the festival circuit as a short film. Can you tell us a little bit the process of turning it into a full-length feature? 

Paco Cabezas: I wrote the screenplay first for the full-length feature while I was working at a video store. I was trying to pitch my screenplay to people, but everyone thought I was crazy because the story involved mothers, gangsters, and prostitutes, among other things. I decided to make a short film to try and get people interested in the concept, and I went after Victoria Abril, a respected Spanish actress who has worked with Pedro Almodovar, to give the project even more legitimacy. I had a friend who knew a friend who knew a friend [laughs], and I was able to send Victoria Abril the short film script and the feature length script. She called the video store while I was renting someone a porno film, and I thought it was a joke and hung up. Then she called back and everything fell into the place.

We did the short film for very, very little money; I had to borrow from my father, my girlfriend and all sorts of people. It was tough, but I am proud of my decision to make the short film no matter how many obstacles I encountered. In the end, we won a crazy number of awards and made back the money three times over. The best part was that audiences, after viewing the short, immediately wanted to know what was going to happen next to the characters. It was fun, because the feature-length script was already written. The short film was just for people to get a taste. It turned out to be a success, so I was very happy.  

Tribeca: Given the success of the short film, was Neon Flesh difficult to finance as a feature?0

Paco Cabezas: Yes. [laughs] This is not a straight commercial movie. It is an unusual movie that tackles many different topics and takes many risks. People were hesitant to get involved. The director of one television station’s programming liked the idea and said that they would help finance if I changed the mother and son to a couple and had them opening a restaurant instead of a whorehouse. Of course, we moved on. Plus, there are no stars with real name recognition in the film.  I had the perfect actors for the roles, who just happen to be people I knew or met through drama school. The lack of stars with name recognition also made it tough to get financing.

In the end, the film was about 10 years in the making because I wanted to make the movie I wanted, with the actors I wanted, with the violence, sex and other risks that I felt had to be there.  

Tribeca: 10 years in making? That’s a long time. 

Paco Cabezas: Yes, from when I first wrote the script to production in 2010 was about 8 years, and it took a relatively short time before we could enter it into festivals like Tribeca [Neon Flesh played at TFF 2011]. It was a great experience, and the shooting process was really fun. It was my second feature, something I wanted to make since I was a child. It was my movie, my personal version of Goodfellas. In contrast, the shooting of my first feature, a horror movie, was an awful experience.

Neon Flesh took forever to get into production, but once we called “Action,” everyone was ready. The original actors from the short film were there and having a great time. Everyday there was something great happening on set like, “Today is the day we shoot the dog, that’s great,” or, “Today is the day where she runs around naked, that’s great!” The only boring day is when we filmed the cop scenes, because I couldn’t wait to get back to the delinquents and robbers.

Tribeca: Neon Flesh provides an interesting mix of genres, employing elements of comedy, thriller, action, drama, and exploitation. How did you tackle that as a screenwriter? 

Paco Cabezas: It’s complicated. I like genre films, but I also like to break the rules of genre, similar to the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese. I want my movies to feel like a roller coaster. Neon Flesh was very complicated to write. I think I made a few mistakes, but I think that’s how life works. Like, if your father dies and you’re in the funeral home and you’re crying and somebody tells you a joke and then you laugh. Or you might be so happy you start crying, etc. It’s that mixture of emotions that makes life so beautiful. That’s what movies like Neon Flesh offer, something different from movies like Transformers. They know exactly what they are going to get with a movie like that. What independent movies like Neon Flesh can offer is the unexpected. When the lights go off, you never know what you are going to see.

Credit: Daniel Aranyo/Courtesy: Tribeca Film

TribecaNeon Flesh uses a plethora of characters, some frightening and some funny. All of them are multi-faceted and compelling. You mentioned that many of the characters are played by your friends. Did you go outside the traditional casting process to find the right actors for some of the challenging roles that were up for grabs?  

Paco Cabezas: We didn’t have a casting director on this at all. I knew I had the perfect actors already from the short film. For example, Vincente Romero was the only person who could have played Angelito. In my opinion, actors don’t have to act; they have to be the character. I pretty much knew whom everyone was going to play, but there were some glitches. For example, in the short film, Óscar Jarnada, who is well known in Spain, played the lead role of Ricky. When the banks delayed our funding for three months because of a national crisis, Oscar could not do my film because he had another project that conflicted. To my dismay, I then had to look for the right Ricky. I set up some casting sessions and found Mario Casas, who had already done a lot of television work. We went out with Vicente and decided to film a couple of things. From the very beginning, there was soul, there was heart, and you could tell that Mario knew what it meant to come from the streets. That goes for everyone. All the performances felt very authentic.  

Tribeca: You also manage to keep a consistent focus on your characters even as the film shifts from story arc to story arc. Given the challenges the complex story created, can you describe your approach to editing the film?  How long did the editing process take?  

Paco Cabezas: We were 7 or 8 months in the editing room. My first cut was two hours and five minutes, but my producers wanted me to cut it down. When you’re not Martin Scorsese, you have to try and get down to the standard running time. It was a long process, but it was very enjoyable. We had a great F/X department, and the movie was even more violent in the two-hour cut. During the test screenings, an elderly woman fainted, so that’s when I decided to focus on the mother/son story and make that relationship the real heart of the film.

I wrote this movie when I was 22, and I wanted it to be very rough, like my personal Trainspotting. The first time my girlfriend saw this movie, she said, “It was like a punch to the head.” In the end, I learned that it’s all about the heart of the movie. I want a woman like my mother to be able to watch the movie. I want her to enjoy it, so I put more comedy, less intensity, more heart, less violence. That’s why it took so long.

Tribeca: The film has such a unique look and feel to it. Can you talk about your collaboration with your cinematographer, Daniel Aranyó?  

Paco Cabezas: Our references were David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and the city of Buenos Aires itself. It’s old and decaying. We had this rule: no white in the movie. There is not a single white collar in the movie. Also, the colors were very washed out, so that when there was blood on the screen, it would stand out. That way, the movie created its own universe. For an American audience, it not a big deal that the car Ricky drives is a Cadillac. For Spanish audiences, this is a very weird car to put in the movie. The aesthetics in Spain are very different. At the beginning of the process, my cinematographer and crew wanted to know if I wanted the movie to look like Spain or New York. I told them that it was set in the world of Neon Flesh. That green Cadillac is cool, and since we had access to it, of course, I was going to put it in my movie.

TribecaNeon Flesh reminds me stylistically of Streets of Fire, the rock fable by Walter Hill that is set 
“in another place, in another time.”  

Paco Cabezas: Yes, of course! It’s a very cool world. Movies should bring you to a poetic place that doesn’t have to be realistic. It can be any world you want it to be.

Tribeca: Neon Flesh often has been compared to the films of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.  I know you’ve mentioned David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, but what other filmmakers have inspired you and influenced your style?  

Paco Cabezas: I like all kinds of filmmakers. I like Mike Leigh, I like Stanley Kubrick, I like Steven Spielberg. I think every movie has something it can offer to the audience. People tell me that Neon Flesh is like a mixture of an Almodovar movie and a Tarantino movie. I really took a lot of inspiration from Mean Streets. Scorsese was already using those slowed-down shots and freeze frames before anyone else. If you have a group of guys walking down the streets dressed in black, people automatically think Tarantino. It’s hard for me to name all my references because I was practically born in a video store.

Tribeca: Tarantino worked in a video store… 

Paco Cabezas: And I worked for five years in a video store. When I was growing up, I would go everyday to the video store, even though it was in a dangerous area. In order for me to look tough, I would take off my glasses. If you went in that neighborhood wearing glasses, they’d kick your ass. It’s ironic because in order to travel safely, I would have to take off my glasses, and I can’t see anything without my glasses. So I was blind wandering through the streets.

Credit: Daniel Aranyo/Courtesy: Tribeca Film

Tribeca: Did you draw on those experiences when you wrote Neon Flesh

Paco Cabezas: Yes. I knew some Angelito-type people who inspired the movie. I think the movie is a mixture of my real childhood and the movies I saw as a child like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. It’s such a big deal to me to be in New York, because it was such a dream of mine when I was growing up in Seville. It was my dream that I was going to make movies and that I could come to the place where Scorsese made many of his great films.  

Tribeca: Can you talk about your experience at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival? 

Paco Cabezas: At first, I was kind of worried that the New York audiences might not get all the humor and the jokes in Neon Flesh, or that maybe they were think it would be too cruel or over the top. It turned out that audiences here laughed more than they did in Spain. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was great to be at the Festival and to experience the movie with a crowd. It means so much to me to screen my film at Tribeca in the city where Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese made those movies I loved when I was growing up. It all came full circle. It was such a special experience.

Tribeca: What is your next project? Will you look for outside material or do you have an original script in mind? 

Paco Cabezas: The movie I can talk about is called Mr. Right, written by Max Landis who is the son of John Landis. It’s a script about a girl who meets the perfect guy who happens to be an assassin. She has no idea, and they start dating and fall in love. Of course, she finds out, but the guy has a crazy set of morals. He kills only people that hire him. I like that it’s a commercial romantic comedy with a lot of action and edge that has great visual potential. Like Kick-Ass, there is this great political incorrectness. I also have a script of mine that I’m working on. It’s a heist movie—I’m a big fan of that genre. It’s a mix of Ocean’s 11 and Neon Flesh.

Tribeca: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers? 

Paco Cabezas: My advice would be put in as much action as possible. Maybe it’s more life advice, but I think that every time you find yourself asking what to do, the best answer is always action. You might think, “Should I try to ask this girl out?” Do it, don’t just think it. I never regretted trying to take action. When John Huston was on his deathbed, they asked him what he regretted and he said, “The only things I regret are the things I didn’t do.” You never know where life is going to take you. I would say, don’t go to film school.  Learn from the movies that you like, and spend your money to make a short film.  If you like Fight Club, watch Fight Club 100 times a day and learn from it.  Go ahead and make a short film. You only learn by doing.

Neon Flesh is now available on VOD, and will have midnight screenings in New York City at Village East Cinemas on February 24-25. Find out where you can watch it.

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