"Don't Be Afraid to Pull the Carpet": EXCLUSIVE Interview With Writer/Director Matthew P. Rojas ("In This Myth of Vengeance")

Since graduating from the Art Institute of Dallas in 2012, writer/director Matthew P. Rojas has established himself as a filmmaker with a unique and spiritual vision.  His most recent short film, "In This Myth of Vengeance" (reviewed right here), addressed the question of evil in the world through a story lens inspired by nothing less than legendary fantasist C.S. Lewis' essay, The Problem of Pain

He's no stranger to bearing messages through his visual art, having worked with Habitat For Humanity, First Baptist Dallas and now in his day job as the video producer of Fellowship Bible Church.

How does a filmmaker address theological concerns in a manner that feels authentic and realistic, rather than forced?  What causes a talented director to focus his efforts on such high minded films?

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FCSFR: According to your website, you graduated in 2012 from The Art Institute of Dallas, with an eye to making short films and perhaps feature length in the future. What was it that started your interest in film? Were you involved in filmmaking before enrolling at the Art Institute?

MATTHEW P. ROJAS: At 13 years old, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him I wanted to be an architect. I’ve always been fascinated with the process of constructing architecture. Among other things, you have to create a design (interior and exterior), understand the cost estimation, and play the role as project manager. It's a very lengthy and tedious process similar to filmmaking. Both are almost one in the same as far as the creative process goes. You write a script, which is the blueprint, understand your budget; and fill in the role as a director, which can be the equivalent of a project manager. You then have to work with a team of creative people who understand the process of producing the final work of art. But the end result is the real payoff; knowing that all the hard work and problem solving was worth it. What a feeling!

Around that same time my dad and I saw The Passion of the Christ in support of Christian films. Even at that age I found all Christian films to be overly cheesy and preachy (besides Ben-Hur). But this film was different. This film was powerful; it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  While it was a familiar story, seeing it unfold cinematically with such realism and emotion, gave it more depth. I related to the story and its characters on an emotional level very few films had done in my life up to that point. "How could a film do this to me?" I walked out thinking. "How could a film evoke such emotion?" A couple of weeks later I spoke with my father and brought up the previous conversation about what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to make films. He laughed and said "Oh really?" I said, "Yeah, I'm going to make films and they’re going to change people's lives… toward truth." He looked at me and said "Go do it then". So that's how it started.

From there I went to high school and enrolled in a media class, which taught me the basics of writing, editing and shooting. I enjoyed creating various funny short films inspired by Guy Ritchie and Martin Scorsese. I was given the position as one of the main editors for our school news and would often get in trouble for staging a few "news” stories for the sake of trying new things. I graduated and enrolled in the Art Institute of Dallas at 18 years old.  I was attracted it because it was more of a hands on college and I got to connect with some amazing and talented people who shared the same passion.

FCSFR: You've won awards for your short films in the past from film festivals -- HorrorFest, DocuFest, among others. Could you talk a little bit about how winning those awards affected you as a filmmaker? Did it fill you with fire, or does it feel like a weight on your shoulders that says, "Oh man, my next one's got to be that much better"?

ROJAS: Awards are just awkward. I mean, they really are. My response is always the same or similar to “Really? Cool...thanks.” It’s a funny thing. Of course that’s my opinion; I’m not going to bash awards or say I love them but at the end of the day they don’t define me. I know where I stand as a filmmaker because I know the potential God placed inside me. No award is ever going to give me that confirmation, only the Lord.

FCSFR: Your filmmaking style incorporates spiritual elements, as "In This Myth of Vengeance" illustrates. What is it about filmmaking that made you desire to express this part of yourself, rather than becoming a speaker, or writing an essay?

ROJAS: I’ve never been gifted at public speaking or in writing essays. It seems like my greatest strength in communication is through film. I feel like there’s a lot that needs to be said about not only the Christian walk but in the daily struggles of REAL people. In a culture of media obsession and new technological innovation, what still captivates people are real stories and real struggles. That’s what I focus on. At the heart of my passion for filmmaking is a love of storytelling. I create the story and then let the Lord speak through my films.

FCSFR: What was the creative process that led up to "In This Myth of Vengeance"? How did you approach writing something ambitious as this, and yet still carrying a message of which you approve?

ROJAS: At that time in my life I went through a bad breakup, had a falling out with a great mentor of mine, was in-between jobs, had a short film fall through and on top of all that, I was harboring a lot of unforgiveness in my heart. I was experiencing a mixture of anger, bitterness, and frustration with myself. Out of curiosity, I picked up the novel The Problem of Pain by C.S Lewis. God used it as a mirror to show me elements of what was occurring in my own life. It was a spark but nothing more.

Several days went by and I had a vision of a husband losing his wife in a murder. I didn’t know why

Then the Lord really started to speak to me about the consequences of revenge and the power of forgiveness. It was from that revelation I wrote “In This Myth of Vengeance”.

I didn’t want to make your average revenge film or hitman movie. I wanted to make a film about real people struggling with real emotions put in awful situations.

FCSFR: Your actors put in amazing turns, in particular Nathan Marlow, who has appeared on TV, and Chase Austin, who has a lot of experience in the short film form and always turns in a good performance. How did you get Marlow to appear in the film?

but I slowly started to feel for that character. I understood his grief, anger and pain. Several years ago I lost a dear friend in a similar situation as presented in the film. I felt numbness, grief and anger. Just like the Sapphire character there was the temptation to carry out my own idea of justice. 

ROJAS: Nathan and Chase were such a blessing! The movie wouldn’t have turned out the way it did if it wasn’t for them!

Funny story, I had a casting call for the Sapphire character and already had a guy locked in for it. Right before we were about to start discussing pay and sign a contract, he got a gig out in LA and wasn’t going to be available for the next few months. I was so disappointed. Then one day, I randomly got a call from a guy named Nathan Marlow who just moved to Dallas. He shared his love for filmmaking and wanted to network. He sent his portfolio and I was instantly blown away. We met and I presented the role to him to which he loved and agreed to take. From there we began an amazing process of brainstorming and collaborating!

Originally, I wrote a small part for the Humane character but it was when I met Chase Austin that things started really taking off. We would talk for hours and began digging at who Humane was. I never met someone so willing to get into a character like that before.  Chase’s passion to bring the character to life gave me the drive to make the role bigger than originally designed. The material we ended up writing for the character could have been a film in and of itself. Much of it was cut in the final script but we wouldn’t mind exploring that character again at a later time.

Both men are extremely talented and have amazing futures in store for them. 

FCSFR: Showing violence in short films can be difficult, but particularly hand to hand violence can be troublesome, since you can't just squirt blood around and call it a day. But that sequence between Paul Serna and Nickolas A. Lopez is choreographed so well that it FEELS like a real fight. Could you talk about the filming of that scene in particular, its unique challenges?

ROJAS: That scene was THE MOST FUN I ever had. The irony in that was—everything was improvised! I drove by this cheap motel and wanted to shoot a “hit” gone wrong with the Ananias character. Initially it was supposed to be a deleted scene since I found no reason to put it in the film at that time, yet it actually became a great puzzle piece and one of the highlights of the film. Though most of it was improvised I had a clear outline of how I wanted the fight to look. I took notes from Martin Scorsese and his way of cutting to a scene midway through its violence. It’s almost a slap in the face. You don’t know how it started or what the fight is about, yet it’s brutal. Too many short films want to explain everything and start scenes from the beginning to end. That’s boring! Challenge your audience, present nuances and don’t be afraid to pull the carpet from underneath them every now and then.

FCSFR: What are your directing and writing influences?

ROJAS: I’ve always been a sucker for Ingmar Bergman’s and Andrei Tarkovsky’s directing and writing. I aim to write film adaptations like Stanley Kubrick but aspire to write original screenplays like Paul Thomas Anderson.

FCSFR: Your camera movement reminded me of vintage Sam Raimi, but what with the interesting transitions and fast cutting, it reminded me of something like an Oliver Stone approach. Can you talk a little bit about how you as a director decide how to create a unique film style to fit the screenplay?

ROJAS: Thanks! My main focus was to make this film dark and raw. Besides the bedroom scene, almost every scene is lit with one florescent light. The dolly movements added both smooth transitions and intensity. Close ups brought an intimate level with the characters and their thoughts. The cinematography was really about experimenting by trying something different. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out but in the end it worked.

Stanley Kubrick once said, “I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of filmmaking. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit". I couldn’t agree more! Editing is all about problem solving and trying new things. It seems like its neglected and everyone focuses on cinematography, which is great and fun, but editing is where the story begins to form.

The editing process was tough with this film. I finished the edit two months prior to its premiere but I wasn’t pleased. I showed it to two of my mentors who gave some great critiques and advice. I then went back and started experimenting. I wanted to turn this film into an experience, almost like a ride, very distorted and fast. I accomplished that in the trailers and received a great response but sadly the original cut couldn’t amount. Tirelessly I kept trying! I shot new scenes, added effects and had fun with sound design. I was proud of the end result.

FCSFR: The audio and sound on this film is amazing, it literally creates anxiety and excitement and dread all on its own. Can you talk about this film's audio production process -- which is one that is sorely neglected in many short films (or longer ones, for that matter)?

ROJAS: Thank you Nicholas! That means a lot and I greatly appreciate it. I’ve always been scared of sound design. I even came close to failing multiple sound design courses in college. It was truly one of my weaknesses. Yet in this film I knew it played the biggest role in setting the mood. Scared out of my mind I dove in headfirst. I started playing and experimenting with multiple sounds. I mixed sounds by using old vintage radios, trains passing, high notes to create tension, old recordings of speeches and bass to entice the viewer. Altogether it made the perfect mixture of a dark mood that became the driving force in the story.

FCSFR: What do we have to look forward to in the future? "In This Myth of Vengeance" should start touring festivals later this year or next year?

ROJAS: I am currently writing 2 short films with the talented and beautiful Anna Garcia, one of which is set to be released this fall. I’m also in pre-production for a ringside commercial. When I finished “In This Myth of Vengeance”, I missed all the deadlines for this year’s competition so I started to submit for next year’s festivals including Tribeca, South by Southwest and other minor ones. It’s exciting and I can’t wait for what the future holds!

FCSFR: What is your dream project?

ROJAS: To make a feature, with no compromises, that will change audience’s perspective towards truth and grace, found in the personhood of Jesus Christ.

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A big thank you goes out to Matthew P. Rojas for giving such thoughtful answers to my questions.  I can't wait to see his follow up films, and I know that one day he'll get his shot at that full length feature! 

Check out Matthew P. Rojas' official website here to keep up with "In This Myth of Vengeance" as it starts its festival run.  And don't forget to follow him on Facebook, too.

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!