Vincent Cortez: Prolific Filmmaker and Eternal Student

As interviewed by Lara Henerson

If you’re involved in the Bay Area filmmaking scene, it’s likely you’ve met Vincent Cortez at some time or another. I had the pleasure of talking to this self-proclaimed eternal student about his production company’s origins, his various projects, and his favorite parts of the filmmaking process. 

Vincent is just one of the working filmmakers who has attended the Bay Area Film Mixer. Our next event is at PianoFight on Tuesday August 30th, 7-10pm. REGISTER your attendance online now for free!

“It was strange for me, directing a whole crew for the first time. I had to get used to not doing everything myself. While I’m still very hands on, it makes things go much smoother when people each have roles with a very specific purpose.”

I was born and raised here in Oakland, and we shot films all over Oakland wherever we could when we were younger. It was always a couple of friends and my brother and cousins playing different characters. Back then I was always like a one man band. I would shoot everything myself, then later try to edit, using two cameras connected to each other, like deck to deck editing. But Mitchell Street Pictures didn’t actually start until about ten years ago, during the last year of my education, at San Francisco State.

We essentially made a George Romero-esque zombie film, for school credit. It was actually a study where I got three units for basically spending the semester working on a project, so it wasn’t within the boundaries of a specific class, which was nice. That was the first time I could say Mitchell Street Pictures had a more official project, instead of just myself and my wife Sofia attempting to shoot something by ourselves. It was also the first time we had an actual crew with specific roles on set. It was strange for me, directing a whole crew for the first time. I had to get used to not doing everything myself. While I’m still very hands on, it makes things go much smoother when people each have roles with a very specific purpose.

I stayed local with my education for film, mostly because it seemed to have the best mixture of some of the hands on technical aspects, with a lot of the theory, and to be honest, a lot of the duct-tape shoe-string kind of mentality of, “You’re probably not gonna have a giant budget, but you may have something, so here are some resources, and how to do stuff economically.” I think that aspect helped me a lot personally, because they were very open to teaching you a little bit of everything. I know a lot of the big film schools tend to bring people in on tracks, like, “Okay, you’re a writer, these are the writing courses. You’re a director? Here are the directing courses.” Meanwhile, I was able to take editing classes, directing classes, new media classes… There were a lot of things I could learn, and nothing was off limits to me, given that I enjoyed editing, writing, directing, producing… I was able to take all the classes that I wanted to take.

It’s hard to pinpoint my favorite part of the process. I think I like specific parts of both production and post-production. In pre-production I like screenwriting; when you’re developing a project, that’s its own strenuous mountainous journey, but once you get over the mountaintop, and you’re going down the other side, that’s the exciting part. There’s a lot of work in developing a concept, whether you’re being influenced by a real life story or you’re just trying to make something up and establish conflict or characters. And then there’s this point where you really have things set up and it’s like you’re tuning into a radio station back in the old days, and it’s just clear. Even if I’m not done with the script itself, everything I need to write has already lined itself up, and it’s almost starting to write itself. The characters exist fully in your head. You may be going back to revise here and there but its all lined up for you to just put on the page.

“Whether it’s a feature or a short film, there comes a point where it all works out. The collaborative nature of it all is really exciting.”

As far as the production side of it, it’s nice when you finally lock into working with a team, and there’s that moment when people just gel. Even if you have a lot of intensive shooting left, and even if there’s still a heavy part of production to go, and there’s an understanding when the crew and cast know how to read each other and work together, things kind of line up. Whether it’s a feature or a short film, there comes a point where it all works out. The collaborative nature of it all is really exciting.

One of the most exciting things to happen to us lately was when the El Rey network picked up our film. That’s Robert Rodriguez’ network that was launched two years ago, and that was really cool. Probably the coolest form of validation I’ve ever received for my own work, because festivals are great, and we’ve definitely played at them before, but this was awesome because I’ve always been a big fan of his work. As a kid I remember watching “El Mariachi”, which was his first feature, at a theatre in Berkeley, and being blown away. It was also one of the first times I remember seeing a last name that looked like mine on a screen. As I got older, the more I started to learn about the business, the more I started to respect the work he was doing as a business person. So, when his team selected our film as one of six films to show, and my wife and I got to meet him when we were down in LA, and got to talk to him, and just get his kudos, which was really cool, him encouraging us to keep on the same path and keep doing the work we’re doing. It was a form of internal validation I couldn’t quite quantify. It really was a milestone.

“Pitching is a tricky thing, especially in a film market setting. I used to think pitching meant talking about what inspired me and what influenced me, but that’s not necessarily what sells the film.”

Another exciting project for Mitchell Street Pictures was this psychological thriller feature we worked on very closely with another company. We shot a lot of it here in the Bay Area, out on the water, on a boat, and even though it was still low budget, at that time it had a bigger budget that anything I’d ever worked on, and we were able to sell that film at the American Film Market at the end of 2014. I’d been down there years before with another film, which I hadn’t really known how to pitch to the distribution realm at the time, so this time I was much more prepared for the film market, and I knew more about how it worked.

Pitching is a tricky thing, especially in a film market setting. I used to think pitching meant talking about what inspired me and what influenced me, but that’s not necessarily what sells the film. It’s different than saying, “Hey, It’s like sin city with ghosts, and here’s a poster that shows that.” What the distributors want are recent, trending, comparable films. The first time I went down there to pitch, I got a lot of people contacting me back from these meetings saying, “It’s a cool film but we don’t really know how we’d define it. It’s playing with a lot of genres, you might wanna try with foreign film markets, they like that kind of thing… Good job, but its not something we can work with.” So when I went with the partner I had with this other project, from day one, I was like, “How are we gonna sell this movie?” We cut a trailer that represented exactly what we wanted to show them, and we met with this distribution guy who was very open and cool, and we connected with him and what he was looking for right then and there. He saw the potential that was in it based on the way we presented it.

Right now I’m finishing up a short film that we’re gonna do our best to get out and get festivals. We shot it a little over a year ago. I was producing fulltime for KQED so I didn’t have a chance to finish it up on the timeline I’d been hoping for, but it worked out because I was able to spend time thinking about it, and when the time stretched out, things hit me and I was able to tighten things up. It’s a short film called “Dad,” and I got to shoot it with a great friend of mine. My daughter, who was six at the time, plays his daughter in the story, and it’s about a father and daughter going through their day, and the daughter trying to reconnect with the memory of their mother. My daughter did an amazing job!

“That’s one of the things I love about Mitchell Street Pictures. Not just that my wife produces, but I’m fortunate and blessed in a way that I have a lot of family and very close friends that are constantly willing to help and be part of our projects.”

Vincent Cortez

That’s one of the things I love about Mitchell Street Pictures. Not just that my wife produces, but I’m fortunate and blessed in a way that I have a lot of family and very close friends that are constantly willing to help and be part of our projects. So when we’ve shot things in the past, my father had jumped in as a production designer. He’s got a background in art and he’s a huge film buff, so he has an encyclopedic knowledge of older films and some of the newer ones, so he’ll help out.

I’m also crossing my fingers about a potential feature project I’m trying to get off the ground, because I’d love to bring my own feature back to the Bay Area and Oakland… It’s like a sci-fi horror, apocalyptic drama. That’s probably as much as I can say right now. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time, and invested a lot of energy into, and I’ve been able to get feedback from some screenwriters and people who have done bigger projects in the past, and I’ve had a lot of guidance, and I feel like it would be a great time to tell this sort of particular story.

I thought the Bay Area Film Mixer was awesome. I’d been aware of them for a little while but I’d never been able to line it up with my schedule until recently. It definitely didn’t disappoint. I had some great conversations. There was a socializing, networking element that carried throughout, but there was also a very platform for people to talk about specific parts of their work, or even showing a whole short film. It gives people opportunity to kind of stand in the spotlight for a little bit. In the Bay Area, even though it’s a small filmmaking community, chances are you know people through other people you’ve worked with, so it’s nice to be in the same space and kind of share what you’re working on.

“I would definitely say that if you’re going to be a filmmaker, you should always be a student. The second you consider yourself an expert or a master, is probably the second you’re not willing to learn the smallest thing.”

The Bay Area is not the same as LA in terms of the infrastructure, but I try not to compare them, but there tends to be a lot more, because of the resources aren’t quite here, in the sense of the narrative stuff, as opposed to documentary. There’s actually more grants for documentary work here, and I’ve actually been working on a couple of documentaries recently, which is really great. The narrative projects around here have smaller budgets, but there’s also a lot more passion behind them in the projects, because people are willing to do what the have to do to try and tell the stories.

I would definitely say that if you’re going to be a filmmaker, you should always be a student. The second you consider yourself an expert or a master, is probably the second you’re not willing to learn the smallest thing. It all goes back to the collaborative element of working together. Learning together is just another way of framing that!


For more information about Vincent Cortez, visit his website. Also, don’t forget to REGISTER to come to the next Bay Area Film Mixer where you can network with other filmmakers like Vincent Cortez. It’s happening on Tuesday August 30th at PianoFight, 7-10pm.

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