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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed filmmaker Juan Gil about this career, what inspires his work, and the creative process that went into his latest project; Till Dawn.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

My name is Juan Gil and I was raised in Houston, Texas. After graduating college in Texas, I moved to Los Angeles and I’ve been living there, making films, ever since. Even though I’ve only lived in LA for three years, I’ve managed to write and direct three short films which have gone on to win huge prizes, such as the Sony Pictures Cine Sony Short Film Competition, Official Selection at the Oscar® Qualifying Cleveland International Film Festival, and nominated for Best Drama at the Cordillera International Film Festival. I’m currently beginning the film festival circuit with my third film and I’m in the process of adapting a best-selling book into a feature length motion picture, which is keeping me quite busy.

When did you first realise you wanted to make films?

Juan Gil, Till Dawn filmmaker interview on The Table Read
Juan Gil

I must’ve been eleven years old or so. I looked up to my older cousin, Daniel, who used a 2008 Sony DCR Handycam to make films.

I was always the younger, more immature cousin who couldn’t keep a straight face as an actor while my cousin acted as the determined director. He would edit the homemade movies and then present them to our loud and large Colombian family in the living room. Everyone would always get a kick out of watching our fictional endeavors. It felt right seeing our hard work play out on a large TV screen. Essentially, I’ve been chasing the same reaction since; trying to impress my family by telling stories.

What is your favourite thing about films?

For me, it’s about working with the actors, hearing their ideas, their concerns, acting almost as a coach on set as we battle against the day’s schedule. It’s about getting in sync with my cinematographer, JR Kraus, in order to understand what the visual language is going to be for the film we’re currently working on. And once we’ve done that, it’s about understanding what we actually have in the editing room in order to construct a narrative with rhythm, giving our hard work new life, discovering along the way until we hit our final export. I could go on and on, but I simply love making movies. I love telling stories in this medium, and I only hope to make a contribution when it comes to my generation of filmmakers.

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What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?

I didn’t necessarily go to a film school. I went to Texas Tech University, but I must admit, I made my  college experience into a film school. What I mean by that is I made an abundance of short films outside of the classroom, I believe it was around eight or ten student films. They won awards, too!

I had wonderful guidance by my mentor, Paul Hunton. He taught me how to better understand cinema, what to watch, what to read and how to ask the right questions when it came to the form. Beyond that, most of it was on my own. Going down rabbit holes of research, studying director’s filmographies and, of course, reading, reading, and reading some more. I emphasize that because not enough peers of mine actually read books, novels and rich literature. I find that it goes a long way. I fully understand why Werner Herzog makes an emphasis on this. I’d cut class sometimes and go to my local coffee shop and read for five to six hours. You need to consume stories. Devour cinema.

What was your first film industry job?

I was a production assistant for Netflix’s “Lucifer.” It was my first time experiencing a nude set. That was a memory to hold onto for sure.

What was your most recent film industry job?

I am currently in the process of adapting a book into a feature length motion picture. The title of the book is “I Walked My Own Grave,” and it’s a true crime story by Ramon Sosa. If you search “wife hires hitman to kill husband” on YouTube it will literally be the first video you find. Vice News has covered the incident and has reached more than 15 million viewers.

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Tell me a favourite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.

Juan Gil, Till Dawn filmmaker interview on The Table Read

Wow, this is a hard one, but it would probably have to be on set for my third film, “Till Dawn.” We were on DAY 02 of 04 and we were knocking out all the stunts and action sequences in the film. We were running out of time, the homeowners were coming home soon, and my 1st Assistant Director pulled me to the side and said: “Juan— you LITERALLY have 30 minutes to knock out these next 8 shots. After that, the homeowners will get back and you’ll have to sacrifice those shots.”

That was something I wasn’t going to accept.

I quickly reached for my shot list, crossed out the shots that I didn’t absolutely need and circled the shots that I absolutely NEEDED or else the edit wouldn’t work. It was like bang, bang, bang, we’re doing 1 take for each. We knocked it out. My concentration and adrenaline were firing on all cylinders. It was a violent scene so there was screaming, breakables, blood and stunts, and it all fused together to create this energetic environment that I thrived in. I got it done. I loved that moment.

What was your toughest experience in your filmmaking career?

This didn’t necessarily happen on set, but after my second film “Super Ma” won the grand prize for the Sony Pictures Cine Sony Short Film Competition, they were going to screen the film on the actual Sony lot. And then the global COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything locked down. You know how much that would’ve meant to me? To invite my mom and dad to see what their 25-year-old son had accomplished? That one hurt. I was robbed of that experience. But that’s okay – if anything, it fueled me to make another film immediately.

What is the title of your current project?

Till Dawn.

What inspired you to make Till Dawn?

The pandemic. I felt so much anger, rage and frustration during 2020. I had to channel it. I had some material lying around, it fit my current mood, and I felt I had something to say. The film deals with a character who’s battling inner rage and isn’t fully capable of supporting his family with a baby on the way. I was channeling my rage through this character. The more personal, the better.

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What is the main conflict of Till Dawn?

The main character, Benicio, wonderfully acted by Eddie Martinez, is battling with inner rage as he struggles to find control in his life. Whether that be getting a new job after getting laid off, supporting his family with a baby on the way, or navigating his complicated relationship with his wealthy brother. When a family dinner at his brother’s home turns into a gruesome home invasion, Benicio must face off against an unexpected guest in order to protect his family and liberate himself.

How long did you spend in production?

We spent four days shooting the film.

How long did you spend in post production?

We spent about a month and a half in post-production.

Did you work with a writer, or write Till Dawn yourself? Would you do the same again?

I write all of my films. Sure, I would do it again. But, I certainly look forward to the day that a wonderful script lands in my lap to direct. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Juan Gil, Till Dawn filmmaker interview on The Table Read

Perhaps I have insanely high standards and only trust myself to do that job. But, I’m also aware that I’m young in my career and I write because I have to write in order to direct a film. I’m not just going to wait around for a script to land in my lap. That’d be a waste of time and my time in this industry is valuable.

How did you find your cast and what made you choose them?

My cast are mainly my friends. They just so happened to be wonderful actors, making moves in the industry. I hear that time and time again: to work with actors that you’re close with. The greats even say it, for example, Paul Thomas Anderson, Scorsese and Spike Lee. It makes sense— you build a rapport with them. They trust you more and that is very vulnerable. I hang out with them outside of making movies. It’s all a big family. Although, I certainly look forward to working with big actors that I truly admire one day.

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How big was your crew? Would you choose the same size again?

Around 30 or so people. Yes, I would choose that many again. I needed every single one of those people in order to do the best job possible as a director.

How did you find your locations?

My producer, Sandra Varona, really led the way on that one. She was able to find locations for the budget we had. My lead actor, Eddie Martinez, also helped tremendously with that.

Tell me some career goals. What would you like to achieve?

I understand that I’m still young as far as directors go, but I certainly think it’s time for me to make my first feature film. I’ve applied to some directing fellowships for narrative television. Getting into one of those would be wonderful because I  would love to direct for narrative television. Also, getting my third film licensed by an industry player, like HBO Max for example, would be a huge milestone for me. I can only see so far ahead. I sometimes don’t like looking too far in advance because it takes me out of the present. I obviously would love to win a Golden Globe or Academy Award, but then again, what filmmaker wouldn’t? One step at a time.

Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.

Something I’d never realized was how constantly evolving the entire process is. From writing, to shooting, and then editing, you’ve already discovered so many new things about your film. What worked, what didn’t and the rhythm of the story. Certain nuances arise from performances that wouldn’t have been possible to write. Sometimes a well-written sequence didn’t quite work out when combining sound, image and movement. It’s always changing until it finally doesn’t. But even then, you still spot those tiny tweaks that you could’ve made, but didn’t.  

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What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?

Read, read, read. Some people say shoot, shoot, shoot, but I disagree with that. You’ve got to understand how stories work, what makes an interesting character, what scenarios lend themselves to interesting narratives that an audience would want to consume. Understand actors, how they tick, communicate and make friends with them! THEN you can start shooting. You need to understand the narrative. You also need to study the greats and I would say you need to study international cinema as well. Try to always be open-minded and understand that you won’t always have the answers. But that’s okay. That’s why you have an entire team to help you with that. You just need to have the confidence to steer the ship, have a strong vision and communicate it with conviction.

Give me your social links so people can come and find you!

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