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The Road to Indie Filmmaking: Colfax and 15th

Aspiring Colorado filmmakers, including director Stephen Santa Cruz and cinematographer Joel Stangle, will screen their independent film “Colfax &15thone night only this coming Monday, March 5 at the Denver Film Center.  Santa Cruz spent time discussing his first feature film, what it was like to direct this true story of Denver’s criminal underworld as it intertwines with the bounty retrieval business, but within the context of a fictional screenplay featuring the character Isaac, a man working a dangerous job to survive and make ends meet for his family.

Having a criminal background himself and spending time in prison, Issac’s character shares a common situation in the outside world: the inability to get hired to do an “honest job.” This has him working for the owner of a bond agency, where he puts his life on the line each night pursuing those that have jumped bond. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is carrying their child and fears for its future, wondering how they will survive financially and within the environment of a low-rent apartment, questioning their ability to be good parents, and resenting the only way he has to bring money home.

Stephen explained how the idea for the film first came to be in late 2008, as Joel related to him a conversation Joel had with a bounty retrieval agent while riding a RTD bus, an experience that was loosely depicted in one scene in the film.

“The guy had a baby carriage with a trash bag on it full of his clothes, and I guess they struck up a conversation. He related the story that he was trying to take care of his family, he works late hours, and he seemed like he was just this down-to-earth kind of guy,” said Stephen, stating how Joel was just captivated by this enough to make it the basis for “Colfax and 15th.”

As the story evolved in the script, so did the characters: Joseph Trujillo as Isaac, Ariana Sanchez as Isaac’s girlfriend with child, Jim Whiteman as Rome, the bond agency boss, and Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland and Vince, Isaac’s co-worker/bounty hunter.


While writing the script, a foundation of brutal honesty and the lifting of the veil was essential to Joel and Stephen, who both wanted to tell the truth versus the doing another Hollywood rendition, a truth they had seen through the eyes of friends and family members.

“A lot of what went writing into the script was stuff I had heard from my cousins. My mom used to take in our cousins every now and again when they were in and out of trouble,” he explained. “They used to tell me all kinds of stories about being in prison and having to deal with bail bond agents, and the whole thing. There are so many gray areas that lie within. It was pretty fascinating.

When Joel and I finally got around to writing the script we wanted to be able to capture the industry for what it is. All you really see as far as bounty hunters you see the “old west” kind of series or you see “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” reality T.V. style. We were familiar with it too having grown up in Denver. It just seemed like there was a story there to be told. We came up with our own fictional narrative as well as trying to capture as much of the reality of that particular part of Denver and that particular industry. I guess what was really attractive about it was we’d never seen anything like that before.”

Interwoven into the story is the undeniable aspect of our country’s incarceration system, which imprisons more people than any other nation in the world.  

This system seems to be designed to keep the revolving door moving away from true rehabilitation and back into the prison system as a return customer. As a result, correction-oriented businesses have thrived, from the bounty agencies to the growth of private prisons.

From the CNBC special, “Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry,” their story states, “This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government spend about $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.”

In Pennsylvania, Judge Mark Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison in the “kids for cash” scandal, for a February 2011 conviction of racketeering and conspiracy after receiving almost a million dollars from the developer of two for-profit prisons.

The stories Joel and Stephen have learned through their close friends and family members hit them personally, “It’s such a dark aspect of humanity that’s just so massive.”

During our conversation we also touched on how Joel and Stephen captured the character of the infamous Colfax Boulevard, which stretches far and wide, west to east across Colorado, being underfoot of all its inhabitants and their daily struggles, riding the 15 bus.

While Joel had an eye for capturing the small details from behind the lens, the contrast of the darker side of life was expanded to show the incredible Colorado nature that surrounds the concrete, street grime and eyes of desperation.

“If you’re filming anything in Colorado it’s hard to make it look ugly,” Stephen admits. “The locations are just so beautiful. But conceptually, we wanted to show the mountains and the sky and have these monolithic structures of the city. I guess maybe lending to the idea that we’re all imprisoned in some way in these boxes everywhere, so we wanted to make those them seem ominous while still having the beauty of the sky as something to look forward to.”

Colfax & 15th Trailer from Joel Stangle on Vimeo.

Stephen credits Joel’s skills and instinct as a cinematographer for making this stark contrast so seamless, having three features under his belt prior to “Colfax and 15th.” He explains how the two of them worked almost at a subconscious level, “The kind of things I wanted to see, it seems like it popped right out of my head and he understood it right away and made it beautiful.”

The working chemistry dates back to their bond as high school friends. Their dreams at that time keep fermenting through the years and during through college, while Joel remained here in Colorado and Stephen attended a college for art and design in Savannah, then moved to Chicago after graduation.

While in Chicago, Stephen expanded his creative toolbox. Having directed some music videos he also delved into music making. After considering the next move to Los Angeles, he instead decided to avoid the small fish in a big sea scenario and return to Denver where he could not only partner with Joel on their filmmaking projects, but having an influence on the growing creative culture that cross-pollinates film, music, design, and art.

“Denver’s starting to become this hub of creativity. Now they’re talking about film tax incentives and the film community is just bustling. I feel like I’m at the ground floor in a lot of ways. I had considered moving to L.A., and was considering staying in Chicago. But something about home; I could be in this place that I was rooted and do all the things that I wanted to do. Here was have an opportunity to build the community.”

While still in Chicago, prior to making Denver home once again, Stephen began working on the soundtrack for “Colfax and 15th” while tapping the influence of film’s sound designer, Doug Gollob, who had a philosophy of how the music should complement the film versus having it overtake the experience.

“The music is an important part for me as a filmmaker because it’s the two side of the coin. The music tells a lot of the story from my perspective. I think it captures a lot of Denver in a musical way. To me that’s what I was thinking while I was making it.”

Music has always been an integral part of the film. This beam in the structure of movie making has continued to expand and evolve from a person on the film designated to finding music already written for use in the movie and soundtrack, to musicians like Trent Reznor, Danny Elfman, and Chemical Brothers writing scores for films, and directors like Tom Tykwer shooting “Run, Lola, Run” during the day and writing the score at night using the dailies as inspiration.

SXSW 2012 even has a few “Music and Film” panels dedicated to this, including “Artists Scoring Film: New Trends in Composing,” while also providing a workshop “The Not So Sexy Side Of Music For Film & TV” for those aspiring filmmakers who may not have a musical side to them, to school them on the ins and outs of navigating the music licensing process.

Moving into the topic of distribution and promotion, the influence of social media and digital technologies on film is undeniable; a growing and unstoppable trend that is enabling indie filmmakers like Stephen and Joel to expand their reach with little to no budget, much in the way that music has been going down this DIY digital path for over 15 years.

More and more indie filmmakers are looking to legacy innovators like Edward Burns and Kevin Smith, both of which have gone guerilla by forgoing the big studios and distribution houses, controlling their budgets, promoting their film through social media, and getting their films seen through digital distribution channels like iTunes or through direct-to-movie-theater strategies.

Edward Burns recently replicated the success of his 2010 release “Nice Guy Johnny” with his latest film, “Newlyweds,” touting a minute $9,000 budget while embracing the direct-to-fan model that involved viewers in everything from the movie poster design to music for the soundtrack. Making the film available via VOD (video-on-demand) on iTunes, the additional specialty packages with the DVD and said movie posters and film soundtrack expands the fan’s experience while also adding to Ed’s piggy bank…without the need for Hollywood heads or millions of dollars.

Kevin Smith will also be speaking at SXSW this year, “The Business of Kevin Smith,” as part of the Film and Music Convergence program, discussing “the polarizing-but-never-boring entrepreneur on the ins and outs of direct-to-fan marketing, the disruption of Red State’s 2011 release and his future beyond filmmaking” with Bob Moczydlowsky of Topspin.”

“With the advent of social media the entire market of entertainment is completely changing. It’s easier now to be at the marketplace selling your wares,” Stephen said, explaining his thoughts on giving away the digital download and then selling the DVD with outtakes and commentary added as a bonus to bring the viewer deeper into the story of the film and the making of the film itself.

“It’s much easier to self-market now than it has ever been. You don’t need big media any more to accept you, invite you in or regulate what it is that you do. You can make the marketing and the art unto itself.

I feel lucky to have made this film and have met the Crazy Horse guys, and being able to put myself out there. I don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s ideas. One day I woke up and there was a film in my hands. And now it’s starting to open doors and people are starting to listen to the ideas I have more seriously because I’ve shown people the work. It gets people excited.”

The screening of “Colfax and 15th” takes place Monday, March 5 at 7pm, at The Denver Film Center Colfax located at 2510 East Colfax, Denver, CO 80206, in the Lowenstein CulturePlex. Stephen Santa Cruz, Joel Stengle, actors and crew from the film (and their family and friends) will also be in attendance.

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