The last time I interviewed someone associated with Soapbox Films it was Ryan Spindell about the film The Mortuary Collection. This time I am talking to Christopher Alender and Marcos Gabriel – the director and writer – of The Old Ways. This film follows a Mexican-American journalist traveling to Veracruz to write a story about sorcery only to be abducted by people claiming she is the devil incarnated.
You can learn more about this film by following The Old Ways and Christopher Alender on Twitter. And learn more about the companies behind this film, Soapbox Films and Trapdoor Productions by checking out their homepages.
Nicholas Yanes: College is expensive and the film industry is known for being brutal while being filled with low paying work. When people ask you about film school, what advice do you offer?
Marcos Gabriel and Christopher Alender: We loved lots of movies growing up… Star Wars, Terminator, lots of horror stuff like Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Film school is a great way to create a network of friends and collaborators before you make the move to LA.
Soapbox Films was created by a group of college friends. We consistently work with filmmakers from that circle. Yes, film school is expensive; FSU Film School, on the other hand, is not — they pretty much pay for everything and it’s a public school. I definitely wouldn’t go into debt for any education other than like being a doctor or something these days. Find a place where you can make movies and not go broke in the process.
Yanes: The latest film from you two is The Old Ways. What was the inspiration behind this story?
Gabriel and Alender: We had just produced a number of indie horror films and were quietly taking lessons from each of those to make sure we put our best foot forward on the next. Marcos had heard several fascinating stories from his mother about brujeria and healers in Puerto Rico. He’d been looking to write something based on those stories that would line up with what we knew we could do well at Soapbox. When Chris got involved, we narrowed in on the themes and characters and tried to figure out how to get as much of that budget on screen as possible.
Yanes: Representation is an increasingly important issue in entertainment. Given that The Old Ways centers on Latin American culture, how did you two make sure the film didn’t exploit the culture? Was there a moment that was changed to address this?
Gabriel and Alender: With Marcos being Latino, we were always aware of finding the boundaries to not exploit the culture. We wanted the scenes in Mexico to be mysterious and scary – but we also wanted to be truthful to who the characters were — so over time as the perspective shifts, you realize what’s really going on and that there are good, kind people here that are just trying to help. In addition, we made sure that we involved as many people from the Latinx community as possible across the entire cast and crew.
We brought in Guatemalan American producer Christa Boarini, who became somewhat of a compass for us. We also got expert advisors like Martin Espino, who is a scholar of indigenous Mexican music and Aztec rituals. Actor Sal Lopez, a founding member of LA’s Latino Theater Company, brought a lot to the project as well. We tried to surround ourselves with people with authentic visions and listen to every piece of feedback and idea they brought to the table.
Yanes: While doing research for The Old Ways, were there other elements of Mexican culture you two wanted to include but just didn’t have the space for?
Gabriel and Alender: Our research covered all over North, Central and South American culture, as well as the Caribbean. There is a rich occult lore and tons of fascinating stories to explore, from Aztec mirrors to the Bolivian Witch market to the Peruvian Pishtaco. In Mexico specifically, we would have loved to get more into the town of Catemaco. While we set the movie nearby, we would have loved to have spent some time shooting there. It’s a small town on the Gulf that’s considered the witchcraft capital of Mexico. We highly recommend you do a deep dive online to find videos of the many Brujas and Brujos that live and practice there.
Yanes: When this movie was being developed from idea to final cut, was there a character or subplot that took on a life of its own?
Gabriel and Alender: The Javi in the initial script was a huge brute. We’d pictured a mountain of a man to play the role, someone who would immediately be scary on screen. But when Sal Lopez was just a few lines into his audition it was clear he was the guy. He is not a big man, but he has a quiet intensity to him and his presence absolutely takes over the screen. It works well in the story because the gravity Sal brings makes the character much more empathetic than he could have otherwise been. Also – once we had the movie together in the edit bay, we realized how strong the “reconnecting with family and culture” message was resonating in the film. We leaned into it and really highlighted Miranda and Cristina’s journey together. It was something that was there on page, but really stood out in a surprising way in the cut.
Yanes: Director/writer relationships go sour all the time. How did you two maintain a professional working dynamic?
Gabriel and Alender: We have a lot of experience at it. We met in college and have been working together ever since — over 25 years. And we both try to excel at the thing the other one doesn’t do as well. We have a shared language of cinema because we’ve seen so many of the same movies and have been influenced by similar filmmakers. And we trust each other’s opinions in a deep way – even if we don’t agree, if one of us feels really strongly about something, we’ll trust it and go in that direction.
Yanes: When people finish watching The Old Ways, what do you hope they take away from it?
Gabriel and Alender: First and foremost, hopefully they are entertained. We wanted to make a movie that was fun and scary that also provided a fresh take on the exorcism genre. But there are other layers. We wanted to explore demonic possession as an addiction metaphor. We wanted to make a movie about someone reconnecting to the culture they left behind. In that way it’s a very American story even though it takes place in Veracruz. Hopefully, some of these elements stay with the audience beyond the spooks and thrills.
Yanes: What else are you two working on that people can look forward to?
Gabriel and Alender: Always working on something. We’ve got a horror script that we’re about to start exposing to the market, and we’re really excited to see how The Old Ways performs on Netflix. If it does well, we’d love the conversation to be about how we make more stories in this universe.
Remember, you can learn more about The Old Ways and Christopher Alender by following them on Twitter. And more can be learned about Soapbox Films and Trapdoor Productions by checking out their homepages.