Check the Gate is a new column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we sit down (virtually) with director Brett Harvey to discuss his Danny Trejo documentary.
Danny Trejo is on a mission. In his youth, he fell into a void of drugs and armed robbery. He survived hard prison time and emerged a changed person. Then, he found purpose in Hollywood.
For decades, Trejo was the go-to mug for goons and various henchmen. As he molded these cliche parts into something recognizably human, he shattered the cage of the faceless extra, becoming an essential ingredient to whatever film was smart enough to cast him. Confronting his sins and seeking an evolution of the soul granted him a new perspective and an opportunity to help others who found themselves in similar dark pits.
Trejo preaches forgiveness and redemption. We should listen.
Men on missions, however, are tough nuts to crack. Putting the camera on Trejo as a means to understand his journey and quest for metamorphosis seems like an obvious choice for a compelling documentary. The challenge arises in breaking the actor from the character he’s worked seventy-six years to create.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is on the side of the mission, but it took significant effort from its director to capture both Trejo’s message and the authentic self beneath it. Brett Harvey is a strategic filmmaker. He knows it’s all about delivering the right question under the right circumstance at the right time. Documentaries, like any film, have to be written.
“It started by sitting down with Danny,” says Harvey, “and getting the scope of where I was going to even be able to head with it. We had meetings in pancake shops. We had meetings while he was watching football in his living room. He would jump off the couch and tell one of his stories, and that’s when I understood the story.”
Harvey then started placing Trejo in the environments where the stories occurred. A task that proved to be surprisingly easy since Trejo still lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up. He and Harvey would get in a car and start driving. Every fifty feet, a new anecdote would spill from Trejo.
“I would stop him partway through his answers,” says Harvey. “I would hone in on what did it feel like at that time. ‘Don’t just describe the event. What were you actually feeling?’ When we started doing that, he started having epiphanies here and there.”
Inmate #1 does not withhold the darkness Trejo once occupied. The stories of his criminal past are shocking, scary, and disturbing. Consider your most shameful memory, Trejo has you beat. He has spent many decades exposing his offenses for the world to see, consider, and cultivate.
“One of his defense mechanisms,” says Harvey, “to make people feel at ease because he does have such an intimidating presence, is that he’ll laugh a lot or he’ll tell jokes. He’ll go through a heavy-duty story, and then he’ll finish it with a laugh to let everybody know, ‘Hey, it’s okay. It’s not like that anymore.”
Trejo conquered people’s perceptions by mastering his identity. In his battle to achieve sobriety, he learned to forgive himself while also holding prior actions accountable. Conversation became his tool, and similar to how Harvey manufactures a yarn for his film, Trejo manufactures his autobiography.
Trejo is a skilled writer within any dialogue exchange, constructing his narrative, contextualizing his past while plotting his future. It was on Harvey to pull the pen out of his hand, to spark spontaneity and surprise from his subject.
“I started leaving the camera on longer,” Harvey says. “Even after he answered. You can see that he actually does float back, his eyes drift, and he is still locked in those old memories. I think at his age now, he is at a stage where he does want to tell it all and present the story as raw as he can. It became easy with the doc to really get the nitty-gritty info.”
Movies gifted Trejo with his understanding of personal narrative. While on his first film sets, he saw how appearance could radically alter perception. A slight manipulation of the body transformed his surroundings.
“The thing about Danny,” says Harvey, “is that when he first entered Hollywood, he still had that really hard persona he carried over from prison. The look of ‘Don’t mess with me or I’m going to kill you.’ Initially, when he was walking on sets, people were scared of him.”
A rewrite was required.
“Eddie Bunker,” he continues, “who also had a criminal path and was a writer on [Runaway Train, which featured Trejo], became a mentor to Danny. He said, ‘Look, you got to disarm people immediately when you walk into the room. It’s one thing to play a tough guy, but you can’t be a tough guy in Hollywood.’ That’s where he developed the thing when he meets people, he laughs, and he smiles, and he tells jokes.”
When you have a subject who has worked tirelessly to better their person, each interview is a navigational exercise. You better have your course mapped out, but leave enough room to improvise. When Trejo bobs, you gotta weave.
“I have pages and pages of questions and notes,” says Harvey. “I would break them down into sections. I tried to focus on one area of his life at a time. That way, once you bring him into that area and once you get those motors working, and the memory jogs through, that’s where you get really, really good content.”
The trust comes before the first interview. If not established, then the project won’t even get off the ground, or at least, not with you helming the film. Harvey proved his enthusiasm for Trejo by devoting every waking hour to the man’s life. Flattery, as they say, will get you everywhere.
“I designated our first interview strictly to his childhood,” he continues. “Basically getting him up to prison. We sat there for four or five hours going through that stuff. I did endless research both online and talking to him beforehand so that I would have areas of interest where I knew there was something there already. With somebody like Danny, those questions would just open up the floodgates, and all these amazing stories would just come about that way.”
Harvey wants Inmate #1 to be Trejo’s bullhorn. In his pursuit to bring the story of Danny Trejo onto the screen for consumption, the director converted to the actor’s choir. He’s a believer, and a believer in Trejo is to be a believer in yourself.
“Danny is trying to provide hope for people,” says Harvey. “You do not have to be a product of your past, and it doesn’t matter how far down the path you may have traveled, there’s always time to turn back and evolve and dream again. If Danny can change his life around, well, then maybe you and I can, within our situations, as well.”
You’re always one thought away from leaving the scary guy behind.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is now available on Digital HD.