“You Should Never Start a Project Out of Spite…”: Frankie Latina Premieres Trailer for his New China Test Girls
“A fashion photographer gets more than she bargained for when a roll of film in a used camera contains sinister imagery of high-society menace that sends her into a labyrinth of imminent danger,” reads the logline for China Test Girls, the second feature from Filmmaker 25 New Face Frankie Latina. In post-production, and with the final scenes just shot due to Latina’s own finding of an unused, refrigerated roll of Fuji film stock, the film looks to contain the ’60s/’70s exploitation vibe and anarchic underground weirdness that made his previous film, Modus Operandi, a favorite here at the magazine. Latina forwarded the trailer along with the below memoir relating the harrowing circumstances that led to Latina’s return to the no-budget trenches. — Editor
A sophisticated New York producer, sharp from head to toe, with a slick outlook and shoes to match, had watched my first feature film Modus Operandi. He asked what other things I could pull out of my hat. I told him about Skinny Dip, and he was interested and read it over the weekend. Monday morning I got his call. Something was decidedly different about this producer because he wanted to actually move forward with this project. And this wasn’t just idle Hollywood talk — there was some actual action going on. He was as hungry as I was, and he had the means to do something about it. Through a Basquiat collector, he had the potential power to move the mountains that needed to be moved.
Now that all of the pieces of the puzzle were coming together, along came an unforeseen curveball. The producer and his partners determined that the tax incentives weren’t strong enough for them in Wisconsin, so shooting in my home state wasn’t going to be a viable possibility. I soon realized that they were really headstrong about filming in Colombia, which had the most attractive tax incentive.
I knew that going down to South America wasn’t going to be just a weekend jaunt. Once there, I realized I’d be there for a bit — but never did I dream I’d serve the long six-month stretch of time that I did in the ever-increasing throes of depressing, panicked inaction. Time became an enemy and hope was a lost friend I could barely see on an increasingly distant horizon. I became embedded in a foreign land.
Home was a concept that became increasingly surreal as my memories of it became more precious. My five story walk-up in Milwaukee now seemed like a gleaming bastion of warmth and familiarity that I achingly longed for but no longer possessed. For all intents and purposes, home now seemed as distant as Pluto, orbiting lost in a dark, unfathomable universe that held no mercy for the dispossessed.
By then it had been raining for three weeks. The streets were flooded. The mosquitoes had taken over the house. No production work could be done other than the producers making indeterminate phone calls to the investors in hopes of ascertaining an increasingly uncertain situation.
Some of crew slept with bug nets in their rooms. It reminded me of the scene in E.T. with the government workers clad in Jiffy Puff protective gear, using whatever it took to shield themselves from an alien disease. One of the crew members was bitten on the lip by a mosquito, and it looked like he caught a right hook from Mike Tyson. I haven’t left my room for three days. Luz Marina, the house keeper, has been trying to force me to eat. I’m not on a hunger strike, but my lack of appetite is in direct correlation to my increasing depression. The highlight of these three godforsaken weeks of torrential downpour was sitting watching telenovelas with Luz Marina while, in the meantime, looking out the window and watching my future go down the drain along with the monsoon.
I found myself in my own Vietnam, a soldier of cinema, lost in the jungles of an indifferent hell, without any bullets for my weapon, eternally waiting for a shoe that refused to drop. It was that waiting that became a hell unto itself.
Despite the seemingly infinite onslaught of daunting circumstances with which I was invariably faced, I continued to ceaselessly march forth. Continuously reminding myself that to quit now would assure failure; only through perseverance would I unlock the door that otherwise is impenetrable to those with a weaker constitution. Sometimes big dreams are a hard pill to swallow, but you have to take the leap if you want to see the glories of a greater day. It all sounds well and good, but the fact remained that days wore heavily with the weight of the god-awful world on my shoulders, often times with few answers in sight.
It turns out that the producers’ dealings with the primary investment company had fallen through, and they were seeking fiscal alternatives. They never materialized but my growing anxiety did. I packed up my bags and headed to the airport. I didn’t give a shit if that plane ever made it back home. I would’ve preferred the plane go down into the ocean. At least Jacques Cousteau could’ve made a film about that. At least then, someone would have got some filming done on my account.
Entering my apartment, I didn’t feel like it was home anymore. Instead I felt like a visitor. The walls echoed with a foreignness that I was no longer familiar with. I had truly become a stranger in a strange land.
I could no longer sleep at night and I found myself with cold sweats. I obsessed over the producer taking a chance on a wildcard director. He had put me under his wing and always looked out for me. In hindsight, it was worse to lose him as a friend than it was to lose the film.
And now I had to face the daily onslaught of people’s endless inquiries as to just what had happened down there. Looking into their eyes, I wondered as to exactly what place their curiosity was actually coming from. I felt genuine concern from some, while others carried that sense of their own relief that someone else wasn’t going to be more successful than them after all. They were relieved that, try as I might, I just couldn’t get away from the gravitational pull of that world that so unwaveringly had held them down so successfully up to this point. I was now a walking reference point for other people’s psychological realities, a fractured mirror reflecting either sincere empathy or codified damnation. An awkward smile hid a latent smirk. A welcoming pat on the back was often times a secretive nudge back into the death cult of eternal marginality.
Filmmaking is a path I would only recommend to the truly determined, those who really don’t have a choice in the matter. The better prepared you are, the better chances you’ll have for survival. You live by the road map of your own design, so mark it well. Life is full of detours and doesn’t always occur on the main roads. If I was going to make it I would have to beg, borrow, and steal my way back into the hallowed halls of no-budget glory. Fresh after falling on my face in Colombia, I had to get back in the game, and quick. One of my biggest virtues — or, perhaps, problems — is that I never quit. I just don’t give up. Even though I got beat up and knocked down, I found myself dusting myself off and getting back up.
You should never start a project out of spite. But I have to admit that I immediately began my next film to prove to the doubting masses that I was good for one again; that despite the ever-increasing odds against me, that I could and would prevail. I had risen out of the ashes before with my other films and this time would be no different. I went ahead and cobbled together an eclectic group of new investors for my next venture, China Test Girls.