Bright Lights Film Journal

Loving the Bad: An Interview with Frankie Latina and Sasha Grey on Modus Operandi

by Matthew Sorrento

If intentional camp is bad, then camp striving to be bad is even worse. So claimed Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” and others addressing the subject after her. A camp sensibility should come about by accident, when filmmakers work in earnest but ironically miss the mark. In the approach, any (deliberate) ventures in the style would be misguided and self-defeating.

Yet how can we dismiss the filmmaker adept at realizing the bad for its own sake? It appears that newbie Frankie Latina, director of the shameless, diverting grindhouse-style pastiche Modus Operandi, can consciously capture likeable mis-firings. To claim his approach results in camp would be a futile, cyclical argument. In his fondness for the low-budget films of the past, Latina captures the viewing pleasures that fall somewhere between a thrilling and goofy time.

I caught up with Latina over email, while he was off in South America on an undisclosed new project. Joining in on the discussion was executive producer Sasha Grey, who came on to the film after its completion. While I had to interview both through the barrier of email, Grey – now equally known for her work in pornography and the mainstream (The Girlfriend Experience, HBO’s Entourage) – sounded dedicated and perceptive about her art and filmmaking. Latina appeared passionate enough to have believed in Modus Operandi and seen this loopy endeavor to its completion.

Why did you choose Modus Operandi as your first feature? Any special appeal this story had for you?

Frankie Latina: I have always been interested in the C.I.A. and wanted to make a film that reflected how truly bizarre that world is. I wanted Operandi to feel like JFK meets Twin Peaks. [My film] took five years to complete all of the shooting, [all on] a Super 8 camera, with no money, on weekends, with friends, family and a band of outsiders.

I don’t sense a lot of improvisation in your film. How much do you plan before filming?

FL: I extensively story board every scene that I shoot – I find this process almost more important than the script. When you shoot on Super 8 with no money, there is no room for improvisation. I was always trying to shoot at a 1 to 1 ratio and I never let the camera operator shoot over three takes.

Do you visualize the composition of your scenes and shots while you write, or does most of it happen on the set?

FL: I find all my inspiration by paging through Helmut Newton books [on fashion], listening to Carole King records, and watching my favorite films like Coffy, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cannibal Holocaust, to name a few. I also put together very detailed look books full of these images as they relate to the tone and look of each film.

You create a tone of artificiality that serves your film well. What did you do to create this? Anything in your shooting style, or how you directed your actors?

FL: I like to create an entirely different world. When people go to the theater they want to escape reality for an hour and a half. I want to feel that, when the credits roll and [viewers] walk into the lobby, they feel like they have had an actual “movie going experience” – where people [are] in the lobby talking for 30 minutes after the film, telling their friends to go see it with them for the third time, and trying to sneak the card board cut-out for the film through the side door of the theater and into your car. If a director can’t accomplish that [kind of passion], then they have failed.

Your film seems to walk a fine line between credibility and artificiality. Did you try to ignore plausibility, or did you need to address it to make your film work?

FL: This film is born from my imagination and those influences and films that I have mentioned earlier. If I am successful in creating an interesting and visually original world with characters that are striking and bizarre, then I do not think plausibility is a factor.

What approach did you take to shooting your CGI scenes? Were you going for artificiality as well? 

FL: I do not like CGI. Although when I had to use it in Operandi, I was not trying to fool the audience. I didn’t have the money to do extensive FX. One of the most interesting aspects of the grindhouse [style] is pulling off cheap FX creatively and for no money. Every cent is up on the screen. I like the charm of low-rent FX, executed properly.

How important is Danny Trejo to your film? What do you think he brings to the film that no one else could?

FL: Danny’s agent, Gloria, was instrumental in working with the producers and I to make it possible to allow SAG to let Danny be in the movie. [There was] a lot of red tape and paper work [to get Trejo]. The producers took care of everything and I just signed my name on the [dotted] line.

Second to Pam Grier, Danny is my favorite actor. I have really grown close to Danny, Gloria, and Danny’s son, Gilbert, and will never forget the opportunity Danny has given me by taking a chance on an unknown director from Milwaukee shooting a no-budget, grindhouse film.

I know Mark Borchardt (from the documentary American Movie) is local to you in Milwaukee. Was this actor convenient for you to use, or does he offer some special element to your film?

FL: I really enjoy working with Mark. He’s cut from an exotic piece of cloth. He has been very influential in my growth as a filmmaker. On the few occasions where he was too busy to be in the film, I would just call him back a few hours later and tell him that instead of a scene with him just making a phone call, I changed the scene to him making a phone call in a hot tub with three girls feeding him grapes. That usually worked.

How did you approach casting the numerous young women in your film? What were you looking for in them?

FL: I was looking for strong confident women to be in this picture. I feel that is the only way to travel down 42nd street.

How important is skin to your film? How do you react when you see a modern grindhouse-style revenger film with clothes never dropped? (Those PG-13 attempts do happen.)

FL: I have a rule that I don’t watch PG-13 movies. I feel that they are an entire waste of time. Any director who shoots a grindhouse film without exquisite, triumphant, dangerous, and naked women is doing a disservice to the genre and should move into a different field.

Do you see your film as a pastiche? It seems like you play on the expectations that modern viewers have for watching such films.

FL: This film is a love letter to all my favorite films and directors. It is for true grindhouse fans, no one else. I’m not interested in anything modern. I thrive to communicate a timeless feel in all of my films. To me that is the only way your picture will stand the test of time. I support anyone and anything that has to do with the support and promotion of the grindhouse genre.

How do you get Sasha Grey involved in producing your project? I’d guess she came on after the fact, since she would have been a godsend to cast in a lead role.

FL: Sasha has a truly expansive knowledge of cinema, especially the French New Wave, and when she saw Operandi she was a huge champion of the film and decided to come on board as a producer for the theatrical release through the New York-based production/distribution company “The Zoo.” She has been instrumental in the marketing and promotion of the film.

We are also talking about a tentative action film that I would direct and she would star in. I really look forward to showing the world the first art-house action star, SASHA GREY, at 24 frames per second.

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Ms. Grey, what caught your attention about Frankie’s project? Any certain elements that grabbed you about it?

Sasha Grey: I was asked to be in an upcoming film of Frankie’s [the title is undisclosed, at this point], naturally I asked what else he had directed. I was immediately sent a copy of Modus Operandi and when I saw that Danny Trejo’s name was on the box, I was psyched! While watching the film, I really got a sense of how well Frankie pays attention to detail. He’s incredibly visual, and Modus was a cool, funky film that can’t be denied. It’s filled with visual images and references to not only other films, but also the photography of Helmut Newton (who I’m a huge fan of).

Do you wish you could have acted in Modus Operandi? Is there a certain role you wished you could have played?

SG: Modus Operandi is incredibly stylized and was made over the course of several years, on Frankie’s own blood, sweat, and tears. If you changed anything in the film, it wouldn’t be the special film it is.

Do you see a connection to your mainstream projects and your work in pornography? Are both just acting to you?

SG: I’ve answered this several times. I approach adult film as performance art. You mentioned that this question is for the intellectually curious out there, so hopefully you will leave my answer the way it is and not cut it short, because you may disagree with my personal philosophy.

Every time I’ve stepped onto an adult set, I’ve prepared my body and my mind the day before. I have mantras and routines I practice. I have a concept, a purpose…this is to explore the human condition, (including myself) and to viscerally connect with my audience…all by utilizing my body while performing on camera, and while observing actions on the set. In short, I am a hyper version of myself, not a character.

When most people hear this, they have the natural reaction to disagree and simply view porn as porn, and laugh it off. But they are completely ignoring my sentiments and motives. If you don’t understand them, it’s ok. If you don’t agree that women are free to do what they want with their minds and bodies, that’s a YP. But don’t disrespect someone’s art, because you’ve been spoon fed society’s views and commentary on women’s sexuality, that which is more often than not, conservative. I hope that clears that up.

Contrastly, when I perform in front of the camera for a more traditional acting role I am using my imagination, and working with directors to create a character that is not me. Even in the case of Entourage.

The main thing that ties the two types of performances together are self discovery.

How has playing the central role in Soderbergh’s character study The Girlfriend Experience changed your approach to acting? Do you strive for such roles now?

SG: Working with Steven taught me how to strip my ego when in front of the camera, he takes it back to the basics of pure cinema. Odd actually, because Chelsea is such a narcissistic character! I think every actor strives to take on roles that can develop and morph all while filming, and with such talented directors.

At a young age, you have become an icon of adult films, especially since you have crossed over. How do you react to such notoriety?

SG: I’m very humbled, yet I know I still have a lot to prove and give of myself.

As an actor, do you feel you are suited to a certain genre, such as crime, action, or horror? What style of filmmaking would suit you best – i.e., provide the right roles for you, allow you to grow as a performer?

SG: I think comedians make some of the finest actors. I’d really enjoy testing myself alongside raw comedians, I feel it’s what exercises my talent, and will help develop me into an actor that can take on any role.

What aspect of filmmaking drives you the most? Do you want to focus on producing more in the future?

SG: Collaboration. It’s key to any healthy relationship! The crystal ball tells me there are more opportunities for me as a producer in the future.