By Don Simpson | August 17, 2007
Director Michael D. Olmos is the 34-year old adopted son of activist and actor Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver). After graduating from Columbia University with degrees in Contemporary American Literature and Creative Writing, Michael mentored under filmmaker Robert M. Young (Alambrista!).
Like father, like son, Michael’s debut feature film, Splinter, is a politically charged vision of a highly volatile world. Dreamer (Enrique Almeida) is just that, a dreamer; slowly regaining his consciousness and memory after being caught in the crossfire of his brother, Shaggy’s (Billy Garcia) murder. Dreamer is on a mission to reveal his brother’s killer, while attempting to continue his deceased brother’s mission to keep the peace between rival neighborhood gangs. Dreamer’s intention is in complete syncopation with a newly transplanted female detective, Gramm (Resmine Atis). Realizing that even their partner/family seem to operating in opposition to them, they try to help each other.
Edward James Olmos, delivers a wonderfully subdued supporting performance as Captain Garcia; a perfect juxtaposition to the drunken lunacy of Tom Sizemore’s Detective Cunningham.
Despite the stylish and lush cinematography and visceral editing, Splinter is almost painful to watch due to its frank depiction of reality and brutal representation of violence. It goes boldly where no gang film has ever gone and says what few are brave enough to say: the world is totally “fracked” with conflict caused by the increasing polarization between the poor and wealthy. Worst of all, the people in charge are only adding fuel to the fire.
I recently chatted with Michael D. Olmos about the intended audience for Splinter along with its style, message and the splintering effects of class struggle…
DS: Who is the intended audience for Splinter?
MO: What we were hoping for when we started out to make [Splinter] was to have it crossover into mainstream as much as it could. We know, obviously, that it’s for an urban audience and it’s for young kids. Because of the way the story is told – through the eyes of a white female detective and a Latino kid – audiences will have a way into the story from two different angles. Distributors will probably market it to the young urban audience, but I think it will crossover. It’s very genre, very thriller, very action, with almost horror elements; but on the other side it’s got some art house elements too.
DS: Is there anything being done to ensure that the Latino and gang audiences will see this film?
MO: Latino audiences will discover it, especially in the L.A. area, because we live here. My dad [Edward James Olmos] and I are involved in the community. As far as the young kids, specifically the gang audience or hip hop urban audience, that community is already discovering it by word of mouth. With a lot of the films that are made for this audience, the quality is not good. They are usually made fast and cheap and not very well. The kids are set to embrace Splinter because they are proud of it; it represents them.
DS: Is there a desired effect you would like Splinter to have on the young Latinos and gangs in the audience?
MO: When they look at it, well it doesn’t glorify the violence. It’s definitely a genre film. It’s glossy to a certain extent but I think when the violence happens in the film, there’s a certain build-up to it and it’s horrific. It’s not a film that deals with the gang lifestyle. You don’t know what these guys do in the gangs. You don’t know how they make money, how they survive. It’s a gang; all the expectations of what that means are placed on it, but you never see it. Mostly you see Dreamer and his brother Dusty (Noel Gugliemi) with their mom (Ivonne Coll) at home; their daily, mundane lives. It shows that side, so I think kids that are in gangs with relate to the mundane part of their lives, the normality of it rather than what’s glorified. On the other side, the fact that many of the filmmakers and actors are from the neighborhoods; not all of them are in gangs, but the fact that they went out and created a movie, I think that’s inspiring in itself. When we show it to kids that’s what we talk about. It’s important to tell your story, it doesn’t matter what it is. Just the fact that you can go out and express yourself is what’s important. I think that will inspire kids to do something else; to have something to aspire to.
DS: Did you purposely avoid the glorified aspects of gang lifestyle?
MO: I don’t think we purposely avoided it, it just organically happened. When I was working with Enrique [Almeida] and Noel [Gugliemi] in the early stages, their big complaint was that they hated the way Hollywood films depicted the gang lifestyle. Everything is a drive-by shooting, they all wear bandannas, etc. Enrique and Noel are more into playing video games and watching MTV, doing stuff that young kids in general in America like to do. It was more just about exploring their lives; what do they do that’s different from what is seen in Hollywood movies? But when you’re telling a story you want to include the more exciting elements of a lifestyle, whether its gangs or office workers. That makes for much more interesting screen time. Usually when you’re in the more mundane stages of life, there’s no real drama. That was a challenge for us.
DS: How did you decide on the visual direction of the film?
MO: I do a lot of pre-visualization. I break down scenes and storyboard them. I had three sequences storyboarded and the basic style came out of that. Together with [Director of Photography] Bridger Nielson, we pulled reference photos for scenes and characters. We pulled a lot of stuff from magazine editorials, from Vogue to Vanity Fair or whatever. That lent itself to the movie visually because it dealt with memory, illusion and deception; so it’s going to be fragmented. The story lent itself to the style. It was all very organic and the style came from the psychological truth in the story.
DS: Splinter spreads the blame for the many senseless killings in the film amongst most of its characters, including the LAPD. Were the situations based on actual events?
MO: I guess all of that stuff has appeared in the press but it wasn’t like I was trying to condemn every police officer or young Latino kid for that kind of behavior. It more so came out of the political sense, where we are, this moral ambiguity, this gray area in the greater world view. There’s a character that was released from Iraq and we were hoping to shoot some footage of what happened to him over there; to juxtapose a kid from this neighborhood who is oversees having to partake in all of the senseless violence over there. Then there is Dreamer back in his neighborhood going through almost the same thing. So Splinter came more from what was going on in the world; the ends justify the means for everyone. I just thought that’s where the U.S. is politically.
DS: I was going to ask whether I was reading too much into Splinter because I definitely saw a direct relationship to the situation in the Middle East (namely Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Israel and Palestine). The killing is very senseless. People are killing each other, even their own people. Then there’s the police (the U.S. military) adding fuel to the fire, like Detective Cunningham in Splinter, they need the conflict in order to retain their position, power and control.
MO: I’m glad you caught that. You’re the first person to pull that out of there on your own. Thanks!
DS: Are there any plausible solutions to gang violence?
MO: If there is a solution, it would be because they are just kids. They get into it so young. There’s no social outlet for people in that lower strata. If those kids had some of the opportunities that wealthier kids have, it’s not like it’s going to solve the situation; but the more opportunities that are given, the less chance they will go into gangs. They don’t want to be gang members; it’s really just a survival instinct. They have nothing and it’s like a pressure cooker in there. Everyone is just trying to survive and have enough money to eat. They watch television and see all of this wealth but they don’t even have the basic needs. Parents can’t give that to their children, so the kids are trying to get it. It becomes a survival mechanism to join up into groups for protection and to get the things that everyone in our society desires. If there is a solution, it would be putting more money into social programs; getting other opportunities into the hands of those kids. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. It’s not just here, it’s in every society. If there is no opportunity for the poor, crime occurs at drastic levels. It’s a really complicated problem but I think if you start young you probably have a better chance of helping.
Deciding to leave well enough alone and end the interview there, I withheld my witty retort of “you sound just like your father” (which would have been intended in the most complimentary and flattering of manners).