Director returns to Lower Valley to shoot film

Rick Castaneda has been a storyteller since childhood and now prefers to tell those stories through a movie camera's lens.

He grew up in Granger, and when he graduated from high school at the top of his class, he headed south to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California.

He has directed, produced and written several music videos, live-action shorts and animation films since getting his degree from USC in 2003.

Now he is taking on his first full-length film, titled Cement Suitcase, which he directs, and he also wrote the screenplay.

Much of the film is being shot in the Lower Valley where he grew up.

"As long as I've been in this business, I've never seen The Yakima Valley used in a film," Castaneda said. "I decided it was time."

The story revolves around a guy named Franklin, the best wine salesman in the Yakima Valley. Trouble is, Franklin might be an excellent salesman, but his personal life sucks.

Castaneda describes his protagonist this way: Franklin is in love with a girl who is cheating on him and ends up renting a room in his home to the same guy who earlier broke into his house And though he is a fabulous salesman, he hates his job, has never traveled anywhere, and to top it all off, the guy who his girlfriend is having an affair with invites him out for a golf lesson and Franklin can't help but like him.

Castaneda's flair for absurd comedy was honed in childhood.

His friends from Granger remember the filmmaker's love for making movies all too well.

He wanted to make a short film during his senior year of high school and conned a bunch of his friends to help, said Patrick Ibarra, who has been chums with Castaneda since kindergarten.

"I remember thinking Rick had way too much time on his hands because we both played three sports year-round," Ibarra said. "I couldn't understand why he'd want to take on the extra work for no reason. Anyway, we shot the silly comedy, then Rick put it on local access cable."

But Castaneda didn't stop there. He arranged to have the movie shown at an assembly at Granger High School just before graduation.

"What makes this memory funny isn't Rick's ambition," Ibarra said. "But rather how we carried out that presentation during the school assembly. With a projector set up in the gym, students were asked to come to the bleachers for an assembly without knowing what was going on.

"Once everyone was seated, we shut off the lights completely, and a man in a suit with sunglasses walked into the darkened gym carrying a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist."

What happened next was pure Hollywood.

"Another classmate sitting in the top row of the bleachers shined a laser pointer down at the man with the briefcase and using some sound effects, shot the man dead on the gym floor," Ibarra explained. "The shooter then ran down the bleachers, opened the briefcase, which contained a VHS tape in it, popped it into the VCR and sprinted out of the gym.

"Then, in complete darkness, the movie began to some laughs and cheers from the crowd. It was the first time I realized Rick's work was going to do well."

Cement Suitcase has all the emotional highs and lows, humor and poignancy of the popular film Sideways, which starred Paul Giamatti.

The main stars are Los Angeles actors, one of whom went to high school with Castaneda. Kristina Guerrero, who plays the cheating girlfriend, is a former Sunnyside kid who went off to Hollywood a few years ago and became a news correspondent for the E! network.

Dwayne Bartholomew portrays Franklin, Nathan Sapsford is the sleazy roommate and Shawn Parsons is Brad, the cheating girlfriend's lover.

But Castaneda's movie will be a much more personal journey for Eastern Washington residents because it's being shot on Castaneda's home turf.

Filming started this past weekend and will take a few weeks to complete at locations across the valley. One of those locations is Airfield Estates Winery in Prosser on July 13-15.

Lori Miller, the winery's marketing director, went to school with Castaneda and is looking forward to having cast and crew at her family's winery.

"Our tasting room will remain open while the film crew is here, though we might have to stop pouring wine for a while when some scenes are shot there," she said. "But visitors are welcome to stop by and watch the filming."

The director plans to enter Cement Suitcase into all the major film festivals next year.

As for Castaneda's filmmaking future, he sees it as something that started with a dream and an old camera and led him to be a professional filmmaker.