Keeping It Reel

By Noel Reed

(Published in the July 2010 issue)

San Diego-based Unconventional Films is landing it square on the jaw with this summer’s national release of Chamaco (Spanish for “Kid”), a coming-of-age boxing film starring Martin Sheen and Michael Madsen and directed by Miguel Necoechea. Shot in Mexico with a largely local crew, Chamaco follows a young boy from the mean streets of Mexico City as he finds respite from real violence in the ring.

If the movie’s pint-size hero seems like a bruiser, you should see the guys behind Unconventional Films. Founders Neil Trusso and Vernon Mortensen became buddies when they deployed together to Somalia-Trusso’s a former Navy SEAL; Mortensen was a Navy SWCC (Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman). Both ended up going to film school after retiring from the military.

Mortensen says his post-Navy film career was always in the crosshairs. “When I was a kid, my dad’s cousin worked for Universal Studios on Back to the Future. He took me to work with him for two weeks, and I got to meet Steven Spielberg. I fell in love with movies.”

Chamaco, produced in collaboration with L.A.’s Rogue Arts, is the first full-length feature for Trusso and Mortensen, who launched Unconventional Films in 2003. Not long after finishing Chamaco, Mortenson met third partner Kelly Parks, a screenwriter who used to be in the CIA. (Er, wouldn’t want to make any unprofessional moves on their movie set.)

Parks suggested they make an Internet-based TV series, starting with Universal Dead, an action-packed zombie-vs.-Navy SEALs thriller with actors D.B. Sweeney and Doug Jones (his name might not be familiar, be he was the costumed star of Hellraiser and Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer). Mortenson believes the show, filmed in San Diego, signals a change in the industry. “Sooner or later movies will only exist online. We decided it was a really good idea to get into the business early, so we wouldn’t be playing catch-up later on.”

Chamaco will be screening throughout the country in July before making its hometown premiere at Gaslamp 15 Pacific Theatres on August 27. The Unconventional Films trio is already hard at work on its next film, as well. The Sorrow, a Western that takes place during the Gold Rush, will most likely be shot locally, as will future projects. Mortenson, who fell hard for San Diego during his Navy days, says they plan to stick around for good.

“Being outside of L.A. as an independent has its advantages,” he says. “In L.A., you can get lost as an independent. In San Diego, it is a big deal to be a movie company.”