Zoë Bell as Avery Taggert in the action film ͞CAMINO͟ an XLrator Media release. Photo courtesy of Noah Greenberg.

Zoë Bell as Avery Taggert in the action film “CAMINO” an XLrator Media release. Photo courtesy of Noah Greenberg.

If you thought the idea of a 50-member fight club in 2013’s Raze was daunting, how about being lost in the jungles of Colombia and facing off against an army of six? That’s the idea behind Camino, the third feature of director Josh C. Waller.

The ’80s set action-thriller stars Tarantino muse Zoë Bell as Avery Taggert, a photojournalist who’s built a career by capturing honest moments during times of conflict. That eye for authenticity leads her to her next assignment: chronicling the journey of Guillermo (played by 7:35 in the Morning‘s Nacho Vigalondo), a Spaniard known as “El Guero,” and his group of five Hispanic missionaries (which includes A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night star Sheila Vand) as they bring medical aid to war-torn Colombian villages.

During one night on the mission, Avery photographs an unforgivable act she was never intended to see: Guillermo murdering a helpless boy after a drug deal. Now at risk of being exposed as a false prophet, Guillermo convinces his followers that it was Avery who committed the crime and leads them on a manhunt to kill her. With only her camera, containing evidence of the murder, as her weapon, Avery must rely on her instincts alone in order to survive.

The film reunites Waller with McCanick writer Daniel Noah (who, along with Elijah Wood and Waller, rounds up the production company SpectreVision) and is produced alongside Bleiberg Entertainment. It also marks Waller’s second collaboration with Bell — the stuntwoman-turned-actress previously starred in his aforementioned feature debut — who is vibrant in a role that is just as dependent on her emotional depth as her physical prowess.

Ahead of the film’s North American release, I spoke to the director about directing Zoë Bell for a second time, writing a screenplay over the course of a weekend, and creating more opportunities for actors and actresses of colour.

(L-R) Sheila Vand as Marianna and Nacho Vigalondo as Guillermo in the action film ͞CAMINO͟ an XLrator Media release. Photo by Zoriah / www.Zoriah.com.

(L-R) Sheila Vand as Marianna and Nacho Vigalondo as Guillermo in the action film “CAMINO” an XLrator Media release. Photo by Zoriah / www.Zoriah.com.

ScreenPicks: You hear stories about screenplays that took months or years to write, but I was surprised that Camino only took a single weekend. In terms of your criteria, what did you need to have check marked before you were content with the final draft?

Waller: “It’s not necessarily things I have to check off. Daniel Noah and I — Either he’s the yin, and I’m the yang, or vice versa. We have the perfect partnership. I don’t enjoy, nor am I good at, the process of screenwriting. I like coming up with stories and describing them on paper in the same way that I would tell a story to a friend in a bar. You know what I mean? A detailed story. So, essentially, on Friday, Dan and I got nothing more than a rough idea about a photographer in the jungles. I left out some of the characters and the names — a lot of the names of the characters are based on some of our crew that we had down in Colombia while we were shooting The Boy.

“It was nothing more of an idea, so Dan and I sat together for two, three hours on a Friday afternoon, spliced up the idea together I told him that I had. We kind of bounced it off each other. And he said, ‘Okay, look, I’m going to write this over the course of a weekend. We cannot talk on the phone because we’ll get sidetracked, start bullshitting about other stuff.’ He’s like, ‘So we can only communicate through text and email and Internet.’ He’s like, ‘I’m not very good at action; that’s kinda your thing. So, like, if I have any questions about action sequences, I’ll text you.’ I mean, it was kind of a crazy thing, because as Dan said, on Monday morning, when he sent over the finished first draft, he did one more draft that night and he was done. But he was like, ‘I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, because now I know I can do this, and so what’s my fucking excuse for all the other projects, you know?’ (laughs)”

ScreenPicks: So I understand that you had a friend [Zoriah Miller], who was a war photographer, who also served as an inspiration for the story. Can you talk about how his experiences helped inform the character?

Waller: “Yeah, our buddy Zoriah was friends of Daniel and mine — I actually met him through Daniel, when we lived in New York, back in ’97, ’98, and he was an electronic DJ of, like, pure things and shit. Years later, he got out of deejaying, started getting into war photography, and became a really prominent war photographer. The story wasn’t necessarily based off of Zoriah, but we just thought, you know, he’s one of our closest friends, we can call him and maybe he can come and act as a technical advisor. He can also help some of the photography, which he actually did. He had just come off of 1,000 Times Good Night, the one with Juliette Binoche, where she was a photojournalist, and he was the technical advisor on that much larger budget film and did the photographs for that.

“Our ploy to get him to come help us was like, ‘Look, we don’t have a whole lot of money, but do you want to come hang out on the North Shore for three weeks, in Hawaii?’ (laughs) And he goes, ‘Well, I haven’t had a vacation in a while.’ So it was kind of a little bit of a vacation for Zoriah. And I know that he really worked a lot with Zoë to make sure that she’s holding the camera correctly — the classic thing with people that are holding cameras on films, that they close their other eye that’s not on the lens; proper war photographers don’t do that because they’ve got to keep their eye on the war, you know, what’s going on around. So it was little details like that that Zoriah really helped make authentic.”

Nacho Vigalondo as Guillermo in the action film ͞CAMINO͟ an XLrator Media release. Photo by Zoriah / www.Zoriah.com.

Nacho Vigalondo as Guillermo in the action film “CAMINO” an XLrator Media release. Photo by Zoriah / www.Zoriah.com.

ScreenPicks: As you mentioned, you guys filmed in Hawaii, and particularly in a jungle. And not many people can say that they’ve filmed in a jungle. How did you prepare to shoot in that kind of environment?

Waller: “I wouldn’t necessarily say that we were shooting in the jungle. I mean, we were, but it was the jungles of Oahu. So it’s not like you’re lost in the middle of the Amazon. We’d go into the jungle, and then you walk three feet to the left, and you’re at the craft table, eating Nutri-Grain bars. There’s no life or death situation. ‘How are we gonna survive? Don’t drink that water — there’s piranhas!’ None of that. At the end of the day, we all went home. The actors would all go stay in the same house that was on the North Shore, and everyone can unwind by going into the ocean and surfing. So it wasn’t horrible. If you want to, tell everyone that it was grueling. (laughs) Just so they think we’re all much tougher.”

ScreenPicks: They would probably believe you, though. (laughs)

Waller: “Yeah, exactly.”

ScreenPicks: While most action films have a stunt double for their leading actor, you obviously didn’t need it for this case. But although your lead actor was a stunt person, her character is far from that area. So how did you approach the stunts and action scenes in order to make them more grounded and truthful for this character?

Waller: “Zoë and I made a decision early on. We knew that most people that did see Raze, the first thing we did together, that I think they were expecting us to come out of the gate hard and be Zoë, kicking ass … We said, ‘We need to do the opposite.’ The first fight that she’s actually in, you know, you almost want people to get the impression that she’s not — for the most part, she’s getting her ass handed to her, and you’re like, ‘I don’t know if she’s gonna make it.’

“She’s not doing any martial arts; she’s not doing anything really showy. Here’s a woman who’s been in some severe situation throughout the course of her life because of her profession … She’s learned how to protect herself by surrounding herself with people that know how to protect themselves. So she’s taken what she’s learned and just tried to survive. It’s about survival. That was always the thing; let’s just make it about surviving, not her winning a fight, not about being a badass or anything.”

ScreenPicks: Zoë’s character was originally written as a male and you even had an actor in mind for the part. But I think it’s a good thing that you chose this different direction, which was more refreshing. Were there any other changes made to the script besides the name and gender change?

Waller: “No. The idea of writing screenplays and writing characters for a woman, writing for a man, writing for a black person, writing for a Latino, writing for an Asian — I am looking forward to the day where I don’t have to read a script and I see, oh, the character’s name is Stephanie. She’s 35. She’s black. Get rid of all that shit because all that does is just feed into the separation of, you know, not separation, but segregation. To write for women would be pandering. Men don’t necessarily do that all the time. Sometimes they do, but usually it just comes off as wrong, and awful, and depressing.

“So all we really had to do — we didn’t even change the name. The character’s name was Avery Taggert. Avery Taggert was this journalist, and he was gonna be suffering because he lost his wife, who was also a journalist, and he was still, potentially, haunted by her memory. He kinda carries that along with him as he’s going through these experiences. And we just said, ‘Well, let’s just make Avery Taggert a woman.’ We switched dead wife to a dead husband and pretty much kept it exactly the same.”

Zoë Bell as Avery Taggert in the action film ͞CAMINO͟ an XLrator Media release. Photo by Zoriah / www.Zoriah.com.

Zoë Bell as Avery Taggert in the action film “CAMINO” an XLrator Media release. Photo by Zoriah / www.Zoriah.com.

ScreenPicks: For films like this, it’s very easy to go into shock value and sensationalism. But I’ve seen a lot of interviews of yours, and I know that you had a strong stance against exploitation. Can you talk about the challenges of walking that fine line, especially in these genres, which is very much about shock value?

Waller: “This film is not necessarily a SpectreVision film. There’s a world where it could be said it is a SpectreVision film because SpectreVision is nothing more than Daniel [Noah], Elijah [Wood], myself, and the community of filmmakers that we surround ourselves with … It’s not that I’m against gore, or I’m against blood, seeing things where people get up from their seats and are cheering because it’s so badass or something like that. It just has to have a reason to be there, and the reason has to be connected to the story and the narrative. There will be times where we’re shooting and lines of dialogue, or even little bits, moments when we’re on set, where maybe there isn’t something in the script, that I’m pushing the character to say, because I have to fight that in myself as well. ‘Ooh. Maybe she should say this, try this.’ And they’ll say a line of dialogue and it’ll be fun and we’ll all think it’s badass.

“But then you get in the cutting room, and I go, ‘That line doesn’t make any sense.’ Because that’s me playing into my films, saying my own love of action films and all that kind of thing. But would someone actually say that line of dialogue in this real situation? Fuck no. It would never — you know what I mean? You just set little moments throughout the film where you can kind of embrace the 15-year-old side of yourself, and say, ‘Maybe I’ll do one.’ I’ll let her say something like, ‘No, this is how you do it,’ and then she chokes him with her camera. But no, that’s not what someone will say in reality. But it’s still fun to see. If you surround yourself with people that you trust — that aren’t afraid to call you out, tell you you’re wrong — you have to be able to hear them and at least take their confession seriously. It’s why I like working with my friends. They’re always going to be able to call you out, and as long as you’re willing to put your ego aside and listen, then the product will come out good. It will come out to be something you’re proud of.”

ScreenPicks: So while independent films like this celebrates diverse stories and voices, that’s not always the case for mainstream Hollywood. The Oscars controversy aside, I found this this recent study by USC [University of Southern California], which revealed that only 28.3% of all speaking characters across 414 films, television and digital episodes in 2014-2015 were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. As someone in the industry, what do you think people can do to change these statistics?

Waller: “First of all, the Hollywood big budget movies — I don’t know how that could change other than the studios just making the decisions to change. It’s not just about film, it’s about everything that JFK — who said it? ‘Be the change that you want to see.’ I can’t remember who said that, but you don’t make someone up to bring about the change. You just make the decision yourself and do it. Those independent films — I think the filmmakers, the producers, the directors — they don’t always think that they have a choice, that they’re being forced into a box where they have to cast white people, or you have to cast a man, because ‘women don’t mean anything in the marketplace,’ and that’s just fucking bullshit. That’s a cop-out.

“Producers and filmmakers have an immense amount of power. It just depends on what budget you want to function at. If you can function at a budget level where you’re granted more creative freedom, and there isn’t as much risk for the money people that have sometimes, and a lot of times, really closed blinds, then you can do what you want. Camino, outside of Kevin Pollak, is all minorities: It’s a female lead, it’s a Spanish villain, and everyone else is Hispanic, except for Sheila Vand, who is an Iranian woman playing a Hispanic … What’s funny is that you just do it, you just do it, and you start opening up your mind — it’s a responsibility that we have.”

Camino opens in theaters on March 4 and on VOD and iTunes on March 8.