Is there a ‘Promised Land?’ That’s hard to answer and a question of discussion proposed by David Trevino of 3RES Vinos Pictures in his short film debut: “Promised Land,” a military-themed short film with many unresolved questions. Recently I had the awesome opportunity to review the short film as well as speak to David Trevino (Director and Writer) and Mike Whelan (Main actor). The music, sound design, and graphic arts are from talented composer Federico Vaona. Mike Whelan stars as Sergeant Dante, the tortured soul from his war experiences and even deeper issues from his past. You might recognize Mike Whelan from “The Mason Brothers,” (as Orion Mason) directed by Keith Sutliff. Sutliff also stars in “Promised Land.” I highly enjoyed the thought provoking short film and thought it was shot and directed with a strong vision with the added intensity and darkness from the main character, Sergeant Dante, whose indifference has a haunting effect.
David Trevino started to play with the idea of doing a short film before he came on to “The Mason Brothers” to assist. I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to do it, but after being on set of “The Mason Brothers” and talking with Keith Sutliff, I became more and more confident,” said Trevino. Trevino thought a military story was ideal for his first film. Trevino served in the Air Force and chose “Promised Land” because he was able to keep the budget small, had access to uniforms and gear as well as a reserve of gritty ideas. Growing up David Trevino loved watching the “Twilight Zone” and wanted to do something similar to that genre.
The film chronicles Sergeant Dante’s journey alone and stranded in the desert of Afghanistan. Dante is an American soldier and the only survivor of an attack that has cost the lives of all his comrades. The film’s narrative chronicles Sergeant Dante’s journey of survival across the brutal landscape, which at times feels surreal combined with flashbacks of Dante’s recent past among his living soldiers. Mike Whelan’s performance makes the short film come alive.
As I watched “Promised Land”, I kept waiting and hoping for redeemable characteristics from Dante (Mike Whelan). They do come later but at a very high price. I thought the character arch of Sergeant Dante portrayed a collaborative confidence from both Trevino and Whelan. Trevino made a distinctive choice in defining Dante as well as allowing Whelan to “run with the character” and make it his own.
Whelan’s character is complete without reservations about killing and war and displays a stoic nature towards violence. Whelan’s performance brings a disturbing and an authentic quality to the film. Before entering his current career Whelan served in the United States Navy, spending time in the Middle East.
The most dramatic scene is a lengthy flashback that takes place around a campfire with Sergeant Dante and two of his fellow soldiers having a philosophical conversation about war. Sergeant Dante shares the story of his first combat kill. The story has an unnerving passage about Dante discovering a little Afghani girl (played by Mia Diaz) who is being brutalized by her Islamist captors. Whelan is incredible in his delivery of this monologue, as he pauses to smoke a cigarette in front of the fireside conversation. Whelan’s monologue reminds us that there are easy solutions to war and there never will be. It’s a destructive force that cannot be categorized – other than you never are the same again afterward. Dante joined the service to kill and get paid for it and clearly sees no reason to believe in a Promised Land at all. Only war matters to him.
I had the chance to interview both David Trevino and Mike Whelan for this interview which was inspiring and informative.
Mike Ryan Whelan was born and raised in New York by his late mother and biggest fan Maureen. She was a single mom who never lacked in her love towards her son. “I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood… We had a very close extended family so I grew up with a lot of love,” Whelan expressed. His mother, Maureen, worked as a bartender in Freeport Long Island where they lived. “When I think of her I think of someone who was funny, warm, caring and the most generous person I’ve ever known.” “Any good qualities I have, I got from her,” Mike expressed.
Mike and Maureen eventually left NY and moved to Florida. In 2003 Whelan enlisted in the Navy, got to see the world and made lifelong friends. Once Mike got out, he bounced around Florida, Kentucky and New York working odd jobs, doing stand-up and trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life. “Finally, in 2011, I packed up my truck and left NY like a thief in the night.” “I took a 2-week road trip with no real plan whatsoever but it was the best decision of my life,” says Whelan.
Since moving to LA, Whelan has performed at the world famous Comedy Store, the Hollywood Improv and the Laugh Factory. After a few years and a lot of auditions, Whelan landed his first feature film “The Mason Brothers.” Shortly after that, he received his first writing credit and first lead role in “Promised Land.” Whelan described being a part of “The Mason Brothers” as an amazing experience that he will never forget. “I’m very fortunate to work with writer/director David Trevino once again in July on his new film “Redolent,” said Whelan. Mike Whelan will play Max and he’s thrilled to work with talented actor Brandon Sean Pearson again. “More than anything I would like to think that Maureen can see me and is proud,” expressed Whelan.
I know you are skilled in comedy and drama. Describe your gravitation to the artistic craft.
For me, acting came later in life. I started taking acting/improv classes once I moved to LA. In NY I was doing Improv and from there tried my hand at stand up. I was always interested in comedy, especially stand-up, even though I was too young to understand what most of the jokes meant. The response from the audience is what initially drew me to comedy. I looked forward to going to school and doing anything to get a laugh from the other kids. I’d sit in my room for hours working on impressions of my favorite comedians, Jim Carrey and Andrew Dice Clay especially. Needless to say, my poor mother knew the principal on a first name basis. Making people laugh has always been the most important thing to me, even as I’ve gotten older and regardless of how much trouble it gets me into. My first experience on set was when I was twelve or thirteen. My friend’s mom was a casting director. She got me a part as an extra on The Sopranos, (season one), which was amazing. Being on set, seeing all the actors and all the work that goes into one small scene was a great experience. At the time nobody knew what the Sopranos was or certainly what it would become but as far as my mom was concerned I had made it.
What made you and David Trevino decide to collaborate for “Promised Land”? Was it an idea that you had for a while?
David wrote “Promised Land, I think he had this story he wanted to tell in his mind for a while. We’re both veterans and I knew he was very passionate about this story and how it was going to be told. A week or so before shooting, he called and asked if I would want to take a shot at writing the ‘big fire monologue scene’. I was beyond excited. Basically, if he liked what I wrote he would use it, if not, stick to the script. I stayed up all night scribbling away and pacing around my apartment. Fortunately, David liked what I wrote and encouraged me to keep writing more scenes if I felt like they needed it. A lot of it was dialogue I improvised while we were shooting with the other actors. David liked it and it seemed natural and fit with his overall vision for “Promised Land.” One of the best experiences of my life.
I was really disturbed by your character Dante I found him to be an incredible combination of different qualities: bitter, hardened, sad, tough and filled with emotion. Can you elaborate?
Dante’s flawed, to say the least. By the time we see him in the movie he’s at the end of his rope. Consumed by his own anger and hate, war has broken him and put a tremendous strain on his family life. While he misses and loves his family, he doesn’t feel like he belongs there anymore. After all, Dante has seen and done, the “war zone” is the only place he feels at home now. I think there is part of him that doesn’t like the man he has become but he can’t fight it. While he internally struggles with what he has faced during the war he just can’t seem to turn it off.
As an actor, how do you get to a place to deliver the monologue you did? Also, many might consider Dante as simply a “bully,” but I believe he’s more than that. Do you agree?
Writing for characters in a war drama was totally different than anything I’ve ever done. I’m used to writing comedy; jokes that are very personal to me and my life. I created this little mini bio of Dante in my head to try and understand the character better — where he’s from, his family, his struggles before serving his country. I tried writing from Dante’s point of view. I wanted to picture him fresh out of boot camp, optimistic and ready to make his family and everyone else proud and how all the ‘horrors’ of war have formed this young naïve kid into the hardened and angry man he is now. I don’t consider him a bully; I think Dante believes everything he does (no matter how cruel or inhumane), it is in the best interest of his men. In the film, he says, “we got no room out here for sympathy,” and he firmly believes that. I think he was a troubled soul long before he enlisted. Dante had a troubled childhood with a lot mental/ physical abuse. I think he just thought the military would be a place he would fit in.
What are your thoughts on “grooming” young men to fight for their country? So many returns and are obviously never the same.
“It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him…that is the way it was and will be.” Cormac McCarthy
I am assuming you and David work well together. Is it stressful to collaborate on writing together, David directing you and then acting for him?
No, not at all. David is great to work with. He is always open to new ideas or changes in the dialogue. When we were not shooting, a couple times a week we would speak on the phone and bounce ideas off each other. He is a great director to work with and he really gives the actor a chance to make the character his own. He’s very easy going and collaborative. ###
Interview with David Trevino (Director and Writer)
How was the experience of directing Keith Sutliff, Mike Whelan and Gio Arias?
Directing Keith, Mike and Geo, was very easy. I knew being new to filming I would have to lean on all of them. I feel this was a group effort and though we did run into problems it was nothing we all couldn’t overcome. The actual shoot was originally supposed to be 2 days camping in Lucerne Valley but we had to come back to get shots we missed a couple months later. So it took 3 days to film.
For me personally, this film evoked strong emotion. Did you have this intention going in?
Yes, I realized that all the great movies I enjoyed throughout the years did exactly that, they made me feel a certain emotion and for this film and all films I do, I hope to entice certain emotions. I want people to have to think about why certain characters are the way they are and what types of relationships they have with each other.
I thought you presented the film with confidence. It was not a “feel good’ film but I’m assuming that was your vision.
Yes, the meaning of the film was the hopeless never-ending cycle of war, and what it does to someone. I also wanted there to be some hope and that is why I wanted the main character, Dante, to slowly realize he created the situation he was in himself, and once he realizes that he slowly begins to regain his humanity before the final scene where the little girl that he spoke about in the campfire scene shows him his dead body and leads him into the Promised Land.
How is it to collaborate with Mike Whelan?
Mike and I work really well together. He is a hard working guy that will do anything to make a good product. I saw this when we auditioned him for the role of Orion in “The Mason Brothers” and his approach when we filmed. I could see he was very talented. I will tell him what I’m feeling about a particular scene and he will nail it. He will also give his input on something that I might have missed and it is very helpful to have someone who really cares about the work and outcome of the film.
How much input did you give to Mike about his character Dante?
As far as the character Dante, I knew what I wanted and I talked to Mike about it, I gave him an idea of what I was looking for in the character and he ran with it. I think it was easy for him because we were both in the military and have seen different types of people in the military. I wanted Mike to be very involved in the character originally I did not have the camp fire scene monologue in the script but after talking with Mike we decided that it was needed, I told him what I wanted the monologue to consist of, a general guidance and he went to town on it wrote it all himself. I was very happy with the outcome because the first time I saw it performed by him I actually got the chills.
How was the premier received?
The premiere was received ok. Being new to directing, and not knowing a lot of people in the industry we didn’t get as many people as we would have liked but the people that watched enjoyed it and said they wished it was a little longer. I want to focus on writing, directing and cinematography. Those are the aspects I am most interested in.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I am working with Ruben Molina and Oscar Barrios on a documentary, which focuses on Sweet Soul Music. It’s all about Chicanos in East Los Angeles and the connection they have with oldies.
I’m also getting ready to shoot my next short film with Brandon Sean Pearson, Mike Whelan and Nailya Shakirova. We will be filming in Vegas July 14th. It’s about a 35-year-old going through a divorce and losing his child. It hits upon themes such as depression, loneliness, drugs, and helplessness. It’s kind of a mash up “Requiem for a Dream,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “The Hangover.” I want this film to be very dark.
David Trevino and Mike Whelan work very well together and on their separate projects. It is always inspiring to watch positive collaborations. It was wonderful watching their film come to fruition. To learn more about David and Mike, you can follow them on their social media links:
Connect with Mike:
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Lizzy Collazos is a LA based writer who covers fashion, style and emerging artists. She is constantly sourcing and inspired by designers, artists and entertainers making their mark in an innovative way. “I see fashion and art as a beautiful form of self-expression and a way to tell a story.” "I love becoming immersed in a project and seeing it through fruition."She knows the LA scene well and currently contributed to The LA Fashion Magazine as well as LA-Story.com. Follow Lizzy Collazos on these social platforms.