It’s November 2013, and the unreleased local film Vengeance has just been shown to a City Weekly reporter at a special 9 a.m. screening. It was the first-ever screening for media, according to the film’s director, Gil Medina, with Medina himself sitting in the dark theater at Universal Post, located in an industrial area near Interstate 15.
The film begins with helicopter shots above Salt Lake City with actors’ names—Danny Trejo, Tech N9ne, 50 Cent—displayed in block letters against city landmarks like the Utah Capitol and Temple Square.
“It’s a Utah film,” Medina says. “It’s shot in Utah, I’m a Utah filmmaker. It’s for Utah.”
After the screening, Medina drives his Mercedes downtown to Market Street Grill. He arranged the screening after an OK from his lawyers and is now sitting down for a breakfast interview. “I’m here to clear the air,” Medina says.
About a week before the screening, after months of unreturned phone calls requesting an interview, is when Gil Medina first spoke with a City Weekly reporter. In that initial conversation, he mentions a libel lawsuit. Coming from him, it’s a threat to take seriously.
You see, in the seven years Medina has spent writing, shooting, re-writing, re-shooting, advertising, advertising and advertising Vengeance, his lawyers have been busy. The music promoter turned litigious filmmaker says he holds licensing rights to well-loved tough-guy actor Danny Trejo—star of his unreleased film—and has been attempting to exercise those rights, sending warning letters to production companies that have used the actor without his permission.
But that’s popcorn. He is also suing director Robert Rodriguez—the director of Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City—in Utah federal court for $11 million. And what’s weirder than a little-known Utah director suing one of the most recognizable names in American cinema is the reason: Medina says Rodriguez sabotaged the promotional game app he created with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Medina spent years struggling to release the film, a veritable love letter to Utah, which he also produced, wrote and directed. To Medina, his lawsuit against Rodriguez tells a story of an influential director squashing the little guy (Medina is the little guy). But while he sees himself as the victim of big Hollywood forces, he has started off in the business in the most Hollywood way possible—through litigation.
And then there is Peter McCardle, a writer in New York City, friend of people “in the industry,” as big a fan as any of Danny Trejo’s (even hoping to write the definitive Trejo biography), and creator of a website that blasts Medina and highlights his past run-ins with the law—a charge of sex with a minor and a conviction of witness tampering.
Medina doesn’t like seeing his name smeared online. And he explains that there are, of course, legal channels to deal with lies found on the Internet.
“That’s how we are going to settle this with Peter, through the law,” Medina says. “But I don’t think he has much.”
He makes clear that whoever prints those lies of McCardle’s is open to a suit as well.
Vengeance has a long and unsuccessful history. “Listen, this is my Mexican Avatar,” Medina says. “It took James Cameron 10 years for Avatar. That was a masterpiece, and I’m nothing like James Cameron. Someday I aspire to be, but the point is, it takes time. I started with no experience. I learned how to make movies through this movie.”
In 2006, Vengeance was called Jack’s Law and screened for audiences in Kansas, with an appearance by Trejo in Dodge City, while Medina scouted locations and accepted auditions for Jack’s Law 2 (already written, according to what Medina has told the press). Local economic-development boards and film commissions advertised audition opportunities to locals. Over several days, according to the local economic-development board, around 400 people showed up to city hall in the small town of Elkhart, Kan., to audition.
Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, starring Trejo, was released in 2010, while Medina’s film stayed shelved. Not only was Jack’s Law 2 never filmed, Jack’s Law was never released.
Medina says he had to rewrite and re-shoot about 80 percent of Jack’s Law—which was only a working title, he says—due to strong similarities with another film released around 2010 that he will not name. The audience had already seen that story before, Medina says.
And while Vengeance has the low-budget feel, cameo appearances and revenge-driven plot that fuels classic exploitation movies, Medina says that it’s not in the vein of recent self-aware Rodriguez pictures that bring back those same tropes.
“Rodriguez never influenced me at all,” Medina says. “I like his movies, I appreciate his story. I was influenced by Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma and Steven Spielberg. Those are my inspirations.”
Unlike Machete and Machete Kills, which are parodies, Vengeance takes itself pretty seriously.
Trejo’s character, Jack, is a police-officer-turned-vigilante after his wife and daughter have their throats slit in an altercation following a minor fender-bender. The murderers are released because the murder weapon was obtained illegally, explained by a defense attorney—played by former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson—in front of an actual Utah judge, Leslie Lewis. Jack is then wrongly sent to prison for unrelated charges of selling stolen cars (why not).
In prison, things get worse—at one point, Trejo is seen weeping, shirtless, in his prison cell. Jack befriends a tattoo-artist inmate played by Jason Mewes—that’s Jay from Jay & Silent Bob fame who, according to Medina, agreed to play any part as long as it wasn’t a junkie—but then makes enemies with inmate Spider, played by retired professional wrestler Diamond Dallas, after refusing to make Spider a burrito.
From there, the movie slides into a phantasmagoria of fake blood and Salt Lake City backdrops. Tech N9ne, the rapper, is blown away with a shotgun after attempting to rape a woman mid-robbery at a 7-Eleven in Woods Cross. Trejo and rapper 50 Cent (who, Medina says, agreed to be in the movie in exchange for Trejo acting in Gun, written by and starring 50 Cent) shoot their way out of the Blue Iguana restaurant. Diamond Dallas beats Jack’s grandmother to death with a baseball bat. All this is separated by occasional cuts to black and quotes from the Bible.
No one has before seen this depth of acting from Trejo, Medina says.
Medina met Trejo in 2005 at a since-closed downtown Salt Lake City club during a crew party for The Crow: Wicked Prayer, a basically direct-to-DVD sequel to The Crow.
Medina, who co-owned the bar at the time, noticed Trejo standing by the wall and offered his services. Did he want a drink? A table?
As it turns out, Trejo is sober. But he and Medina became well acquainted, and Medina ended up showing Trejo around town, telling him which restaurants to go to, even bringing Trejo to church with him during Trejo’s time shooting in Utah.
“Hollywood is all about parties, girls,” Medina says, but what he and Trejo were about was “trying to center yourself in Christ.”
There was something about Trejo, Medina thought. It was the little things—how he interacted with the valet and busboys, how cooks would close a restaurant to serve him. Everyone loved this guy.
And Medina saw the potential. It was like knowing the value of Apple stock before anyone else, he explains.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Medina says, he paid Trejo thousands of dollars to sign a licensing agreement.
Attempts to reach Trejo through his agent for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
According to Medina’s lawsuit, he “identified Trejo as a dominant lead actor whose name, image, and likeness carried marketable value, and who could support a successful film series.”
ITN Flix, Medina’s promotional company, began hiring Trejo for corporate events, including an event with Utah-based Fusion-io, a technology firm, arranged with the co-founder and the company’s then-chief marketing executive, Rick White.
“This whole thing started with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish,” Medina says. “Back in 2005, I saw Danny Trejo as this generation’s Charles Bronson, before anybody else did—contrary to what you read.”
The plots of Vengeance and Death Wish both involve a man taking revenge after his family is attacked. Poster art for Vengeance is similar to the posters for the first Death Wish. Medina even contacted Paramount for the name “Death Wish” (legal said no, Medina says).
Funnily enough, Trejo’s first credited role was in 1987’s Death Wish 4.
Medina’s lawsuit says that Trejo’s “viability and popularity as a lead actor” grew in large part because of the films Jack’s Law and the Medina-produced Propensity, a small film shown at an LDS film festival in 2006.
But Trejo, who began acting after being discovered on a movie set teaching an actor how to box, has been playing roles in Rodriguez films since his knife-throwing assassin in 1995’s Desperado.
“I’ve done a lot of projects that are student films or from first-time producers or directors,” Trejo said in a 2012 interview with The Guardian. “I’d always rather be working … it’s an honor to be an important part of someone’s career when they’re starting out. I’m like, ‘Just pay for my gas, give me $100, buy me lunch, whatever.’ I bring my A game whether I’m doing this or a Michael Mann movie.”
And it’s those small projects, along with big blockbusters, that will pay out if Medina’s contract holds. The amended lawsuit filed against Rodriguez asks for royalties from movies Trejo shot such as Spy Kids: All the Time in the World 4-D, which grossed $78 million, and Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s contribution to the double-feature Grindhouse, which grossed more than $25 million.
“If you use a Beatles song without the Beatles’ permission, you’re in trouble. … We have sent letters to everyone in violation of this deal,” Medina says.
He’s sent dozens of letters to production companies, from the small independent film Zombie Hunter, shot in Utah in 2013, to Disney.
Back at Market Street, a young waitress comes to the table to pour some coffee.
“How you been, anyway? How’s school?” Medina asks.
“I’m not going yet,” the waitress says.
“So what are you going to do? Just keep working and saving?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to get the night shifts here,” she replies.
“Yeah, we talked about that,” Medina says. “That’s where the money is, right. ... Keep grinding, girl, you’ll get there. Pretty soon this will all be a memory.”
He asks if she will be there for the next few hours; after this interview, he’ll be meeting with someone else and wants her to have all the tip money.
Medina supports the “underdogs,” he explains.
With a Band-Aid on his clean-shaven face, Medina seems younger than a man in his 40s. He is wearing what looks like a diamond-encrusted crucifix around his neck and a posh wristwatch. Before eating, he removes his baseball cap and lowers his head for prayer.
As a kid growing up in the Rose Park neighborhood in Salt Lake City—a racially diverse neighborhood, for Utah at least—Medina would get dropped off at theaters and spend the day bouncing from screen to screen. Later, he got into music promotion. He says he started Utah radio station U92’s annual Summer Jam.
“I was the first person to bring rap music to Utah. I was 15 and I brought Vanilla Ice to the Utah State Fairground,” Medina says.
But someone soon changed his mind about the type of entertainment business to pursue.
“It was Cube. He introduced me to the movie business,” Medina says.
That would be the rapper Ice Cube, whom Medina met through his music-promotion business. Medina says Ice Cube later invited Medina to the set of the 1995 film Friday.
“I saw these guys pick up a garbage can and smash somebody with it,” Medina says. “But it was a rubber garbage can. And then it all started clicking with me ... how movie magic takes place. It was a rubber garbage can, but there is a sound layover; it’s a sound effect. [The audience thinks] it’s a real garbage can.”
At that point, he decided to make a movie of his own—“I knew for a fact that’s what I wanted to do”—and Ice Cube had some tips. He advised that Medina write the material, Medina says, “because they can never fire you from a film if you write, produce and direct it.”
Medina began sending scripts to a friend at Lionsgate to get feedback, and used his music contacts to recruit actors. The first script was bad, according to Medina, and his friend let him know. But after some time, after rewriting and heeding advice, it turned into something he was proud of—enough so that he and his executive producer dropped, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal, $3.5 million to make it.
Although now, after Vengeance’s lack of a release, Medina seems self-conscious about the product. “You saw it,” he asks later over the phone. “It’s not horrible, is it?”
Cause & Effect
Watching the trailer for Vengeance, which has played in theaters from Utah to New York, one might get the impression that the film is similar to Rodriguez’s Machete franchise—Trejo exacting vigilante killings amid cameos by famous musicians. And that’s exactly what Medina wanted, according to previous press interviews.
In a June 2013 interview with Deadline.com, Medina said he had hoped to draft off the release of Machete Kills to spark interest in his film.
“I’ve heard Machete Kills might move its date. … If they move, we’re moving with them,” Medina told Deadline in June. Deadline also reported that Medina was offering theaters an 80/20 revenue split—well above the usual 50/50—for theaters to run his film before Machete Kills.
Medina wasn’t always trying to compete with Rodriguez—who broke into Hollywood when his first film, El Mariachi, won the dramatic audience award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival in Park City. When Medina started filming what would become Vengeance at least seven years ago, around the time Trejo was working with Rodriguez on the first Machete, he sent a screener to Rodriguez, hoping for collaboration—maybe a release of Machete and Medina’s film together, as a Rodriguez/Medina picture, similar to what Rodriguez had done with Quentin Tarantino in the Grindhouse double feature. But, Medina says, he never heard back. And that’s seemingly when the rivalry, however one-sided, began.
But things didn’t intensify until Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak entered the picture.
Medina says he was invited to Wozniak’s San Francisco birthday party by Rick White—then the chief marketing executive of Utah’s Fusion-io, the company that had used Trejo for corporate events through Medina’s company; Wozniak is Fusion-io’s chief scientist. At the party, Medina took the opportunity to meet the multimillionaire, and asked if he would shoot a scene with Trejo for Medina’s film.
Having Wozniak in the film could help with marketing, Medina thought.
“The idea was we could do a grassroots campaign through social media with Woz and really make a mark,” Medina says.
But, Medina says, Trejo told him he couldn’t do the scene because Rodriguez was upset that Medina was actively trying to associate Vengeance with Machete Kills.
So, Medina says, he went into prayer. He asked God what to do with this opportunity with Steve Wozniak.
“It came to my spirit … do an app game,” Medina says.
Wozniak agreed to record his voice and lend his image for a smartphone game called “Woz With a Coz.”
Wozniak did not respond to request for comment on this story.
While Wozniak was on vacation in Lake Tahoe, Medina says, he traveled to meet him, writing a script on the way. He recorded Wozniak’s voice for the game in his hotel suite.
After Utah-based React Games created the app, which included in-game advertisements for Vengeance as well as a Trejo character holding a large knife (Medina says it’s not a machete; you can tell by the handle), Wozniak advertised it on his Facebook page, and it quickly gained traction.
The game was supposed to come out Thanksgiving 2012 but, according to Medina, Trejo’s agent Gloria Hinojosa called Wozniak at the behest of Rodriguez and threatened to sue him if he didn’t back out of the game.
According to Medina’s lawsuit, Hinojosa told Wozniak that Medina was a fraud and a criminal who hadn’t worked with Trejo in years.
Attempts to reach Rodriguez through his agent for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Rick White, named in the lawsuit as a witness to Medina’s account of Rodriguez’s actions, says he’s not participating in any litigation and that he hasn’t even done a deposition. He also says he didn’t know that he was listed as an associate producer in the film’s credits.
“I am not an investor in the Vengeance movie, nor have I been involved with producing, managing or otherwise working on the movie,” White wrote in an e-mail.
Medina says that as a result of the phone call, Wozniak pulled his support for the game, refused to do press interviews and took the link to the game off his Facebook page.
Thanks to that, Medina says, the game tanked, along with promotion of his movie.
How much does Medina think he lost because of this phone call? At least $11 million—to be proven in court.
At the funeral of ex-con crime novelist Eddie Bunker, a good friend of Trejo’s, Medina met Peter McCardle, who had befriended Trejo through mutual acquaintance Bunker. McCardle later got Facebook to shut down a Medina-made Trejo fan page and then went on to make his own website—titled Hollywood Chicanery—blasting Medina.
Medina had been hosting a Danny Trejo fan page on Facebook that was exclusively advertising Vengeance when McCardle stepped in to handle Trejo’s social-media presence.
“We went out to promote Danny. No one was promoting Danny,” Medina says.
But when Medina refused to add other projects Trejo was working on—he says he didn’t want to dilute the Vengeance property—McCardle contacted Facebook and had them close Medina’s page and transfer the likes to the “Trejo approved” page.
McCardle says he was also the one who contacted Wozniak about the smartphone game—through Facebook, not a phone call—and warned him about Medina. After Medina sued Rodriguez for something McCardle says he did, McCardle also created a website that highlights Medina’s past run-ins with the law, including charges of sex with a minor and a conviction of witness tampering.
But Medina can explain.
“Yeah, I met her when she was 17,” he says. “Did she look 17? Hell, no. She looked like a Victoria’s Secret model.
“That was a relationship that ended badly,” Medina continues. “And she wanted a million dollars, and I told her to kick rocks. Next thing you know, feds kick in my door, looking for drugs.”
In his youth, Medina was busted with marijuana. “I got busted with a lot of pounds,” Medina says. “A lot of pounds. And I served time for it. She’s using the feds to hustle me.”
During the trial for the sex-with-a- minor charges, Medina said he called his ex and gave a prayer over the phone, which is how he ended up being charged with witness tampering. Medina was not convicted of sex with a minor.
There are also the online complaints by those who’ve auditioned for Medina.
“Listen, if you’re auditioning to be a stripper in a movie, and you come and audition, what do you think you have to do—you have to strip,” Medina says. “And you’re pissed off because I told you you’re too fat ... now I’m a pervert. C’mon, let’s just get real.”
Medina has contacted his lawyers about the Hollywood Chicanery website.
So from Jack’s Law to Vengeance, from tanked game apps to licensing lawsuits, will the film come out?
Medina doesn’t know. There was a Vengeance Army campaign to give away free copies—minus cost of shipping—that never materialized. Machete Kills, which he was hoping to draft off, bombed on opening. According to Box Office Mojo, it had one of the worst openings ever for a movie—2,500 locations making only $3.84 million, a third of what Machete made.
Medina’s faith in Trejo—the next Charles Bronson—seems to be fading. He says he doesn’t know if Trejo will rebound. He thinks Machete Kills may have ruined Trejo as an actor. It’s unclear whether he is still in touch with Trejo.
When Medina is asked if this legal drama, website, and arrest record will ruin him as a director before he really begins, he shrugs it off.
“This is Hollywood,” Medina says.
Justin Higginbottom is a freelance reporter working in Salt Lake City.