Winner of the Best Director award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Mexican director Amat Escalante brings to the screen a brilliant but brutal depiction of the effects of the drug trade on a simple Mexican family •Thanks to Julie Chappell, Falco Ink, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Although the film is about the Mexican drug trade, there’s a strong U.S. presence, including a scene where the local policemen are being taught torture techniques by an American trainer.
AE: The United States has had a big influence over Mexico since 1994, when the Free Trade Agreement was signed. A lot of things changed at that time as transnational companies started to come to Mexico. Where there used to be nothing, a General Motors plant came, and families and towns started to build around it. I wanted to make a movie about a place that was affected by this, about the people who lived there. The scene where the American is training the police force is taken straight from reality—it’s a shot-by-shot reenactment of a video on YouTube. Google “Mexican police torture Leon Guanajuato” and you can see the video. I’m not an analyst or journalist, so I’m not good at articulating the extent of the United States’s influence, but it’s obvious. As far as the drug trade, the main problem is that the buyer, which is the United States, is right next door, and all the drugs are going up there and all the weapons are coming down from there. It was important for me to show not just the situation in Mexico by Mexicans; there’s a very strong influence from our neighbor the United States, and it was important for me to include the United States somehow, even in this family story.
DT: The film is incredibly beautiful looking despite the fact that it explores what it’s like to live under constant fear.
AE: When I think of Mexico, I think of a very beautiful place that has a very difficult virus invading it. Looking at the movie after I made it—while I’m making it I’m not thinking about those things; I just trust intuition—I can see it is a very beautiful place that has this dark side also. I was able to shoot those scenes outdoors and those beautiful skies because that’s how it is. The dual country that is Mexico, which is very rich and beautiful and nice to be in, also has a very dark side, not in a metaphorical way but in a practical way. It’s basically a country divided in two. We have the richest man in the world here, Carlos Slim, richer than Bill Gates, and also some of the poorest people in the world. This dual situation is in itself quite violent, I think, and it’s part of Mexico. The movie reflects that.
DT: Some shots reminded me of very early Herzog, especially the final shot and the scene where the factory workers have to attend an exercise class in the plant. Were those scenes storyboarded?
AE: No, actually, precisely those two were not storyboarded. I had a very detailed storyboard, then I had an idea that every day we should do an improvised scene to keep things fresh. It was exciting; every day there were different things that I would keep my eye out for, or the cinematographer or anybody else on the crew. That ending wasn’t the original. It was actually very different; the actress playing Estela was supposed to be playing with the baby, but when we were setting up the scene, she fell asleep with the baby in her arms, and the windows were open, and I said, “Oh let’s shoot that,” so we shot that unscripted and unstoryboarded. Same with the exercise scene inside the factory. It’s a Japanese company that builds doors for cars. It’s next to General Motors, but we weren’t allowed to film in the General Motors plant. We saw the employees doing exercises, and we thought it would be interesting to film them. Those are quite documentary scenes, so it’s interesting that you think of Herzog in that way.
DT: Can you talk about the desaturated quality of the colors, which gave the film such a distinctive look?
AE: I live in Guanajuato, Mexico, which is maybe one of the most colorful towns in the country. All the houses are very different, bright colors. I like to shoot my movies there. In my first movie, I saw that it was difficult to shoot those houses without visually affecting the emotional side of the movie, so I didn’t even shoot the houses at all. In Heli I shot outside the city, so again I didn’t shoot the houses. The way I wanted the audience to feel this movie wasn’t with this brightness, so we toned it down in color correction. Also, the locations were like that—there weren’t many colors in the countryside, the dry grass in the desert area. I like that more. I don’t exactly know why. It was more coherent with the feeling that the characters were feeling. Inside the house there’s much more color than outside, because inside they can be freer, and they can express themselves more. When we first see Estela’s room, there’s a lot of color there, but outside it’s just the way it is there. It has to do with taking away the folkloric aspect of Mexico so it wouldn’t distract.
DT: That was a very powerful element of the film. What kind of research did you do before writing the screenplay?
AE: There is nothing that I felt I had to research. It’s not a journalistic approach; everybody in Mexico knows everything in the movie. I basically put together a human story of a character in a family with all the elements that are so known here, by reading the newspaper, by watching television, so basically there was no research in that sense. I was completely wrapped up in this story, so the research came naturally. I just kept my eyes open to see what was going on, but there’s nothing in the movie that anybody would be surprised by here in Mexico, at least. I didn’t try to expose corruption or a certain person in government, I just showed the way that we all know it is. It was just a matter of being aware of where I live and the situation in my country.
DT: In another interview, you said that the mood in your films comes from the actors. Can you talk about how you prepared Armando Espitia for his role as Heli?
AE: The approach I have to the actors is similar to the locations, in a way. I’m not going to transform anybody completely, so I look for people who are from there and who have something in them that can really pull me in. I try to forget about my script and my idea of the character when I find a person who attracts me. For example, Andrea Vergara, who plays Estela, the twelve-year-old girl. When they come into the process, I feel like they fill a void that I created for them in the script, as opposed to them trying to become the character that I imagined. They just have to say somewhat what I wrote, and we usually change everything so they can say it better, so for me what’s important are the details of their face, the way that they speak, and that they’re authentic from that area.
In the case of Armando Espitia it was a little bit different because he came from Mexico City, from a theater school. I did make some changes to his face and hair. I took him to live in small village for a while before we shot, and he was soaking in everything and trying to speak more like the people there. That is as important as where you’re shooting. It might sound superficial, but for me, where you shoot a movie is as important as what you’re saying. I approach the characters in that way. I try to get them from very close to that place and trust that some magic will happen in front of the camera and that it’ll come together. Of course in this movie I wanted the audience to go through the story through the characters, so it was important for the audience to be able to care for them and identify with them as much as I could get them to, which was something I didn’t do much in my other movies. I was more worried about other things, but here I wanted the audience to go through the story with these characters. That was something I planned from the beginning.
DT: I believe your choice of lenses contributed to that aspect of the film as well.
AE: At the beginning I like to give myself some rules that are usually difficult to follow; it’s nice to have some limitations that help me to stay on track more. At the beginning we decided to shoot with only a few lenses—the 40mm and the 50mm, which is equivalent to a 35mm image. Those lenses are very much like the perspective of the human eye. The 50mm is supposed to be equal to the human eye as far as when you look at it on the screen. Wider lenses deform the image on screen. I use those lenses if I’m in a very tight space, but when I could I would just use the normal 50mm lens, which I thought gave a coherence to the movie. Once in a while I like to move things around. I used a zoom lens once, just to emphasize something important, and I like to move the camera a lot, as if the audience is moving with the camera, and sometimes I use hand-held. It depends on the situation; I don’t want the camera or my idea of the camera to come in the way of the emotion and the storytelling, so I try to reach a balance. That’s why I try to put those rules at the beginning.
DT: What was the reaction when you showed Heli in Mexico?
AE: It showed in August of last year. We released it ourselves. Matarraya, the company which produced the movie and also distributes movies, released thirty copies. We sold about a hundred thousand tickets, and it’s being seen a lot on DVD and Blu-ray right now, and it’s also available on the piracy stands, so it’s being seen a lot. The reaction was very good compared to what I expected. It got very good reviews. Everybody said it was a necessary film and that it spoke about a moment in Mexico that will hopefully pass. Just a few days ago it it won the Best Director award at the Mexican Oscars, which are called the Ariels. It’s a movie that people took a lot of notice of here.
DT: People are going to take a lot of notice of it here, too.
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