When student strikes shut down the University of Mexico in 1999, a lot of middle-class kids suddenly found themselves with time on their hands. In this whimsical, charming, and spirited feature, director Alonso Ruizpalacios takes three of them on a road trip through Mexico City, in quest of a legendary folk hero who has been hospitalized in some anonymous place. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015, Gueros won Best First Feature prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and has been nominated for 12 Ariel Awards, Mexico’s Oscars. •Availability: Opens nationally at New York City’s Film Forum, May 20. For local listings, go to kinolorber.com. •Thanks to Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview. •
DT: I was speaking with the Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra, and he said that sound design is the last place that a director can be truly original. Do you agree?
AR: I don’t know what he meant by the “last place,” but it’s definitely a place where there are infinite creative possibilities. I do think that sound—the possibilities of making your discourse in film through sound— is still underrated. It’s one of the things I pay most attention to and that I enjoy the most.
DT: You studied theater in London. How did that influence your work on this film?
AR: Through the respect I have for acting. I’m an actor myself. I don’t act anymore, but I trained as an actor and still do a little bit. Being with actors is one of the parts I enjoy most about making a film. Lots of my fellow directors are scared of actors. They don’t like to spend time with them. That’s very common, at least in Mexico, but I’m the opposite—it’s the part I enjoy the most. Being with them, talking to them, doing improv. I think I was influenced in London just in the freedom it has given me to try things with actors. I wouldn’t say I’m completely fearless, but I think I’m quite confident with directing actors and trying out new things and saying, This doesn’t work, let’s try something else.
DT: Was there much improv in Gueros?
AR: It was fifty-fifty. I always knew I wanted to run this line between having really structured set pieces, scenes where you couldn’t move a line because if you did you spoiled the comedy or the drama, and other scenes I had in mind, where I knew I could have a lot of improv.
DT: I read an interview where you said you shot in black-and-white because Mexico City is so often shot in color. Is that true?
AR: I think the choices you make photographically should be instinctive, and then you find justification for them.
DT: So that also goes for using 4:3 ratio in Gueros?
AR: Yes. When I was writing the film, I always saw it in black-and-white, and I didn’t quite know why. I started to ask myself, Why should it be black-and-white? Then I thought, It’s a film about contrasts—social contrasts, economic contrasts, political contrasts—and Mexico City is like that. It’s a city of high contrast, and black-and-white is perfect for shooting contrast. And there’s also that aspect you referred to. It’s often shot in beautiful colors, and we relate Mexico and Mexican culture to beautiful color. Taking the color out of it makes you see it in a different way. It makes you pay new attention, as does the 4:3 ratio, which we’re now unaccustomed to. That ratio used to be the norm, and now when you see a film like that, it makes you pay more attention to the framing, because it’s now strange.
DT: In the film, your characters go in search of a legendary folk hero. You based that on Bob Dylan’s search?
AR: Yeah, for Woody Guthrie, the folk singer. Dylan made a journey hitchhiking and taking buses from Minnesota to New York partly because he read that Woody Guthrie was agonizing in a hospital in Brooklyn. I always thought that in itself would make a great film—that journey of young Bob Dylan before he was Bob Dylan going to New York.
I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. In his autobiography he writes that seeing Woody Guthrie was the reason he came to New York, so that quest of somebody going all the way to pay his respects to their idol was always something that stuck with me. Transposing that to Mexico and creating a fantasy Bob Dylan came naturally.
DT: You did exactly that with [theater and film director] Peter Brook.
AR: He’s one of my all-time idols. I went to Paris to see his Hamlet and hopefully get to meet him. After the show I waited for hours outside. It was raining, and all my friends left. They said, Come on, he’s not going to come out, let’s go. But I stayed there for hours in the rain, and finally he did come out. I had this whole speech in my head, but when I walked up to him, my whole speech just disappeared. Inside my head I was saying, “Bluah blubh,” but to him I just said, “Thank you.” Just “thank you.” He looked at me, and he said, “Thank you.” Then he got in his cab and left. It was a huge disappointment. I think that’s how all these meetings are—they’re disappointing. They’ll never meet up to your expectations.
DT: I did the same thing with Werner Herzog, and I couldn’t watch his films for ten years afterwards. It was horrible. So you were prevented from enrolling at the University of Mexico by the student strikes, which you capture with incredible spirit in the film. Is that really what the strikes were like?
AR: Once the strikes started, there was no activity for almost a whole year. A lot of what’s in the film is fictional, of course. You have to make it work for film, you have to make it a bit more dramatic, but a lot of that stuff actually did go down. I did a lot of research on the strike. I wasn’t in the movement myself because I left the country, but I did experience it through my friends, and I did go to the university a couple of times.
Every little detail you see is based on actual stories from the 1999 strike: for example, the way they used to sleep in the classrooms and split them into dorms and make names for each dorm. All that is true. There was a point in the assemblies where the arguments got so violent that they placed barbed wire on the podium to keep others from taking over the podium. So everything you see in the film is based on fact.
DT: You’ve said that you were so enamored of the U.S. that you didn’t really know your own city, Mexico City. How does that happen, and how does that translate into the film?
AR: The people from my generation grew up with a strong American influence. We consume American candies, American movies, American TV shows, American clothes. So basically you grow up and you don’t really know your own city, your whereabouts. For middle-class kids from my generation, the city is very ghettoized, and you don’t really go outside your neighborhood. Coming of age at that period when you’re going to university sort of broadens your horizons, and that’s when you start cruising the city.
Another part of the film is based on my friends’ experience of the strike. The ones who were in the university had to stop going to classes because of the strike. They used to spend their days getting in their cars and just driving to wherever, without any purpose or destination. They used to do that almost as a gag, just to see where they’d end up. I came along with them several times, and we ended up in strange, unknown places. It’s a very vast city, and in the process of growing up, I really got to know Mexico City more, and learn to really love it. I always felt it deserved its own road movie because it’s such a big, crazy, wonderful place.
DT: You say your influences were Fellini and the French New Wave. Do you trace any of your influences to Mexican cinema?
AR: There’s one Mexican film that me and my cowriter watched a lot. It’s called Los Caifanes [de Tepito]. It’s a wonderful ’70s film. It was written by Carlos Fuentes, the famous Mexican writer, and it’s a beautiful film. It’s a road movie in Mexico City as well, and it’s also about class and contrast. It’s hard to watch now because the cinematography is awful and there are so many cheesy things about it that haven’t aged well, but if you go beyond that, it’s a fantastic film. That was probably our strongest influence in how they dealt with class and traveling. It’s a night in Mexico City, a very rambling film without a three-act structure. We always knew we wanted a rambling film…it’s not a narrative that holds you to your seat. It goes in different places.
DT: Are you going to continue making films this way?
AR: I hope so. I think so. I try to make films like the ones I like to watch myself. There’s a lot of stuff I want to keep investigating. I think that’s the point for me.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015