I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Translated from Spanish by Camino Detorrela
Gerardo Naranjo and Nicolás Pereda are two great representatives of the thrilling and renovated state of contemporary Mexican cinema. Both of them have been able to establish a personal and vigorous film career in a very short time span. Not an easy task, considering that not so long ago, film careers in Mexico were reserved for very few directors, as the available public funds were scarce and usually went into the same hands.
Pereda has made five feature films: Where Are Their Stories? (2007), Together (2009), Perpetuum Mobile (2010), All Things Were Now Overtaken by Silence (2010) and Summer of Goliath (2010). He has found an inexpensive, quick way of making films. In 2010 alone, he made three of his films back-to-back, working with his ensemble actors Teresa Sánchez and Gabino Rodríguez, who play mother and son in most of them. At 29, Pereda was the object of a traveling retrospective presented last year at the Harvard Film Archives in Cambridge, Anthology Film Archives in New York City, and the Pacific Film Archives and the UCLA Film & Television Archive in California, among other places.
Naranjo, for his part, has directed four feature films to date: Malachance (2004), Drama/Mex (2006), I’m Gonna Explode (2008), and, most recently, Miss Bala (2011). He also directed a short film for the omnibus feature film Revolución (2010). While his first films, containing multiple allusions to Godard and the French New Wave, are portraits of disaffected youths, Miss Bala represents a dramatic turn for his career—he set for himself high aesthetic goals in his depiction of the drug-trade violence in Mexico, as seen through the eyes of an aspiring beauty queen. The film premiered to great critical acclaim at last year’s Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and has received wide distribution internationally.
BOMB brought the two directors together for a casual post-Christmas holiday conversation by phone. Both were born in Mexico City and studied abroad (Naranjo at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and Pereda at York University in Toronto). Each approaches film in a highly distinct aesthetic and narrative way. Pereda loves keeping dialogue to a minimum and employing a minimalist mise-en-scène. Naranjo’s work, on the other hand, is highly stylized and chockfull of film references. Theirs is a fortunate and original pairing—surprisingly, there’s very little of these types of exchanges between filmmakers in Mexican media.
—Carlos A. Gutiérrez
Gerardo Naranjo How’s it going, Nico? Are you in Toronto?
Nicolás Pereda Yes, I’m at home. You moved to New York recently, right?
GN Yes. We’ve been here three weeks; we’re dealing with furniture now. It’s exciting.
NP So how should we do this?
GN I’ve got no idea.
NP Why don’t I ask you a few things about the way you work, and then we take it from there?
GN That’s a great solution to our dilemma.
NP What’s your take on creating characters? Do you build them psychologically or only physically?
GN When I started, I based them on people I knew. I kept their names, their flaws. My approach was testimonial. As I’ve gone forward, I have felt more confident to start with a concept and trust that characters don’t need to explain themselves much. I can distance myself more from what I already know—that’s my personal challenge now, to not speak about my own life only.
NP That character of a teenage rebel in I’m Gonna Explode, played by Juan Pablo de Santiago, was he based on someone you knew?
GN He’s my Achilles’s heel, the character that has given me the most trouble. He’s a romanticized version of who I thought I was as a teenager. Obviously he ended up having nothing to do with me.
NP Well, he’s not analogous to you, but he was inspired by you.
GN Yes. I needed a pretty container to transmit all the mixed feelings and confusion I had. The container was awesome, I adore Juan Pablo—he’s a very sensitive and believable kid. But he was way better than what I was able to communicate. He ended up coming across as good-natured and “cute,” as gringos say. To bring out his dark side was a true editing adventure. Juan Pablo is a happy kid. That was a big lesson for me in terms of casting—if something’s red you can’t make it blue.
NP And what about the female protagonist of I’m Gonna Explode?
GN I do sense in Maria [Deschamps] more danger, gravity. She has the passion that might lead her to do stupid things. I was able to say more through her, I think. It was very difficult for her to make the film, and it shows a bit.
NP I’ve always struggled with what it means to create a character, and I like what you say because it’s as if characters were these living entities that you don’t know very well and therefore you can’t define easily. There are many ways to define your friends and family members, but none of them are concrete, don’t you think? So the school that believes in “building character” presupposes that you can define a person in one page.
GN Yes, there’s the introductory course, the nerdy version of how to build a character: you come up with its past, imagine its likes and its phobias.
NP But beyond the academic part of how to do it, there’s this underlying assumption that a character is definable. The idea in cinema is that you can understand why characters behave the way they do based on your knowledge of their pasts and their lives in general. And also that personality determines a character’s actions. We don’t have access to this type of thing in real life. What I like about your films is that we never know why people end up where they do—to me, that’s closer to our experience. You give us no clues. I like that.
GN I’m not sure I’m able to achieve that, though I always aim for it. I love it when it actually happens.
NP I have a lot of fun working with Gabino Rodríguez, for instance, because he’s willing to do things I’d never imagine asking of him. We were recently finishing shooting Los Mejores Temas (Greatest hits) in a kitchen. I’d given Gabino a few tasks, and, all of a sudden, he pulls an egg out of the refrigerator and eats it raw. It’s a very strange scene—it would have never occurred to me to ask him to do that. Suddenly, this character that I created surprised me. Life is like that a little, we surprise ourselves sometimes by things we do and, even more frequently, by other people whose attitudes seem to have come out of the blue.
GN And that’s not always good, right? Like when someone attacks somebody else and you go, Where did that come from? So when you’re editing, what do you go for, the original plan or the swerve?
NP Luckily film is not something fixed that you can’t edit. You have the freedom and control to manipulate what came out spontaneously at first. And you can’t really talk about how you know if something works or not, that’s intuitive.
GN Let’s talk about the aura of the voice of the director, the creator, in all of this. When discussing film the hardest thing for me to deal with is preconceived notions about the director’s intention to capture life and reality, so to speak. I’m sure people bring this up to you given how you appropriate everyday stuff in your films.
NP Yes, people will say things like, “Your films are closer to reality, this is how it really is.” But that’s absurd—reality is a matter of perception. It is not fixed; there’s no one reality.
GN I guess you don’t aspire to capture reality, then.
NP Less and less. I am interested in reality, obviously—that’s what we all work with. I care more about my life and what’s around me than about what I might read or find in other films or art forms. But I’m not interested in capturing reality; I’m interested in talking about it. Realism and hyperrealism have nothing to do with this. Something very funny happened to me in Guadalajara once. I think you were at that screening of Together. Someone complained that nothing happened in the movie. I didn’t know what to say, but then I realized how odd this guy’s reaction was. In the film, which takes place in about a week or even less, the protagonist loses his dog, his girlfriend leaves him, he gets in a fight with his cousin, his refrigerator breaks down, he has no running water … If anyone told you that all of that happened to them in one week, you’d think it was like a movie. It’s too many events for one person in a short period of time. Yet my film created the opposite sensation—it feels like nothing happens.
GN I really enjoyed that movie, by the way. It made a strong impression on me. I’m sure you agree that Q&A sessions are an intense part of being a filmmaker. You feel like a Martian hearing how people talk about your work! I remember what the guy who complained to you said: “On my way to the screening, I got in a car accident, and I wanted to forget all about the accident when seeing this movie.” He thought your film had failed because it didn’t take him out of his own reality. Incredible! It’s one of the greatest comments I’ve ever heard.
NP I hope my films prompt people to reflect on their own lives. They’re entertaining, or at least some of them are. But, in any case, I think that contemplating your own life is not boring—it can be entertaining.
GN I remember thinking, This guy is looking for people to pump up the volume and present him with stuff that has nothing to do with him. But you’re trying to do the exact opposite.
NP Exactly. As for your film Miss Bala, I had a hard time understanding what I was seeing on the screen and relating it to my own life, since that kind of violence is a bit foreign to me. I mean, the action-film type of violence. But, at the same time, it dawned on me that it’s an action film lacking any actual action sequences.
GN Yes, it’s shunning them. There are a lot of voiceover narrations and scenes in the dark.
NP If you’d pitched Miss Bala to me, I would have imagined something entirely different, a film where you’re constantly seeing violence. But I’m very interested in the fact that yours is a film were you feel all this violence but you never see it. What about the story interested you?
GN Truth be told, I didn’t want to tell this story. And you’re absolutely right—I was avoiding the images. My aim was to create an atmosphere, to narrate it. I was dissatisfied with what I was seeing about crime. I was mulling over ideas for the story and realized that any story I chose would end up being the same movie because what mattered to me wasn’t the anecdote but instead a certain feeling or notion I have about crime. Mainly, it’s that violence comes from ignorance, from a primitiveness of sorts. I wanted, then, for the dialogues to not be fully comprehensible—characters mumble all the time; to me, they sound like cows mooing. You understand like 50 percent of the words they utter but you get the intention of what they’re saying. Yet I was fully aware that if I took on this topic, despite me, the film would become something else. I was trying to cheat by eschewing certain things, yet in the end, despite all my formal tricks, the result was a movie about the drug trade, about narcos.
NP Yet there can be no moral to the story. One can’t understand anybody’s motives except for the main protagonist’s. She barely has them at the beginning. Then violence keeps drawing her in.
GN I totally agree, even though people’s general perception is that the film does have a moral. Inevitably, at screenings, people ask me, “What do we need to fix the country?” And I’m like, Really?
NP Well, naturally, because everybody would love to have someone answer that question. People want someone to say, “This is the problem and here’s the solution.”
GN Which brings up a very interesting point: Who is the audience for Miss Bala? As much as I tried to take it in a different direction, it went mainstream. So my question for you is: Do we define a film’s trajectory or does the nature of the film determine it? I’ve tried to see your Summer of Goliath, for instance, but I wasn’t in Mexico when it was showing, and it’s very difficult to find.
NP The first impulse is to try to have as many people as possible see the work. You do what you can. Festivals are natural avenues for my films.
GN Do you distribute them as well?
NP Well, for instance, I’d try to have DVDs ready, but time would pass and I wouldn’t send them out, and then I’d wonder what it means to make a film that 5,000 or 10,000 people will see. In film that’s a failure, but if you think about it, it’s actually a lot of people. I mean, if it were dance, or theater, or poetry instead of film—
GN Such numbers would be a success.
NP With film there’s a monopoly of culture. Some movies are seen all over the world. Take Avatar, for instance. Then there are some that many people see and then others that have, practically, no audience. But distribution determines the audiences’ attitude toward cinema. It’s the reason why someone feels entitled to say, “Your film sucks because it didn’t transport me to a different reality.” This person would never walk into a museum or a dance performance expecting to forget about their lives while there.
GN I was referring to the issue of great topics. For instance, Miss Bala became a commercial film because of its topic. “Great topics” travel far, as opposed to others. My film Drama/Mex was in an entirely different circuit. You could say it was cinema verité—my aim was to use a free vocabulary, and no aesthetic structures per se, to track the emotions of my friends acting in the film. I felt that I needed to become a distributor to get it out there. But what I really want is to make films.
NP Right. And the path for commercial films is already built; you have nothing to do with it.
GN Nothing! You should have seen my surprise when I was shown the film’s trailer. It’s hysterical. I was like, “Puta! That’s mine? How did it become so distorted?” You make these agreements in advance; I couldn’t have foreseen this.
NP It’s fine as long as you have control over the film. If they want to make little Miss Bala dolls, let them do it. The rest is not in your hands.
GN It’s a phenomenon. I miss that world where you decide everything, but that was part of the challenge also. I wanted to tackle the subject of narcos, and the rest is just part of the deal, I guess.
NP You have the advantage of having made films the other way. If Miss Bala were your first movie, it’d be hard for you to imagine that things could be different.
GN Of course. It’s also exciting to be switching modes.
NP And to have the possibility to do so. I haven’t had the chance, for instance.
GN But Summer of Goliath, in its own way and in a different circuit, is a big success.
NP Yes, certainly. Projects can start growing without your being able to control them all the time. We got money for postproduction from France, for instance, to make Perpetuum Mobile, but I wasn’t there. We had to make color correction with people whom I didn’t know personally. When you’re making a tiny film, you don’t think you’ll have to deal with this.
GN The world of co-productions is a world of pirates, don’t you think?
NP Yep. And of sharks, too.
GN It’s like they say to you, “Hey, I heard you want to rob a bank. I’ll join you! I have a friend who’s good at opening safes.” (laughter) So I understand that your new film Los Mejores Temas is a bit like that; you’re taking a step forward so it’s more international and you’ll get help with distribution.
NP We shot it already—it keeps getting stranger and stranger though its possibilities keep narrowing. When I was conceiving the film everything seemed possible, and I did many crazy things. When I started to edit, I decided to keep certain things, like mixing the real lives of the actors with those of the characters. That became such an important part of the whole thing that now there is no turning back. It is three hours long and has become something I never expected. It’s the first film for which I have a real budget: $300,000, which is a lot for Mexico. I don’t see the difference, though. The film looks like any other film to me. The money doesn’t show. I hope I don’t get into trouble …
GN Did you film in video?
NP We rented a video camera that’s a bit more expensive than the ones I usually use. The image has more definition, though, as usual, I don’t move the camera. It’s on a tripod and the frames are similar to those in my other films. So the quality of the image will be better, but only we who’re in the film industry notice this kind of technical thing. To viewers it makes no difference. I’m used to filming in a certain way. For some reason my ideas are always simple and cheap to produce. I’ll think of a scene and then realize it’s easy to shoot—sadly, I don’t have ideas for projects that present any complications. I’ve never done a take from a crane. I don’t see many movies with such takes, so it doesn’t occur to me to do one.
GN So when you’re done shooting a film, do you immediately think that you must shoot another one within the next six months? Is that a conscious decision or has it simply happened that way?
NP I don’t know how the American Film Institute works. At York University, we were filming constantly. In one year we’d do three exercises. I was in school four years, and so every four months we were shooting something. My first film was my thesis—Where Are Their Stories?, from 2007. Once I finished school, I had the impulse to film more and more, and circumstances were such that I was able to do that. While shooting the first film, Gabino, who’s been the protagonist in all of my films since, mentioned he was in a theater group. I met the actors and was inspired to make a film for them. Before the first film premiered, we’d already finished this second film—Together, from 2008. The experience of working with them, in turn, generated a bunch of new ideas. It hasn’t been a calculated effort, it’s just that my projects involve my friends and are so low budget that I’m ready to shoot as soon as I have an idea.
GN And when they’re available, I suppose, right?
NP Yeah, but I’m also shameless. I don’t doubt my ideas; I act on them right away. I’ll be won over by enthusiasm and I’ll start emailing everyone as soon as I’m done with the script. Of course then the doubts pop up. I caused trouble recently—I didn’t even ask the actors if they were interested in a project. I just told them to coordinate amongst themselves, since I was about to buy my plane ticket to Mexico. You know, since I live in Toronto, I buy my ticket and that’s that. We need to shoot on those dates since I can’t change my itinerary. It turns out they weren’t very interested …
GN Well, you’ve made very powerful work with them. I’m struck by how much you work. All of them are theater actors, right?
NP Some people think they’re nonprofessionals, but yes, they’re all professional. In a given year, Gabino will appear in seven films. I met all of them socially. I wanted to work with them because we knew each other. Before I cast Gabino, I’d never seen him act. I met him when he was a production assistant for a play; someone had told me he was an actor. Later he introduced me to his theater company. They’re called Lagartijas tiradas al sol. We were all friends before they appeared in my second film, and being on set didn’t change our relationship. In that film they all appear as themselves—it’s about how they move, how they speak, the words they choose. For the past five years they’ve been doing documentary theater, so their acting is based on real-life stuff that they then fictionalize—they all play different characters, but at some point they return to themselves. There’s always representation, even if they’re dealing with real life, and they’re really good at handling that back and forth. They also understand that in my films I’m not asking them to act.
GN I’m sure the familiarity among all of you also helps a lot. No need to have turf wars. I work with professionals and nonprofessionals alike—the question itself is weird.
NP Also, in film, actors are very protected: You can do numerous takes; you’ve got lighting and all kinds of paraphernalia.
GN Of course, and you as director will consider certain actors in your idea for a given scene. They’re not doing it on their own. I think what you’ve done with your actors is very intelligent; knowing them is imperative for things to work, you’ve got to spend face time together, experience stuff, breathe together …
NP Right, you don’t even need to be good friends with people. If you know actors outside of the context of your film, if you have a sense of their daily lives, if you can see them at a park or at a party and you get an idea of how they move naturally, you get to envision what it is that they might bring to your film. Castings are so difficult because people come with an idea of what it is you want to see, though how could they know what you’re after?
GN At their worst, castings are exhibitionism tests.
NP That’s exactly why I’d like to do more castings, to research what it is that people think is worth saying. Castings are a social experiment of sorts. Everyone has their reality-show moment. People want to bring out what they think is most interesting about themselves—there’s something powerful and moving about that situation.
GN When we were in Aguascalientes for a casting for Miss Bala, we auditioned all these attractive young women. We’d asked them to tell us the most horrific story they could imagine and noticed a recurrent dream. Five or six of them imagined that Satan was raping them. I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I’m pretty sure there’s something to this. They showed up at different times, so it’s not like they were communicating among each other. If you’d like to see the tapes for your experiment, I’ll show them to you whenever you want. (laughter)
NP Do you have them for the I’m Gonna Explode casting? I’d love to see those too.
GN For I’m Gonna Explode I interviewed 7,000–8,000 kids around the country. The process became a way of life. I mean, at some point it had nothing to do with the film. I found these 18-year-olds who’d help me find these magical kids who we realized, in the end, didn’t exist, since we were looking for the wrong thing.
NP Yes, things begin to matter so much that everything becomes grave and serious and heavy. If you’ve seen thousands of kids, how could you decide who your character will be? It must have been maddening.
GN That’s what happened with Miss Bala, everything became so huge that we lost the ability to talk to people. We’d say to extras, “Act normal!” but we were all under so much pressure that they were terrified, they didn’t know what it meant to act normal. It’s absurd when things become so corporate.
NP I’m curious. How did you end up deciding who’d be in I’m Gonna Explode?
GN My desire was to find someone who was very peculiar, but without having to meet them myself. But I became lost and collapsed. I was worried I had either very bad luck, since everyone I came across seemed to be a bore, or that I was doing something wrong. I had thought it would be suspicious for me to actually go look for potential actors in high schools, so I’d hired 18-year-olds to go scout for them. At some point I got tired of this system and just did it myself. It was very simple—we found them within a week. Those who were the least interested in being in a film were the ones I wanted the most. Juan Pablo wasn’t interested, María wasn’t interested, but they were the ones who attracted me the most.
NP That happens. Half of my family always wants to be in my films, but I really don’t want that. And then there are people I have a very hard time convincing, and it’s them I’m truly interested in.
GN That tension is good, though. So when will you be done with Los Mejores Temas?
NP I’m done shooting and I’ve started editing since I got back to Toronto. It’s a family drama where the father comes back after ten years of being gone. But then there are two fathers, and they both sell CDs in the subway.
GN Can’t wait to see it. So, I wanted to ask you, what’s it like to be exiled?
NP It’s strange not to be in Mexico City. I’m there frequently, like three times a year. If I’m shooting two films a year, that’s what happens. I’ll be there to shoot and for my parents to see my kids. I have a lot of friends there who I’ve met since I’ve been living here—I moved in 2003 to study film. I don’t feel exiled since most of my social life takes place in Mexico. When I’m there, for the most part, I’m on my own, since my kids stay home. Here in Toronto I have something like three friends whom I see once a week. It’s like living in the countryside. How about you? Do you know how long you’re staying in New York?
GN I’m still making plans. I don’t think I’ll be making films outside Mexico. Someone proposed that I make another film about crime, and, oh no, that I’d never want to do again. I need to have some distance from that stuff and find something else that interests me—I don’t want to become a chronicler of crime. I was in that mindset of Miss Bala for three years. I wanted to be informed, so every day I’d scour the paper for crime reports. I need to recover from that. Believe me, it’s hard. I’m not in Mexico, but I’ll go on my computer and I’ll start looking up stuff and—boom! There I go again. So now the big challenge is to go in a different direction and show something I’ve never shown before.
NP Your films are poles apart from each other, radically so. The evolution of my films, on the other hand, is much slower. There’s a world of difference between my first film and Summer of Goliath, for instance, but between any given one and the one that follows there is less of a difference, precisely because I make them one after the other.
GN You know you’re atypical, right? It takes me three years to make a film. You make two a year!
NP Our methods are completely different. I love being behind the camera every few months, it has a bit of an everyday feel to me now. There’s no pressure at all, since I don’t feel like I’m doing anything out of the ordinary. I don’t get frustrated. It’s normal for things not to work sometimes, so we’re never alarmed if things go wrong.
GN Incredible. I’ve never heard anyone else say that, to tell you the truth. I guess Fassbinder was bit like that too. He’d say “We’re shooting today,” and everyone would have to get up and be ready.
NP I’d love to take that idea further. I’d move to Mexico and it’d be routine to start shooting anytime. We wouldn’t have dates for shoots; we’d play it by ear. Life would become so impregnated with work that we wouldn’t be able to tell when we were filming and when we were not. We’d never be done.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee