Jonás Cuarón’s second feature, Desierto, produced by his father Alfonso, screened this week in Official Competition at the 2015 London Film Festival. We sat down for a roundtable chat with the pair to talk about Desierto, immigration, their work relationship, and how doing Harry Potter opened many doors for Alfonso. Spoilers for Desierto necessarily follow…
The main theme of Desierto is clearly migration. When you talk about migration in the film, are you talking about all migration or just that between Mexico and the U.S.?
Jonás Cuarón: Obviously the movie is set on the border between Mexico and the U.S., but yeah, migration is a very universal theme right now. Migration has existed since humanity began – the early humans migrated – but more and more at the moment it’s becoming an issue. A lot of what interested me in the subject of immigration is the way that people present it as a problem in itself instead of trying to figure out what’s causing it in the first place.
When the group reaches the border, it is represented by just a tiny barbed-wire fence. Why was there no wall at the border?
Alfonso Cuarón: Obviously the U.S. is wasting a lot of money on that wall, but there are a lot of parts where there is nothing – and the U.S. is actually creating a lot of jobs for the illegal immigrants who are helping to build it!
Jonás: It interested me that there are stretches of the desert that don’t even have a fence, because it’s a very wide desert. When I was scouting and looking for deserts both in the U.S. and Mexico I scouted many deserts on borders, and what always amazed me is the arbitrariness of these borders. Many times in the desert you’ve crossed a border without realising, and it looks identical on either side. I wanted to not show an imposing wall, but really show how arbitrary and silly these borders are.
Gael García Bernal is predictably excellent in Desierto. What made you want to work with him?
Jonás: Gael has worked on several documentaries on the subject of immigration, and he has a close relationship with his father in Mexico who helps migrants cross into the U.S. Beyond the fact that I knew Gael was very involved in the subject matter, in a film like this – a genre thriller with almost no words – you need an actor like Gael for the audience to connect to. Not only emotionally – as an actor he’s very powerful and can say a lot with no words – but also because having a star like Gael gave a face to the migrants, and for once it allowed the audience to connect to and root for the migrant.
Alfonso: In genre cinema you tend to just have one character that you root for – and in this film you are rooting for a character who is perceived as the “Other” – your hero is the “Other”. I think Jonás chose Bernal because he wanted someone with star quality. You are used to seeing the star quality of an American, as the victim of terrorists, or of Mexican drug dealers and being chased by all these evil people, and it was good to reverse all these roles. For us, the problem is not immigration – the problem is the attitude towards it as a “problem”. Identifying those migrants as the “Other” – something that is alien to you – is to actually strip that “Other” of humanity.
Alfonso has worked with Gael before [in Y Tu Mamá También], and he was also a producer on Desierto. How different was it working with him this time?
Alfonso: He blended into the group and his role very well – that was the work of Gael and Jonás together, to manage that. It also helped that for one of his documentaries Gael spent a lot of time getting to know some migrants. In Desierto he became just one more character.
Jonás: For the whole process Gael was a great ally, and once I did my initial research and wrote the first draft Gael was constantly guiding me onto interesting searches for material and research. Then when the time came to work with the actors Gael was constantly helping them to get embedded in the subject matter.
You talked about this idea of the “Other”. How did you show this onscreen, and what were your artistic choices in that respect?
Jonás: For the “Other” the main thing was to really get the audience to identify with Gael’s character and all of the migrants in the group. We created and shot many of their backstories where we explained more about them, but there was a point when I was editing the massacre scene, and I realised that it doesn’t matter what backstory I give to any character, the image of them being shot was always going to be a cruel one.
Apart from using a star so that the audience would relate to the “Other”, Sam [Jeffrey Dean Morgan] is potentially the more intriguing character – he has a lot of darkness and mystery.
Jonás: Obviously the movie is constructed so that you’ll want Gael to survive – but I think there’s something very intriguing about Jeffrey and his character. We actually shot scenes that gave him more of a backstory, but it seemed pointless to try and explain his actions. People are intrigued by his character because of the emotional performance Jeffrey gave – and also the fact that his actions represent the rhetoric that exists throughout society. What’s most dark and intriguing about that character is that those beliefs exist – I’ve not lived in Europe, but I’ve lived in the U.S and that rhetoric is expressed everywhere. Though obviously the killings in Desierto are meant to be metaphorical.
The scene where Sam pleads for his life is very powerful.
Jonás: We shot more scenes with Jeffrey, but this was the most important one to give Jeffrey’s character a human side.
Alfonso: With Jeffrey in that scene, we see that he’s a bully. Bullies are bullies, and they’re extraordinary until they are finally confronted. When they are confronted they become nothing.
The relationship Sam has with his dog in the movie is very strong, and the dog seemed to be very well trained. Where did you find that dog?
Jonás: We really worried – when I wrote the script, my dad said “you’re so silly, that dog’s going to do your head in”. But then I was really lucky to find an amazing animal handler in Mexico. He took me to where they train their dogs, and when I saw what they could do I actually had to rewrite the script because the dog was capable of way more than I expected. In the scene where the characters climb high up onto the rock-face, originally the dog was supposed to stay at ground level and just bark at them – but then we arrived on location, the first thing the dog did was to climb up – it was more agile than the humans.
The characters were always running, jumping across rocks and generally exerting themselves physically. Where there any mishaps while shooting?
Jonás: We had no injuries – in retrospect we were very lucky to have lots of actors willing to do lots of crazy stuff. Obviously we had stunt guys for the really big jumps, but a lot of the scenes Gael and Jeffrey would just do themselves. In the climactic scene there’s a moment where Gael falls backwards off a rock, and that actually wasn’t supposed to happen – he was supposed to climb down the whole way, but he actually just fell backwards. Thinking about it we were really lucky!
The sound and Woodkid’s music in the film were particularly powerful.
Jonás: When we were finishing shooting I kept listening to Run Boy Run, because it had that drive I was looking for. I met with Woodkid and he became really interested in the project. Collaborating with him was amazing – he’s a very smart guy – and between him and the sound designer they created an atmosphere of tension that really pushes the movie forward.
Were there any different endings planned for Desierto, or was the ending you used the only one?
Jonás: It was always going to be that ending to me. The cynical part of you as a writer has a moment that says “maybe I should kill them” but that felt a very bleak statement. I think we gave a sense that they would survive, but you know that it’s not going to be easy for them.
In the credits you thank a whole generation of Mexican filmmakers – how have they helped you?
Jonás: That generation [of the last 15/20 years] opened lots of doors for Mexican cinema and for me. The reason I thank them here is more pragmatic, because throughout different stages of making Desierto something that really meant a lot was that they were all very open to giving feedback on my script, characters and cast.
Could you tell us about the work dynamics between you – be they producer/director or father/son? Were there any clashes?
Alfonso: I was invited – but Jonás wrote, directed, produced and edited. When I got involved – because he invited me – Carlos, my brother, was already involved. They had already put together the whole film. It was financed, and Jonás was partnered with Mateo Garcia [co-writer] who was amazing, and I was the last one to get involved.
What was Alfonso’s role as producer?
Jonás: The relationship we have – whether he decides to take a production credit or not – is all good. I learnt cinema from him, and now I can go for feedback from many directors – it was mentioned before, but Dad’s the main one I go to. There’s always feedback going back and forth. He’s always really respectful – he gives me his cruel, but honest criticism – but then he gives me complete freedom so I guess that’s the relationship – one of co-operation.
Alfonso: Yeah, of collaboration. He was very kind to bring me in as a producer and I was allowed a lot of input, the same as when I collaborate with Alejandro [González Iñárritu] or whoever. The idea of getting me involved came not only from a finance-raising viewpoint, but also the sales people said it would be a good idea to have me around.
Jonás’ previous feature [Year of the Nail] is very different to Desierto.
Jonás: That movie I made 7 years ago, when I was just starting cinema. Then I was really interested in exploring the cinematic language so I really wanted to push those boundaries – which was why it was a movie made with lots of still photographs, where you explore the boundary between documentary and fiction.What I hoped to push in that movie was that storytelling and drive is what carries a piece, and if there’s anything similar between it and Desierto it’s that.
In terms of the use of space Gravity is also similar to Desierto – we are all alone in an empty space. Was it obvious for you to link the two?
Alfonso: Desierto was actually written first. Before we even started Gravity I read Jonás’ screenplay for Desierto and asked him to help me write something like that – except in outer space.
Was it after working on the big studio production of Gravity that you decided it was time to go more back to basics, as in Desierto?
Jonás: It just sort of happened that way. I was writing Desierto, but took a hiatus to work on Gravity which was a great learning experience. When Dad was finishing Gravity, that was when I started doing all the production for this film.
Alfonso – what does it mean to you to be with your son for this movie, especially in competition at film festivals?
Alfonso: Very happy, and also very proud. It’s more like he has to be proud of himself, because he made the whole film from start to finish. It was also a great excuse to spend time together.
And to you Jonás?
Jonás: To me it is a great honour. The London Film Festival is one that I admire a lot, so to be in competition with such an impressive selection is such an honour.
Going back to the themes of the film – do you consider yourselves immigrants?
Alfonso: It’s not about whether I consider myself one, just listen to my accent! I am one! But particularly in the U.S. you hear conversations where people talk very nastily about migrants – and I say, “Guys I’m sorry, I’m a migrant”, and people say, “No you’re not”. One time someone even said “Come on, you’re white!”
I’m a migrant, yes – but I happen to be a “luxury migrant”. But why is there acceptance towards me and not acceptance towards all of these guys? So every time they talk about these migrants coming and doing horrible things, they’re talking about me! I’m a migrant, and Jonás, I hate to break it to you, but you’re one too! Being a migrant is part of the nature of being a human – it’s nothing new, it’s not just in the 21st century. We’re here in our world, and we’re here because some humans thousands of years ago migrated from the south of Africa into the rest of the world. We are all migrants.
Finally, what are your thoughts on border control?
Alfonso: They should totally be gone, but it’s about how money flows. How come money can flow between borders but people can’t? I’m allowed to cross borders, as there is this perception that I can bring money into my work. But even me being a “luxury migrant”, it’s still difficult for me to travel around with a Mexican passport. You know how many hours I’ve spent in little offices at airports while they go and check all my documents and papers? But things got easier for me after Harry Potter [he directed The Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004] because they all said “Oh, Harry Potter, come right through!”. Though not all of humanity has had the luxury to have been involved in Harry Potter, so it was a game-changer for me. Harry Potter helped me so much with immigration!