Interview: with cast and creative team for Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Stephanie Sigman, Diego Luna)

Interview originally published at Picktainment:

Miss Bala is Mexico’s official entry for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It has stirred up controversy for its unflattering portrayal of a country on the brink of collapse due to the rampant violence of the drug cartels that have seized the nation. Set in Mexican border town Baja, California, the film tells the story of Laura, portrayed by Stephanie Sigman – a young woman who wants to be a beauty queen only to find herself unwillingly involved in Mexico’s violent drug war. Although she wins the pageant, her experience at the hands of a gang that is terrorizing northern Mexico leaves her shaken and transformed.

Stephanie Sigman, director Gerardo Naranjo, and Executive Producer Diego Luna discuss the dangers, the process, and the impact of such a film on audiences around the world at a recent press junket.

Gerardo Naranjo believes there is a revolution going on in Mexico. There is a great disparity between the rich and the poor, which has resulted in tremendous anger about the poverty many people live in. It is in this world that he sets his film, Miss Bala.

Were there risks involved in shooting this film? Did you feel you were in any danger?
It’s wishful thinking that we are not in danger. We didn’t attack anyone specifically. The movie is done from the point of view of this person. We didn’t do it from the point of view of the criminals. Even the criminals don’t come out in such bad light in this film. They’re portrayed as workers of crime. One of the first things that the movie tries to say is that the crime world is not glamorous as other media projects paint it out to be with the gold chains, the girls, the parties. These guys are truly living a pathetic life. The glory is not there.

How did you keep all this under the radar when shooting on location?
We were lucky. We used the knowledge of more experienced people in our unit. We also went under the title of Beautiful Maria, a romantic comedy, nothing to do at all with crime. It was how it was presented to the people in town. We were very careful… and lucky. I think they knew what we were doing but they didn’t feel threatened.

The film portrays the main character as unemotional. Can you talk about that choice?
Melodrama in Latin America is like a virus. It infects movies and all artistic things we do. My theory is to give dignity to the character. The melodrama is very controlled. In a typical Mexican film, our heroine would be crying on the floor, asking God why she’s being punished.

And she never fights back.
Mexican society is frozen and not acting against the fear they fear. That’s depicted in the character of Laura. It makes the audience react with frustration. But I truly felt that everything we depicted in the film has been passed through a logic filter where logic dictates that she has no military training, no knowledge on weaponry. Obviously, if this was a Hollywood film, she would take the gun and kill everyone. But this is not that kind of film. It is a film based on experiences we hear in the media and found in research. One of the things we found is that when someone is put through these types of situations, their reaction is to freeze, to become unemotional.

So she’s a metaphor for Mexico.

It seems as if it’s hopeless. Rather than fight back, the country must wait it out. You get the feeling that this is almost too overwhelming for a country, despite its history of revolution.
I do believe so. This generation of Mexicans won’t be able to fix it. I think it’s for future generations to fix it. So, yes, it does appear hopeless. The biggest challenge for me and for Mexico is to recognize the problems today and to acknowledge them. The biggest problem, however, is that there is still a big portion of people living in Mexico who refuse to see there is a problem. They refuse to believe that this exists. That it’s the work of over imagination, that we’re betraying the country. I disagree. I believe that we should talk about it and come together as a society – something that we have never done. This is one of the things that the movie attacks.

What was your experience working with Stephanie Sigman in this film?
Stephanie and me found a language to communicate with each other. She understood what I wanted from each shot. The film was constructed in 130 shots that were very specific and with a very clear choreography. She knew how to approach her character. She was chosen for this part specifically because she didn’t have that much experience. I felt that her inexperience, those emotions she portrayed would be real. Also, I told her, she would go crazy eventually. Rightly so, one day she was very confused and we dealt with it the best way we could.

Can you talk a little bit about the politics of this being the official Oscar entry? Some people don’t want this to be representative of Mexico. How were you able to overcome that?
It reflects the feelings of a community. We’re here as an entry because the Mexican academy voted for our film to represent it. Somehow, they’re sending us so I feel that they have a strong support for this film. The film has been attacked in Mexico – the government has been trying to… they haven’t censored us… but they haven’t been supporting the film, either. They feel that the film is not true.

Your previous films have been influenced by the French New Wave, especially your last film Voy A Explotar (I’m Going to Explode). What were some of the cinematic influences and what were some of the influences for the look and style of this film?
We approached it by not being influenced by any movie. It was forbidden to talk about shots seen in movies. I think the biggest guideline was to ask ourselves how would we feel? How does it happen? In this film, we did something I had never done before – lets make a movie that is very controlled, planned, not based on improve. This is what came out. Something very different from what I’ve done before.

Do you think it is an artist’s responsibility to use these projects and films to put a mirror up to the country and say, “Look, this is what you have created. What are you going to do about it?”
It’s not my role to do that. My role is to say ‘this is how I feel.’ In the way I understood it, what is the best way to express my feelings. That’s what I think we need to do.

I don’t remember any conversations in the film about drugs and we never actually see any drugs either. Was that something intentional?
Certainly. When we were planning the film, we asked that very question. At the beginning we wanted to show everything, the beheadings, the torture, the dead bodies – all the bad stuff. Then afterwards, we decided to do the opposite and not show any of that. Instead we focused on the experiences of the innocent people. There are no images of drugs. There are no allusions to drugs. We can infer that it has to do with drugs.

According to Naranjo, Stephanie Sigman was his first choice to play Laura in Miss Bala. However, Naranjo auditioned thousands of hopefuls in order to be sure that she was the one. In the end, he admits, “I knew it would be Stephanie.”

Did you audition with a scene from the film?
I think the first one I did was a monologue that Penelope Cruz did in one of her films. Then, I started with the scenes that were given to me by Gerardo Naranjo from the film.

This is a very dangerous world depicted in Miss Bala. How dangerous is it for you as an artist to approach this subject in the film?
I want to think that it’s safe because it’s art. It’s a movie, but also, because the movie doesn’t point a finger at anyone it just shows what we are feeling as a society. I don’t like to think that way.

This is your first feature film and it’s a pretty serious subject. How did you manage with the responsibility of creating a convincing portrayal?
I love a challenge! It’s not only because of my work, it’s because we’re all supportive working together and Gerardo is such a great director. It’s a combination of different things working together. It wasn’t just the emotional aspect, but also the physical. It was very tiring and at times I got hurt, but I always trust the process and we were working on a good movie.

Was there ever any doubt in your mind about the role you were playing during this process?
Yes, a lot of times, actually. Not just in the beginning. Yes, I got lost. I questioned what I was doing. This role demands a lot of contained emotion and there were times when I wanted to explode and say more and do more, but I think that’s when I talked to Gerardo. I tried to understand what he wanted. I didn’t want that melodramatic acting.

Many people have asked why she never fights back at any point during the movie – because there are plenty of opportunities in the film where she could. Do you think she could do that?
I don’t think so. I think that if she had tried anything she would end up dead. I’m sure about that. She has no choice or time to be a genius and come up with a strategy – like the Hollywood action movies. This film takes on a different point of view: a more human portrayal. It’s more realistic.

Diego Luna’s role in Miss Bala is that of Executive Producer for CANANA, the film production company he founded with fellow actor and childhood friend, Gael Garcia Bernal and producer Pablo Cruz.

What’s your take on this film being used as the official entry for Oscar consideration? I know you’ve made many films that depict many aspects of life in Mexico. This may not be the best image that you would expect the country to say, “this represents us.” Is there a disconnect there or is there a quality to the film that stands out?
I think we can complain a lot about many decisions the Mexican Academy has made today, but the only thing we can say is that it’s the filmmakers who are making the choices. Sometimes that can be a problem, in fact. But in this case, it’s not politicians trying to sell the country. It’s filmmakers and the community. The process is tricky and we would love to change it, but this time we have to believe in what we’re doing. I have a feeling that the film achieves something that rarely happens in film: the connection between reality is so intense that there’s no way that you can say that there is a better film out there that represents what the country is feeling right now.

Do you think cinema has the power to change people’s ideologies about a country’s state of corruption?
Cinema has that power and should be used more often. It’s a tool of change and can be used as a mirror. You can get frustrated and angry by what you see and suddenly realize that there is something that you can do.

What is your reaction to the film?
I believe this film is a part of something bigger in Mexico. Film should be about that. We’re just so happy to be a part of this. It’s a tough time to say “happy.”

Do you think you’ll be making more films like this with your production company CANANA?
As a production company, we’ve done just these types of films. They all come from an honest point. It’s the type of film we would want to see as an audience. We want those directors to be shooting these types of films.


Interview: Errol Morris on his documentary Tabloid

Originally published in Picktainment:

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind when they watch an Errol Morris film that he has a keen eye for the eccentricities that make us tick. His gift for interviewing his subjects by simply pointing a camera and letting them talk has produces award-winning documentaries. In his latest, Tabloid, he delves into the seedier side of humanity by examining the infamous Mormon Sex in Chains Case that took London by storm in the late 1970s. Though that case garnered very little attention in America, it was a precursor to today’s fascination with the downfall of celebrities and the enduring quest for our fifteen minutes of fame.

I know there was a book written in 1984 about Joyce McKinney. How did you find the story? Did you read the book?

I read the book belatedly after I had already interviewed Joyce, but not initially. I think my film is substantially different. I found this story through an AP article in the Boston Globe.

You worked as a private investigator. How did that impact how you do your interviews?

I was a private investigator briefly in Berkeley. I worked for Jack and Sandra Palladino, but very, very briefly in the 1970s. Then my film career, which never has amounted to a film career per se, it just went completely belly up and I had to find a way to earn a living so I worked as a private detective in New York in the early 80s.

How did your interview style come about and does it have a connection to your work as a detective?

I think it works the other way around. I started interviewing murderers. I interviewed Ed Gein and a whole number of different murderers in Northern California and Wisconsin. It goes back so many years. I had a relationship with Ed Kemper. I’d gone to all of these trials. I was going to write a PhD thesis on the insanity plea. In those days there were three mass murders in Northern California – the big three – Ed Kemper, Herbie Mullin, and JohnFrazier. So I had gone to the parts of all three. I was really interested in the insanity plea and writing about them. I started interviewing people. I believe those were my first real interviews.

Then I went back to Wisconsin and started interviewing people there. I developed this whole style of interviewing – I remember the tape recorders. I would play this game where I tried to say as little as possible. I had tapes where I was particularly proud of where my voice wasn’t on the tape. I would see if I could get the person I was interviewing for a full hour without my voice on the tape. The idea was this pure stream of consciousness – The Joycean interview, for lack of a better work. That definitely informed Gates of Heaven and I never included my voice. I wanted to publish a book and no one was really interested in my writing. So I stopped writing for years. Now, I’m publishing all of these books. I have a book coming out in September from Penguin Books. I have a second book coming out on the Jeffrey McDonald murder case. And I have a third book from Chicago Press based on a set of essays I wrote for the New York Times called The Ashtray. So, I’m writing a lot.

I was wondering what books you were reading at the time you were making Tabloid and what books are you reading now?

I’ve always been a fan of Frank Norris. It’s interesting that they’re always pairing The Octopus and The Jungle together and they’re both very disparate. They have nothing to do with each other; they come from different traditions all together. What I didn’t understand is that there was a relationship between Norris and Dreiser. And why was I thinking of Norris and Dreyser? Because Joyce McKinney told me that when she was in high school she had read a short story by Theodore Dreiser called The Second Choice. I got the short story and read it and then started to read Dreiser compulsively. This short story is one of the most amazing short stories.

The story is about a  woman and it starts out with a series of letters written by her lover and it’s clear that he’s not that interested in her as much as she is in love with him and there is a man who wants to marry her, but she’s not particularly interested in him. She doesn’t want to end up like her mother, whose marriage was boring. In the end she settles for the second choice, the guy that she’s not really in love with and she ends up like her mother. The story, to call it bleak, is an understatement. Joyce told me that she had decided that this was not going to happen to her. She was never going to end up like this Dreiser character. The question, this is my question, is whether what happened to Joyce is worse.

When Kirk Anderson was taken away from her, why was California her first choice. Why did she come here immediately after that happened?

I don’t know. Maybe she believed she could earn a living here. Why does anyone want to come out here, you know? I didn’t ask her how she made her living out in California. The whole L.A. story was unknown to me until months after I did the initial interview with Joyce. I’m not sure how much I would have learned just by asking her questions about her life in L.A. She’s not really inclined to talk about it, at least from what I’ve seen and read about her. People love adversarial journalism as if you’re supposed to ask the difficult questions and push them against the wall. I think I would have learned little about Joyce if I had asked those types of questions. But I think the material is there, in the film.

Film: Interview with Andrew Rossi and Times Reporter David Carr

Follow the link below or click on image to read an exclusive interview with director Andrew Rossi and New York Times Reporter David Carr. In Rossi’s film Page One: Inside the New York Times, the director chronicles the transformation of the media industry at its time of greatest turmoil. Andrew Rossi and New York Times’ intrepid media reporter, David Carr, shed some light on the future of online journalism.

Page One: Inside The New York Times

Interview: Cast and creative team behind True Grit (2010)

Originally published in Picktainment:

Joel and Ethan Coen and the cast of True Grit gathered at the Four Seasons hotel for a frank discussion of this new Western adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel. Though not a direct re-make of the 1969 film starring John Wayne, this new interpretation draws from the same source material to bring out a dark, epic journey into unknown territory in search of a killer. The cast includes the very talented and young Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, in an iconic role that he soon redefines, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, and cinematographer Roger Deakins.


What advice that the actors in this film gave you did you take to heart?

I think the best advice they gave me was to not to take anything too seriously but to have fun and to take it somewhat seriously.

How difficult was working with the script?

The script as a whole spoke to me. That’s the first thing I had to work with when I got the script. With the accent, it all fell into place, making the language sound natural.

Did you do your own stunts?

I already knew how to ride horses, but I learned the English-style so I had to learn how to ride for the movie.

You were sensational in this movie. Where did you come from and what did you learn?

I learned to ride horses and roll a cigarette. Where did I come from? I don’t know. I’ve been acting since I was 8.

EC: we looked for 18 months and used 2 casting people to look for the right girl and we ended up finding her right here in L.A.


That campfire scene where Mattie and Chaney meet for the first time is so tense and amazing. How did you guys rehearse that?

It was like 15 minutes after I met Josh, we were rehearsing that and Josh was on top of me with a knife.

Josh Brolin: she’s so precocious and amazing and I just kind of went with it. It was more nerve wracking for me than it was for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin. She’s super confident. It was an incredible experience. I can’t tell you the process because it was a very easy scene.

How was it being the only girl in the film and how did you learn to shoot a gun?

I learned to shoot a gun before I went on location. I went with my dad and a friend who’s an LAPD officer who told me everything I needed to know. Working with all those men… It wasn’t bad. Actually, I was surrounded by women all the time. The hair/make-up person was a woman, the wardrobe, my mom, my tutor. The men, well, they’re like big kids so it was fun.


Did you have any hesitation playing this iconic character?

I was curious why these guys [the Coen Brothers] wanted to make that movie again and I think it was Ethan who talked to me first and corrected me and he said, “no we’re not making that movie, we’re making the book.” I wasn’t familiar with the book so when I read the book and that’s when I saw what they were talking about because it’s a wonderful book and it suited me so well and what a great character. Most Westerns have that strong silent type and here’s this boorish character.

Why has they eye-patch been moved from left eye to right eye? Did you think about it or did it just happen?

We played back and forth with it but at the end of the day it just happened. It wasn’t intentional.

What qualities of Rooster should men aspire to?

My definition of true grit is seeing one thing through to the end. That’s a good thing. I aspire to that.

Can you talk a little about the scene with the reins in your mouth. It looked similar to the John Wayne version. Did you think about doing it differently?

I remember that day well. I was a little anxious. There was a little fear. Me, riding that horse, using my teeth… so we tried it that way and it wasn’t as tough as I thought. It was actually kind of cool. The horse kept the rhythm well and it was pretty simple from my point of view.

JC: We never considered leaving the scene out. It’s the big action climax of the movie. What Jeff was doing just from a riding point of view, that’s what we assumed would be done in the context that would actually show him riding a horse without having the reins in his hands, firing his guns, and riding the horse. There were things in the scene that Jeff Bridges had to do that were difficult and aren’t in the original movie that Roger had to shoot, like getting the camera into certain positions to capture that scene.

EC: I don’t think any of us thought about it with reference to the original movie or thought much of anything in reference to that first movie. So no. We didn’t think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that.

Barry Pepper: That scene is such an intrinsic part of the novel. In order to have a faithful adaptation of the novel you couldn’t righteously avoid it. It’s beat for beat in the novel and Roosters character describes how he did it in a previous shoot out and he emulates it again in this scene.

At what point did you finally nail this character the way you portrayed him?

Each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the character your portraying. I look at the script and the book and see what all characters say about your character and informs you quite a bit. Then you work with the costume designer—it’s a collaborative effort that makes a film. Your character starts to fall into place and there’s a point where it starts to tell you what it wants, rather than the other way around. The same thing happens with the movie, where you want to try to do something but it just doesn’t work because it doesn’t go with the movie you’re trying to make. That’s a wonderful time when that happens.

How difficult was it to speak in that language without contractions?

It was great for me. It was fun to try something new.

Who did you use as a model?

I used to love it when my dad [Lloyd Bridges] would play a Western. He’d appear at the door in his cowboy outfit. It was a thrill for me.

This type of film is a big departure from your other film about to be released, that one being a more clean-cut sci-fi movie.

That’s what is so much fun about my job. I get to play all different guys. We did a re-shoot for Tron a week after we completed True Grit and I had the same make-up guy. We went from Rooster with all the dirt and the grime and dirty teeth to him putting on hundreds of motion-capture dots all over my face. It’s bizarre. That’s the gig, that’s the fun of it.


What was the most challenging part of making this film?

JC: It’s a largely exterior movie and we had to shoot in difficult places and the weather was very uncooperative and so we were trying to get a lot of thing done like in the number of set ups we usually do during the day, we had to stay on schedule. It was difficult to shoot this movie on such a short period of time.

You’ve done all types of genre films from screwball comedies to film noir. What about the Western, specifically, did you want to convey or for that matter refute by making this film?

We didn’t really think of it as a genre film so much. It was an interesting novel. It is a western inarguably, but the story is not really a Western in that sense. We were thinking about the novel more than doing a Western.

Can you talk a little about the iconic elements of the western the landscapes used in them and did you give any thought to actually shooting it in Arkansas?

JC: We looked in Colorado and looked in Utah. New Mexico had a lot of the landscape needed. But we knew we wanted to have snow in the movie. The trick was snow – but not too much snow. We weren’t sure if we were going to get any snow that time of year in Arkansas. The one thing that’s not faithful to the novel is the landscape. We thought people would think it’s a Western and some things you just can’t mess with. There are different considerations that you go into where you’re shooting at night from the practical to what is the movie actually going to be about.

After watching this movie, it feels less a Western and more of a really dark and stylized dark comedy. Is that what you were going for?

JC: There’s certainly a lot of humor in the novel, which really attracted us to adapting it. What was funny in the book came through in the movie. The foreign-sounding nature of the dialogue was not a problem for us. We just lifted it from the novel.

Pepper: it was more like American Shakespeare, this sort of iambic pentameter with a musicality and rhythm to it that you’re working very much with what’s on the page as opposed to working with rewrites. Charles Portis has a very specific vernacular that’s so authentic in my mind. I think it was the way these people spoke back then. A lot of them were illiterate and raised on the King James Bible and that’s the way they spoke. I think a lot of Westerns miss that.

JC: When we first saw the first take of Hailee doing a scene in the movie, she had it.  A lot of the other girls who auditioned couldn’t handle the language. Hailee was comfortable from the start.

EC: The frame of reference for her character in the novel in first person is the King James Bible. That’s the kind of style we adopted.

Was there a sense of consequence in the scene where Mattie falls into the pit of snakes immediately after shooting Chaney?

JC: No. I think that’s certainly not the reading we were giving to it. One of the things that struck us about the novel, just generically, was that what we took from it more than a Western was the sense of it being a youthful adventure story. Fitting into the genre of Young Adult adventure fiction.

Is it a morality tale?

That’s certainly an element of the novel.

While translating the novel, where there things in the original film that you wanted to pay homage to?

EC: Not for us. Not the negative either.

The beginning of the film opens with a quote from Proverbs and Mattie has a sort of divine sense of mission to get justice, was that something inherent to the book?

JC: Yea, it’s in the book. The opening voice over is taken directly to the book in reference to that particular Proverb. The divine sense of mission is definitely a big part of the novel. In every respect, the answer is yes.


What kind of research did you do for the characters to get into the spirit of the time in which the film is set?

JC: We researched Charles Portis. The book was obviously very period. He was steeped into that period. We were trying not to do any work we didn’t have to. That’s our point of view.

Josh Brolin: I think there’s a couple of things that happen. Being authentic is important. But authenticity in place of fluidity can be dangerous. I’ve seen films where they took in all the details and I’ve never been so bored in my life. I think there needs to be some fluidity there and that happens in rehearsal. You try to create these composite things, with what works. What I came in with wasn’t working at all and we all knew it, but we keep mixing it up and then a little voice thing comes up and it clicks and then it works. Everything starts to come together.

At what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?

It depends. Sometimes there are some places where you’re writing and you’re thinking about what it’s going to look like. There are others when Roger will figure it out for us. It’s all over the map.

Roger Deakins, Ethan’s protestation that this is not a Western, there are some visual elements that bring to mind the Western. How did you approach that, especially in the use of lighting in this film?

Deakins: It just posed different situations that tried to recreate a realistic look: firelight, moonlight, and late-night exteriors. I tried to make it as realistic as possible because that’s what the film was. But there were instances where you had to stretch it, make it poetic, whether it’s a western or not. That wasn’t what was important. It was what the script demanded.

What was done in this production to reduce the carbon footprint of the production—anything that you did to leave the environment as you found it?

BP: I can answer that one. One of the things we got at the start of the shoot were these stainless steel water bottles with a note that said “By utilizing this stainless steel water bottle, we’ll have pumping station of clean water everywhere you go. We’ll save 30,000 plastic water bottles during the course of this film making.”


In the film you play a violent simpleton. Where do you have to go as an actor to try to find that?

It found me. When I came into the film, I spoke to brothers and we talked about how Chaney was a dim bulb and I said it was more of a broken bulb with no filament at all. I liked the idea of doing this duality of a guy who’s talked about throughout the whole movie. Then when you see him for the first time, you expect a monster, and then he starts talking and he’s a different kind of guy. It was fun being able to do that. A lot of that came together in rehearsals and then you start to find it.

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