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Jonás Cuaron and Gael García Bernal on going genre with 'Desierto'

With their new thriller, the director and star wanted to make a timely movie about immigration that didn't preach to the converted
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    Gael García Bernal plays a Mexican immigrant trying to evade a racist with a gun |STX Productions

Gael García Bernal and Jonás Cuarón share a history: The latter’s dad, Alfonso Cuarón, directed the former in “Y Tu Mamá También.” And now Cuarón the younger has directed the actor (and filmmaker) in “Desierto,” an intense cat-and-mouse game in the Mexico/U.S. borderland badlands, pitting a Mexican immigrant (García Bernal) against a racist American with a gun (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). García Bernal and Jonás Cuarón, who also co-wrote “Gravity,” talked to us about their timely new film and how some of the action was real.

Jonás, you co-wrote “Gravity,” which was set in space. “Desierto” is set in the borderland badlands. Why do you stage intimate dramas in wide-open spaces?
Jonás Cuarón:
Actually, I wrote “Desierto” first. I wrote a first draft about eight years ago and I showed it to my dad. Instead of giving me any notes, it sparked a discussion between him and I about this type of cinema — about movies that distill the genre to an almost abstract level, and creating a narrative without dialogue that is more about the juxtaposition of a character in their environment. That discussion lead to us adapting that story for space, and “Gravity” came from that. But what I really find interesting is that even though both films stem from the same concept, the contexts are so different. In “Gravity,” because it’s set in space, all the scenes end up becoming more existential. “Desierto” is the down-to-earth version.

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Gael, you produced this film as well as the immigrant drama “Sin Nombre” and the documentary “Who is Dayani Cristal?” Why was it important for you to make these films?
Gael García Bernal:
It’s a pertinent issue and it [stems] from Alejandro Solalinde, one of the priests who is most prominent in helping migrants. With the theme of migration, you can tell the history of the world, of life. It’s an activity, or an action, that is the most complex; it’s so transversal. You go back in Western history and the first tale was a journey, of a person going back home —“The Odyssey,” not Moses — [laughs] and that journey is engraved in our system. There is something about that story…

There are many films about crossing the border, from “El Norte” and “Sin Nombre” to “Under the Same Moon” and “The Golden Dream.” Jonás, how did you want Desierto to continue the conversation about this topic?
Cuarón:
I thought it would be interesting to approach this story through genre. I’ve always been a fan of 1970s genre cinema, and the U.S. makes some very subversive and political movies under the disguise of genre. I thought that would be interesting for this subject matter. I didn’t want to preach to the converted; I wanted to bring this story to a wider audience. I feel the other movies engage the audience in an intellectual way. By approaching this as a genre film, you connect with the audience in a visceral, emotional way. It leaves no room for debate, because I think some of these issues are not debatable.

Gael, your role requires some tremendous agility given the various instances of running through the desert, jumping and climbing over the rocks and crawling through the maze of cacti. This is one of the most physical performances you’ve done. Did you do most of your own stunts?
García Bernal:
It was really heavy and complicated. We had to run up a hill, or down one with all these uneven surfaces and rocks sliding. There were a couple of accidents. We had to be very supple and limber up. It was tiring to act tired and scared. It’s better to have that naturally than to have to think about it. You feel the heat and tiredness and dust.
Cuarón: We were trying make-up early on, and Gael and Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] wisely said, “We’re in the middle of the desert and getting sunburned. Let’s just let our skin react to it.” And I think what was easy for everyone in the situation was that they were literally doing it.

Jonás, what can you say about building the tension in the film? You make them (and the viewers) go through hell. How did you create the relentless structure of the film?
Cuarón:
A lot of tension was in the script; it read fast. I sent the script to Alejandro González [Iñárritu] and he said, “You’re really going to suffer the issue of space.” I ignored him until we were on set, and I realized that unless we were very clear about drawing a geography for the audience, the audience wasn’t really going to feel this tension, because it’s built by seeing the distance between Gael’s character and Jeffery’s being constantly shortening. So I did realize what he meant by space.

Let’s discuss Gael’s character, Moises. He is helpful to many of the immigrants he travels with, caring for them in ways the others do not. Why do you think that is?
García Bernal:
It’s fraternal. When these people meet for the journey, they don’t know each other. They are faced with these guides, who traffic anything. They are at the mercy of these people, and they connect. I’m an optimist and I think that the vast majority of humanity would react like [Moises] in that situation and help each other. But at the same time, there are times where there is no more help to give and the characters can no longer do anything.

Jonás, how did you work with Gael Garcia Bernal on his character and performance?
Cuarón:
A lot of it was building the character in the script. I had a clear journey, but it wasn’t until we started working together — he knows a lot about the subject matter, so he really informed the character. On set, I was literally having Gael run and sending a vicious dog after him, so there was not much directing to do. [Laughs].
García Bernal: It was a very personal story — because I was close to the subject, but also being close to the culture where the character is coming from. It’s tapping into the very recent, urgent phenomenon of these families getting dismembered by deportation. A traffic violation can lead to deportation. [Moises] can pay his taxes, and be a good member of the community, but at any moment, he can be sent back. They are taking advantage of that, and that’s the whole problem with criminalization. There are people taking advantage of this situation, economically.

Follow Gary M. Kramer on Twitter @garymkramer

 

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