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.
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.