Earlier this week, Jim McKay was the subject of a two-day retrospective at the IFC Center in New York in honor of his latest film “En el Septimo Dia,” a tribute that was all too fitting in that it managed to be both concise and richly comprehensive, much like the writer/director’s output.
“There’s a whole new generation of filmmakers and film people who haven’t seen these old movies —you know, ‘Girls Town’ doesn’t even exist online because it was never digitized,” McKay says of his ever-vital 1996 feature debut, about a group of teens left reeling by the suicide of their friend in the months leading up to going their separate ways to college. “So it’s wonderful and funny because a lot of the conversation for me when we premiered [“En el Septimo Dia”] at BAM last year was this idea that I haven’t made a film in 12 years or so and I’d kind of veered off into TV land, and what’s awesome about this happening now is we have the opportunity to refresh people’s memories.”
The fact of the matter is that once you see one of McKay’s films, you’re bound not to forget them as he offers up indelible portraits of his hometown of New York, infused with the same sense of the same sense of discovery that you suspect he had in straying into a neighborhood he had never been before himself. Over the course of two decades, McKay has made just five features, yet their ability to linger has usually made the wait in between tolerable, whether it was in detailing the plight of a wayward young man (Jonan Everett) who has a day to turn things around toward the better in 2006’s “Angel Rodriguez” or introducing audiences to Kerry Washington as part of a trio of Crown Heights girls eyeing a way out in “Our Song,” expressing their teenage frustrations as vividly in intimate conversations as they do in their performances as part of the Jackie Robinson Steppers in their streets.
McKay’s latest arrives after a longer time away than most as the director has found a far better way to make a steady income in the more lucrative business of helming prestige TV shows such as “The Good Wife” and “Mr. Robot,” but “En el Septimo Dia” was well worth the wait, a wonderful slice of life from Sunset Park where a restaurant delivery worker named José (Fernando Cardona) who toils all week just to get to the weekend when he can indulge his passion for playing soccer. Even if he didn’t spend much of the film on a bicycle, one would be reminded of Vittorio de Sica’s classic “The Bicycle Thief” as McKay creates a narrative every bit as slender yet sophisticated as the great Italian neorealist drama, observing how José’s entire world can collapse upon a seemingly benign request from his boss to come in on a Sunday, not only denying him a chance to play for a championship with his pick-up team but having potentially ruinous effects on his plans to make enough money to bring the rest of his family in from Mexico and moving out of the small apartment he shares with eight other men should he lose his job.
One can feel exactly how this weighs on José over the course of the week in which this dilemma is thrust upon him, but somehow “En el Septimo Dia” has an airiness about it, capturing the grace of both José and his roommates as they make a life for themselves under the most trying of circumstances and the casual indifference shown by society at large to their struggle, as McKay follows José on his delivery route throughout the city where small interactions reveal how difficult it is for immigrants to ever feel at home. On the eve of the film’s theatrical tour throughout the country, McKay spoke about his invigorating return to the big screen with an all-too-relevant story for these times, as well as casting nonprofessionals with lives similar to the characters they play and figuring out a road map for the film to take.
I wish I had a really great answer for what was the inspiration, but it was so long ago and there was not a single day I went, “Oh, this is this movie.” I had read a book about migration patterns between Puebla, Mexico and Sunset Park specifically and then I’ve done a ton of restaurant work, so I’ve had relationships with characters like the characters in the movie. Then in terms of a bicycle guy and his dilemma, it must’ve been something at the time I was thinking about in terms of labor and how we spend our lives, what our rights are as people and as workers and what our passions are. Somehow this story came out and then I shelved it. I just didn’t have the resources to make it and then I started to make TV shows and I really got sucked into that and didn’t really have a time in my life when I could set aside to make a small movie like this until a couple years ago. So I brought it out.
When you embark on your films, do you spend a lot of time in the corner of the community you’re making a film about before putting pen to paper or does the authenticity come once you’re actually casting and filming?
It depends. There’s a lot of experience that I have because no film is just about one thing, so certain things are there in the beginning and certain things are not. For instance, with “Everyday People,” I had worked in restaurants for years and the film takes place in a restaurant, so I had a grounding point. With “Angel Rodriguez,” the main character’s story was very loosely based on a person Hannah [Weyer], my co-writer, and I knew at an afterschool place that was also featured in the film. With this one, I didn’t [have that]. Hannah had made a couple documentaries about Mexican immigrants who were farmworkers and I had worked with her on those films, so it’s not directly related to what this film is and yet there was certainly a lot of inspiration that came from that. In terms of Sunset Park and the exact nature of these characters, I just wrote the story based on observations I had had or books I had read or people I had come into contact with. It was later when I was really starting to develop the script and cast a that I dove in a lot more deeply into not only the characters themselves, but the community.
I understand the cast isn’t far removed from the people they play onscreen. How did you go about finding them?
I didn’t know 100 percent, but I was 98% sure that we were not going to find people to be in the movie in these roles that were trained actors. So we did open calls and we gave scenes to people who had never read scripts and had them come in and act in an audition room, which is something they had never done. Then the people who it felt like were compelling and talented and seemed really interested in it, we just kept bringing back again and again and that [actually] became our acting school/audition/rehearsals, so that once we made the film, everybody was pretty ready to go.
I like working with non-actors. Depending on the film you’re making, it can be a really wonderful thing and enhance the film and the experience, so we did street casting in Sunset Park mostly, and we did meet a couple people who ended up being actors that came in and auditioned and I have no doubt that they would’ve performed really well in the film, but ultimately, even though Jose is without a doubt the moving force within the cast, it’s also a real ensemble piece and it was really important to have a main cast that really felt like they belonged together.
Between ridesharing services and food delivery, those two things have really changed the fabric of the way the city works, more than anything in the last number of years. There’s got to be 200 times more bicycle delivery people on the street than four years ago, and I don’t know what it’s a product of, whether it’s people’s lives are busier than they’ve been, whether it’s apps like Seamless. Some of it’s economics, maybe it’s millennials’ desire to never cook – I think it’s a combination of lots of things, but there’s no segment of society [that’s untouched by it]. For instance, there’s one scene [in “En el Septimo Dia”] where [Jose] delivers food to a bar, [where] think, well, a bar is either going to have their own food or no one’s going to be eating in there. But why not? There’s [now] bars that have food delivered there, so that became a scene and became a way to show how Jose, who’s this guy who’s obsessed with soccer, is on the other side of the fence in terms of this other part of society that can somehow be watching soccer at 10 in the morning and not be at work.
I just wanted to represent something of a full range of experiences and different situations that were representative of different parts of New York society. In retrospect, I could’ve gone a lot further [because] the actual encounters – a lot of it is just about riding and getting there and riding, and only a couple of the encounters are really given scene time. It might’ve been more interesting to see a couple more people in their homes, but it was what it was. I think [the delivery stops] just came out of trying put a light on the experience [of different people] for him – who is benevolent and who is not necessarily and what are these interactions actually like?
There’s an interesting shot in the film you keep returning to, a vantage point where you’ll see Jose at a distance approach the camera or a straight line will form at the center of the shot. Was there anything to that as a visual motif?
The script had beats throughout it where we knew [Jose] was going to be traveling and we were going to see him on the bike and every once in a way, we’d repeat the way we show it, so we have a shot at the base of Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, which doesn’t mean anything to a lot of people, but he comes around one corner that’s actually a couple blocks away from the restaurant we used twice in the film on two different days in two different kinds of weather, just to show that there is this repetition within what he’s doing. But a lot of it was intuitive and through our collaboration with the director of photography Charlie Libens, we figured out [the visual style] to some degree on the spot.
There was thought early on about how should we build some kind of rig where we could really ride with [Jose]. If you’ve seen “High Maintenance” or not, but they really do some very beautiful moving bike stuff, even though they shoot on a pretty small scale with a low budget compared to other shows. Our desire was to be at slightly more of a remove and feature the terrain and [Jose] as an element in it a little bit more. When the camera’s moving, we’re either shooting from the side door or from the back of a van. Those were times where we just wanted to get a little closer to him in terms of what’s happening with him internally. But other than that, I really like this idea of longer lens and just being able to capture him from a distance [where you could] frame him within the context of the urban environment, like] “there goes the elevated train and there goes Jose,” showing how the city moves in some way. It wasn’t ultra-sophisticatedly laid out. [laughs’ A lot of it was really just instinct and going, “Let’s try and show this experience in as many different ways as we can.”
“En El Septimo Dia” opens on June 8th in New York at the IFC Center and BAM Rose Cinemas, June 15th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, June 22nd in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater and in Georgetown, South Carolina at the Strand Cinema. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.