At this point in the continually surprising career of Alonso Ruizpalacios, the most subversive thing the director of the mischievous comedies “Gueros” and “Museo” could do is take his talents to a show like “Narcos: Mexico” where the already established style and narrative would test his abilities to bend formula without breaking them. He hadn’t yet had the particulars down for “Una pelicula de policia,” or “A Cop Movie,” as it would be known in the States, but his time presiding over clashes between cops and cartels within more traditional parameters surely inspired him to color outside the lines in his latest feature.
“It gets you into the genre and then playing with that, but in a different context allows you to have this distance, which is where irony comes in and I think it helps,” says Ruizpalacios, who mixes real reportage with dramatic techniques, enlisting actors to play the real people he met on the force for a “A Cop Movie.” “We did it because it helps to reveal the distance between the reality and our expectations. What you think of policemen as and what they actually are, there’s a huge gap, so making the fiction in this way helped to enhance that.”
After taking great pains to recreate an infamous 1985 heist of Mayan treasures in the Mexico City-set “Museo,” Ruizpalacios infiltrates the metropolis’ police department quite literally, getting to know partners Teresa and Montoya, who became a couple after being assigned to the same detail and have plenty of wild stories to trade with one another at the end of the day. The filmmaker takes as many of those tales as he can and doesn’t dilute the absurdity of them, opening “A Cop Movie” with an outrageous birth scene in which Teresa is asked to deliver a child when the city’s overtaxed ambulance system fails and following Montoya through a busy subway station, giving chase to criminals in such a way that does far more damage than their crimes. However, after presenting their exploits with the widescreen grandeur and boisterous soundtrack that no doubt underscores their own perspective as heroes in their own mind, Ruizpalacios flips the script by revealing the dramatization at work, getting at altogether another truth when he’s asked Monica Del Carmen and Raul Briones Carmona, the actors playing Teresa and Montoya, to train at the local academy as if they were going to actually become cops and exposing both the kinks in a hinky chain of command and the injustice that renders for the entire community they’re responsible for serving.
Both wildly entertaining and infuriating, “A Cop Movie” actively undoes the cultural conditioning that’s gone into preventing the police from ever being seriously questioned about their tactics or rationale in pursuing the cases that they do and how they treat their own, and Ruizpalacios is increasingly asserting his place as one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch in the world. We were fortunate enough to get to speak to him shortly before “A Cop Movie” hits Netflix this week, following a premiere earlier this year at Berlinale, and he spoke about how he could build his own interrogation of power structures into the style of the film and using the traditional narratives around police work into a shrewd critique.
Given your interest in institutions, had the police been a subject you were interested in for a while?
Not really, not per se. We arrived at the police after deciding to make a documentary about the crisis of corruption and impunity that plagued Mexico. Originally, we were going to do it about the public ministries and we shifted towards the police force as we discovered what their lives are like. It was the most cinematic way of dealing with this crisis of corruption that runs through all of the Mexican Government and the law enforcement. It was an interesting process of discovery that kind of dictated to us the way it wanted to be shot as we went along. I think it’s by far the most free of the films I’ve made, in that nothing was predetermined. We were responding to things as they evolved and reshaping the structure, so all of that came very organically. This movie was particularly thrilling to do for me because all throughout the project, we were testing the limits and finding new things — the irony was one of them. But we took the cue from the interviews. That’s what guided all the decisions that we made.
What was it like honing in on Montoya and Theresa as subjects?
Once we decided that we wanted to make a movie about the Mexican police, we interviewed a lot of cops, looking for the characters. There were some interesting people that we talked to, I have to say, but when we met Theresa and Montoya, it was love at first sight. There was something about the way they tell their stories that is so full of humor, and it’s a very self- effacing type of humor and at the same time very earnest. Also the fact that there’s a love story in the middle of this was irresistible.
You come to learn that the actors playing them have stories of their own to tell, so what went into bringing Raul and Monica in?
Actually, Raul and I have worked together before many times because we have a theater company together, so [I know] he’s a very brave and committed actor and very disciplined. And he had done actually a very avant-garde theater piece in Mexico City with another group. Where they did an immersive process, he went to live with a family in Tepito, which is a very rough neighborhood in Mexico City, and they created a play that was to be performed there at the house of those people. Monica was in that project as well and I knew that I wanted Raul because he likes those types of challenges and he suggested, he said, “Well, I need a woman. Let’s bring Monica because she’s done this type of immersive work before and she’s very brave.” So they were perfect.
You certainly throw them into the fire – there’s that event where Montoya has to stand guard on the sidewalk as he’s being heckled at a huge public event – what was it like seeing people’s reactions to him?
Yeah, absolutely. The film plays constantly with the boundaries of fiction and documentary, so there was a lot of spontaneous things that we shot that you cannot plan. And that was one of the most interesting days when we shot the Gay Pride [Event]. We put him in the middle of all these things, and people wouldn’t even notice us [behind the camera] because there’s so much going on and so many people, so it was really interesting, this contrast of this policeman trying to look very tough in the middle of the Gay Pride and people coming up to him and doing all kinds of things. It was really fun to shoot.
The subway chase also looked like it might’ve been a blast to film, if it wasn’t so logistically daunting. What was it like to figure out?
That was fun. I knew I wanted to do a little tongue-in-cheek moment of seeing the cops in action, and how they tell it — when you hear them tell it, it’s like a cop movie. We wanted to reference cop movies with a little irony, so we looked at different classic kind of cop programs and movies from the ’70s mainly. It was fun to shoot, but it was also tough because it’s quite a small-budget movie, smaller even than it looks, so we were shooting in the subway and we couldn’t control the crowds and we just had to do all this crazy chasing with very specific camera movements, but you can’t stop the crowds. It was quite challenging, but fun.
You’ve got a killer soundtrack here, what was it like putting music to this?
It was interesting, because I had the title of this film before anything. Once we decided it was going to be about cops, I wanted to call it “A Cop Movie.” I can’t really explain why, I just thought it was a good title because it’s a silly title, and in a way it’s a stupid title but that is what makes it special for me. It’s blunt and it is a cop movie but it plays with your expectations of what a cop movie is. In the way that when you watch it, you discover something else from what you expect about the police force. I wanted to do that cinematically as well, so the music was important to round out that concept.
We looked for soundtracks of cop movies, and we started with more recent soundtracks, but they were all too flashy and there was no irony and no fun in it and musically, I just wasn’t interested in them. And then we discovered Lalo Schifrin, this great Argentinian composer who composed the music for “Mission Impossible” and he has a huge catalog of music that he wrote for cop series in the seventies, both television series and movies, so I dived into that. That was one of the most enjoyable things of the whole process, just listening to all of that music and picking the right tunes, and we decided it’s going to be as if Lalo Schifrin had composed the music for the movie, so we just picked the music that we liked and we licensed it.
The other really striking stylistic element is how you move back and forth between iPhone framing and ultra-widescreen compositions. Was that duality in mind from the start?
It was something that evolved along the way. When we were testing lenses and cameras, we accidentally found this format, which is a larger format — it’s wider than usual, it’s 2.66 as opposed to 2.40 or 2.39, which is the standard widescreen format because we put one of these anamorphic lenses on a camera that had a bigger sensor. So it was an accident that we bumped into this format, but we really liked it. It was very elegant and very undocumentary like and very aesthetic. And then when we came to do the iPhones, there was a weird thing in turning it vertically, so it was like the same [dimensions], but turned vertically, [which] was interesting when the movie was thematically shifting as well. That’s why we decided to go with it.
You’ve got the greatest opening where you quote lines from the winning poem at a “regional police poetry contest,” though when the officer mentioned shares the same last name as one of your producers, it seemed like you might be having a little bit of fun. Was that actually based on something real?
No. There are similar sorts of competitions in the police force where we shot a lot of it, but that particular poem and that particular contest was bullshit. [laughs]