When considering what his next film should be after making the road movie “Aqui y Alla” in Mexico as his debut feature, Antonio Méndez Esparza only needed to look out his window to see an entire world unfold outside his door.
“I really wanted to use my access to all the resources and all the time I could spend here in development, really depicting the city where I live,” says Méndez Esparza. “[For ‘Aqui y Alla,’] I lived in that small town for six, seven months, but it’s not the same as being a resident and I have kids here now, so [making a film here] gives you a different perspective.”
In the throes of an election year in the swing state of Florida, there was already a natural underlying tension in the air when the filmmaker set about making “Life and Nothing More” in 2016 and that backdrop only adds an extra jolt to his sensitive look at American society’s most vulnerable, settling in with a single mother named Regina (Regina Williams) who works all hours of the day to keep a roof over her family’s head and is pained she can’t spend more time with her young daughter or her teenage son Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), whom she worries might take after his father who currently incarcerated. With the camera always stationed slightly at a remove, Méndez Esparza lets real life find its way into the frame, drawing on the experiences of his nonprofessional cast to enliven the drama which crackles as Andrew’s situation becomes particularly precarious, exacerbated by the introduction of a new man into Regina’s life (Robert Williams).
As its characters feel more helpless in the face of largely unseen forces that have had a profound and often insidious impact on their lives, “Life and Nothing More” grows more powerful as Regina carries on undeterred, taking every setback in stride while trying her best to make the next day a little better than the one that came before it. For a film that’s often quiet and observational, it can’t help but explode from time to time given Regina Williams’ robust performance, which earned her a Spirit Award nomination earlier this year, and after premiering last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, the film is now arriving in theaters across the country. To mark the occasion, Méndez Esparza spoke about how a film grew out of the community he lives in and how casting helped shape the story, as well as filming on a live bus in which passengers suddenly found themselves as extras in the production and life after “Life and Nothing More.”
How did this come about?
I’m from Spain and even though I’ve lived for a long time in the U.S., I was always living in New York or L.A. I filmed my previous film in Mexico six years ago and then went back to Spain and after living two years there and trying to make a film that we were never able to make, I was offered a [teaching] position in Tallahassee, Florida. Not being able to go to Europe much, I thought I would make a film in Florida after three years of living here and the movie I wasn’t able to make in Spain was a movie about a single mother, so I followed the same idea and tried to embrace it in a different city, a different context. That was very much the beginning of a very long period of casting and exploring the place where I live. But there was not one moment where I was like, “Yes, this is it.” It’s a very slow process of discovering.
Was the casting and developing the story intertwined?
Yes, I write in a way for us to find the person. Casting for me is a very long process because it reinforces the writing and it very much opens the possibility to discover someone that will be the character. I’m not sure who they may be physically or what some of their inner demons are and it’s a funny, intriguing process because you’re not sure who you’re looking for, but you just hope to find it. You go by pure faith in a way. Once I met each of the main actors of the film, I thought they were going to bring something I didn’t expect or I never thought of and because of that, I thought that could be very transparent, very real and very true.
What specifically sold you on Regina and Andrew to be the leads?
Both took a very long time to find. In the case of Andrew, I had met a lot of teenagers who all had very different stories and what touched me about him was his quiet strength and how I could see how much there was going on under the surface. Even though this was his first movie, he was a wonderful actor in the sense that he would do what was demanded in every scene. He’s not as quiet as he seems in the movie and definitely not as aggressive, so that was very hard for him, but still he was able to repeat it quite a few times.
And Regina, I always tell the story that I found someone who I thought was wonderful before Regina, but she never returned my calls, so she wasn’t going to be in the movie. [laughs] But what surprised me about Regina was that she was much more nuanced than the character that I imagined. She was motherly, she could be upset, she could be very happy, she could laugh, she could cry. She had the whole range of emotions very near the surface, so she was very vivid and she was very wise in the words she chose. At the same time, the language she uses is full of wit. She’s a poet. She writes short stories and she’s just a wonderful whirlwind of emotions and passions and that’s perhaps not the character I thought of. She also very much embraced this idea of acting.
Was the poem she read, “Cold World,” something she actually wrote?
Yeah, that’s her. In this process of casting, she shared with me some of her writing and I thought it was so revealing, so touching and so honest in a way I never would’ve assumed, which reflects my short-sightedness. So I thought it was a very important part of the character and we embraced it. And this a little bit of this process of constructing the story — when she read [the poem] to me, I said, “Oh, this is a scene in the film.” Other scenes came in like that – the advice that Andrew receives from an older man that’s telling him the story about New York and [a run-in with] the cops [where] he threw [out] the drugs and then he’s telling him how he had to teach himself how to throw – that’s was also a story he told me, so I’m collecting a lot of anecdotes [from the actors] and then I try to put them in the film.
Those feel like such raw moments when men are giving Andrew advice – would you just ask them to describe their experiences on camera?
Yes, in some cases, I would change the script a bit to include a description of what was going to happen. Not everyone. There are some incredible accidents that happened in the movie that we captured, but those two men came to the casting, and I was very touched by the stories they shared with me, so I wanted to invite them to be a part of the world of the film. If [they felt] it was important to tell Andrew, it was in a way sacred, so I wanted to keep that. Some other things that happened in the movie because we were shooting life [as it happened] with a small crew. The man that comes to pray with [Andrew and others] in the pickup truck, that just happened and that was wonderful. There’s another scene that I very much love which is when Regina goes and meets a doctor, who says “do what you can.” We had another actress that was supposed to do that and the scene probably would’ve been very different, but that actor didn’t show up, and the person [onscreen] was working that day, so she made that scene. It was wonderful, and in a way, every person that walks onto the set, they bring a piece of themselves. That’s one of the parts of making a film like this that I’m most proud of.
You shoot this in as unobstructive a way as possible, yet still has a clearly defined style to it – what was it like figuring out an aesthetic while also giving literal room to them?
Along with the DP, we always try to put the camera in a place where we will give the actors room to manuever, so there are rarely marks on the floor [to stand on] and actors are very rarely told where they have to be. But I love this idea of aesthetics reacting in a way to economic and logistical needs. When you learn of filmmakers in the ‘60s that just shot one or two shots per scene, you think that was very courageous and audacious decision, but they only had short ends [of celluloid film to work with], so they didn’t have more material to do anything else. The aesthetics of the film are in order to give freedom to the actor in most cases, not in every single scene, but that’s an obsession that I have that the actor will be able to walk in and out of frame. Hopefully, we can keep them in frame, but you always try to give the actors room.
Was the opening scene of the film actually shot on a live public bus?
Yes, and I always laugh with Regina and Andrew because that was the first scene we shot and they were so scared. They’re like, “What are we doing?!?” [laughs] People were coming in and out [of the bus] and looking [at us], which actually worked very well in the end for the film, but it was very hard for [Andrew and Regina]. We shot it [approximately] 25 times, that scene at different gradations where they would fight more, they’d fight less, [or] they would be sitting separate [from each other], so we took our time. The light was wrong at some points. But one of the reasons that scene was important for me was this idea of us being thrown into the middle of their lives and looking at them a little bit like the [extras] in the bus.
You’re looking at them as you see an argument and from living in New York, I’m used to [seeing] these incidents that you don’t know anything about, but you quickly judge whether it’s a mother yelling at her son or whatever it may be. I wanted to put the audience immediately in that position and I wanted to put me as a filmmaker in that position very quickly, so it was difficult to shoot, but it exposed the actors very quickly to what the whole process of making this would be like – trying to pretend to be someone they were not and being confident with that. It was also a nice scene because even though it’s very brief, you can see Regina’s anger — it took a little bit of time, so it’s more of an explosion and it was important for me to see if she could be that person.
Has it been satisfying to see Regina and Andrew treated like movie stars as this film has gotten out into the world?
It’s been amazing. The actors have enjoyed it very much. It has been also for them, and for me, a little overwhelming [because] they didn’t know what to expect. The reviews were great, and some of them not, but there was a little nervousness of what this was going to be? Am I suddenly going to be a star? Is my life going to change? I think for Regina when the reviews were very, very good, she was expecting something to come from it, which actually hasn’t, even though she got nominated for a Spirit Award and the critics couldn’t give more stellar reviews. She hasn’t signed with an agent and she hasn’t done another film, so perhaps there is a slight disappointment. On my side, it’s been very hard to premiere the film and there’s now there’s this sense of who is going to go and see the movie and what life is the movie going to have?
But the process of making the movie was extremely rewarding for all of us. It was a beautiful adventure and then afterwards, you’re waiting in a way to see what, if any, fruits the tree will bear. There are two sides to it. The making of the movie is most rewarding and now you just have to see what’s going to be the response of the public and even though I tell my students and I think to myself, the most important thing is the process, somebody around you is going to care about the result and you are going to have to pay attention to the result, so that’s part of the making of the film, and that’s now that’s the challenge that we have.
“Life and Nothing More” opens on October 24th in New York at Film Forum and October 26th in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Monica Film Center, San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse, San Rafael at the San Rafael Film Center and Oakland at the Gran Lake Theater. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.