Interview: Conor and Jake Allyn on Hitting People Where They Live with “No Man’s Land”

Jackson (Jake Allyn) would seem to be the only one at Greer Ranch interested in tending to the land that’s been in his family for generations in “No Man’s Land,” yet unfortunately, he’s the only one with an opportunity to leave. His father Bill (Frank Grillo) always seems drowning in paperwork related to the ranch’s finances and his brother Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) has begrudgingly accepted the role of heir apparent when Jackson’s golden arm has landed him a tryout with the Yankees, with his mother (Andie MacDowell) already packing his bags for New York. However, Jackson likes being around the horses and has become somewhat comfortable being in between places, living in the territory between the U.S. and Mexico where the border wall has been pushed back beyond the Rio Grande to where the jurisdiction is unclear.

That has made the Greer Ranch vulnerable to horse thieves, but in Conor Allyn’s inventive western, it is Jackson who is stolen away after he’s suspected of murder, unable to return to Texas when he’s pursued by a ranger (George Lopez) for the death of a migrant attempting to cross the border mistaken by Bill and Lucas as threats to their ranch. On the road to Guanajuato, Jackson experiences life as an other, not fluent in Spanish and cut off from the life and resources he had before and working from a script penned by the actor playing him, he comes into contact with a number of people along the way who are sympathetic to his plight when they themselves can relate to what he’s going through on the run. It’s a timely twist on a fugitive thriller where it isn’t only Jackson who stays one step ahead, but the film itself when he’s exposed to a larger world than he ever imagined himself as a part of on his ranch in Texas – and by extension, the audience as well.

Amidst a number of thrilling chase scenes, Jackson’s horizons are expanded in ways well beyond any contract from the major leagues could’ve given him and “No Man’s Land” evolves into a film that speaks to anyone on either side of the border by gradually removing any barriers to share what he’s feeling. With the film arriving in virtual cinemas this week and even some drive-ins, the Allyn brothers spoke about their latest collaboration as star/writer and director, adding Mexico to a growing list of locales including Indonesia and Colombia where they have made films in partnership with the local communities and crews and telling stories of grand scope with incredible production value on modest budgets.

It seems like a particularly great time now to tell this story, but I understand it’s been in the works for some time. How it come about?

Conor Allyn: Jake wrote the first script maybe seven years ago and it’s funny you say it’s a great movie for the times [because] every year, since that first script was done, we’ve thought, “Oh my gosh, this is so important. It’s so in the news, it’s so topical. We’ve got to make this movie this year.”. It doesn’t happen and each year the stakes go up. When Trump was talking about how everyone’s a racist in Mexico, [we thought] “Oh my God, we have to do this movie this year,” and finally we did and unfortunately it’s still very much in the news and important for our society. You’ll notice we really tried to give everyone a point of view, whether it be a Texas father, a Mexican father, a good coyote or a bad coyote — everyone deserves a voice and no one’s perfectly good and no one’s perfectly bad. Trying to get that right was incredibly important to us.

Is it true this was inspired by your own trips across the border with your father?

Conor Allyn: The genesis of all this is that we were born and raised in Texas and our father worked in Mexico, starting in the ‘90s when we were in formative years of our lives. He would bring us down to Guanajuato with him on work trips and we saw a side of Mexico that maybe a lot of our friends at school didn’t.

Jake Allyn: Yeah, and then beyond that, we always loved immigration stories. We loved “Sin Nombre,” we loved travel movies. I loved “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Those were huge inspirations. And we just felt like while there’s been a lot of immigration movies, I think US audiences often watch them and I feel like people feel sorry for those people or feel bad or, “Oh, wow. That’s a tragedy over there, but not [for] me. It’s not my kids,” so we really wanted to flip it and see how audiences would respond if the person that didn’t know the language and had to work for a dollar a day and didn’t know how to pronounce the town names. What if he was a blue-eyed American kid?

It’s quite a juicy role you’ve written for yourself, Jake, but also such a physically demanding one. Were there points where as an actor, you got angry at the writer of this?

Jake Allyn: I wrote myself into some tough situations and I definitely underestimated some of the smaller things that seem easy on a page, like “Jackson runs to his horse and jumps on the horse while the truck is after him.”

Conor Allyn: Seems so easy to write.

Jake Allyn: Seems pretty easy to write, but if you run at a horse, he’s going to flinch and move. He’s not just going to wait for you to jump on him. And if you run to a horse while a big old Ford or Dodge truck is revving its engine, it’s going to spook, so we really had to work that out.

Conor Allyn: Also some behind the scenes challenges that had to do with that is we’re shooting in Mexico and you can’t go to Mexico for seven weeks without getting a quick case of the Montezuma’s revenge, so maybe a third of the crew got super, super sick. We actually had to skip one night of shooting and then next day people are still under the weather, came back and we’re doing the scene where Jackson has to gallop across and then swim his horse across the Rio Grande. That’s a tough one to do. It takes a lot of effort for the horse and a lot for the rider, and after two or three takes, I remember sitting on something, just baking in the heat and the jacket and [Jake says], “I got like one more.”

Jake Allyn: I was drained. Some of that worked out because we also did some scenes that day of Jackson just lost wandering in the desert and suffering from heat exhaustion. And I remember just being like, “I’m not going to act. I’m there, man. I’m ready.” [laughs]

The camerawork is really dynamic throughout, and given that you’re working with horses, is it difficult to coordinate shots where you could maneuver in a 360° manner?

Conor Allyn: There’s lots of disadvantages of shooting on location out in the middle of nowhere in central Mexico, but one of the advantages is, you can just turn the camera around and look anywhere and you’ve got your real natural set. It’s beautiful, and then we had a DP [Juan Pablo Ramirez] who uses a lot of natural light and tends toward handheld, so we just could embrace that.

Jake Allyn: In a lot of movies and especially when I’ve worked in television, I hear the term “Okay, and then we’ll lose a camera,” and what that usually means is that the positioning of the blocking after it changes halfway through a scene, one camera will be looking into the back of a facade and thus we lose it. What was so awesome as an actor in this movie, was you were never lost. Even if Juan Pablo is filming down into the dirt, that can be used. It just really kept it alive for these long breathing takes.

Something I’ve admired about Conor’s work is that it seems like on all your productions there’s an emphasis on bringing in a local crew. Does that gives a different flavor to each production as you’ve gone around the world?

Conor Allyn: Yeah, certainly in the case of Mexico, it’s silly to bring a DP or heads of departments to Mexico from the States. It’s like bringing sand to the beach. Mexico has a vibrant domestic film industry and has won a bunch of Oscars in recent years. There’s great filmmakers and crew, and in this movie, “No Man’s Land,” like most of the other films I’ve done outside the country, you find the local artists who speak first language with the rest of their crew and who know the country and locations and have their own special artistry and that adds to the authenticity of your project.

I don’t want to spoil the context of the scene, but there’s a scene in Mexico where there’s a funeral procession that looked like it could be real, either that or it was incredible production. How did you get that shot?

Conor Allyn: The funeral procession was part of the script. We hired the band that did the funeral music and we had our select group of extras who were all dressed in funeral garb, but we were also shooting in downtown Cerro del Guanajuato, which is a big city, on a Saturday.

Jake Allyn: And it’s a tourist area as well.

Conor Allyn: It’s a college town, and it got very busy on that day, so it started, we’re shooting at eight or nine in the morning. Nobody’s out there, it’s just our own people. And then by one o’clock when we’re shooting the really important stuff, when you’re locking eyes with Gustavo as he is carrying his son’s coffin, there’s just a thousand people as a part of that procession, and if you really look, most of them were like, “What’s being shot here, what’s going on?” They weren’t sure if it was a movie, but we were a pretty small crew on the one camera, so a lot of them probably thought it was a real funeral.

It was just marvelous. And that may have been it, but was there anything that happens over the course of the shooting that you might not have been expecting, but made it into the film and you really like about it now?

Jake Allyn: One of my favorite ad-lib scenes is the scene after Jackson has run away on horseback from the Texas ranger and has crossed the river into Mexico. There was a scene in the movie where he comes up on a hill and he thinks he’s made it free and he’s finally escaped and he just looks out and it’s like, “Oh my God, my adventure has only just begun.”

Conor Allyn: Yeah, he sees a hundred miles [ahead of him].

Jake Allyn: That scene wasn’t really in the script. We didn’t have that moment, and one day we were shooting B-roll of some cattle work and we would chase some cows up a hill and then we realized the hill kept going. So we just adventuring around and kept going and on any film set, I think you want to shoot something at sunset if you’re shooting outside. Why ever waste a beautiful sunset? So as we got up there, I remember Conor and I just looking to each other and both of us at the same time were just like, “This is where Jackson sees Mexico for the first time.” Conor was just, “Go over there and ride over here and then jump off and look, and don’t do any acting BS because it’s already there.” We did that twice and that was it.
Conor Allyn: We’re good.

Jake Allyn: The first time I probably did some acting BS and then I fixed it. [laughs]

You’ve now worked together professionally several times, but as brothers, is there something you see in each other when working together that can still surprise you?

Conor Allyn: For me, watching [Jake] in the camera and seeing your growth and development over the years and over the movies, there’s certainly a lot of trust. I feel like I know Jake’s abilities, so I can lean into them, but then there’s also these marvelous moments where you do something that I didn’t expect or that I didn’t know what was coming and it’s perfect. It’s always a great moment for me seeing my brother succeed. It’s marvelous.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

Conor Allyn: We’re both super, super excited, but we’ve worked on it for so long that I think we always knew, even before seven years ago when we actually wrote a script, someday we were going to make this type of movie. I really feel like this started [when we were] children, and there was nothing left to do, but to do it. That’s how we felt shooting it and that’s how I feel about the release as well. We’ve done our best and I think we can be proud of it and just see what happens.

Jake Allyn: You never know with a movie if anyone’s going to see it or if they’re going to like it. So far people have seemed to respond well to it and what you really want as a filmmaker is to connect with the audience and have them feel something, whatever it is, and I think we’re doing that.

Conor Allyn: Yeah, we wanted to make a movie that was about the border, but we wanted it to be entertaining. It’s about a kid and his horse galloping through Mexico and a Texas ranger that’s after him [with] big horse chases. We wanted to make a classic modern Western, and I’m really proud of what we did.

“No Man’s Land” will open on January 22nd at select drive-ins and be available on video on demand.