It was an overwhelming feeling for Matthew Moreno to have his face projected onto one of the biggest screens at the Scotiabank Theater during the premiere of “Icebox” at the Toronto Film Festival.
“It was such an honor because I’ve never seen myself on a big screen, but it was actually, really scary,” recalled the young man, who plays Rafael, a boy from Bogota seeking political asylum in America after his brother is killed by a gang in the film. “I was super nervous the entire time. ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God.’ [Like] when am I going to come up?”
Moreno wasn’t the only one waiting for this moment as Daniel Sawka’s remarkable drama arrives at a particularly fortuitous time, outlining the journey of 12-year-old Oscar Fernandez (Anthony Gonzalez), who flees his village in Honduras after it’s been besieged by gangs, ultimately ending up in an American detention center without any access to family or friends to start a new life. Moreno’s Rafael is just one of many kids Oscar meets at the cold, sterile facility in Arizona where he desperately tries to find a way to get in touch with Manuel (Omar Leyva), his uncle who works the fields in Phoenix and lives in fear of jeopardizing his own precarious immigration status.
With the rare benefit of having the big screen to tell such a story, Sawka amplifies the extraordinary journey that each person attempting to find safe haven in America must go through, a burden that becomes that much heavier when it’s a young man forced to go it alone. Gonzalez, in a truly heartrending turn, carries such weight lightly on his shoulders, and Sawka impressively builds upon the work they did together in his 2016 short of the same name to show every wrenching decision Oscar must make to weigh his own survival against his loved ones and conveying just how desperate his situation is when the system, seemingly devoid of human considerations, appears to be stacked against him. Notably, “Icebox” was produced by James L. Brooks, whose own directorial efforts have managed to balance out difficult subject matter with exuberant bursts of life and Sawka’s film is no different, unforgettable not only in its most harrowing moments but for consistently illuminating the grace under pressure shown by Oscar and by those who attempt to help him along the way.
Following the film’s premiere in Toronto, Sawka, Gonzalez, Leyva and Moreno spoke about the importance of bringing “Icebox” to the screen, how emotional authenticity was as vital as technical accuracy and making a film that would stand the test of time even if it feels so prescient in the moment.
How does this come about?
Daniel Sawka: As I was making the short, [I felt] there was so much you had to leave out and so much that I wanted to expand on. I dreamed that I would get to make a feature. James L. Brooks was on the jury for a festival and he saw the film there, and called me in for a meeting and we talked for about two hours straight, and got along really, really well, so we started developing over at Gracie Films, that became more and more real and we got to a place where we actually got to make this film. I was very grateful because [James] is a legend.
Anthony Gonzalez: I was so happy and honored to be part of the short film, and this was very special for my parents because it’s what they went through to give me and my siblings a better life in the U.S. Part of the reason why I decided to do this film is because I wanted to experience that, and also to make an impact in the community to make other people understand and know what other people went through to migrate to come to the U.S. When [the short] was presented at the Kenner Film Festival, I noticed how the people really connected to it and noticed what’s happening in the community. This is happening everywhere around the world as we speak right now and I’m just so happy that I got to be part of this amazing project that I hope opens the eyes of many people.
Matthew and Omar, you jumped onboard the feature. What was it like to come into the fold?
Matthew Moreno: We’ll, the amazing Carla Hool was the one that found us to audition for this, and it’s really amazing that we got to meet you guys. [Daniel] got to ask me questions, and we got to Skype and [Anthony] had that same thing. And [Anthony and I] talked to each other, and that was the chemistry, we learned. We didn’t become friends but…
Daniel Sawka: You definitely clicked though.
Matthew Moreno: Yeah, I talked a lot.
Anthony Gonzalez: Like always. [laughs]
Omar Leyva: I also was called in through Carla Hool, a very respected casting director, especially when it comes to Latino-themed film. I know that she was very important in finding all of us. I was asked to come in to some meetings with production and Daniel, and with Jim just to talk about the character; what we could do with it, and what it meant to me. I was more than willing because this was a story that really touched me. I was brought to the U.S. as a child. I didn’t end up in a cell, thank God. But I know plenty of people who have gone through it, and I’m always looking for projects to challenge me as an actor – those kind of films are why I became an actor. I wanted to be able to use who I am to represent people like me who have gone through what I went through, and here with this film, Daniel has brought that to light through a long struggle, so anything that I could do to be a part of it, I was not only honored, but willing to use whatever skill I have to do my part.
This is interesting in how I suspect it might been divided into different shoots since Oscar’s journey touches different places. Was that interesting completing one section and moving onto the next?
Daniel Sawka: Yeah, we did move from location to location, not always chronologically. But the journey of the film is set up like that because in this film, Oscar doesn’t get to go back to any place. Every place he leaves, he leaves and he moves on to another one. He never gets to keep anything with him and it was important to get to feel that as an audience – that there isn’t the safety of, “Oh, you were there in act one. You come back there in act two.” You are constantly pushed forward and forced to move. You don’t get that safety of landing anywhere.
Since this process, particularly the detention centers, are relatively shrouded in mystery, was it difficult to research?
Daniel Sawka: Yes, and no. It’s easy to get, “Oh, these are the terms that are used” but then there’s a reality of what actually happens and that was a lot of research, speaking to a lot of child migrants who had gone through that process, who’ve been deported and come again, and parents, border patrol officers who worked in these facilities, NGOs, immigration lawyers, anyone that we felt had a perspective on this and could add to our story. [But the research] was constant. Not only through writing, but on set we had people advising us on this, and in post-production we had that again, so we really, really tried to get all these voices into the movie.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Daniel Sawka: Every day.
Matthew Moreno: We had some shots that were really hard, where it was like a bird’s eye view from a ladder It was really hard. It took us hours to do some of those shots and it also took makeup, a lot of makeup …
Anthony Gonzalez: To show that it was really cold, [which is why] it’s called “Icebox,” but on the set, it was actually more hot than it was cold.
Matthew Moreno: One of the challenging parts was that we were sweating the entire time.
Daniel Sawka: And those space blankets make a lot of sound.
Omar Leyva: Yeah, but you weren’t covered in a whole plastic bag [trying to work in the fields]…
Daniel Sawka: That’s true. Omar probably had the most physically demanding [part].
Omar Leyva: I did. What’s crazy is I had to watch that scene and it looks like I have no sweat on me. I look so clean. But I remember I was drenched. After every take, I would take everything off, and cool down a bit, [and the crew would] give me water because it was so hot. I was covered with all these clothes, and plastic bag, and watching the movie, and I’m like, “Man, you won’t be able to ever tell. I’m not even sweating.” Those are the kind of challenges we had. We [also] had a vehicle that didn’t cooperate. Carla Hool did not cast that car. [laughs]
Matthew Moreno: That car wasn’t a good actor.
Anthony Gonzalez: It looked good, but it didn’t work.
Matthew Moreno: Fun fact, [Anthony] was actually using a bike that had a flat tire [in the border crossing scene].
Anthony Gonzalez: I don’t really bike when I’m at home, but the great part about this film was that there was bikes everywhere on set when we were filming these parts in the desert, so every time we’d be on a break, I would always hop on a bike, no matter if it has a flat tire or not and it was a great experience.
Matthew Moreno: It’s more fun with a flat tire.
Anthony, were the production moves informing your performance?
Anthony Gonzalez: There were a lot of parts on doing this film where I really discovered the character. I was familiar with him since I did the short, but in the middle of these scenes, it really just gave me the thought of what happens in real life. I wasn’t aware of kids being in a cell, and I really got to understand what their mindset, the majority of [which] is going back to their family, and missing them. [Oscar] really wanted to go back to his sister, to his mother and to his father, but that wasn’t possible, and one of the main messages that this movie gives [is to] understand the struggle that Oscar went through.
The end of the movie acknowledges the film’s timeliness. Since this was being finished as child detention centers and family separation became so newsworthy, did it change any ideas you had about what you ultimately wanted to say with the film?
Daniel Sawka: Absolutely. James L. Brooks and I would discuss everything that was coming in the news, [always asking] as we were writing, as we were shooting, as we were post-production, is there anything we can incorporate here? It is a moving target because it’s something that changes all the time, and quite drastically in the recent year, so it’s hard and there’s so much you want to say. That was the hardest thing about making this film is the stories that we didn’t get to tell, the voices that we didn’t get to bring in there, and then just trying to do justice to all these people that shared such difficult moments in their lives with us and trusted us with those stories.
Omar Leyva: The fact that the movie was made prior to a lot of these things escalating just goes to show that this film wasn’t just meant to make a comment about current events. One of the greatest things about it is that it’s about family separation, and I know it from my own experience, how you can be separated from your father. My character is living in the U.S. alone. He left a family. He left people behind, and everybody can understand family separation. [All] the stuff that came after the film was made just really justifies that these stories are needed.
While this is such a serious subject, was it a challenge to get the tone right where you can have lighter moments too?
Matthew Moreno: Well, it has a dark tone, but it turns out that it was actually really fun to shoot this. We had so many inside jokes, and there were some stressful moments, but everything was really fun. It was a really lighthearted time that we had, and [in the movie itself] I think a lot of that goes to Omar’s character [and my character] Rafael because for a [story] that lacks a lot of comedy, we both have a lot of funny jokes.
Omar Leyva: Yeah, my character does have his share of laughs and it was very important to be able to give the audience a way to relax because it is such a serious subject. Danny and I were talking about how if you can make people laugh, then it helps people open up a little bit. You can’t really reach people if they’re just guarded the whole time and we’re talking about children and these horrible things.
Daniel Sawka: It was fascinating when we did so many interviews with people who’d gone through such incredibly difficult times, how much humor can be a coping mechanism. People told me many times about how people are still telling jokes, still trying to find some kind of lightness even when they’re in a very dark situation, so I felt like it would’ve been dishonest not to show that because that is how we deal with things. And obviously, there’s a great balance to strike there and I hope we’re on the right side of it.