Lorenzo Vigas on Digging Deep Inside “The Box”

“The important thing to know here is that everyone’s got their own problem,” Mario (Hernán Mendoza) tells Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete) on the drive to work in “The Box,” sounding like fatherly advice, though the two aren’t related or at least, Mario doesn’t seem to think so. Hatzín has been led to believe otherwise after coming to Chihuahua, Mexico to claim the remains of his father found as part of a mass grave, but catching a glimpse of a man who looks suspiciously like the photos he’s seen of the father the 7th grader never got to know himself on the bus ride out of town, not thinking after getting off the bus that he doesn’t have enough money to return to his grandmother’s home. In Lorenzo Vigas’ gripping drama, the uncertainty around paternity becomes secondary to the relationship that actually ends up developing between Mario and Hatzín once the former can no longer resist the boy’s entreaties and takes him under his wing, putting him to work as part of a vaguely sketchy operation recruiting workers for factories with the promise of free room and board but little else.

It isn’t the first time that Vigas has considered a paternal bond outside of a blood relation, with his feature debut “From Afar” telling of a middle-aged, middle class man who finds an unlikely companion in a 17-year-old street tough, but “The Box,” which has become Venezuela’s selection for the Oscar race, not only flips the point of view on that dynamic but uses a bond built on uncertainty as a bit of trojan horse to explore a place where so much remains unsettled, with many more out there like Hatzín with relatives they never knew or at least could say goodbye to before disappearing and others vulnerable to Mario’s pitch when being able to put down roots with a living wage and shelter seems all but impossible. Whether or not Mario has a biological connection to Hatzín, he starts to pass down an attitude that one suspects has shaped the thinking of so many trying to survive and Vigas wrings tension from whether the young man will become fully indoctrinated or have a mind of his own, increasingly troubled by some of his recruiting tactics and particularly the disappearance of a young woman that comes to work at the factory.

With the film now arriving stateside a year after its triumphant premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Vigas spoke about the meticulous process that allowed such layers emerge out of a relatively straightforward narrative while enduring a couple of close calls when it came to casting and the feeling of closure after using his past two films to explore an idea’s full potential.

It was so interesting to see this after your previous film “From Afar” when it again looks at a father-son dynamic from a completely different angle and yet again the characters in question aren’t actually related. Was that actually a driving force for this?

Yeah, it’s true. I saw news on TV of people going to pick up their family remains, and I got this idea, what if a boy goes to pick up his father remains, but he sees his father alive in that town? That started the idea, but I’ve been dealing with this obsession of the consequences of not having a father at home, and the need to substitute that figure and I don’t know where it comes from because you don’t choose your obsessions, they choose you. [laughs] If you don’t have a father at home, you’re going to find someone that substitutes that, maybe a politician, maybe a dictator, and you tend to idealize that figure and you can accept everything from that figure and that’s very risky and dangerous. So that’s what happens in the film when Hatzín meets Mario and Hatzín’s absolutely convinced that Mario is his father, [so it becomes a question of] what is he willing to do to gain his affection? A boy that hasn’t had that in his life.

I don’t know why I got [this obsession myself] because I had a very close relationship with my father, so it doesn’t come from a personal experience, but in a way I connected with that archetype of the missing father in Latin America. And for me, this is the end of that — I hope, because I’m writing something different now.

What was it like investigate that kind of relationship from the younger point of view?

Yeah, “From Afar” was from [the older character] Armando’s point of view. Now it’s from the point of view of the boy trying to find the father he hasn’t had, and it was, as a filmmaker, very interesting to be as close as possible to this 13-year-old who has this capacity of expressing so many emotions without saying a word. That’s the boy I was trying to find and I was very lucky to find Hatzín [Navarrete, the actor playing him], who I think he’s going to become an important actor. At that time he hadn’t done anything and it was a challenge because you don’t know what to expect from a 13-year-old and if he’s going to be able to carry on his shoulders the weight of the whole production. It was a very tough production in the north of Mexico [with] extreme conditions in the desert, so it wasn’t easy, but he was able to do it.

How did you end up casting him?

We went to about 200 schools here in Mexico, interviewing young boys, and I wasn’t really in love with anyone, so we made a workshop with six boys and girls for about two months. The workshop went very well, but I [still] wasn’t really in love with anyone and one week before going to Chihuahua to start the shoot, someone showed me a video of this boy from Nezahualcóyotl, which is a poor region in the north of Mexico City. When I saw him, there was a personal story with his own father that had a relationship with the story and he had this very powerful thing in his sight, so I wanted to meet him. We had only three days to work with Hatzín, and we made some tests along with the actor [Hernán Mendoza] who played Mario [because he was already cast]. And it was risky because we hadn’t really worked with him, but I had this feeling that was the boy.

Once your saw the dynamic between them, did it change any ideas you had?

Yeah. I wasn’t really sure how Hatzín was going to react and the screenplay wasn’t a hundred percent locked when we went to Chihuahua. I started realizing we needed some more scenes between them. For example, the scene when Mario [gives] a mathematical test to the boy to see if he’s really clever I wrote in there [later] because I realized that’s the relationship between them between Hatzín and Hernán that started to consolidate during the shooting and seeing them interact gave me ideas also about scenes that I wrote. The production team hated me, of course, because they hate the director when you decide to make something different than planned, but that’s the way I work.

It sounds like you like living on the edge a bit – as I understand it, the factory that becomes a central setting, you only locked in right before filming. What went into finding the right place?

It’s a very important scene in the film because you feel that the factory is like a monster. You almost feel how it breathes and in one moment of the film, it was important to be really inside the monster and see how it looks, so we spent a long time trying to find a factory — a maquiladora — and it’s almost impossible because they don’t want anyone to see how their production lines work or how they treat their employees. But finally, we were lucky, one factory was bankrupted, so we went there and told them, “What if we pay you for three days and you keep all your employees?” And that was the way we were able to shoot.

You’re able to incorporate the scenes there, which must’ve had some pretty tight restrictions, into this really interesting camera language throughout where you can really feel the distance between characters as well as how they relate to their environments. What was it like to develop?

We had freedom inside the factory because as we paid for three days of everyone, so it wasn’t that we couldn’t put the camera here or there, but the language is something that from the beginning I wanted to be different than “From Afar.” I like very much the American cinema of the ‘70s and I thought that aesthetic would work for the story, so we worked with Panavision lenses that were used a lot then and [we] shot in a more classical way than “From Afar,” being as close as possible to the boy and also having the landscapes.

You tie the emotional journey to the change in the seasons. Was that difficult to pull off given the time you had to film?

Yes. I wasn’t sure if everything was going to really look like a single place because we shot in many different locations. In the end, I think it works. We went to Ciudad Juarez where the factory is, but we also shot in the mountains of Chihuahua where you have snow in winter, but also the desert, and the climate was very important because I wanted to move along with the boy’s emotional moments of the film, so he arrives when he is warm and he’s got all these feelings about this man and he really wants to get into his family, but it gets colder and colder as the film moves on and why it was so important to have a storm. And it wasn’t easy. We had to wait for that storm and we were lucky we got one. Then we had to go to Chile to complete the shooting of [winter], so we went for a week to the frontier border between Chile and Argentina where the landscapes really looks like Chihuahua and we were able to shoot there a couple of scenes.

I understand that even though you’ve been based in Mexico for some time, your co-writers Laura Santullo and Paula Markovitz were brought on in part to adapt it to this specific region. How did they help flesh this out?

I think everything [in the film] works because if one have to think about a single word that would define the film, it’s identity. It’s really the boy trying to find an identity and the fact that in the story there’s a girl that disappears and he’s not really sure who is disappearing, [that also becomes] about identity, the missing body and also how all those people lose their identity when they go to work in the factories, they become numbers, so in a way, identity is what makes the film work because everything [connects to it]. [Initially] I wasn’t sure about the girl disappearing — I tried it in the screenplay, but then I realized, [a] body has to be discovered because it’s important that he doesn’t know who she is because it plays with his own story of his missing father, and at the end, everything I think works.

It sounds like this is closing a chapter on a certain set of films for you. What’s it been like getting to the finish line with it and sending it out into the world?

It’s a relief because I’ve been carrying the box. [laughs] And I [often] say we all have a box at home. Some people are able to open it and to take some things out of the box — some memories, some sadness, some happiness, and some cannot open that box during their life. And the film is about the box we all have and if we are able or not to really open it. That’s what “The Box” is about, and now I think I was able to open my box in a way and I am moving on, working on a screenplay — [my] first film shot in America about a woman that has is very passionate and [how] that can be a problem too — so I’m working on that.

“The Box” opens on November 4th at Cinema Village in New York and will begin streaming on MUBI on November 11th.

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