Sundance 2023 Interview: Luis Fernando Puente on a Questionable Process in “I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry”

“Don’t mock me,” Maria Luisa (Alejandra Herrera) laughs in “I Have No Tears and I Must Cry,” sitting in her car with her husband Jorge (Enoc Oteo), who assures her that the beanie she’s wearing looks good on her. It’s the morning of her green card interview at the Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and though there’s no reason to think that things won’t go smoothly, she wants to make sure every detail is right and at even the slightest hint of teasing, the beanie comes off by the time she makes it through the door.

In the taut drama, no detail is overlooked either by Maria Luisa or its writer/director Luis Fernando Puente, who wrings every possible ounce of tension from an encounter with an officious bureaucrat (Cheri Julander) at the local USCIS offices where every question seems like a landmine, in spite of the couple filling out their paperwork to the T. It’s hard to tell what’s more unnerving with the clacking of computer keys verifying the couple’s answers or the strangeness of some of the questions themselves, many of which are more personally invasive than any questionnaire regarding citizenship should be or obviously the product of an earlier time, such as “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” When Maria Luisa’s passport is found not to have been stamped upon her entry to the country – another official document was, by accident – things start to go off the rails and while it appears the interview is something of a game for the official, looking for a checkmate when any incongruence in testimony is seized upon, the massive impact it could have on Maria Luisa’s life couldn’t be clearer.

Although the USCIS pencil pusher appears to take little interest in actually getting to know Maria Luisa and Jorge, it becomes a privilege to come to understand them intimately in the 13 minutes you spend with them in “I Have No Tears and I Must Cry,” in no small part thanks to Herrera and Oteo’s lived-in performances and Puente and crew’s rich evocation of the strange surroundings they find themselves in, making the Office for Citizenship feel entirely walled off from reality as cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jimenez employs a tight square frame to put the couple in a bind. On the eve of the film’s premiere at Sundance, only a few miles from where the director studied under Robert Machoian at BYU and came to work on his crew on such films as “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” Puente spoke about how he could bring the experience that he and his own wife had to the screen so vividly and the brilliant fusion of celluloid and digital that refreshes the eyes for this arresting short.

How did this come about?

I’m an immigrant. I came to the U.S. when I was a little kid, so I went through that whole process with my family. My dad had a work VISA that allowed us to be able to get a green card and I got citizenship when I was 18. Then my wife was also Mexican immigrant and because I was a citizen at the time, she was eligible to apply for green card, so we started doing all that and fast forward to when we have that interview. The film itself is based almost one-to-one off how the interview itself went and I wrote it down with her help, remembering what had happened and a few of the weird questions that we were asked.

Actually, my wife was on set [for the filming] and we were rehearsing that interview scene and she remembers like, “Oh wait, don’t you remember the immigration officer just randomly asked me if I was pregnant?” It was just such a weird question because a lot of the questions that they ask are just repeating what you’ve already written down in those forms. And that one even just came out of nowhere. So [when we were filming], I said, “Hey, let’s change up the order a little bit of the questions and see where this might fit.” It turned out to be a “what’s going on here?” moment for everyone.

Alejandra Herrera is quite affecting with a limited amount of dialogue. What was it like to get her onboard?

Oscar Jimenez [the cinematographer] and I work together a lot and usually, I work for him as a first AC on when he [shoots things as a DP]. He was bidding for a project that Alejandra was actually going to be on, and he ended up turning down the job, but he had previously told me, he was like, “Oh, by the way, this actor, she’s going to be in this film that I’ve been interviewing for. You might want to look into her.” So I had seen that she was that student protestor in “Roma” that is very, very heavily featured, so that piqued my interest and I started seeing some of the other work she had done and I was just floored. So I just reached out to her and asked, “Hey, I have the script. It’s about this. Would you like to read it?” And she read it and she was like, “I’d love to work on this.” So that’s how we just started going for that.

What was it like figuring out the shot selection with Oscar?

It was great. It was a long process since I had a shorter first draft of the film a year before we actually started filming and we started looking at photographs, shots of other films, paintings and art and we just started compiling everything into [portfolios] that would set the tone, the mood and the color. Oscar and I have been working with Robert Machoian before and that’s usually his process and it worked really great. We started forming that visual language for this film based off of what we felt was just working for it.

I actually had three sets of storyboards in sense, mocking up storyboards based off of shots that I thought, “Alright, this type of closeup I want for this specific thing,” and I would do it in Blender with little 3D models that I had gotten free from the internet. Then I was able to adjust the camera with that and make a mock little scene for that, especially for that interview. Then once we had our location, I would look at those preliminary storyboards that I had worked on with Oscar and we started doing an actual kind of storyboarding with a camera in the location. That’s probably where we created our shot list for shooting day. It was quite a long process, but very, very well worth it because I didn’t feel unprepared at all on set.

Even when [something came up where] it was like, “Wait, where am I getting the shot?” I’d have it written down on something. There’s so many things going on set in the moment that all that prep work, even if you just wrote it down, put it somewhere and forget about it, you can go back to it and remember, “Oh yeah, that’s why.” And Oscar gives great input for things like that.

It appeared Robert Machoian’s love of shooting on 16mm might’ve rubbed off on you. Was that his influence or a decision that came naturally?

We always wanted to shoot on film and there’s a bunch of constraints. One of the challenges of shooting in Utah is the fact that there’s not a lot of film equipment to go around, especially super 16 for a production like this, so what was funny was we had budgeted in the cost of film and everything else, but we didn’t have budgeted in the cost to bring it all to Utah, so we actually ended up finding a dance short, through some word of mouth, that did a digital-to-film process, similar to what they did with “The Batman” and “Dune” where they shot the digital film through some 35 millimeter print and scanned that back, so that was the digital and there’s essentially a film intermediate. We did that, but with super 16 and sent it to Jay Cody Baker at Company Three, who colored it for us, and then we sent it to Metropolis Post in New York. Once we got it back, we were scared because we didn’t know what it was going to look like. But we looked at it, and we actually told Robert, and he thought, “This looks great.”

The idea that I wanted to get across too, [with] the topic of the film being immigration, is the fact that in the U.S, the immigration system is so old, it hasn’t really been updated for a modern audience. The immigration system was created in the late ‘60s at the heyday of super 16 films, so doing that hybrid of film and digital works really well as a modern story told with older tools because it is about something that is in inherently problematic and hasn’t been updated in a while in real life. That look with all the softness, the grain and the imperfections of the film really heightened that theme.

What I also couldn’t get my mind around was how it looked like you shot at the real Office of Immigration, though I know that had to be some amazing production design. What was that like to pull off?

Our production designer Ellie Harrison Valle actually had just gotten married as well to an immigrant and was going through the process of that, filing for the green card paperwork, so she was well aware of what the USIS offices looked like, what their logos are, and even all the forms and she got the file that actually has all that font in that logo in it, and she was able to laser cut the big letters [for the entry to the office]. Then for the signage, she actually projected that onto a piece of foam board, which her art team then went in and hand painted for that size. So it was all handmade and laser cut.

Then we were lucky to find an office building that just had this random blue wall that we thought, “This works right next to the entrance.” I’ve had a few people look at that shot [with the security guard at the entrance] and they also like, “Whoa, how did you do that?” And there was the moment where you’re like, “Should we ask [for permission to shoot at the real office]? Sure, let’s just do it for kicks and giggles.” And of course they were going to say no. The other option we had is the Mexican consulate happens to be in the same building in Utah, so we thought that might be a close second, but they also respectfully declined, so we found some corporate offices spaces and just said, “We’ll just dress this up as best as we can to look like an immigration office.”

You definitely pulled it off – and the film as a whole. I know the life of the film is just starting, but what is it like to get to the finish line with this?

Even before I was a film student and looking at Sundance and at that name itself as a household entity up until now, it has been quite the journey. I studied here and I live here in Utah where the festival itself is just right around the corner and every narrative film that I’ve ever worked on in the last eight years, everybody wants to make it into Sundance. I’ve only ever been able to do that because [of working with] Robert Machoian. He is a very, very talented filmmaker, and because of him, I saw that world actually being real instead of just something that just seems unreachable. So it set the expectations of what I could achieve and it has opened me up to a world that I’d only heard about, but now I’m experiencing it.

I’m also realizing I’m going to have this film watched by probably the biggest audience I’ve ever had, and it’s exciting. I’m a little bit nervous, but I am excited to see where this story ends up going as well. And it seems like a finish line, but it’s the finish line that allows you to keep going on the rest of the journey.

“I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 5 on January 23rd at 11:55 am at Prospector Square Theater in Park City, January 25th at 4 pm at the Redstone Cinemas in Park City, January 27th at 5:30 pm at the Megaplex Theatres at the Gateway in Salt Lake City, January 28th at 6:15 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.