At the New York Film Festival premiere of “Miss Bala,” director Gerardo Naranjo asked the audience to observe a moment of silence before the film started because “this is very important to us.” For another filmmaker, it might’ve seemed like a grandiose gesture, but besides offering a respite from the cacophonous hail of bullets in gunfights that followed, Naranjo backed up his bravado by achieving what so few do when they set out to make an “important” film.
Having to shoot under the aegis of a faux romantic comedy called “Madame Bonita” while in the streets of Mexico so as not to attract the attention of the local gangs, Naranjo and his crew were reminded on a daily basis of why they were making a film about a place where corruption infects everything from the police to even the community’s beauty pageant. That’s where the film finds its unlikely heroine Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a statuesque yet apprehensive 23-year-old whose own plight into a dangerous world not of her own making mirrors that of the nation she’s representing as a whole.
With a performance well-worn from the shock of the money laundering and drug trafficking her character is forced to do, Sigman allows the audience to feel the weight of everything she’s going through while Naranjo completely immerses us into a world where despair and hopelessness have given rise to accepting crime as a natural part of daily life. Yet Naranjo’s film is hardly depressing and in fact, invigorating when it dares to find truth using the mechanics of an action film in new and extraordinary ways. Recently, I was able to have a conversation with Naranjo, Sigman and one of the film’s producers, Diego Luna, about how they made the film, including Naranjo’s idea to shoot the entire film on video before putting it on celluloid, Sigman’s first work as an actress besides a shampoo commericial and Luna’s production company Canana Films’ ongoing development of a movie culture in Mexico.
Diego has said he’s never been on a production where everybody was on the same page like this one. Was it surprising to have such unity?
Gerardo Naranjo: I think the rewards in the movies in Mexico, they are not done for the financial reasons. You don’t get rich off of a movie. So when we make a movie, if we don’t have everybody ready to join and believing in each other, we shouldn’t do it.
Diego Luna: It’s also about the journey. What’s happening to “Miss Bala” is unique. You see the list of films that we shot a year in Mexico, what you really keep is the journey, the people, the exchange that it happens. Saying that we all agree on everything, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t confront each other’s ideas and that push Gerardo to wherever we thought he needed to be pushed. He would come the first day saying one thing and if he changed his mind, there was a reason and a debate, but interesting – the way it should be.
GN: [pointing to me] He doesn’t know Gael [García Bernal, Luna’s producing partner in Canana Films], either and Gael would give us a hard time.
DL: Oh my God, Gael gives a hard time even to the valet parking. Like where are you going to park it? This way or the other way?!? Because it does make a difference. [laughs] But what we all agree on is doing a film about this feeling we share and about the reality in our country and a feeling of fear and lack of control.
Gerardo, this is actually a departure from your previous films “Drama/Mex” and “I’m Gonna Explode,” which were improvised to some extent, and you suggested at the New York Film Festival, “Miss Bala” came about because of a dramatic shift in your interests. What changed?
GN: Once you do something, even if it’s not done in a great way, I think somehow you own it. So I wasn’t enjoying doing it anymore. To tell you the truth, I felt it’s an easy way to do it, so I didn’t want to do something easy. I wanted to challenge myself and so that was the idea – let’s do something we don’t know how to do. Let’s get out of our safety zone and hopefully if we do it with all of our effort, we will do it well. The way we did the new movie was under such bad circumstances in the sense that when you do an action film, all you need is a little bit like money. But we didn’t have the luxury. So many times Stephanie had to do her stunts, like the actors say in Hollywood, but she really did them. She is the movie and if she gets hurt, the movie will get hurt, so basically we had to play in a very tight line.
But you also said in New York that you shot a version of the entire film on video before committing to film. How did that help develop what would be in the final film? And Diego, as one of the producers, did you see that version?
Stephanie Sigman: It’s really funny.
GN: It’s funny, above all. Like [Stephanie] jumped from a window and where she falls, she makes the movement of falling from the window and then we threw a pillow, so the pillow becomes her in a cut.
DL: It needs to be on the DVD.
SS: Noooooo…I don’t agree. [laughs]
DL: Why not? I’m sure you’re great. In fact, probably, people didn’t like your performance would say oh my God! Look at… [laughs]
SS: No, it helped me because I’m the one in these long shots, [I knew] where the camera will be, and when we reached the film, I already knew the choreography, so I focused on the acting.
Since you’re often shot in ways where your face isn’t seen, did that affect how you acted towards the camera?
GN: She didn’t have much experience making movies, so she didn’t know otherwise.
SS: That’s right. Sometimes I asked how much are you going to see, because you get tired of the way that… too many times.
GN: So I’d always say we’ll see everything.
DL: What they’re saying, which is true, is that she didn’t have a reference. She didn’t go and shoot with a classical director that does the closeups, the extreme closeups, so for [Stephanie], the whole process was discovering stuff. But now you’re going to be ruined. No one shoots like Gerardo. [laughs]
SS: Now I can tell you that long shots helped me because you don’t have the emotion. But now I can tell you that. Before, you know… [both she and Gerardo laugh]
GN: Like never in my life I imagined. I was very interested in challenging the film language and that video version to me was like a new beginning, like I discovered something that I was looking for all my life and I hadn’t found it. In the video version, I discovered where I could challenge myself even more or where I was being a little too abstract or people wouldn’t understand. But we shot shot-by-shot and every cut is there.
DL: How close is it to the film?
GN: I’m going to show it to you. Pretty much. We changed the script, which is the problem, but the scenes that are in the video version are exactly the same.
DL: Editing’s exactly the same?
GN: I didn’t have [some] scenes with Stephanie in the video version, so if I needed a person going from here to the window and then to this window and I didn’t have it, I would go into YouTube and just look for videos, so the video version cuts to certain things that’s not Stephanie and there’s a YouTube video of a person that goes here and then goes there.
DL: I so want to see that now.
GN: And there are arrows that say “Gun – here” and drawings we could make. It’s very funny.
When it was a goal of the film not to glorify violence, was it a challenge to create a strong heroine who must find a way to fight back against it?
GN: We knew we will hide the violence most of the film and we knew we would show it three times. That was one of the rules from the beginning. We began with one guideline that I told Stephanie her character had to have dignity. We didn’t know how. That was something we would have to discover. But I said I don’t want you to lose your dignity. I don’t want you to be sobbing or I don’t want the audience to hate you because [in my mind] she starts crying and the mascara’s all over her face, that would be pitiful. I didn’t want her to be ridiculous or pitiful.
SS: As I say, I don’t have the method, I don’t have the experience, but I tried to always stay with Gerardo in trying to understand Gerardo’s points of view and really do what he wanted. It was sometimes difficult because of course, sometimes I wanted to explode and say and do more, but I stayed with what he said – dignity – and tried to say everything with the eyes. Sometimes you don’t know what that means, but you just do it.
GN: Also, a big thing was the logic. If she was in the scene and something happened, like what would you do? There is a guy with a gun that’s coming towards her, she would then laugh [nervously]. So what we talked [about] all the time was what would you do. She would tell me what she would do and I would say, well, yeah, it makes sense or that doesn’t make sense. We were trying to find that logical rhythm.
Diego, I can’t resist while you’re here asking about Canana Films, which produced “Miss Bala,” but has also been releasing films like “Let the Right One In” and “Ajami” as a distributor in Mexico. Has that helped develop a national film culture that paves the way for a film like “Miss Bala” to find success there?
DL: It wasn’t a master plan at all. We started the company thinking okay, we’re part of the audience and as part of the audience, we want to make sure the films we like are shot, that those directors that we care about are shooting and that we wanted to also draw attention to the things we thought made interesting what was happening in Mexico. Then while shooting, you realize the problem isn’t just in production. In fact, production doesn’t have such big issues as distribution in our country because the machine you fight is huge. There are a lot of incentives [for production]. We live from tax breaks and lots of funds to shoot film in Mexico, but there’s none for distribution…
GN: And for advertising. Nobody’s advertising.
DL: No advertising. So how do you sell your films? Dramatically, we started finding out how difficult it is to put those films we were making out and there started to be a feeling, well, if we’re going to do this for our films, let’s do it for the films we like also. We found out that no one was interested in getting these films out, in fact. There was no competition at all. There are no other companies competing with us because there is no business at all to this yet. But we believe that if we connect to the audience and we create an audience that will ask for this, one day, we will have a bigger market. We’re distributing 10 to 15 films a year and we’re struggling to stay open because again, it’s not a good business. And many of our films, we don’t distribute. Like Gerardo’s previous film to “Miss Bala” [“I’m Gonna Explode”], we couldn’t distribute it because it was going to have so many copies, we couldn’t afford the bill, but when we can, we do it.
Obviously, it’s an honor for the film to be selected to represent Mexico at the Oscars [though the film was snubbed this week when the awards’ shortlist was announced] but given the subject matter, it must also feel somewhat strange. What does it mean to represent the country with this specific film?
GN: I think everything’s paradoxical. It’s paradoxical that a movie that somehow criticizes a country is representing a country. It’s paradoxical that a movie with such views is being distributed by Fox. Everything, I think, is crazy and I understand that that’s life. I think it shows the power of a strong message. It’s a good example of how a movie can travel to spaces that are not designed for it and it’s incredible.
DL: And I can say something that Gerardo cannot say —the film has artistic achievements to be on any list, whatever you want to say. It’s a film that has been shown everywhere and it doesn’t matter how close you are to the issue that the film talks about. It definitely strikes the audience with a feeling and it shows you that there is a director behind that has a complex language that he invites you to participate in and that celebrates the intelligence of the audience. At the same time, it represents a feeling that permeates through Mexican society and it couldn’t be a better film to represent Mexico in a way. It would mean a lot to the film to get to the final list because obviously many people will watch it, which is why we do the film for, but that’s not going to make a better film. The film is already great and we know that and we’re so, so proud of what we did.
“Miss Bala” opens at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Chinese 6 and the Regent in Los Angeles and the Angelika in New York on January 20th before opening in San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and Boston on January 27th.