Interview: Sara Seligman on Diving Into a Border Crisis with “Coyote Lake”

It’s a rare feat that Sara Seligman pulls off in the opening moments of “Coyote Lake,” able to send a shiver down your spine and you find your back stiffen to sit straight up for everything that comes next. Visiting a town that sits on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the director introduces Teresa and Ester, a mother (Adriana Barraza) and daughter (Camila Mendes), respectively, in a quiet scene around the breakfast table, preparing a warm meal for a passer through in a show of hospitality indicative of a place that hasn’t probably changed much in the past century. Ester can only longingly sigh when the stranger describes himself as a “bit of a tour guide,” wishing that she could be “a tourist” after spending her entire life within a 10-mile radius, but as it turns out, neither she or he are being exactly forthright about who they are, once the jamaica he’s served, laced with sleeping pills and muscle relaxants, puts him down for long enough to search his truck for the cash he’s bilked out of migrants desperate to cross into America before he finds his way to the bottom of the lake not far from their farm.

The way Teresa and Ester make a living is just the first surprise of many in “Coyote Lake,” a live-wire thriller that is as eager to upend cultural expectations as it is narrative ones. Although the mother and daughter prey on those who make a business out of exploiting those in dire straits, they aren’t exactly doing so for the greater good and while Ester has had her doubts before about her mother’s intentions, it isn’t until the arrival of Paco (Andres Velez), a survivor of a bad trip across the border who brings along his wounded friend Ignacio (Manny Perez), that she begins to question how much of her identity has been tied up in how and where she was raised and who raised her rather than coming into her own, a clever entry point for considering the often arbitrary nature of borders, whether they be geographical or emotional.

Replacing the usual markers of coming-of-age tales with murder and mayhem allows “Coyote Lake” to genuinely have the life or death stakes that most Ester’s age can only imagine, and Seligman builds upon the provocative nature of the script she co-wrote with Thomas James Bond with bold choices throughout as well as unpredictable performances from Barazza and Mendes. With the film arriving in theaters and on VOD, Seligman spoke about making such a killer feature debut, in addition to how her experience working in various capacities on other productions helped inform how to go about directing and telling such a story in the current climate.

How did this come about?

It’s been a really long process. It started as my thesis short film in film school 12 years ago. I knew of this mother-daughter story from a newspaper article my mom had told me about and I really wanted to tell that story, but it takes place in World War I in France, so I wanted to make something closer to my own experience. Then I found the newspaper article about people who disappear in Falcon Lake, so it just seemed like the perfect place to have that mother and daughter literally get away with murder. I mixed the two ideas in my head and came up with this story.

Given what’s going on at the border these days, did your ideas about it change over time?

It definitely crossed my mind a lot – the importance and the significance and all the changes that have happened with the change of administration – but the problems have always been there. There’s some differences and then some more aggravated problems, and in this specific film, I wanted to make sure that all the characters were complex, multifaceted humans and not a caricature or a cliche, just to remind people that at the end of the day, we’re all human and sometimes we make mistakes and we are born into different situations and we don’t all know how we would act if we were put in extreme circumstances.

How did you find the right actresses to play all those things as mother and daughter?

For the mother, when I first wrote the short version in 2007 in film school, our teacher asked us who would be our dream cast if we could have anyone in the world and I immediately thought of Adriana [Barraza]. That was the year that “Babel” had come out, and right after I picked her in class, she was nominated for an Oscar, so I was like, “Okay, well, there goes my dream.” Then I could not believe it when we sent her the script and she accepted. When I was writing the script with Tom, we did really think about writing the most interesting character we could possibly create so that the best actors would be interested in doing it, but I still never imagined that Adriana would actually come through.

Then with Camila, it was a collaborative effort between the production company and the casting to try and find who this young actress would be. I wanted somebody that was the right age and obviously, she needed to be Latina and both innocent and have that edge would make it believable that she did what she does. Someone brought up Camila [Mendes] and I binge-watched “Riverdale” and even though that character is completely different from Ester, I could see that she had the range and the talent to give me all of the different colors and textures I was working in. We sent her the script and she was so excited about creating this completely different character, willing to go without makeup, just taking risks that a lot of the time young actors don’t take, so that was very exciting. I don’t think I could’ve found a better mother and daughter cast.

I understand the casting didn’t come together until close to the start of production. Was there anything you could do to get that relationship so authentic before filming?

Yes, except for Adriana, who was attached for a while, from the moment we were told we were shooting and the dates when it was happening was [about] three weeks, so it was super-fast and they did not have time to meet in person. I made sure to talk to every actor and send them materials, both literature, images and movies that I thought captured the character and then as far as relationships, I did go to dinner with Andreas, who plays Paco, and Camila – I wanted them to meet each other, but Adriana and Camila did not meet until two days before we started shooting. I was lucky they had the chemistry they had, but I also thought that because of the relationship being so weird and having so many layers, I wanted there to still be some strangeness, so I wasn’t worried about them not spending too much time together.

Once we got to Texas, we became a family. I know everyone probably says that, but we literally spent every minute together. Even during our time off we’d go to lunch, dinner, meet up to play games, so we really grew closer and closer and I can really tell the difference in the scenes that we shot earlier on in the schedule and how the relationships got stronger.

Since you’ve worked as a production supervisor, did that help figure out how to schedule this to get the most out of the performances?

Yes, the AD and the producers were amazing in organizing everything because they wanted to make sure that I didn’t put on my production supervisor hat on too much, but because it was so low budget and we had so many limitations, it was very helpful to have a very realistic expectation of actually how much time we had and to really understand how a production works and coordinating parts how it all comes together, to prioritize the scenes where I wanted to spend more time versus the ones that I knew were either not so pivotal or likely not going to make it to the final cut.

You mentioned making sure Andreas and Camila has time together and one of the best scenes in the film I felt was the two of them in the car where they’re pushing back against one another about their assumptions of one another. This may be strictly in the writing, but how do you flesh out a scene like that where both distinct cultural attitudes are given equal weight?

The idea itself comes from being Mexican-born and raised and when you are born and raised in Mexico and you meet someone that was born and raised in America and they say they’re Mexican, you tend to have a certain feeling about it. I was very ignorant when I first came to America about what that feeling is. And I’ve been living in America now for almost 14 years and I have a lot of Mexican-American friends and as I’ve gotten to know their culture, there’s this cultural limbo they live in because Mexicans don’t fully consider them Mexicans and Americans don’t fully consider them Americans. I was guilty of that, but in my experience from living here and having made these friendships, you realize how important and how deep those cultural roots actually go and how even though they might not have been born and raised in Mexico – and some might not have even learned to speak Spanish, they truly still are Mexican and how people just see it different ways and how it can affect you when other people try to label you. That happens to me – my dad is Swiss and my mother’s Colombian, so sometimes people tell me, “Oh you’re not Mexican” because you don’t have Mexican blood. But I was born and raised in Mexico and that’s what made me be the person I am, so I feel very Mexican.

I feel there’s something about cultural identity that people shouldn’t be judgmental about because of how the person identifies, and obviously, there’s limits to that, but I feel we need to be more open about it, and with my co-writer, it absolutely helped to have someone to bounce off of. Once we were actually writing the dialogue, Tom is really good with that and I had the ideas – I had the debate in my own head based on what I’ve experienced, but then he was crucial to getting that on paper…without it being long and boring, like I just made it. [laughs]

That doesn’t seem like something you’re capable of – I only realized after watching the film, it really is mostly confined to a single location, which could get redundant. How did you make it so dynamic?

That was absolutely something that was always in my mind. It was written mainly for one location because I figured my first feature would be low-budget and that would be friendly towards that, but then I must really give props to the director of photography and the production design team who helped me go deeper and really create all the different textures. Some rooms we used more than once [where] it was dressed differently to make it seem like a different room, and then the director of photography and I talked in detail about how to bring this dynamic feeling and just not make it feel too static while using the fact that you’re in one location to [convey] the claustrophobia in Ester’s life.

It’s a really interesting looking house, as well. Was it a real house or a set?

We were really lucky. We actually found it at New Republic Studios. They were so helpful, and another production had built that house, so it’s not an actual real functioning house and we could make changes to the outside for the kitchen and then all the inside we redesigned to fit our specific purposes.

Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?

There were a few. Shooting the entire movie in 15 days was pretty challenging, but the last day we shot all the night work at the water, just boat to boat with not the amount of gear and toys you would get on a bigger production to get it exactly how you want, so that was a lot, but the crew was amazing. Then there were days with really long scenes – all the scenes in the kitchen were long, especially the scene when Paco and Ignacio arrive and there’s so many characters and so much coverage.

Was directing a feature what you thought it would be?

It was different, and I was so nervous before leaving [for the shoot], but the piece of advice I got from Lorie Zerweck, the line producer I work with, [was], “You’ve done shorts and you’ve done them right, so don’t get overwhelmed by doing a feature. Just do it like you’d do a short.” So I just would focus on the small picture on a day-to-day basis and that helped me not get overwhelmed.

But it was way more fulfilling and exciting than I could’ve ever imagined. It really helped that in shorts, you end up usually doing a lot of things and I can’t usually afford a full crew, so I’m wearing many, many hats and while this still was low-budget and many people wore many hats, I still had so much support. I was able to focus on directing and writing and the actors were amazing. I remember there was a specific time when I was standing on set and I almost starting crying from excitement because I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It was actually happening to me.

“Coyote Lake” opens on August 2nd in limited release, including Los Angeles at the Los Feliz 3 and New York at the IFC Center. A full list of cities and dates is here.

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