Mexican filmmaker Jonás Cuarón is perhaps best known for co-writing Gravity with his dad, Alfonso (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), but he’s more recently finished up directing his narrative feature debut, Desierto.
The stripped-down action thriller is set in a vast and dusty expanse of the U.S.-Mexican border, and follows Gael García Bernal as he leads a group of fellow Mexican migrants through a desert rife with all kinds of environmental hazards (crazy heat, jagged rocks); Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, Grey’s Anatomy) plays the redneck American patriot who, armed with a vicious German Shepherd and sniper rifle, is determined to pick all of them off, one by one.
At the Marrakech International Film Festival, where Desierto screened in competition, we met up with the younger Cuarón to discuss how his work on Gravity influenced his latest film, his creative partnership with his family and the biggest challenges of shooting in the desert. (Cuarón had actually scouted deserts in Morocco for his film, but ended up going with locations in southern California and the Baja Peninsula).
Talk about how the idea for Desierto came about.
“I’ve always been interested in migration, and right now, the topic is very present in the media and in politics. Around the time I began writing, about five or six years ago, I started spending time in Arizona, and this stuff with Arizona law [Arizona SB 1070] started happening. I became very interested in how politicians develop this discourse, this rhetoric of hatred that, throughout history, has led to very scary places. I wanted to talk about it, but I just didn’t know how. I’ve always been a fan of ’70s genre films that manage to hide their political statements. I thought it’d be interesting to tell the story and talk about these themes through a straight genre film.
I also wanted to make it with almost no dialogue, so the story could be told primarily through cinema, because I think it’s a very universal subject matter, for the stories of the migrants and the rhetoric of those who oppose migration. We are seeing this narrative in in Africa, in Europe and even here inside of Morocco.”
You co-wrote Gravity, which takes place in space, shot its companion short, Aningaaq, in Greenland and now you’ve made Desierto. What draws you to these inhospitable, menacing landscapes?
“What I love about the desert and space and Greenland is that they can all be at once extremely beautiful and extremely harsh and scary. I’m very interested in creating this juxtaposition of a character against such landscapes, and the story that results. Gravity and Desierto are very similar concepts—it’s just because the contexts are different that they end up being completely different stories. To me, the landscape can be just as important as, or even more important than, the characters.”
What were some of the similarities and differences between adapting Gravity and Desierto?
“The landscape in Desierto was really shaping the story, whereas for Gravity, it was the other way around. In Gravity, we had no access to shooting in that environment, so Emmanuel Lubezki (the DP), my dad, and Tim Webber the digital effects guy, really had to create this reality themselves. If you read the script, it’s almost word-by-word what you see in image.”
With Desierto, it was almost the opposite. I wrote a first draft very naively, cause I’d never really been to the desert. Then it took four years of scouting different deserts to rewrite the script to fit what was really there. It kept changing, too. Even the final chase scene between Jeffrey and Gael—that sequence wasn’t even in the script.”
You wrote and directed Desierto on your own. Were your dad or your uncle (filmmaker Carlos Cuarón) involved at all?
“Since working on Gravity with my dad, we’ve developed a very strong working relationship; he’s a director I really admire, because he really knows what he wants, but he’s always really open to listening and he allows you to experiment. Whenever I write something, I end up showing it to both him and my uncle, and asking for their advice. Then with this project, they both came on as producers—but whether they get the credit or not, they always end up doing the same stuff, which is giving me their harsh criticism while also allowing me to do what I find it right. They don’t sugarcoat it when they don’t like something, but they also never impose their views.”
Did they have any criticisms of the project at any stage?
“When they first read the script, they told me to take the dog out. I’d never done a feature film, and I was naïve—I didn’t realize until shooting how hard shooting the dog was going to be. We needed three dogs: The dog Jeffrey was able to hug, and then two more dogs up until the most aggressive dog. Also, I had no Idea how hard shooting in that location was going to be. It was a nightmare. But it was worth it.”
What were some of the challenges?
“The heat: We tried to shoot in the spring, but it got so hot that we had to stop and come back to do pickups a year later. Also, the locations: My producer hates me cause he claims that I’m the “worst scouter.” I spent four years looking for deserts, and most of the locations, I chose just because I was in love with them. I never thought about logistics. Most of the time, we had to travel 1.5 to 2 hours by car, then hike like an extra 30 minutes.”
Was it hard on the cast and crew?
“Yes. But it was a small production, so working in this isolated environment created a very strong team. And Jeffrey and Gael, most of the stunts that you see, like on the cliff—they did those themselves.”
How was Gael García Bernal cast?
“I knew I wanted to work with him while I was writing, since it’s a movie that relies on a strong lead, and also because Gael had done several documentaries about migration, I knew he was going to connect with the subject matter. When I showed him the first draft, he became the number one supporter of the project, helping me do research. He was always there.”
The characters in the film are given hardly any backstory. What were you trying to accomplish with this?
“What was important to me was what happens in the present. For both for Gael and Jeffrey, I shot more scenes where they explain their characters, but I always knew I wasn’t going to add those scenes to the movie. I did it more for the actors, because for an actor, instead of reading your backstory, it’s better if you act it. There’s no backstory I could get Jeffrey that would justify his actions. The actions talk for themselves.”
Do you think that kind of evil embodied by Jeffrey’s character really exists?
“Right now, politicians are grabbing at this rhetoric of hatred: Migrants have always been an easy scapegoat, so politicians, instead of like looking at the real problem, just blame migrants. In the U.S., you do see that along the border with Mexico, and in many U.S. states that are very impoverished, like Arizona. People end up surveilling the border like minutemen, and there’s even been isolated cases of murder. Jeffrey’s character is more the representation of what humans in desperate situations can be pushed to by the wrong rhetoric. You see it everywhere in the world.”