In theatres this week from writer/director Jonás Cuarón along with Mateo Garcia and STX Entertainment is a film that opens a bigger dialogue regarding those who put their lives at risk in the DESIERTO.
The film tells the story of a group of people trying to cross into the United States led by their coyote. When the truck that is their transportation breaks down, the group has no choice but to begin the long walk to the United States/Mexican border. Warned to stay together, they will face the toughest terrain.
What they don’t count on is Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an angry man with a rifle and gun who doesn’t like immigrants crossing his land. When he sees a group crossing, Sam doesn’t hesitate to open fire on them.
Not realizing that Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) with others have fallen behind, they witness everything. They might have escaped Sam’s wrath if not for his dog who alerts the gunman to their presence.
Now survival takes on a whole new meaning!
I had the opportunity to speak with director and if that name seems a bit familiar well it should. He is the son of GRAVITY director Alfonso Cuarón, the 2014 Oscar Winner for Best Director and wrote the screenplay with his father.
What most don’t know is that was working on the script for DESIERTO at the same time! Here is the interview discussing the reason behind the film and the choices he made in every aspect of the film.
Jeri Jacquin: Thank you for talking with me today Jonás.
Jonás Cuarón: Oh you are very welcome Jeri, thank you as well.
JJ: What drove you to put this movie together?
JC: It started around 10 years ago when I had already been living in the United States quite some time. I was traveling through Arizona and there were a lot of anti-immigration laws being promoted then. There was this really strong rhetoric going on with hatred toward migrants and foreigners. As a Mexican growing up in the United States, what I truly admired about living here is the cultural diversity. I felt it was something I wanted to talk about and it wasn’t until a few years later that I had the chance to finally write about it for the film. I wanted to do it in this genre with horror because it would connect with audiences in a way they are not use to, connecting in a more visceral way.
JJ: Working with Mateo Garcia and writing this together, where the ideas in the way to tell the story about the same?
JC: What happened was that I wrote a first draft and showed it to my father [Alfonso Cuarón] and he would make notes for me. When my Dad read it, instead of giving me criticism he said, “I want to make something like this!” He became very intrigued with the idea of an action movie that had very little dialogue and characters but ended up telling a bigger story. When we started putting that concept towards space we started working on GRAVITY. At the time I was invested in GRAVITY but also wanted to work on DESIERTO and I approached Mateo, my cousin, and I admire him as a writer. From then on while I was half of the day working with my Dad on GRAVITY, the other half of the day I was working with Mateo. In that sense it was an interesting back and forth.
JJ: I was going to say that had to be a challenge for you working on the vastness space with GRAVITY while working on the vastness of the desert for DESIERTO.
JC: I always find it very interesting that they both sprang from the same concept and have that as far as similarities but at the same time because the context are so different the stories became completely different. I thought GRAVITY was more of an allegory for the existential issues and DESIERTO is down to earth. Being in the desert specifically between the United States and Mexico it had geo-political undertones.
JJ: I have been out in that section going to Yuma, Arizona and there is that very long section of nothingness. That can be very frightening to look at let alone be out in the middle of.
JC: Definitely, the desert is one of the hottest landscapes I’ve ever been in and even during the shoot and we were lucky to have water and shade. I thought to myself that people really get lost in this landscape. Now that you mention Yuma, ten years ago when I was in Arizona, one of the things that really touched me was a book I found called The Devil’s Highway. It narrates the story of the Yuma 14 which is a case of a group of Mexican that the human traffickers abandoned. I think there was only one survivor of that group who reached Yuma, Arizona. That is the horrifying thing. Obviously I have never read of a Minuteman doing the things like you see in the film, it is just more a metaphor of what hatred can do to a person. Humans die every day in that desert which is why I called the film DESIERTO.
JJ: Tell me about the casting of Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. What was it about these two actors that you knew you were seeing Moises and Sam?
JC: As I was writing the script I knew I wanted to work with Gael. I grew up watching his career and admired what he was doing and wanted to work with him. When I did my research and started studying the issue of migration, I noticed that Gael had done a lot of documentaries either as a director, producer or actor in the pieces. He took a journey with a group of migrants all the way from Central American through Mexico to the United States. I knew Gael had a closeness with the subject matter that I knew was going to be very helpful for the film. With Jeffrey, when I started looking for the guy to play the villain I was immediately intrigued by him. He is a big scary guy but on the other side of him he is very charming! Now there is this contradiction that I found interesting. I didn’t wanted Jeffrey’s character to be human, not just a two dimensional bad guy. I was already intrigued but when he came to the meeting I saw he drove a pick up truck and he has tattoos. I mean the ones you see in the film are really his own. During our first meeting he talked to me about his dogs so in that sense he was ready to play that character.
JJ: Also, Alondra Hidalgo as Adela, she carries fear on her face that is so believable.
JC: Adela’s is one of my favorites in the film because I was able to touch on a lot of issues with the character. I really wanted to find a new face, a face that would show the hardship women go through. There is this violence that they live through when they go through the journey, it’s horrific. I saw a casting of Alondra and I knew immediately it was her.
JJ: You brought the right people into a film that does provide a touchy subject matter especially during an election year. Instead you managed to humanize the film.
JC: Thank you, when I started this project ten years ago with Mateo it was to just create a story. I didn’t think back then that one of the criticisms it would face when it came out was that people would say it was a far fetched situation. Now, after ten years and everything that’s happened, I have to wonder how far fetched the scenario truly is.
JJ: Congratulations sir on a job well done, the casting is well done and the cinematography takes the viewer along. The scene where Gael is standing on the hill looking down at cactus and sand to the nothing that went for as far as the eye can see – it was relatable to anyone who has been in the desert themselves.
JC: Thank you Jeri, that means a lot to me and I’m glad you enjoyed the film.
It is not hard to become wrapped up in the storyline when Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan both deal with their characters demons to a conclusion that will leave everyone talking. DESIERTO won the International Critics’ Award at the Toronto Film Festival and was nominated for Best Film by the London Film Festival.
DESIERTO is gripping, horrifying, and raw bringing out the primal instinct to survive!