Miss Bala, Mexico’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, chronicles three terrifying days in the life of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a beautiful young woman whose humble effort to escape a life of grim poverty goes diabolically wrong when it delivers her into the hands of a gang that’s terrorizing northern Mexico led by drug boss Lino (Noé Hernández). Although she wins the beauty queen crown she aspires to, her experiences as an unwilling participant in Mexico’s violent war leave her shaken and transformed.
In an exclusive interview at the press day for Miss Bala, we sat down with the film’s executive producer, Diego Luna, to talk about the acclaimed crime drama which opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 20th. Luna told us about his longtime collaboration with director Gerardo Naranjo, how the character of Laura is really a metaphor for what’s happening today in Mexico, and why he believes film has the ability to bring about social change by raising awareness. He also discussed his upcoming projects, Contraband which opens this weekend, Casa de mi Padre with Will Ferrell and Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. Hit the jump for the full interview.
Diego Luna: Since the beginning, I’d have to say. We were doing Revolución, the short films, and Gerardo was already thinking about doing this. The thing with Gerardo is that we became family. We participated in his second film which was Drama/Mex. We joined him in the middle of the process on Drama/Mex. But then, we did Voy a Explotar and then we did this. In a way, we’re always talking about what’s next. What shall we do? He became part of the family, even though he still has his own company. It’s like Canana is his house and he lives here with us. We were involved since it was an idea, and we were there supporting him. Obviously, the tough part of the producing was done by Pablo (Cruz), not me or Gael (Garcia Bernal), but we’ve always been there. I wish that lasts for a long time. In film, normally what happens is that not many people work more than once. Normally, it breaks couples. It doesn’t make them. (laughs) But, in this case, it’s the other way around.
Why is Laura the perfect character to convey what an entire country is experiencing as it’s caught up in an unending nightmare of poverty, corruption and violence?
Luna: She is just trying to survive. It’s not that she doesn’t do anything. She’s probably making the choices she believes are right. Let me put it this way, she recognizes she’s part of a system, a system that is corrupt and that is lacking every possible justice. She carries that with a lot of dignity also. But, the basic thing she is doing the whole time is just trying to survive. When you put someone in that position, probably not the best will come from them. When someone has the feeling of a gun to her head all the time, she probably won’t be making the best choices for herself. You can’t ask people to be – I don’t want to say smart, because she’s not smart – but you cannot ask people to make the right choices when they’re put under so much pressure and agony. I believe today we’re kind of there as a society. There’s no time to step back and see where we are.
How was this film received in Mexico?
Luna: Very, very well. In terms of numbers, it was a very small release that suddenly was too small for the size of the film. It started to grow and grow and grow. The reactions were very passionate. It’s one of those films that provokes a strong reaction and position and starts a debate which was what we were looking for. There were obviously people saying “Why do we show this face of Mexico?” And there were other people saying “Oh my God, I connected so well. This is the first time I see a film about the violence happening today and about the war that I connect with.” There was every kind of reaction, and I believe that makes the film very, very successful because that was the purpose. It’s the first time that we have a film that people vote for to be the one to represent Mexico in the American Academy Awards and the Spanish Academy Awards, and that’s people voting – filmmakers and the community voting. Yes, there was a strong connection with the audience. I think it’s all about Gerardo’s point of view and honesty as a director. I think you can smell, you can feel the director there. You can feel someone is whispering into your ear and telling you something that matters to him.
What do you hope Miss Bala will do in terms of raising the debate about what is happening today in Mexico?
Luna: I think film should raise questions, not give answers. I think film should challenge people to reflect, debate and get by themselves to the answer that fits them. Otherwise, it sounds a little preachy to me. It sounds a little pompous to try to give an answer to people. I mean, also, I’m 32 years old and I’m searching for many answers I don’t have. I love cinema also when it allows you as the audience to go even further than where the director went. I think Gerardo is a guy that invites you to that journey. By sound, by suggesting things are happening, [he] allows you to imagine them and your imagination can always be much more effective when it’s connecting with your emotions. Then, you share the reality with the other characters. As producers, we choose who to work with and what films to get involved with. There’s no rule, but it has to come from an honest place. It has to come from a necessity. This film is the closest you can get to that. This film is a reaction to an emotion we were all sharing. What it tries is basically not to judge anything, but to present a piece of reality that lives in the mind of the director but that we truly believe is well connected to the one we’re living. It’s still very subjective because this is still the point of view of a director. But, film should always be about that, otherwise it will be news and no film. But yes, film should come from there.
Luna: Oh yeah. This film talks about how little we know about what’s happening or how little we understand what’s really happening today in Mexico. For many years, we thought we had a pretty clear idea on what the drug trafficking meant to the country and how it worked and who was there. But today, it changes every day. Today, it’s little cells fighting for power. It’s like a war that has many faces. One is the one between them fighting for territory. The other is the one they’re having with the government. And another is the one that that’s creating. It’s like before you would say there were drug dealers, but today there are criminals because these guys are involved with piracy and human trafficking. At the same time, I think we never really got to the point to say what have we done wrong here. I believe this film starts pushing you to that kind of conclusion, that we are all part of this. We all allowed this to happen. We all learn how to live, to co-exist, with this terrible level of violence and cruelty. We wake up and we don’t get surprised anymore. When I say “we,” in fact, I shouldn’t say “we.” I’m concerned that many of us wake up and we learn how to digest news like there were 25 bodies in the middle of the street with a sign and covered in blood. I’m saying we’re learning to get over it very quick and that’s very dangerous, because we should never forget that not long ago we had a different reality.
You produce, direct, write and act. Which do you enjoy most?
Luna: Definitely directing is the thing I like the most because this is where everything you know can be used. It’s the most personal process ever. It’s the most demanding one, but again, rewarding. I have to say that I have the feeling that definitely producing, but acting too, was just a way to one day get to direct my film. I think film is a world of directors. Theater is a world of actors. Or, theater is for actors as cinema is for directors. I started in theater. Filming is as complete as directing film. In theater, you are there, you have a character, you have a play, you have a light, you have a set, you have an audience, and you’re in control, and every night is different depending on you and the relationship with the other actors. It’s as simple as that. So, you are given all the tools. I’m not saying [theater] directors are not important. They have to give it to you just before one day and that day the whole package comes to you and you’re the one dealing with the show. Cinema is like that for directors. You can create a great team. But once you’re in the editing room, it’s you and what you’ve got and what you can say with that. I guess that’s why I love directing in film more than anything else, because I felt that in theater as an actor. But it comes from that, from that feeling of having to get from the beginning to the end and tell the whole story. If things happen along the way, you have to solve it and think [figure out] what’s best. In theater, I have the feeling that even though there’s this thing they call the fourth wall, for me, as an actor, if you’re a theater actor, you develop a way to always be aware of those sitting there. For me, filmmaking is kind of the same way. So, I still want to work as an actor, and I’m definitely producing hopefully the rest of my life, but it’s just all a process to whenever I feel ready to direct again.
Luna: Normally, we have a lot of projects but I guess the most important thing today for us is how to build a connection with an audience we believe lives here and is willing to gain access to the kind of films we like. We have a documentary film festival in Mexico, but it’s not a festival. It’s a tour. It’s called Ambulante and it travels around Mexico showing documentaries. This year we’re opening in California. Today, I would say that of all the projects we have, that’s the one that interests me the most because I have the feeling that if we find a connection with that audience, then we’ll be able to tell many, many of the stories we like to a broader audience.
Can you talk about your other upcoming projects?
Luna: I am an actor in two films. One of them opens tonight called Contraband where I have a small role, but I had a lot of fun doing it. It’s something very different from everything I’ve done, but I enjoyed it. It was the first time I spent a week doing a sequence. It was this gunfight that lasted six days of shooting. My wife didn’t believe me when I called her and said “I’m still shooting this.” She would be like “Where the f*ck are you?” “I’m still shooting the same truck and the same guy.” And then, I’m doing Casa de mi Padre also which is a crazy comedy. It’s a crazy film we did directed by Matt Piedmont with Will Ferrell, Gael Bernal and Genesis Rodriguez.
Luna: (laughs) We did a lot of improvising, but his Spanish is really good. You will see. You won’t be able to judge [until you see the film]. I don’t know how good your Spanish is…
Luna: Oh, okay, so then you’ll be able to judge. It was a fun shoot.
How crazy does it get?
Luna: Crazy, crazy! It’s a crazy film.
What’s the craziest thing that happens?
Luna: The whole thing. We were allowed to do everything. Everything we did would have been judged like [we were] the most amateur actors ever. In the film, the tone is very special. You are allowed to go through every mistake possible and every cliche. It’s crazy shit!
Are there any unusual surprises that audiences can look forward to?
Luna: The whole thing, for sure! You’ve never seen something quite like this.
You’re also involved in Elysium?
Luna: Yes, I shot that.
Can you talk about your character?
Luna: Not much. The contracts they ask you to sign are longer than the script. One of the things that it says is you cannot talk about it, because the film won’t be ready soon. We are part of a process that is the shooting of the film. But then, the other part of the process comes in, which is creating the world, and Neill (Blomkamp) is amazing at that, but they’re still doing the film. So no, I cannot. They don’t allow me to talk, but I had a great time. I had a great time!
Did you see District 9?
Luna: Yeah! That’s why. I liked it. I loved it! I loved it and enjoyed it as an audience, and then when I got the script of Elysium, it was District 9 that made me say yeah, for sure. I’ll do anything for this guy. He’s an amazing director, I think.
Can you talk at all about what Neill Blomkamp is like to work with as a director?
Luna: I don’t know if I can. They’re going to kill me if I start talking more about that than anything else. The only thing I can say is that he is… No, no, I’m not even in the right track to talk about it. Sorry.
Have you wrapped it yet or is it still ongoing?
Luna: I’m wrapped. But that’s the thing, it’s such a long process and it started way earlier than when I got an offer. It’s a huge film and you, as an actor, are a little part of the process.
Have you seen any of the footage?
How did you first hear about it?
Luna: I got a script from my agent. It was the conventional way of getting the film.
How does making a film like that compare to some of the other projects you’ve been involved in?
Luna: It’s completely different. There is a lot. Everything is planned and designed. Even though there is room for improvising in films like that, even in Contraband, the amount of perfection and the planning is striking. While we come from a world where a lot of what happens is what suddenly happened and it gives a complexity to the project.
What suddenly happens?
Luna: Yeah, what suddenly happens on the streets and what is suddenly happening to your locations. It’s a completely different way of seeing cinema. Many times, we have to work with what’s there, you know? I have to say that as an actor, at the end, it’s kind of the same. Producing is a completely different world. But, as an actor, at the end, it’s the same. At the end, the game is pretty much the same.