From writer/director Jonás Cuarón, Desierto is a terrifying suspense-thriller packed with heart-pounding tension, as Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an unrelenting and deranged killer, points his rifle at a group of unarmed men and women at the U.S.-Mexican border. What started as a hopeful journey to seek a better life quickly becomes a nightmare for Moises (Gael García Bernal) as he fights for survival.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Jonás Cuarón talked about how this film came about, the rhetoric and hatred that goes against what this country is supposed to be about, his editing process, the coincidental timing of its release during this election year, the feedback he got from his father (Alfonso Cuarón) and uncle (Carlos Cuarón), and wanting to create an experience for the audience. He also talked about developing on Z, his own take on the Zorro mythology with Gael García Bernal in the lead role, and how he hopes to collaborate with his father again soon.
Collider: It seems like there would be no shortage of first-hand stories about immigration and the migrant journey. How did hearing the stories about what other people have gone through lead to this film, for you?
JONAS CUARON: I’ve lived in the U.S. now for over 16 years. About 10 years ago, I was traveling through Arizona with my brother, and that’s when all of the anti-immigration laws were starting to happen and there was really strong rhetoric and hatred towards Mexicans and migrants. When I came here, I was 15 and one of the things I admired was the cultural diversity. But this rhetoric and hatred goes against what’s great about this country, so I decided I wanted to make a movie that spoke about it. For a couple of years, I just didn’t know the best approach for this story. I didn’t know the best way to tell this story. That’s when I thought about ‘70s genre films and how, in the ‘70s, all the filmmakers did movies with a very important social and political message, but hid that under the disguise of genre, whether it was an action movie or a horror movie. That was the turning point for the project.
You wrote this film long before Gravity happened, and this script even inspired Gravity. How do you feel about the fact that Desierto led to that film, but we’re only getting to see this film now?
CUARON: I wrote the first draft about eight years ago and I showed it to my dad (Alfonso Cuarón) to see if he could give me any advice or notes on the script, but the only thing he told me when he read the script was, “I really like this concept. I’d like to do something like that.” That’s when he adapted the concept to space and Gravity happened. Honestly, that’s a lot of why I ended up taking so long to do this film. In the interim, I started working on Gravity, and that took four or five years of my life, but in hindsight, I’m really grateful to have worked on Gravity because I learned a lot from working with my dad, particularly how to maintain the tension and make sure the audience is going to stay glued to their seats.
You gave your father the script to read, but did you also show him a cut of the film, once you had shot it, to get his feedback on it?
CUARON: Yeah, of course! Both my dad and my uncle Carlos, who my dad wrote Y Tu Mamá También with, are both my teachers, in a way, so whether they’re producers or not on the project, I always ask them for advice, every step of the way.
What was your editing process for this like? Did you have to cut many scenes, or did you have a pretty good idea of what you wanted, before you shot?
CUARON: With projects like Gravity and Desierto, that depend purely on the action and tension that arises from all of this build-up and you don’t have any dialogue, the script is really important to mark down. The same tension you feel when you’re watching the movie was already there, on the page. In that sense, I always had a clear idea of the rhythm that the movie needed to have, and the drive and the important beats. And then, to create that in the editing room, I knew was going to be a big challenge. I had to really make sure that anything inside of the scene kept the tension going. That’s why, during shooting, it was important to have a lot of coverage. I knew that coverage was going to be needed, in the editing room, to create that tension.
In the time that it took you to release the film, since writing that first draft, because it was so many years, did you ever come close to giving up or thinking that it would never get made, or were you always determined to make this film, no matter how many years down the line that ended up being?
CUARON: For me, it was always a very important story that I wanted to tell, both as a cinematic experiment and also because the themes are very important to me. Yeah, there were many points where it seemed like the project was not going to happen, but it’s such a painful process that I think it’s important that the story is important to you, as a filmmaker. That way, you won’t give up, in the process.