Miss Bala, the official Mexican Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category, works brilliantly as both a realist film and as an allegory for what is happening today in Mexico. The film tells the story of Laura Guerrero, a young woman whose aspirations of becoming a beauty queen inadvertently deliver her into the hands of a gang that’s terrorizing northern Mexico. Her experiences as an unwilling participant caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s violent drug war leave her shaken and transformed.
At a recent press day for Miss Bala, we sat down at a roundtable interview with director Gerardo Naranjo, actress Stephanie Sigman, and executive producer Diego Luna to talk about what inspired them to make a film about what was happening today in their country. They discussed how they struggled to find the right tone for a difficult and suspenseful story that shows but does not judge and where nothing is clearly black and white. They described the logistical challenges they faced making the film safely on location. They also shared their viewpoint that everyone on both sides of the drug war is in some way a victim, why all of us share some responsibility for what is happening, and how they hope the film will inspire a debate that will raise awareness.
Gerardo Naranjo: The beginning of it was, it was a movie [in which] we wanted to talk about what we feel, an emotion, something that we feel is happening in the country, that is floating in the air, and we wanted to speak about that.
Diego Luna: First came the necessity of doing something. We are so lucky that our jobs can be about who we are. We can talk about what we believe in, what we worry [about], and then, with the films we do, we can start debates that we believe are necessary. This whole thing started as an idea. Gerardo said let’s do something about this. [It started] by seeing that poster of Revolución, which is ten short films that we did on the theme of where the revolution was today and what was the revolution today. Gerardo did an amazing piece, the one I personally like the most, which is about an emotion. The ten minutes that he showed last, you share with him that horrible feeling of being in the middle of something you cannot stop, that you know you are a part of and you don’t know how you got to be part of this. That feeling, I believe, was the genesis of this film because it’s exactly what happens with Miss Bala. We got involved because he said “I want to do a film about that feeling and we should all get together and start to talk about this.” Then, he wrote a script. Then, there was a film, and that’s it. For us, it all came from the confidence on Gerardo’s point of view and voice as a director.
Naranjo: Certainly, when we were developing the movie, and I think all of the theme, we thought a million times, what is the movie that it should be? At the beginning, we said okay, let’s show all the drugs, all the people with their heads cut [off], all the dismembered bodies, all the inhumanity. And then, we said okay, let’s not show any of that. Let’s just make precisely the opposite and let’s not focus on anything but what happens to her. So, we were debating all the time about how we could reach those dimensions. It’s a suspense film, but it’s also talking about this reality. It’s also talking about a girl that gets raped and the macho factor in Mexico just overwhelms her. We were talking a little about levels. Yes, when we were shooting it, I felt this is very strong. I hope it fits in the movie. At the same time, I knew we were taking all the sexiness out. I think you can get confused when you see a rape scene. If it’s somehow sexy, you’ll say no way but I like this. Also, when we were doing it, we had to be very sure that nobody was enjoying it. And, that goes for many things in the movie. Let’s just make sure this is not like a show to enjoy. Even the battles, in the sound, we wanted to make them somewhat comfortable for the audience. For me, it’s funny when they say “The action sequence was great. I enjoyed it.” I mean, it wasn’t designed to be enjoyed. I guess we get pleasure from seeing destruction as humans.
Luna: But the thing is, there is a glamorized view on the drug dealing situation in Mexico. We were talking about this, this morning. The woman is the big trophy these guys get and how cool it is to be one of them. How cool your life can become if suddenly you get the chance to be with the big shots, and it’s just so not like that. Just by being in Mexico, it can’t be about that. That’s a very romanticized view from the past, [from the] Mexico of the 90s, the beginning of the early 90s and the end of the 80s. It’s nothing like that anymore. Everyone has a gun. Everyone can be dangerous. Everyone believes he has power, and it’s a crazy war that we are going through. I believe that is well achieved in the film because it’s not judging. The film is just showing something and every character has his volume and depth.
American gangster films from the 1930s have always romanticized the outlaw. But the outlaws in this are not romanticized at all and there isn’t a clear black and white. Is that what you were looking to do?
Naranjo: Absolutely. We knew it was going to be dangerous to say something like that. At the same time, we’re conscious of the tradition of the cool criminal. I guess it comes from you guys beginning with Scarface and all that, the earliest Scarface. At the same time, the problems you have in this country don’t relate too much with impunity. I cannot say. I don’t know that much about the injustice in the U.S., but I do know in Mexico. Somehow I feel it’s morally wrong to portray a criminal that is cool and is having fun because they are not having fun. I mean, for me, that is one thing. When we did the research, we found out there’s no fun in this. It’s a pathetic world. They are ignorant. They are very ignorant people, and somehow they would be doing something else if they could, but this is a trap. They cannot do anything else. What they know is how to use weapons. Basically, they are trapped in that.
Naranjo: Yes, absolutely. I do believe so. They are victims of a justice situation. They are victims of a country that has the wealthiest person in the world (Carlos Slim Helú) and probably the poorest.
Was it dangerous for you to film this in Mexico?
Naranjo: (to Stephanie) You have a good answer for that.
Stephanie Sigman: I was so focused on my job that I didn’t even know. I mean, I wasn’t aware of that. I wasn’t focusing on that. I felt really safe with these guys. These guys took good care of me.
Naranjo: But we were not safe. (laughs)
Sigman: We were not safe, but you try to be aware.
Naranjo: We tried to do it in the most intelligent way we could. We said it was a romantic comedy. The name of the movie we were making back then was Beautiful Maria. We would get permits. We tried to do everything in the best, the quickest way, so as not to attract attention. And then, the gun scenes, we made them in another state. That wasn’t done in Tijuana. It was done in a place called Aguas Calientes, which is a safe place, and we were protected by the police. I don’t think we felt unsafe. I don’t think we felt threatened.
Luna: I think the film also is not yet dangerous. Film is supposed to be this fantasy world that happens while you eat popcorn and everyone comes together. No matter if you’re good or bad, if you’re a criminal or not, everyone goes to the movies. It’s not like being a journalist, which is very dangerous these days in Mexico.
Naranjo: Yes, because we don’t use names.
Luna: Exactly. Probably, after this film, they’ll realize that film has even more power than an article in a newspaper. But, until this day, they’ve allowed film to be about them. Everyone was helping – and I’m not talking just about the criminals – the government, the police, the military, everyone was open. We were shooting with real police. The people standing there are real police.
Naranjo: With loaded guns.
Luna: There was an amazing moment when Gerardo was directing and the head of police where we were shooting came and said “No, no, this is not the way we do it.”
Naranjo: “You don’t kill criminals like this. You kill them like this. Just don’t show it.”
Naranjo: Yeah, don’t kill the actors.
Luna: It’s not like we’ve been in this war for 25 years and there are experts. On either side, it’s like there’s no expertise around and that’s what makes this war so dangerous.
Stephanie, what was it like preparing for this role? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Sigman: It was my first movie. I was not afraid of the subject. I was afraid of not doing a good job. But I was really lucky because I had an amazing director. He really gives you everything to work with. And, Noé Hernández is a great, great actor. I think they were so supportive with me that I trusted in the process all of the time. Even when I had my doubts, I had Gerardo and Noé, and it was a journey that we were both on. I think the most important thing was trust.
Naranjo: I told Stephanie that at a certain point you will be confused and rightly so. There was a point when all of the shots were about beating her up and she was just being punished. It was just so rough that we tried to take care of her as much as we could, but there was a point where we couldn’t. The most important thing was to understand when she couldn’t take it anymore. Then, let’s take it easy. Let’s not keep shooting. That’s fine until she heals. There were also some physical wounds but I guess that’s the way. I’m sure there is another way for doing this movie, but we didn’t have the money or the experience to make it lighter for her.
Sigman: I think, somehow, being in a physically active part, it’s the most active thing in this character, because she’s passive in another aspect. It was something that helped me, because through the body came all of the interesting things inside because [otherwise] she was so passive. It was very moving.
Naranjo: Also, we had a rule that she couldn’t express herself in any way, but she had to speak through the eyes. I said I don’t want you to be in any way expressive. I mean, she could create any words she wanted, but I said I don’t want you to cry or do melodramatic tricks. I certainly dislike the melodrama. In Mexico, I think it has gone to such expression, like the soap operas. We even have dogs that talk. We had no room for that in this. It’s our culture. We are very excessive in how we express ourselves.
Sigman: Sometimes, instead of trying to cry, I tried not to cry. I really tried not to cry and not to show that much [emotion]. I discovered that it’s really difficult sometimes.
Do you think that your federal government eventually will rein in what’s going on?
Luna: Well, the thing is, there are two questions. Is the country ready for a war like this? Obviously not. There are more than 50,000 people who have been killed in the last five years. No more than six years, let’s put it that way. Obviously, the tools that the government side has to fight with are not even close to what you need and the condition. You have to attack the problem. It’s a big issue — the impunity in our country, the corruption, the poverty, the terrible and unbalanced way that the wealth is distributed. Obviously, this is never going to end if the border doesn’t work. But also, we can include the States on this. If there are still 2,000 weapons coming into Mexico every day through the border with this country, then the violence is never going to stop. And, if there’s always such an interesting market, such a great business happening so close, who’s going to stop selling drugs? It makes no sense. It’s very complicated. We’re not saying we shouldn’t attack this somehow. But definitely the way it’s been done up until today is not working. This film is about the feeling of all of us that we kind of connect with Laura Guerrero who’s suddenly in the middle and that we recognize ourselves in part of this. There’s some responsibility we share. We allowed this to happen. We allowed this to get to this point.
Are you looking at raising people’s awareness in the United States? A lot of people say that the United States is the demand side that is basically pulling narcotics into the country. Without the demand, you can’t expect the suppliers not to produce.
Luna: Also, it’s because you’re talking about such a poor country. Everyone talks about how unbalanced the inequality is in Mexico, but also, if you see Mexico versus the States, the same thing happens. So, how can that be healthy? How can a relationship between such a rich country and such a poor country be healthy? It’s impossible. Why waste so much money on building such a big wall. You should invest that in education in Mexico and give people a chance to make their own living. That would be a smarter way to keep people away from coming. It’s so complicated. I don’t know who said, if you go to Tijuana and study Tijuana, you can understand what basically is happening in the whole world because it’s an issue that’s happening in every country. Everybody has their take on it, but it’s definitely a worldwide issue. And, this is part of that.
One of the problems with the border towns is now Americans won’t go there. Are you afraid you would be kidnapped for a ransom?
Luna: I’m not afraid. No. It’s not the first thing that has me afraid, at least today. But definitely, having kids makes you rethink your whole life, and also you see the issues differently. That’s why I say we share a responsibility here. We have to be able to choose the reality we want to live in. If this is not the one, then we have to do something about it to change it. The thing is, in the end, I’m not scared for myself, I’m scared for those who I love, and I’m sad. I have never been so sad because I don’t like what I see when I turn to Mexico. That’s where my love relations are and that’s where I belong. As Gerardo said, he can probably shoot a film in the States, wherever he wants to shoot, but it’s still going to be kind of a Mexican film because of how you see the world. And, I don’t like seeing my country as it is today.
Miss Bala opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 20th.