Interview: Jonás Cuarón on Desierto, digital distribution and Gravity
Ivan Radford | On 18, Oct 2015
Desierto received its European premiere at the London Film Festival in 2015 (read our review here). The action thriller, which is as gripping as it is political, sees a group of illegal immigrants (led by Gael García Bernal’s Moises) stranded on the border of the USA. Soon, they find themselves hunted by a gun-toting redneck (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who takes border control into his own hands, accompanied by a dog and a sniper rifle.
It’s the second feature from director Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso Cuarón, who acts as producer here, along with his uncle, Carlos. Jonas’ last project was Aningaaq, a short film that accompanied Gravity, while the director also co-wrote the Oscar-winning sci-fi, picking up a BAFTA nomination for Best Original Screenplay along the way.
Intelligent and exciting, it’s the kind of film you can imagine performing well on something like Curzon Home Cinema, the digital platform from distributor Curzon Film World that often premieres films alongside a theatrical release. With Desierto still looking for a UK distributor, we chat to Jonas about migration, adding layers to genre movies and the rise of digital distribution.
After Gravity, Desierto takes us back to Earth with a really hard bump. How did it come about?
I started working on Desierto before Gravity. Six years ago, I showed my dad a treatment and it led to my dad and I discussing and talking about films that are in that style: pure action thrillers that have many layers of meaning and talk about different themes. So that conversation turned into talking about doing something like that and we wrote Gravity, so I took a four-year hiatus [on this]!
What’s that working relationship with Alfonso like? Is it weird or natural?
It’s very natural, you know. It’s like, I grew up with him talking about cinema constantly with my uncle. All the movies I watched growing up were movies he recommended to me. I understand his taste. Even though we sometimes differ on things, there is a very common playing field so it makes the working relationship really easy. And also we’re really close, so it’s relationship where we can be brutally honest with each other because we know we’re not going to take it personally.
The subject of migration seems even more relevant now, given the situation in Europe…
Migration is a very universal theme. It always has been timely: migration exists since humanity, you know? It’s only more relevant now because it’s finally catching up with us. That’s why I wanted to make Desierto in a genre film where it was always stripped down from everything, including dialogue, because obviously, the movie happens in the border between the US and Mexico but it could almost happen anywhere in the world. People always ask “Oh, are you curious how the US will react to it?” and obviously I am, but I’m also curious how people in England and in Europe will react to it.
Between this and Gravity, you have a knack for combining big themes with genre fare – how did Desierto start? And how does that process develop?
Before writing I had been to Arizona to Tucson and there in the consulate they told me what they had to deal with daily and I started reading a lot about it. For many years wanted to make a story about it, but I kept not finding a way that would not end up preaching to the choir. On the other hand, I’ve been a huge fan of action thrillers and 70s movies, because what I admire they did there is disguised in an action thriller very political films so that’s when I thought it would be interesting to do a movie that’s an action/political thriller about migration.
How do you keep it so stripped down – were there things you removed as production went on?
I always wanted it to be bare and stopped down. On the other hand, I wanted the characters to be human. So what I did do was, for instance, particularly with Jeffrey, we shot many scenes where he explained more of his character. I didn’t want them in the movie, because in this kind of movie, I want present actions to speak – whatever i can say about his past of biography should not alter the cruelty of his actions. But it gave Jeffrey as an actor a lot to grab onto. I didn’t want him to end up as the non-human, almost flat character. The scenes where he reaches those levels of emotion, it’s much easier when he’s had other scenes where he knows what’s going on his head.
How did Gael get involved?
Since I wrote the script, I wanted to work with Gael. Having seen my dad work on Gravity, I realise how important your lead is. This is a movie where you have no dialogue and where the whole dramatic connection of the audience is on that one character. It’s all on Gael. So I knew I needed a lead as strong as him. Also, while doing research, I kept arriving at these documentaries that Gael had produced. In one of them, he embeds himself with a group of migrants and crosses from Central America to the US, so I knew he had done all the research. And the third reason was I did feel that role needed a star, a face that people could really sympathise with. Part of the issue with migration is we see the “other” as a foreign, faceless identity that leads people to talk about them as “swarms” until they’re given a face. So it was interesting to invert an action movie: normally, it’s a white guy running away from evil “others”, so it was interesting to give the migrant a recognisable face the audience could sympathise with. He became one of my closest allies, he even helped me with research.
When did Jeffrey come on board?
With Jeffrey, I was looking for actors and I saw him and I was very interested in his work and persona. When I met with him, all he did was talk about his two dogs, he had dog tattoos all over his body! Jeffrey has that thing I was looking that contrast between roughness but he’s also a very emotional guy…
We can imagine on the one hand wanting to hug him but on at the same being worried he’s about to hit you…
Exactly! (Laughs) He has that thing where he’s the most sensitive guy but he’s also the most terrifying guy!
Conditions when filming in the desert must have been pretty intense too?
We all left like zombies! The wife of my cinematographer was shocked at the state I brought him back in! They’re in the desert, but most of the time they’re running and jumping. We had actors starting to feel dizzy, so we started a running regiment to get them fit. Before we got there, they did a lot of character preparation, but once they were there, we had to do physical preparation.
How has the reaction been to the film at the festival?
It seemed very good, I was very happy. I made the movie because I wanted it to be universal and talk about migration across the globe, but I was worried only Mexicans and Americans would understand it, but people are connecting with it also. They’re not seeing it as a foreign thing, like oh, those Americans, but people are also connecting on an introspective sense. That level of rhetoric and messed-up policies are all across Europe.
We’ve had in the UK recently the rise of a party called “UKIP”. That right-wing sentiment – times are tough, it’s those other people’s fault – really is all over the place.
No, it’s insane. I dunno. It’s like… it’s a very easy rhetoric. Politicians use it more and more. Where you have a politician with that rhetoric you should learn from history, you know?
Desierto is still waiting to sign a UK distributor, is that right?
Hopefully it’s going to soon. So far, the main deal we’ve closed is for the US.
Since your first movie, less than 10 years ago, the world of distribution has changed. Have you considered VOD as an option?
When I made my first movie, Año Uña, I wish there had been so many outlets. But the thing with Desierto, since I started crafting it, it’s a movie I hope people can get to experience theatrically. It’s not on the same level as Gravity, which also had the 3D, IMAX and whole thing, but it is a theatrical experience. With the sound designer, we spent over four months crafting an immersive sound experience. In this kind of movie, you try to communicate with an audience not so much in an emotional way but in a visceral experience, so the grandness of the theatrical helps with that.
This weekend, Beasts of No Nation arrived in US cinemas and on Netflix on the same day. How do you feel about that shift in general?
I think it’s very interesting. I think it’s the future, you know? I made a movie, it was a very experimental movie, 10 years ago, but why I made it was one of the main things I wanted to prove with new technology you could make film on your own. I self-produced, edited, directed, I had no budget, but then I encountered the issue of yeah, you can make it, but how are you going to show it to the world? So seeing that in so little time so many more options of distributing a movie is very interesting, not only for small movies, but also in general: the same way having more means for production allows for creativity to have more options, also having more means of distribution, it’s always good when new elements are changing the rules of the game.
Desierto is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.