Gravity screenwriter makes his directorial debut with Desierto

Desierto is a parable for where we can end up, as a society, if we keep promoting so much hatred. With so much hatred being promoted, sooner or later, someone is going to pull the trigger…”

Mexican Screenwriter Jonas Cuarón,  who made his major feature film writing debut in 2013 with the Academy Award-winning Gravity, now makes his feature film directorial debut with Desierto, the terrifying story of a group of people trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States who encounter a man who has taken border patrol duties into his own racist hands.

Gael García Bernal discusses a scene with director Jonas Cuarón during the filming of Desierto

In Desierto, Moises (Gael García Bernal) is traveling by foot with a group of undocumented workers across a desolate strip of the border between Mexico and the United States, seeking a new life in the North.  They are discovered by a lone American vigilante, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and a frantic chase begins.  Set against the stunningly brutal landscape, Moises and Sam engage in a lethal match of wits, each desperate to survive and escape the desert that threatens to consume them.

Cuarón, the son of Academy Award-winner Alfonso Cuarón, co-wrote the screenplay of Desierto with Mateo Garcia, a writer and actor, known for Desierto (2015), Domingo (2013) and Year of the Nail (2007).

Cuarón also directed, wrote, produced and edited the Gravity companion short Aningaaq, which featured a conversation between an Inuit fisherman in Greenland named Aningaaq and Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, Ryan Stone. The short was filmed on location in Greenland and was inspired by a pivotal scene in the film in which Bullock’s character, with little hope for survival, makes contact with a male voice speaking in a foreign language while she is trapped inside a Russian space capsule.

Cuarón previously wrote, directed and produced the independent film Year Of The Nail, on which he also served as cinematographer and editor.  For his work on the film, he won a Special Artistic Achievement Award at the 2007 Thessaloniki Film Festival, where he was also nominated for a Golden Alexander Award. That same year, he directed the documentary short The Shock Doctrine, which he also edited and shot.

A Q&A with Desierto Director Jonas Cuarón

How did you start your career in the film industry? Were you influenced by being surrounded by filmmakers?

I never really thought I was going to go into cinema. I went to university to study literature. Then I started doing shorts and I realized I liked it. I made my first picture in college and showed it to my father and my uncle. They were both very surprised that I was making cinema. All they did was talk about cinema; all their friends talked about cinema. They left me no option. Also, my girlfriend was very obsessed with cinema. So I started doing small movies, then I got hooked.

When and why did you decide to do a movie with an immigration theme?; and why did you decide on an action thriller genre for this film?

This is my first film that discusses this subject matter in this form. My first film “Año Uña” also explored about the relationship between Mexico and the United States but in a very different way. I guess it’s a subject matter that has always interested me. I moved to the United States more than twenty years ago. So I lived my whole life between the United States and Mexico. The relationship between both cultures is very important to me.

Ten years ago I traveled to Arizona with my brother. Back then there were already anti-immigration laws (on the books) that were startling. There started to be a really strong rhetoric of hatred towards immigrants. I became interested in doing a project about this subject but wanted to do it in a new way. I didn’t want it to be a cliché film. That’s what started to talk about these issues through the [genre of] a horror movie or an action movie. Not only because it was a new way to do it, but also because I wanted to create a connection with the audience, but not an intellectual connection. I was more interested in connecting with the audience in a visual way.

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?

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.

How did you come to write Desierto as your follow-up to Gravity?

Actually, I had written a basic outline Desierto before writing Gravity.

Back then, I was very interested in the concept of movies like Spielberg’s Duel, Konchalovskiy’s Runaway Train, and Bresson’s A Man Escapes. They are non-stop nail biting thrillers with very little dialogue but that at the same time manage to juggle various themes.  I was very interested in the drive of these films where the audience connects with the story and character in a very visceral way.

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.

We immediately set off to write Gravity, so I put Desierto on hold. This hiatus and the experience of Gravity was great because I was able to test this concept and learn many things that I incorporated into Desierto.

Do you and your father provide each other with feedback? How do you work together?

Whenever I do a project I always go to my dad and my uncle (Carlos Cuarón) for feedback. They are two people I really admire and have been my mentors throughout this whole process. So in that sense that’s how we tend to collaborate. Obviously, there are times when our collaboration became even closer, as in the case of “Gravity,” which we ended up writing together. But even when it’s not like “Gravity,” we’re always working together since we tend to constantly ask each other for feedback.

How did you cast the key actors in the film?

Since I began writing the first draft of Desierto, I had Gael in mind for the project. Not only because he is a great actor, which is fundamental in a film like Desierto where the whole emotional drive of the story is carried by the lead, but also because I knew how involved he is with immigration. He’s done several documentaries on this subject matter and traveled all the way from Central America to the US following the route Central American migrants take.

In casting Sam, it was important for me to not fall into “the villain” cliché and I wanted to create a three dimensional character. I was already excited to work with Jeffrey as I knew he could give the character the emotional complexity I was looking for. I was nervous Jeffrey was not going to like the script  after all US actors are not used to playing these types of roles, normally it is foreigners shooting at them, and not the other way around – but Jeffrey was really excited about the character and themes of the story.   How did you find your shooting location?  It was such a key part of your film.

Since I wrote the script, I knew that other than my two main characters, the desert was going to be the film’s most important element. Part of the concept of this film was to talk about the themes of the movie not by means of dialogue but by juxtaposing the character and his actions with the landscape. So I spent over two years scouting this film. I visited deserts all across the globe during this process- Anza Borrego; Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California; southern Utah; Arizona; New Mexico; Almería in Spain (where Sergio Leone shot most of his films); Morocco; and all of Mexico. This scouting process was great, not only because at the end I found the location where I ended up shooting, but because in the process I learned a lot about the landscape of the desert and was able to incorporate my knowledge into the script.

Gael García Bernal has made several documentaries on immigration and seems to have done extensive research on the subject. How did that background knowledge affect the way you two worked together?

I chose Gael not only because he is an actor that I really admire, but also because when I was doing research for the film I kept seeing those documentaries that you mentioned. Some of them were directed by him, others he produced. He even acted in one of them. He took the whole journey that migrants take from Central America to Mexico on the train. So I knew for Gael, the subject matter was very close to him and that was very helpful. Also, I knew that research-wise he was a great partner. He really knew a lot about the subject matter.

Was there an instance where he changed your perspective an issue or a particular scene because of this knowledge and experience?

On the set, he would constantly tell all the other actors these stories that he had either seen first-hand, or learned about through the research [for the documentaries] he had done. In that sense he kept constantly informing everyone in the team. For me, lots of things about those documentaries ended being important for this film. His documentary “Who is Dayani Cristal?” really inspired a particularly strong and tragic moment in “Desierto.”


What was your creative process in determining how you were going to represent the immigrant and the vigilante?

The tricky part with a movie like “Desierto” was that ten minutes into the movie the action starts and it becomes nonstop. There’s little time to have dialogue and explain the human side of the characters, so that’s something that I’m really grateful to Gael and Jeffrey for. [Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”) plays the vigilante.] With the very little dialogue and signs that they give us—whether it is through action, through the wardrobe, or just even expressions—we learn a lot about their characters.

Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are both so great in this, but the other memorable cast member you have is the dog. As a filmmaker, what was it like to have a dog play such a crucial role in the story?

It’s funny, when I showed the early drafts to both my dad and my uncle, the main note they kept giving me was, “Get rid of the dog! It’s your first movie. Don’t ever work with animals.” But for me, it was important to keep the dog. I knew it was going to be one of the main ways to keep the tension because it’s a very terrifying character. But also, it was important that Sam had a human side. He’s completely alone in the desert, so his dog was the only way I could show his human connection. It’s the only connection he has, throughout the movie, so it was a very important character. I spent three years looking for dogs, everywhere. I ended up finding this trainer that doesn’t train dogs for cinema. He trains them for actual security purposes, so they’re real attack dogs. Everything you see them do in the movie was real. They’re incredibly agile and incredibly scary. We started with two of those dogs, one for the running scenes and one for the bites. But then, for the first scene that Jeffrey filmed with the dog, Jeffrey started screaming and the dog was not used to working with actors, so it got scared and it tried to bite Jeffrey. That’s when we decided to bring a third dog in, which was just a normal, calm dog.

How do you tell a story like this without making it too preachy? Is it just about being honest with the story that you’re telling and allowing it to reflect your passion about the subject?

That’s something that I admire about genre and why it was important to tell this story through genre. Genre connects with the audience in a visceral way. You connect to the story through your gut, instead of through your intellect. I wanted to tell this story through that narrative device. We’ve seen many, many stories that try to rationalize or preach, or it becomes a debate on the subject matter. But to me, it was important not to have this be a debate. I just wanted to create an experience for the audience that gave them a visceral connection. Sometimes we over-rationalize things, but some things are not debatable. We shot scenes with Jeffrey [Dean Morgan], where he explained the backstory of his character and we justified it in a psycho-analytical way, but those scenes didn’t go with the drive of the movie. It minimized the action, which should speak for itself. And anyways, there is no justification for going around shooting people.


You served as Director, Co-Writer, and Editor on the film, how did you juggle that?

The whole process, and the different stages it involved, seemed pretty straightforward to me- from imagining the story one night, to getting it down onto paper, to putting together all the elements I needed to film it, to actually filming it and finally cutting it together. All of these stages imply different work titles, but for me they were all part of the same job – getting the movie I imagined done.   How did you father, Alfonso, become involved in the project?

Whenever I finish the first draft of a screenplay, I show it to my dad and my uncle Carlos to get their feedback. My dad is my closest collaborator and mentor and by the time I started raising Desierto I’d spent the last four years working with him on Gravity, so it was just natural to have both of them as producers on the project.

Is there a message that you hope people take from seeing this film, or is it more about raising questions and sparking conversations among people?

To me, Desierto is just my own personal view. I wanted to create an experience for the audience, and then let the audience have their own reflection. Desierto is a parable for where we can end up, as a society, if we keep promoting so much hatred. With so much hatred being promoted, sooner or later, someone is going to pull the trigger, like Sam does.

Are you interested in doing more movies with the immigration themes or are you looking into other projects?

Right now I don’t know with clarity what my next project is. Obviously this subject matter interests me. But I feel like right now, with “Desierto”, I’ve managed to do a take on it.

You’re also currently working on a futuristic Zorro movie, called Z. Is that the next film you’re hoping to make?

When we opened Desierto in Toronto last year, I was approached and invited to write a project that was inspired by the character of Zorro. I thought it was a really interesting project for two main reasons. One is that, like Desierto, I like the idea of making genre movies, but that hide a social subject matter. Obviously, the character of Zorro is a great jumping point to create an engaging adventure movie, but that touches on important and relevant social issues. The other thing that interested me in the project is that, when the producers approached me, they had Gael [García Bernal] in mind for the leading role. To me, any excuse to work with Gael again is a great excuse.

What made you want to take the Zorro story and set it in the future?

Look, I’ve only started writing the project, so I’m not for sure how it’s going to shape up. But as I said, I think it’s a great jumping point to make a really entertaining movie, but also a movie that touches on important issues.

Have you also written anything with your father, Alfonso Cuarón, or are you going to be writing anything with him soon?

Right now, I’ve been so busy with Desierto that we haven’t thought about it. But, I would love to work with him again. To me, Gravity was one of the biggest learning experiences in my life. I would definitely love to repeat that collaboration.