By Anna Weinstein.
Patricia Riggen has directed five features in the past decade. Her first feature, Under the Same Moon (2007), was a critical and commercial success, telling the story of a mother working illegally in the U.S. in the hopes of providing a better life for her son in Mexico. The film was made for $1.7 million and brought in $23 million at the box office. Lemonade Mouth (2011) was nominated for a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children’s Programs, and Girl in Progress (2012), starring Eva Mendes, Cierra Ramirez, and Patricia Arquette, won an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Award and an Imagen Award for Best Director. The 33 (2015), starring Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, and Juliette Binoche, took home one award and eleven nominations, and her most recent film, Miracles From Heaven (2016), stars Jennifer Garner and was widely released across the U.S.
Riggen recently went to Cannes with We Do It Together, a nonprofit created to finance and produce films and television programming dedicated to the empowerment of women. Riggen spoke with Anna Weinstein about her start as a journalist and producer in Mexico, her transition from producer to director, challenges for female directors in the U.S. and Mexico, and her personal struggle to find her directorial voice.
Could you tell me about your beginnings? You started in journalism. How did you end up directing features?
I went into journalism because there was no film school in my hometown, Guadalajara. Most of the film industry was concentrated in Mexico City at the time, so I took on journalism, but I specialized in interviewing filmmakers. I just started hanging out with film people and got to know them, so the transition – moving into the film industry – was quite easy for me.
Were you interviewing filmmakers because you thought you might want to be a filmmaker?
That’s where my heart was. I wasn’t interested in anything else but that. I didn’t know exactly what I would be at the time. I thought I was going to be a screenwriter – my mother is a writer, a poet and a playwright – but very soon I found myself working as a producer in Mexico City.
How did you get your start as a producer?
There was a producer from Mexico City, probably the top producer of the time, Bertha Navarro, who moved to Guadalajara to create a television show. She invited me to work for her based on my column, my interviews, and that started my career, because she was in the center of the Mexican film community. She was my mentor, and I met everyone. She used to handle the Sundance Screenwriting Labs in Mexico – she still does. So I worked for her as a coordinator and translator between the advisors from the U.S. and the Mexican screenwriters. I was in the middle of the two of them and I was learning.
How old were you at that time?
I was 22 or 23, right out of college. Bertha was a producer for Guillermo del Toro, all of his movies back in Mexico, among many others. But in Mexico, women were either screenwriters or producers in my time. There were very few female directors – just four in fact. My thesis paper to graduate from university was about female directors in Mexico. I interviewed the four of them, extensive interviews, and then I transcribed them and analyzed them. I understood who they were and what their career was like and the obstacles they faced, but it wasn’t in my mind to be a director yet.
That’s fascinating. Why do you think you chose to interview these four directors if you wanted to be a screenwriter or producer?
Because it didn’t cross my mind that I could be a director. In Mexico – that’s why I am mentioning this – it’s very easy for women to gravitate toward writing and producing. That’s how it is. You’ll always find a man opening doors for you to write or produce for him, but you’ll never find anyone encouraging you to be the boss. At least in my time, we’re talking 20 years ago. My heart was in that place, because that’s what I was doing – writing about female directors – but I didn’t know that’s what I was, a director.
After being mentored by Navarro, where were you working as a producer?
I was offered a job as a film executive at the Mexican Film Institute, which at the time was the main production entity in the country. There were no private investments in movies – all the movies were financed and produced by the Mexican Film Institute. So I became a producer for them. It was a great experience – I was successful financially, I had power, I was in the movies, but at the same time, I wasn’t happy. I knew it wasn’t my place in the world.
So that’s when you went to film school [Columbia University]?
Yes, I thought I’ve got to find out if I’m a screenwriter. I have to give myself that opportunity. I felt I’d been denied that opportunity. In Mexico, you don’t go away to college. You stay at home. You choose a career that exists in your city.
Is that for financial reasons or because it’s just the cultural norm?
It’s not financial. It’s cultural for families to stay together until you finish school, and then you start working and are independent – that’s when you leave. Particularly as a woman, you’re not allowed to leave home because they need to keep an eye on you. That’s the most important thing – not for the women in my culture to find a career, but to stay safe until you get married.
Did your mother go to school?
No. She’s a very intelligent woman, and when she was in high school, she got every award, but when she wanted to go to university, she was denied that opportunity by her parents. They were from an upper middle class family, and women didn’t go to university in her society. This was the situation for women in Mexico in my mom’s time. So on her own she started writing – plays, short stories, poetry.
Did she encourage you to pursue a career, or did she fall into the same cultural norms?
Both, exactly at the same time – “you’re not allowed to go anywhere, but let me help you to write that paper.” She would be my proofreader – back when I was a journalist and often for my screenplays. Still I send her scripts and she gives notes. And she’s very aggressive, critical. She’s very helpful in that sense. But at the same time, she was a conservative woman, so she encouraged me to find a proper husband with a good career, not to find my own career.
How old were you when you went to Columbia?
I think I was 27. I thought I was a writer, but when I got there, I realized that it’s hard to write in English when you’re a Spanish speaker. I just had a big handicap. But at the same time, I chose a program that allowed me to do all of it – writing, directing, editing. So I had my directing classes at Columbia, and from the moment I started shooting, I realized that directing was what I knew how to do – that with my personality, I was perfect for that job of director.
Can you describe what those personality traits are that lend themselves to directing?
For instance, I’m very opinionated. I have a point of view about everything. When I was in other jobs, like producing or writing, you don’t get to have the last word. You’re quiet and support the director. But as a director, I can really be myself. I can express my ideas. In fact, you’re supposed to express your ideas the whole time. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job. You have to have a point of view about everything all the time. We make hundreds of decisions every day, directors.
You deal well under pressure.
Yes, I can really work under tremendous pressure, under tremendous responsibility. I love big challenges. I get bored if I don’t have them. I don’t like routine. In the film business, you never know what you’re doing tomorrow, and you’re always doing something new, and you’re always doing it for the first time. Every project is different, and you’re always living in that uncertain feeling – will this work out? Will I be able to? And then at the same time, you just move forward because it’s exciting.
How do you handle being in between projects? Are there times when you’re not working that become more challenging for you?
It’s the opposite. Ever since I began my career, I’ve worked nonstop. I’ve been very fortunate. I have five feature films in eight years or so, which means I’m one of the very lucky female directors. I’ve been making a movie every year or two, and that’s what’s challenging – that I haven’t had any personal time. It’s taking a toll, so when I finished this last movie, I’d made two movies back to back, and I decided I had to stop. I still read scripts, but I don’t go to the meetings – even if I like the project. If I do that, then I’m going to find myself again in this hurricane that lasts a year or two. So I’m taking my time now. Of course, I’m busy every single day. When I’m not working, I’m thinking of scripts, developing stuff. I just keep thinking about what is next for me. How do I grow?
When you say that the work has taken a toll, what does that look like for you?
For many months I don’t have a moment for myself. Any moment that I have available I give to my daughter.
How old is your daughter?
She’s eight. It’s either work or family. Because I need to be able to spend as much time as I can with her when I’m not working. I look at people who go to coffee with a friend or go to a movie together, and for a few years, it was just not accessible to me. I’m not feeling like that right now, because I haven’t taken a movie in three months. I did shoot a commercial, and I did some traveling. But it’s good to be my own boss for a little while. I’m also trying to figure out who I want to be as a director. That’s something I’m still trying to figure out.
When you think about the director that you want to be and the types of stories you want to tell, looking back on your films, do you have a favorite?
No. I don’t think I’ve found my voice yet. I love them all equally, but at the same time, I don’t love any of them. It’s not that I don’t love them, but they don’t represent yet the kind of movies that I feel I need to make. It’s interesting, right?
It is. Could you describe the kind of movies that you want to make?
As a woman from Mexico I’ve been very conscious of my status in this industry. That has motivated me to work hard to learn my craft and create a name for myself as a director. But to do that, I’ve had to sacrifice my voice or what I really want to do. It’s so tough as a woman to become a director that all my energy has been involved in just surviving. So I think I want to reach a point soon in my career where I can start choosing the stories that I want to tell. I haven’t gotten to that place yet. I don’t regret my path. I think it has made me stronger, more experienced. It’s given me a name to be able to access the resources that we need. Because as filmmakers we aren’t poets. We aren’t writers. We don’t need a pencil to create. We need several million dollars. And for somebody to trust you, if you’re a woman, you need to prove that you’re much more talented than a man, much more sure of yourself and strong. It’s complicated.
How do you navigate those business aspects, proving that you’re capable and strong enough to be at the helm? Does that come naturally to you, or is that something you have to work on?
Well, men and women, I’m sure we go through the same things when it comes to proving yourself as the right director for a project. But there’s an intrinsic suspicion when you’re a woman, wondering whether you’re able. It’s completely unconscious, but it’s there. So you have to be always ready – and especially in the beginning. Later on, when the work speaks for itself, then you can start relaxing a bit and show that you have a doubt or that you have flaws. But the first movies, you can’t do that, because they would be taken away from you immediately. We don’t have that luxury of having doubts or not being completely prepared. We’re judged by other parameters that are very tough, very unforgiving. I’m feeling safer now, though.
I was going to ask you that. You took three months off, so you must feel comfortable doing that.
I’m not jumping into a new movie yet, because if I do, then I don’t own my time. I want to own my time, just for a little while. And I’m super happy now, by the way.
So in terms of the movies that you’d really like to make, do you know what they are? Or are you still figuring that out?
I’m still figuring it out. The thing is, I’ve established myself in an industry where as a director you’re like a work-for-hire. To be really independent creatively, I’d need to go back to Latin America or go to Europe. It’s just the way that the industry works here. It’s not an auteur artistic endeavor – it’s a business. Of course, you bring as much as you can, but you don’t have the last word. So I’m trying to put all of those realities together and figure out if I’m happy. I’m not sure I’m happy.
But right now, you are happy.
In terms of my free time, I’m happy. But I’m not satisfied yet with my career. I just don’t feel that I’ve found my place yet.
Would you consider optioning a book that you love? Is that a possibility?
Of course. I’m optioning a couple – and also developing some ideas of my own. It’s tricky, because some of the subject matter or the types of characters that I gravitate toward aren’t necessarily commercial.
How would you describe the characters or the subject matter?
Women, first of all. Female stories, or period dramas. Even action films. Anything with strong female leads. But most of that is not in right now, theatrically speaking. You must make big spectacle movies to be commercial. I love some of them, but that’s not the only thing I would like to do.
Would you consider going back to Mexico to do a film?
Of course, but I would need to find a script that’s fascinating to me. I like the idea of wide distribution, that’s the thing, and that happens out of the U.S. You’re asking me the questions that I’m asking myself. Do I want to go back? Do I want that independence? What does that mean? How many people are going to watch it? I’m in that little existential crisis, asking myself what kind of director do I want to be?
But if a project came to you that you were absolutely in love with, then you might take the meeting?
Absolutely – although that’s never been the case. If there’s a great script, it’s not going to come to me. It’s going to go to Stephen or Clint. My career has been about getting scripts that are flawed and figuring out how to make beautiful movies. If they were great, they wouldn’t come to me. That’s the truth. They’d go to the A-lister, the more fancy man.
Is a great women’s story less likely to go to a man?
Great? No. Times are changing, and maybe this year it’s in fashion to give it to a woman director. But in general, it’s natural to give it to a man. I’m not criticizing. That’s just the reality, so we just need to be creative and make those scripts better and make good movies, no matter what.
Is your daughter aware of what you do for a living?
She is now. When I told her that I’d shot Lemonade Mouth, even though she came with me to the set, she actually never realized it. A classmate told her, and she was so excited. She said, “Thank you for making this film!” She was very proud. But also, she thinks it’s the most normal thing for me to be a director.
In the big picture, maybe that’s a good thing.
Right, maybe it is!
The Diva Directors interview series has appeared both online and in the print editions of Film International. To date, the series has included interviews with internationally acclaimed filmmakers Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Isabel Coixet (Spain), Cristina Comencini (Italy), Anne Fontaine (France), Marleen Gorris (The Netherlands), Caroline Link (Germany), Claudia Llosa (Peru), Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (Pakistan), Kirsten Sheridan (Ireland), and Susanna White (England).
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International.