By David A. Ellis.
Filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes, born in Mexico City in 1983, was interested in the world of moving images from an early age. He moved to the United States at the age of six and attended college in UC San Diego, Madrid and Mexico City to receive a degree in International Studies.
After university he started to make films and has gone on to make several documentaries, which includes Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border (2013), which was voted the best US Latino Film at the 5th Annual Cinema Tropical Awards. The film has played at the Guadalajara and Los Angeles film festivals. His films have been shown all over Mexico in a number of film festivals. In 2012 he won the LCI Award at the Ficunam Film Festival for Memories of the Future (2011).
Reyes latest offering is a fiction film called Lupe Under the Sun, about a Mexican immigrant living in the USA. Lupe becomes dissatisfied with his life and wants to move back to Mexico, where the rest of his family are. Reyes makes a brief appearance (shades of Hitchcock) as a hat seller.
Apart from filmmaking, Reyes works at Merced Superior Court as an interpreter.
Were you interested in movies as a child?
I was always fascinated by film. Some of my early memories are going to the movies in Mexico City with my parents. They, I guess, had a loose attitude about films and they let me watch anything that I wanted. So I was able to watch films that might have been a little too violent or little bit too grown up for me. I always wanted to know how movies were made and how I could get involved.
Did you enter the film world after leaving school?
I am the oldest child in my family. We immigrated to the United States and I felt I had a really strong responsibility to go and get a degree. I went and did that, getting a degree in International Studies. After that I went and tried to do what I really wanted to do, make movies.
Who gave you your first opportunity?
I started off self-funding the films. I would write a script, get a small crew together and shoot something.
Did you find it difficult taking on several roles, for example on Lupe you produced, directed and wrote?
It was. Also, there was the cultural mediation that we did, to make sure that we had a proper crew, even though it was tiny. The man that plays Lupe, Daniel Muratalla, and his wife Ana come from a very rural background in Mexico. They had to feel comfortable. I had to have the right trans cultural identity going on set, bringing very different people together to get the movie going.
What inspired you to write the story?
Well, it started off as a documentary. As I was working on it one of my cousins, who is a writer approached me and said: “It is interesting you are doing something about migrant workers, but did you know that your grandfather was a migrant worker?” I said yes, I knew he travelled to the US and he’d come home to Mexico and visit the family once a year. My cousin went on to say: “Did you know there was a time when he didn’t go home for five years.” I said I didn’t know that, so I started thinking about what it was that drove my grandpa to stay in the US for five years and not let anybody know where he was. He didn’t send a letter or anything – he just went missing in action. That inspired this story. My grandfather eventually did go back but there are a lot of guys around me that haven’t. There are a lot of guys that have just worked their life through and they end up becoming these ghosts in the US.
The film is about the experiences of real life. The script was very short at around twenty pages. I didn’t dramatise any scenes. I let them play out the way I thought that they would actually play out in real life.
How many were on the crew?
I had a cameraman, an assistant, a sound guy and a couple of PAs. Sometimes we had five, sometimes six people. We worked this film like a family. We would eat together and people stayed at my house. We shot some of the sequences at Daniel’s house. We let the film get embedded into the real world without a lot of this kind of artifice. So often we see these communities that are considered marginal. You see this man, Lupe, you really get to know him on screen and you get to know where he lives.
What equipment do you use?
It is mostly digital equipment because of how lightweight it is. If we had the option to use film and make it more gorgeous we would. I have known several filmmakers who go two or three years without making a movie – so we go down the path of least resistance.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a non-fiction film about my relationship with a friend of mine, who is actually incarcerated. He is in prison in California for murder and is serving a life sentence. I am working on a documentary about him and our friendship. Also I am exploring the issue of violence and what happens in the aftermath of a police officer shooting an innocent person and how do they live with that and what are the consequences. I like to try and blend fiction with non-fiction, using people who are not actors, and using smaller crews than you would normally.
Which is the part you enjoy the most?
I really enjoy being on the set. I just enjoy being able to capture something I never expected and to feel that special kind of sensation of being lucky. It’s like wow! The most gruelling part is the editing. That is incredibly gruelling and painful, but it’s also rewarding.
How long did it take to film Lupe?
It was a pretty long shoot. It was incredibly hot when we did it. It was filmed in Merced County in California and took fourteen days. I filmed with folks and friends in Merced where I live and was engaging with my own community.
Did it involve lighting set-ups or did you use natural light?
It was almost all-natural light. It really does feel like your there. It doesn’t feel like it was lit, it just feels like something is happening in real time. We were lucky that the lenses we had were perfect to capture the beauty of it in natural light.
How did you get on with the cast?
We developed a very strong relationship. I didn’t train them or take them to an acting coach. We would go in and shoot the scene without really any rehearsal. I would just say to the cast, this is what this scene is, this is what I need you to do and we are going to work it out. That was challenging because we never knew if it was going to come to life on the screen. The actors felt a little lost and I had to make sure I was there at the beginning, and waiting for them at the end of the scene, to pull them in and out of this kind of experiment. It ended up working out really well because I think their characters channelled the inner tension on to the screen. There were days when I was overwhelmed by not knowing if it was going to work.
Did you do many takes?
We didn’t shoot that many takes, we were pretty direct. We would decide what way to shoot, and because of our limitations we just went ahead. I tended to shoot in sequence.
Did you consider anyone else for the part of Lupe?
I met several people before choosing Danny. I met Danny’s wife first; he was in Mexico. She showed me a picture of him when he was a young man. He had this amazing moustache and a really kind of hard, angry kind of tough man look. I asked her if he still looked as tough as does in the picture. She said, “Yes he does.” So we waited for him to come home from Mexico, where he was visiting his family. I introduced myself and we started off on the right foot. He is almost a family member now. Once I knew that he was going to trust me we started moving along and it worked out really well.
Had Danny done any professional acting?
No, he’d never been an actor but I think he had the right level of trust. When you actually meet Danny he’s actually a very sentimental and emotional guy. He’s not like the tough hard line person at all. He is a totally different person from Lupe on screen. He did act well and found a connection to the character.
Were there any professional actors in it?
They were all non-actors; the sheriff was the real sheriff. I should add a note that I did consult with a director/actor before I started the film and she was the one who gave me the idea. Her name is Justine Becker. Her advice was do not try to train them, giving them a crash course in acting, as this will confuse them.
Was there more than one camera used?
We used one camera with one director of photography and one assistant.
Had you worked with your director of photography (DP) Justin Chin before?
I met Justin when I was searching for a DP to shoot Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border. I had been looking for DPs for months and everybody had backed out. They were afraid of violence. One of the ones that had backed out recommended Justin. The first question I asked him was he afraid of going, are you afraid you are going to get shot – because if you are we shouldn’t do the interview, we should just move on. He said ‘no’ and we have worked well together.
Was the camera work on Lupe mainly hand held?
We set up a tripod and then we would place the camera on top of the tripod with a pad. The camera was on the pad, not being really stable. So it is not hand held completely, so giving this floating effect
Do you have any favourites you have worked on?
I would say it was Purgatorio. It taught me a lot about how you create a film and how you go out into the world and strike a balance between your imagination and what is actually there. That was a film we did on the Mexican border, which took thirty days. It was amazing to go out and not know what you are going to capture at the end of the day and to see it all come together. It taught me to really trust myself.
Would you like to go on to direct mainstream features?
I think so but I wouldn’t want to do anything I don’t really believe in.
Will you be doing an English dub or are you just sticking with subtitles?
I think we will just stick with subtitles. The dialogue is so minimal that I think it’s fine as it is. It creates a connection. You feel this man talks like a farmer even if you don’t understand what he says. By the way he says it, and the small amount of speech, you get to know so much about this character.
Finally, do you think the film will get a wide distribution?
There are millions of immigrants in this country like Lupe, or knows someone like Lupe, and there are millions more who love this community. There has never been a film that kind of celebrates the humanity in this way. I think, especially in Europe this film could find some good connections. We are hopeful, we are very optimistic it will get wide distribution – it is just getting started.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).