Death hops a Mexican freight train

Director Cary Fukunaga talks about his debut film, "Sin Nombre," a crackling blend of crime thriller and docu-realism that dazzled Sundance audiences.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 19, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

Focus Features

Listen to the interview with Cary Joji Fukunaga

To this point in Cary Joji Fukunaga's brief career, he's single-handedly keeping the '90s dream of indie-film stardom alive. He sold the script for his thesis project at New York University's film school, a feature called "Sin Nombre," to Focus Features before he had graduated. Mexican stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna signed on as executive producers, and with exactly zero experience in writing or directing features, Fukunaga went on to shoot the film in Mexico -- entirely in Spanish, and with no professional actors -- and premiered it this year at Sundance, where it won prizes for best direction and best cinematography.

What's more, as the 31-year-old Northern California native tells the story, the combination of ingredients that make "Sin Nombre" so electrifying are pretty much accidental. Fukunaga had made an acclaimed short film in 2004 called "Victoria Para Chino," focused on the real-life hardships of illegal immigrants trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. "Sin Nombre" sprang from a similar documentary-realism impulse, and was developed after Fukunaga's research trips on top of freight trains that carry Central American immigrants all the way across Mexico, from the southern state of Chiapas to the U.S. border.

Just to stick the story together, Fukunaga says, he invented a chase plot, and a platonic good-girl, bad-boy romance. His central character, a Mexican gang lieutenant named Willy (the soulful-looking Edgar Flores), is having second thoughts about his criminal existence. After his girlfriend is killed in an act of especially pointless violence, Willy betrays his mates in the notorious Mara Salvatrucha -- a real gang, based both in Mexico and Los Angeles -- and grabs the first freight out of town. With a network of gang members (including a pint-size protégé he personally trained) mercilessly pursuing him, Willy meets Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a young woman from Honduras who is traveling north with her father and uncle, but who may be ready to break free from her restrictive family background.

Tempting as it may be to dislike Fukunaga for his meteoric rise, if you see "Sin Nombre" you'll be convinced. Impressively shot in a series of dire Mexican locations, "Sin Nombre" is simultaneously a grueling, gripping road thriller, a wrenching emotional journey and an amazing evocation of a world few norteamericanos will ever see. There was nothing else at Sundance this year that grabbed audiences by the throat and didn't let them go -- if they could ride through the harrowing violence of the first few minutes, that is. There have been precious few combinations of low-budget indie naturalism and plot-driven genre film, and I can't think of any that are anywhere near this successful.

Ever since Fukunaga first picked up a camera, people have been telling him how talented he is and how good he may yet become, so let's back away from the Orson Welles comparisons for a moment here. He's a likable and thoughtful young guy who happens to come from my hometown, but he's also difficult to read and not terribly forthcoming. If he's possessed of immense self-knowledge, I didn't encounter it. (I recognize how patronizing all of that sounds.)

One of the things he told me is that his second and third films will be much more focused on character rather than plot; he described one of them as almost plotless. Of course we can't judge movies that don't exist yet, and maybe they'll be great. It's also possible that Fukunaga needs to work his own way back to understanding that he has an unusual gift: The number of directors who can create identifiable and emotionally plausible characters is much, much larger than the number of directors who can tell a story that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat without insulting its intelligence. He shows no interest in making "Pirates of the Caribbean IV" or whatever, and that's good news (because he may well hear those sorts of pitches). But we don't need him making nowheresville-minimalist flicks either.

In the meantime, we've got "Sin Nombre," which was made with a distinctive degree of fearlessness, or perhaps foolishness. Not only did Fukunaga himself ride the trains with Central American immigrants, he also talked to Mara Salvatrucha members about how far he could go in depicting gang life without pissing them off. The result is a fully convincing and sometimes profoundly terrifying portrait of the dangerous odyssey thousands of migrants undertake every year, and also a veritable Greek tragedy about two young people trying to outrun the crushing wheel of fate in pursuit of a distant ideal of freedom.

I met Cary Fukunaga in his New York hotel room.

So, Cary, you are now the person that every aspiring young filmmaker hates. You make your first feature in Mexico, and it's in Spanish, and has no name actors in it, not even Mexican name actors. It premieres at Sundance and now a division of a major studio is going to open it all over the country.

Well, Focus actually produced the film, they were there from the beginning. And one of my first conversations with John Lyons, the president of production at Focus, was about casting. We talked about films that had the potential to be great films and were ruined by casting. When we got to talking about my film, I said, "Here's this film that's about Central Americans and this kid from a gang crossing Mexico on a train. If you were to cast a middle-class or upper-class, somewhat well-known Mexican actor to play this street-gang character, you'd just ruin the film."

John, who's also a producer -- he produced some of P.T. Anderson's films -- completely agreed on that front. When they optioned my script after they read it, that never changed. They never suggested that I consider casting name actors. In fact, when I showed John the QuickTime videos of Edgar Flores, a young kid from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who has no acting experience and ended up being the lead in the film, I kind of disclaimed it. I was like, "He's very raw, this is his first time, it wasn't a great recording setting." But John said, "No, he's great. He has something special."

In terms of people hating me, I mean, this is also my thesis film for NYU. So I'm sure some of my classmates are like -- [shrugs]. I mean, I don't know what to say. I'm lucky and I know it. And I'm thankful.

What impressed me so much about this film was the way it blends two genres that don't seem to belong together. First of all it's this very realistic, documentary-style film about these kids, and a lot of other people, riding on top of freight trains from Guatemalan border to the U.S. border. And this actually happens, right?

Absolutely. There was a lot of research in this film. I am not from Central America or Mexico, and I have never been a gangster. People might confuse me for a gangbanger, but I have never been one. So this is very far from my personal experience, in terms of the environment. From the very beginning, I thought that if I wanted to tell this story with any degree of authenticity, then I would have to be there to see it myself. So this involved a lot of research, six or seven research trips over two years. I rode the trains with immigrants and shared some miseries with them, and over time I gathered the material that would become "Sin Nombre."

And then this is also a movie that's exciting, very plot-driven, with these elements of gangland thriller. That's also based on reality, on La Mara Salvatrucha, which is a real Mexican gang. But that story feels much more like a genre film. Did you set out to create that combination?

In terms of it being a thriller, no. Since we premiered the film in January, I've heard people describe it as a film noir or a thriller. But in writing it, I don't think I could have told you what the components were to make a thriller or a film noir. I was literally writing from moment to moment, figuring out the experiences of the characters and how I chose to tell the sequence of events. The chase aspect was the least exciting part, in my mind. It was a necessary plot element, necessary to heighten tension and to raise the stakes of what these characters go through. I didn't know, necessarily, that that was considered a thriller. I consider thrillers to be, like, event films or something on the horror side. I usually don't watch those kinds of films.

Well, I guess you were using plot as a way of focusing attention on the situation of the characters. Maybe that's an organic way to discover how to make a genre film.

Also, this was my first feature script. There was a whole process of discovering what a feature script was, because there's much more of a focus on short films when you're in film school. My next script, which followed this one, almost had an absence of plot, as a reaction to this film being so plot-heavy. Now, as I'm working on a third script, there's more of a balance between characters and plot. But I'm mainly focused on character, which I'm more interested in.

As far as the gang element goes, there were questions initially about whether we were going to make up a fictitious name for a gang, rather than use the real name. I spoke to some of my contacts who were helping me do research, and they said as long as I wasn't making anything up it should be OK. Unfortunately there's no headquarters [for La Mara Salvatrucha] where I can mail in my request, so this was one of those feeling-out games. A month before we started shooting, Gabriel Nuncio, who did the Spanish translation of the text, went down to the prison to do one last go-over of the dialogue. So they read everything that was happening, and it was interesting to see their reaction to certain scenes where our main character breaks the rules of the gang. They were like, "Oh, no -- he can't do that." And we were like, "Don't worry. He gets punished."

Your premiere at Sundance must have been incredibly exciting. I mean, in terms of the energy and electricity of people as they came out of the theater, it was prodigious.

The screenings were really positive, but I also know that Sundance is a very comfortable place for me. I went there with my short film, I came back as a Sundance fellow, and I've been there with films I shot as a cinematographer. And I find that the audiences at Sundance are very supportive, just as a foundation. The real test is going to be general audiences, and in some ways there's a public backlash when something is initially supported at Sundance. People are much more able to hate on something, unfortunately. It's a natural reaction.

In general, the audience loved the film. But on the other hand, I was sitting next to two or three women who seemed to be locals. They had clearly just gotten tickets to the movie without knowing anything about it.


Yeah. And after about 10 minutes, after the Mara Salvatrucha guys kill another gang member whom they've captured, those women had had enough. They were out of there. So it's probably fair to warn people that the level of violence is pretty intense, early in the film.

There's a certain level of violence, and it's not gratuitous. I didn't realize how violent the movie was until I saw it with an audience. I was writing it based on real-life situations and what happened in those situations. It's not sensationalized. In some ways I pulled back from what I could have shown. It just so happens that it's weighted toward the beginning of the film. There are four or five violent scenes the audience has to get through before they get into the rest of the story. When I was watching the premiere at Sundance, I could feel that energy in the room, that tension, and it was making me self-conscious. I wanted to tell people, "Don't worry. If you can get through this next scene, we'll be OK. For a while."

Talk about the relationship between your two main characters. You've got this gang-banger who's trying to escape from that life and all the destructive things he's done. And then you've got this girl who's almost his total opposite, who may be ready to escape from her conventional and conservative family background.

It's the story of two people coming together who probably met each other at the wrong point, the wrong moment, in their lives. Sayra sees Willy as someone who has experienced many of the same things she has, and they might be able to form a tighter bond, a more perfect family than what she has in her own life. On the flip side, he is coming out of a crisis and isn't able to connect with anyone, and that dynamic becomes more platonic than romantic. It's two people seeing the same relationship in very different ways.

Does this film originate with the classic documentary or docudrama impulse? One thing you accomplish here is opening up the lives of people that very possibly the North American viewer has never thought about, so that they seem like real people with good and bad qualities and complicated stories.

Absolutely. I did a short film with that in mind, a 14-minute film called "Victoria Para Chino" where I just wanted audiences to feel what it was like to be in a trailer with a bunch of immigrants. There's a similar goal in the feature film. There's no political statement in this movie, I have no political goals. I want people to see this world and hopefully create an emotional connection like I did when I was doing my research.

Did that happen to you? Did you form emotional connections with people when you were riding on the trains?

Yeah. I mean, I formed what were fleeting but emotionally impactful relationships with people I was traveling with. Friendships, a desire to protect and help, and even to continue traveling with them, even though I really couldn't. Here I was, entering a world where they had no option besides the path they were on, and here I was, observing it for a short time and having the luxury of leaving it.

On my very first trip, we were on the train together, we experienced an assault together on the trip -- a group of bandits jumped on the next train car and killed a Guatemalan immigrant in the night. The next day, we went through dehydration together and ran out of food, and we were not anywhere near a place to collect or buy food. Then we had a huge rainstorm, and spent another night together on the train. And then eventually I had to leave, because I only had enough money to get a bus ticket back to where we had started. Having to leave that group was very difficult for me, because they were going to keep going and here I was turning around and, in my mind, abandoning them. But it wasn't my journey to make.

I was really struck by your amazing shot of the train yard in Chiapas where immigrants gather to make the journey. At first it really seems like this dangerous and frightening environment, crowded with unknown people, and then you drop down into these more intimate shots, where you capture people as individuals. And the viewer recognizes, oh, all these people are individuals, maybe not so different from me.

 That's interesting. For me, it was an establishing shot. [Laughter.] I didn't think about it in those terms. But you're right. It can be very easy to fear the other, and to some people that scene might look like a breeding ground of some sort. I try not to intellectualize too much what I do, and work from instinct and work from memory and experience. When I'm composing, I may be doing things that subconsciously have some symbolism, but as I'm doing them it's just how I see things.

Anyone who makes films understands that documentary does not always mean fact, it's always manipulated with perspective. A good documentary endeavors to be honest and truthful. Similarly, I'm just trying to show this experience in a fictional format and open up some kind of space for discussion. I see these characters as facing similar challenges and largely the same goals that we faced in America, as a pioneer nation, in the 19th century.

"Sin Nombre" opens March 20 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; and April 3 in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego and Washington, with more cities to follow.





By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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