In October of 2014, Daniel Noah, my screenwriter and producing partner, and I officially decided that we were going to make Camino.
At the time, it was merely an idea I’d had while we were producing Craig Macneill’s The Boy in Colombia. But due to one of our other film productions pushing, we had a gap in our production schedule, and we decided to “fast-track” the script and subsequently the production of Camino.
The film was to be what we were calling an “electro-jungle Western:” an emotional, violent romp through the jungle. Something primal. Animalistic. The production budget, however, was limited, which meant traveling to other countries was out of the question.
“Jungles in the U.S.” That’s what we needed to find. The characters would battle through the jungle with our leads, photojournalist Avery (Zoë Bell) and impassioned missionary Guillermo (Nacho Vigalondo), eventually stumbling out of the lush greenery into a remote, colonial Colombian village.
We ended up deciding on Oahu, Hawaii for the jungle aspect. The valleys of the island had been used many times to portray remote jungles on films with much larger budgets than ours. It’s true that we didn’t have the money to spend, but we did have the production value in the jungles themselves, the cast and crew, and the cameras. All we really needed to do was point those cameras at the landscape before us and hope to do it justice.
This didn’t, however, solve the problem of the “colonial Colombian village.” The Hawaiian islands are steeped in Polynesian culture, so the odds of us finding (or building) a village that could pass as authentic Colombia were very slim. I also knew that on microbudget films such as ours, you are consistently forced to make compromises. And I often believe that those compromises force filmmakers to be creative. To rely on the ingenuity of the cast and crew instead of on more money, ultimately making the film better. I still didn’t want to compromise on the finale. It was crucial.
As expected, we didn’t find anything. Even after our production had to take a “hiatus” and return to Hawaii months later, (Zoë was called back to the mainland to shoot The Hateful Eight), we still were having trouble finding that village. We even looked at some backlots in and around Los Angeles. Hell, we went to Universal Studios! We scouted the back lot and a tour came through the middle of it. We could’ve made that set work for what we had, but you couldn’t point the camera 360 degrees, which meant that it would be hard to have that dynamic feel within the space. You want those wide shots, to immerse yourself in authenticity.
On a whim—and also getting extremely nervous as we got closer to finishing in Hawaii—I spoke with actor/co-producer Francisco “Paco” Barreiro, who plays the character Tomas in the film, and asked him about shooting the final scene in Mexico. He’s had a wonderful career working with gifted filmmakers out of Mexico who are producing stellar content on extremely limited budgets. Paco felt we could definitely get it done down there.
I asked our co-UPMs, Elisa Lleras and Mike McGuire, exactly what we had to spend on that one day for the finale. It wasn’t much, and there wasn’t anything extra to throw towards it… but it wasn’t nothing. So, with that number in mind, we called down to our producing friend in Mexico City, Andrea Quiroz (Scherzo Diabolico, Here Comes the Devil).
I said, “We’re in a bind; don’t know what do to. We’d like to come down to Mexico for one day and shoot the finale with an entirely new crew and cast local extras because we can’t afford to fly anyone down. Possible?”
Without hesitation, Andrea exclaimed, “Absolutely!”
Yes! This was excellent news! But it also meant that due to monetary limitations, Zoë wouldn’t be able to join us. Since Zoë is a SAG actor, her rates would dramatically increase by flying out of the country and we just couldn’t afford any overages.
Daniel took a pass at the script. DP Noah Greenberg, editor Brett Bachman and I figured out a way to use the footage of Zoë in Hawaii to cut back and forth between the footage we would capture of Nacho in Mexico. They wouldn’t actually have to occupy the same space.
One week later, Nacho, Noah, and myself were in Mexico City. The entire rest of the cast and crew had picture-wrapped in Hawaii and L.A. The three of us met up with Paco and Andrea and immediately started to scout for the village. Both of them had something specific in mind—the perfect location. We soon arrived in Tepoztlan, Mexico, about an hour outside of Mexico City, and they couldn’t have been any more right. After months of toiling, after overcoming production obstacles that could not have possibly been foreseen, we’d found a location that was so perfect that I nearly wept.
The townspeople were incredible. We walked through small local markets and I met characters that looked like they jumped straight out of the movie playing in my head. One man at a small coconut stand had a face that drew me in, while he gripped a machete. Another, older, fellow, a farmer whom I’d seen on the street, literally came with what he was wearing and was perfect. I’d look at someone and Andrea would just say, “Her? Him?” She would then walk over and ask if they wanted to be in a movie. We also locked up a whole new crew out of Mexico City who, despite never having worked together, bonded immediately with Noah, Nacho, and myself. We were all there for the right reasons and it seemed to be working out perfectly.
The day of the shoot, we got up at predawn and watched the sunrise. We’d crashed at Paco’s country home the night before and it was going to be a stunning day. Not a cloud in the sky. It truly felt somewhat magical. We’d spent months in the jungles of Oahu, trekking through the mud and grime (as Guillermo says in the film, and had now emerged into our little village. Crew ready. Nacho ready. Village and farm animals ready.
We started shooting with Nacho walking down a small dirt road. Stunning mountains and granite cliffs with lush greenery acted as his backdrop. Nacho was captivating; he strutted into town as if he actually was Guillermo. You could feel how cathartic it was for him to be walking into town, both for him as the character and for Nacho himself. It was time to wrap it up.
Things ended up taking a little longer than planned—not due to crew or any inefficiencies, but because we were acclimating ourselves to the actual location on the spot. Eventually, we hit our stride and we started to really move. We started to reach the end of the shooting day. Our shoot was dictated by the sun, since we couldn’t afford a generator to power lights. But we were fine; we still had hours to go and we were gonna make it…
Then we heard the thunder. Clouds started rolling in. Massive, dark thunderheads on the horizon began to replace all that pretty light. The wind began to pick up, and we saw those clouds starting to move a whole lot faster. So we picked up the pace.
In the final moments, we started to have problems with our blood squibs, too! Every time the squib was supposed to explode, nothing would happen. By this point, we simply didn’t have the time to waste. There would be no pickups, no reshoots. So we kept shooting, pretending the squibs had functioned properly.
The sky became darker. Noah said things to me like, “15 more minutes and then we’re screwed.” He was opening up those lenses about as much as they possibly could. Every bit of light he could get, he was getting.
Nacho was staring up at the clouds as he lay on the ground before the camera, trying to hold his focus in one place while the sky above was becoming violent—no rain, but looking dangerous as hell, and getting darker. As we finished the final shot (an eight-minute take) the wind picked up and howled, the thunder rolled, and the rain began to come.
Everyone ran inside as the torrential downpour began, and within minutes the area where we were shooting became a lake. The walkways became invisible with flash floods. Lightning cracked before our eyes and we all gathered in a small hut with a tin roof. The sound of the rain hammering the roof was damned near deafening.
But… we were happy. MM
Camino opens in theaters March 4, 2016, and on VOD and iTunes March 8, courtesy of XLrator Media. Featured image photographed by Zoriah, zoriah.com.