Cartel Land is about vigilantes on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border who are combating a common enemy – the violent and ruthless Mexican drug cartels.

Much of the film is set in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where vigilantes, known as Autodefensas, are fighting back after years of government failure to stop rape, murder, extortion, and gruesome violence at the hands of the Knights Templar Cartel. Having never filmed in dangerous situations before, we talked to journalists and filmmakers before heading to Mexico and took what security precautions we could. But at the end of the day, you can only plan for so much, and most situations called for on-the-ground judgment calls.

Over the course of filming, I found myself in the middle of urban shootouts between the vigilantes and the Templars and in many other precarious positions. Nonetheless, from the moment I stepped foot in Mexico, my goal was to shoot in a meth lab, and I knew I wanted to begin the film there. Meth is the main source of the Templar’s power. It is their cash cow. It is their lifeblood. In fact, 90 percent of meth consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, most of it from the Templars.


Cartel Land centers on a vigilante fight against crimes committed by the Knights Templar Cartel

So, it was very important to capture this aspect of the story, and we tried for months to get into a lab. Every shoot I would try to find somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who cooked. Amongst our vast network of people down there, we thought we had a guy who could hook it up, and he kept telling us to be patient and promised to make it happen.

Finally, last summer we were on one of our last shoots. It was one of those days when nothing was going right. Our car had broken down in the middle of the mountains in a dangerous area controlled by the Templars. But then, at last, the call came. “Be in this town square at 6 p.m. sharp,” they said.

I like shooting with a small crew and, at this point, it was three of us: my fixer, my translator, and me. My fixer quickly established the ground rules with our meth contact. We would not be blindfolded and, in exchange, they required that everyone we film wear a mask. We promised not to show anybody’s face.

We drove through the mountains and made it to the town with minutes to spare. A pair of armed men asked if we were ready and told us to follow them. With the sun dropping rapidly, they drove us down a highway, off the highway, through towns and then small villages, which eventually gave way to vast, open farmlands.

Suddenly, in the middle of one of these fields, our “guides” stopped and told us that they weren’t going any further. They would stay there to provide protection. Protection from whom, we wondered? The Autodefensas, the government, the federales? Another car full of men drove from out of nowhere, and they said that they would lead us into the lab.

For months, I had dreamed about how I wanted to shoot the meth scene, and the whole time, I envisioned shooting it during the day or in a trailer-like building. But, when we got there, the last rays of light were falling beneath the mountains in the distance. The head chef – a small, fiery man – started showing us the lab. And that’s when I realized that the lab wasn’t what I had seen in Breaking Bad. Instead, it was outside, hidden amidst a dense forest of trees, in the pitch black.

That was a big problem since I don’t shoot with lights (nor would they have allowed me to use them because darkness was the key to operating a mobile meth lab and not getting caught). To keep us from tripping over the dense brush, the head chef, surrounded by big burly men with assault rifles, used a flashlight to show us the way. And it was with this flashlight that I lit the scene. We were shooting the film with the Canon C300, which is really incredible in low light. In Mexico, I only really used two lenses: the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 and Canon 24-105mm f4. Using just the flashlight, I was able to keep the ISO between 4,000 and 5,000 with the extra stop on the 17-55 in order to get an image with very little noise.


Rifles and masks lit only by flashlight at the meth lab

Over the course of two hours, I filmed the lab and the process of meth cooking. The big burly men with assault rifles carried in containers of pure alcohol from a truck that soon arrived. Then, barrels of methanol were rolled in and mixed with crystal-looking substances. Eventually, all of the ingredients were put into large blue barrels, and the big burly men with assault rifles stirred them with large sticks, like some witch’s concoction. Depending on where the flashlight was, I would ride the ISO to try and minimize noise and maintain a consistent exposure.

At this point, it was just after 10 p.m. and, as a team, we had agreed that we wouldn’t stay too late. With time ticking, I needed to quickly set up my interview with the head chef. We found an empty barrel to sit him on, but his men were milling about and creating a ton of noise – making it almost impossible to get clean sound that could be used as voiceover. I asked him to ask them to be quiet, and he ordered them to stand still. At this point, they were all standing behind him, so I had my fixer light them from the side with one flashlight and my translator sat beside me holding a boom in one hand and the second flashlight, which illuminated the head chef’s face, in the other hand.

As the barrels sizzled and smoke billowed into the air and the cacophonous sounds of cicadas rose and fell with an arrhythmic beat and huge alien-like bugs crawled down our necks and inside our clothes, I talked to the head chef and he told me:

The United States is where most of the drugs are sold. All over the United States.

What can I say?

We know we do harm with all the drugs that go there.

But what are we going to do?

We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we would be like you.

Traveling the world or doing good clean jobs like you guys…

But if we start paying attention to our hearts, then we’ll get screwed over.

We will do this as long as God allows it.

As long as He allows it, we will make drugs.

And every day we will make more because this is not going to end, right?

What do you think, guys?

He then turned around to the big burly men with assault rifles and they said in refrain:

I hope not.

Of course not!

The good stuff is about to begin.

 Just before midnight, my fixer told me that it was time to leave. We were escorted out of the forest into the fields, past the villages and towns, and onto the highway. I was disappointed because I wanted to get more footage, more visuals to illustrate the process of meth cooking. So, before we left, we made a date with the chefs to come back the following night.

We were given instructions to be in a certain village at a certain time the next night. We went and we waited. And we continued to wait, but they never showed up. Through a series of cryptic text messages, we arranged to meet the next night, and again they blew us off. And the same thing happened a third night.


An Autodefensa stands guard in Cartel Land

Four days after our first visit, on our last day in Mexico, I turned to my fixer and said something like, “This is our last chance. I think we should drive straight in since we have a vague idea where it is.” It was a crazy idea, but after consulting with various colleagues, we decided it was safe enough to try in the daytime. So we drove back in through the towns, the villages, and the fields.

Soon the gnarly smell of meth started to penetrate our car, and we knew we were close.

But suddenly a car started driving slowly at us. Our hearts started beating faster and faster. The car drove up slowly next to us, and the men inside rolled down their tinted windows and asked, “Why are you here?” And we nervously replied, “I think you know why we’re here.”

They told us to turn around and they escorted us out to the road. A second car drove up and a new set of men rolled down their tinted windows and asked, “Why are you here?” And, again, we replied, “I think you know why we’re here.” After a few more “interviews,” we were told to drive down the road to a pool hall.

Trucks that looked familiar and men that looked familiar came and went. It turned out to be the place where the big burly men with assault rifles socialized. I struck up a conversation with one of the men, and he began to spill the beans on how things really worked – making connections for me that I hadn’t made before. I couldn’t figure out whether I should bring out the camera. It was such an amazing scene to film, and I was getting such good information. But I also knew that we had worked so hard and risked so much to be there. Bringing out the camera might jeopardize our ability to get back into the lab and get us kicked out, or worse.

It was frustrating me not to film him, but I stayed patient and, eventually, we got the green light to go back into the lab to get the shots that I needed.

It was a good lesson too, because it ultimately allowed me to get an important perspective that I needed to better understand the story I was telling. And several weeks later, on our final shoot, I randomly ran into the man from the pool hall who had all of the juice about what was really happening, and he agreed to be filmed. This interview ended up being very integral to the final act of the film.

My experience with the meth lab was a good reminder that patience and persistence pays off in documentary filmmaking. It’s absolutely crucial. I originally thought that I would be able to film the Mexico story in a few weeks. Not so, of course. It took eight months and many trips back and forth to establish connections with not only the Autodefensas but with the meth cookers we finally met in the dead of night. I’ll never forget the haunting smoke of the meth rising (that I can still smell on my camera many months later) and the big burly men with assault rifles watching me film. MM

Cartel Land opens in theaters starting July 3, 2015, courtesy of The Orchard. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue.