Lance Larson, the director and co-writer of the supernatural border thriller Deadland, first got the idea for the story from an article about a U.S. Border Patrol agent whose own parents had crossed into the United States illegally.
“I just thought, that’s an amazing duality,” Larson said Thursday at a Q&A following the El Paso Film Festival’s opening-night screening of his film, which premiered at SXSW.
“That’s a character worth writing about,” Larson added. “He talked about how much he loved his country, loved being a border agent, but at the same time, his Mexican heritage wasn’t lost. So he described himself as every day on the job carrying his badge in one hand, and his heart in the other.”
Deadland stars Roberto Urbina as Angel Waters, who treats the migrants he stops with respect and empathy, in part because he sees his own father’s story in theirs. When a mysterious visitor arrives at his home — soon after he tries to save another mysterious man caught in racing waters — he finds his loyalties divided.
The film, which received the festival’s Producers Award, is filled with assured twists and turns, and explaining them would rob you of some of the pleasures of Deadland. The film accomplishes the complicated mission of being inventive and clever, but at the same time spiritual and elegiac. It’s edge-of-your seat intense — one character is named Hitchcock, and yes, the film is downright Hitchcockian in its power to set and subvert your expectations. But is also asks you to do a little soul-searching.
A very early version of the film was called El Paso — “the passage,” in English — and it played especially strongly in El Paso, the sprawling West Texas city right on the U.S.-Mexican border. This week, El Paso’s Democratic mayor, Oscar Leeser, said his city is at a “breaking point,” with about 2,000 migrants arriving each day. The city’s shelters are full, and there are plans to convert an unused middle school to an emergency center for migrants.
Leaving the Philanthropy Theater, which hosted Thursday’s Deadland screening, you could see small numbers of migrants on the nearby corners, biding their time, waiting to learn their fates in the United States. Will they be able to stay? Will there be jobs if they do? I saw none of the criminals and rapists Donald Trump has described, but did see mothers and fathers with babies. Temperatures are in the 90s.
During the Q&A, the audience made clear that the border crisis wasn’t about manufacturing fear to help opportunists win elections. In El Paso, it is personal: Some had parents or grandparents cross into the United States — and sometimes cross back into Mexico, and then cross again. One longtime El Pasoan noted that he could remember a time, decades ago, when people could move fairly fluidly between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican side, for work and to see family and friends.
You see some migrants on the streets of El Paso, yes, but you see far more homeless people on the streets of Hollywood or San Francisco or Manhattan. And El Pasoans are trying valiantly to help their neighbors, with food banks and beds and medical help. The people closest to the probem — unlike those sitting behind news desks in New York City or in cocktail lounges in Washington D.C. — recognize it as one about people, not politics.
The Backstory of Deadland
Deadland uses metaphor to both personalize the problem and tell a universal story. The mystery man crossing the river feels cursed to relive the same terror, night after night.
“We hear in the news some stories, but there are so many other stories where you just never know if they made it or didn’t make it — if they lived or died or led a happy life or if it’s tragic,” Larson said.
The film’s producers include Elizabeth Avellán, the Troublemaker Studios co-founder whose hits with director Robert Rodriguez include Sin City and the Spy Kids franchise. She first met Larson is his capacity as an editor, a career that helped him hone his skills as a writer and director.
They were working on another project that wasn’t moving forward quickly, so she asked him what else he had, and he mentioned Deadland — “a border movie,” he explained.
“I was so snooty,” she laughed at the Q&A. “I go, I don’t do border movies.”
He promised her it was different than the typical border movie, and she agreed to read it.
“Three pages in, I’m like, Damn it — I’m in!” she said.
Main image: Luis Chávez as The Stranger in Deadland.