My film Kidnap Capital is based on a hard-to-digest reality: Central Americans get kidnapped in the desert after crossing illegally into Arizona from Mexico, get driven to Phoenix, and locked up in a drop house.

These drop houses really exist. Street gangs tear out the inside of “normal”-looking houses, and barricade rooms to build makeshift prisons, where they abuse and torture kidnapped illegal migrants for money. They plant these drop houses randomly in “normal”-looking neighborhoods, to avoid a traceable pattern.

Most people don’t know about this.

True to the horrific reality faced by real-life migrants, the drop house in our film plays as the only location for the entire duration of Kidnap Capital.

So:“How do we make this drop house feel real?” That was the million-dollar question for us.

Making the drop house feel, sound and look real was a huge, huge worry. The story we were putting on screen with Kidnap Capital is based on real stories of horrific, terrible human abuse. Real people have actually been locked up in drop houses; as a matter of fact, odds are that some are stuck in drop houses right now.

When you consider that, a certain responsibility starts weighing on you really heavily. We could feel it more and more as we got closer to the shoot. We felt we owed it to the real victims to make a film that would be true to their brutal, surreal experience, and not cheaply romance it.

We all knew this film would only work if we could make people connect with the characters and their situation, despite the worrisome fact that not only were our protagonists people whom many consider outcasts to start with, but the premise can easily be dismissed as “too far-fetched.”

It was clear it would be a tough ordeal to make the story relatable for an audience member who’s miles away, physically and socially, from ever being inside a drop house, let alone imprisoned and tortured in one. So with my partners in crime, DP Boris Mojsovski and editor Julia Blua, we set out to take every single decision in the process as if from a pollo’s perspective. (A pollo—Spanish for chickenis what a prisoner is called in the film.)

That led us to a bunch of dumb decisions. At least, if you have the same amount of common sense as everyone in our industry.

We confined the film to one location—a house in Etobicoke, the suburbs of Toronto. It made sense creatively: If you were thrown in a drop house, it would trap your every move and every thought, and the problem it represented would become so immediate that nothing else would exist for you. We found a house that was about to get torn down, and, thanks to master production designer Svjetlana Jaklenec and her team of pros, we fully, completely turned it into a drop house, top to bottom.

It became our office in prep, the rehearsal space, the wardrobe department, the make-up department—everything. Anything and anyone working on the production was working out of the house for two months.

Turning a Real House into a Set

The easy and cheap way is to build the main rooms in a studio. You can fit the camera where you want, take walls in and out, rig lights in the perfect spots if you move the ceiling, all the usual tricks. None of that works in a real bedroom.

DP Boris was standoffish at the start because what I was asking him bordered on the impossible. I was asking him to shoot in a real bedroom. Think about it: If you put 15 people inside your bedroom—unless you live in a nicer house than mine—it’s pretty crammed. Add eight crew people, the camera, a dolly, the boom guy, a monitor, etc… now it’s really crammed. Then add the film lights… I won’t dwell about how much all those lights make everyone in the room sweat.

It was a technical nightmare. But, like prisoners in a real drop house, we said we’d figure it out.

On set in Kidnap Capital's "drop house" set

Director Felipe Rodriguez lines up a creative way of crushing actor Michael Reventar’s fingers in an extortion scene in Kidnap Capital

Usually you shoot the wide takes, and by the time you do a close-up of one actor, and you don’t need everyone else, you send everyone away so you can have room to work. But in Kidnap Capital the most important moments happened in those close-ups, when we can really feel the desperation in the characters. So even if you wouldn’t see any of them on screen, I’d keep all the actors and extras on the set, because I didn’t ever want to let out the physical pressure. The only release was the emotion we’d put out, and the camera was sucking all that in.

A lot of critics have used the word “claustrophobia” in their reviews. Our camera operator Joe Turner and our focus-puller Dave T. Sheridan can attest: When we put the camera on the floor while 15 sweaty, dirty, hungry guys in underwear rushed around to get one of the tiny pieces of bread they were being fed… it translates to the screen.

Getting the Actors to Commit

A lot of this pressure to make it real was, obviously, on the cast’s shoulders.

They all grew to take on the project as their own, and put their souls into it, but it was a process. To start with: They all took a low-paying, indie film job that required them to spend 100 percent of their screen time in dirty underwear, covered in dirt and sweat. They took the job because they saw potential in the characters and the story, but it sure wasn’t all limos and champagne!

The morning of the first day, there was a real awkward, tense atmosphere. Usually you start a shoot with an easy scene, and slowly let the ice melt, and everyone gauges each other, so you find a groove as a team.

There’s something to that approach that wasn’t true to the spirit I hoped we’d soak Kidnap Capital in. So I made us start with the very first scene in the film, when the pollos get pushed into the room, hurt, beaten and stripped down for the first time.

It was a bad decision for our schedule, but the right one for the “experience.” So we blocked the first scene, everyone in robes, minimal crew on set. We set the tone. The scene was gonna require everyone to strip, and dig into dark, emotional stuff. A lot of the actors knew that it would put them in a vulnerable state of mind.

It was slow, serious and tedious; everyone feeling everyone out.

We sent the actors out to light the scene, and when they came back in, I was waiting for them in my underwear, with some notes on what had changed. Rhys Brisbin, the key grip, was in underwear behind the jib arm, serious as hell, ready to go.

They didn’t expect that. It was good. We broke the ice. Everyone got comfortable, and we all knew we were in it together.

Cast and crew get intimate while making Kidnap Capital

Actor Pedro Miguel Arce (center) takes in the “Chicken Room” set of the drop house, as Key Grip Rhys Brisbin and Focus Puller Dave T. Sheridan set up a shot in the background

By the end of the show everyone was walking around the house like it was our real house, not a set. The pollos were often in underwear even when not filming. We were living a pretty intense experience and it was going fast. (But you should’ve seen the neighbors’ faces when they saw 15 bloody, dirty “migrants” having lunch on the front lawn with no shirts on. You don’t see that everyday in Etobicoke!)

Camerawork and Cutting

Boris and I crafted a visual approach around the concept of making people live the drop house experience through a pollo’s eyes. We blocked the scenes from the point of view of the main migrant in the scene, always. Same in post: Julia cut Kidnap Capital from the pollo‘s perspectives. There’s no “film” cuts in there; it’s all driven from what you would discover slowly if you were pushed into that basement for the first time.

For her, like for Boris and the cinematography, that meant an out-of-the-ordinary approach. I wanted to shoot close, on wide lenses. Wide lenses made the drop house seem like it was surrounding the characters, like a web that was closing in.

I don’t know about you, but if I was beat up, naked and locked up in an old, barricaded room, I’d be super-sensitive to everything around me. Every little noise would alarm me. So I wanted to be that immediate with the characters. In tech terms, we set out to be the absolute closest we could get before the lens distorted the face. Even the tiniest, subtlest emotion would register.

Again, it left no technical alternatives for poor Boris. And no chances of hitting the wrong notes for the actors, never mind the fact that they had to act with a camera inches from their faces. But they all took it on and fed from it. Instead of fighting it, Boris let all those restrictions inform his approach, and it’s not for nothing he keeps getting cinematography nods for the film. It really has soul. I get comments about every single actor, how their pain was played just right, and Julia got an editing nod in Madrid.

“Migrant Cam”

I was afraid that our close-cam approach would end up affecting the organic sensibility it was designed to capture. So we pushed it one more step.

Before production I called camera operator Joe Turner, and I told him, “Joey, I’m sorry, but you’re off the A camera. I’m putting you on the cast list.” He was a bit shaken at first, but we came up with an idea where he was gonna be “acting” with the rest of the cast, in our own crazy way.

His assignment became hugely creative. He had to “react” to the performance. Usually we pre-mark everything in the camera department—you know, “you pull out from two feet to six feet when the actor turns around,” etc. On Kidnap, I wanted Joe to “feel” what the actor was doing. If suddenly it felt more intense, he’d have to tighten up and get closer, and vice versa. If he felt them getting powerful, he’d drift lower to make them seem like they were growing.

On a regular film a camera operator’s pride is in making every take looks the absolute same on camera, so the director can use the perfect performance, and not worry that the camera didn’t get to where it needed to be. But on this, because Joe was reacting, attentively watching the scene and the emotions, just reacting off of what he saw, no two takes were ever the same, because we’d affect things between takes, and performance intensity would change. All the factors have a compound effect on screen that’s why there’s so much feeling in the visuals of the film.

They demolished the house two days after we wrapped. We had gutted it, and turned it into a real monster, a drop house with its own personality that engulfed us all and pushed everyone to their professional limits. It was special, and stressful. You don’t lose 35 pounds in three weeks if things aren’t stressful!

We created it, and at the end it disappeared. But it remains on film forever. MM

Kidnap Capital screens at Bogocine (Festival de Cine de Bogotá), which runs October 18-26, 2016.

Top image: Director Felipe Rodriguez (L) with Johnathan Sousa as “Manolo” and Pedro Miguel Arce as “Pedro.”