Three years ago, acclaimed Mexican director Amat Escalante and I sat down over coffee in Downtown Los Angeles to discuss the political and emotional context surrounding his blazing third feature, Heli.
Back then, Escalante had just won Best Director at Cannes and the film had been selected to represent Mexico at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The chat was underscored by the mutual concern of the disheartening situation of our shared homeland.
Last fall, he returned to shock captive audiences with The Untamed (La Region Salvaje), a beautifully unsettling story about repressed desires reflected on an extraterrestrial being in a small Mexican town. Escalante’s unflinching eye for social realism remains intact, but the underlying presence of a cosmic element hones in on the very tangible dangers of homophobia, violence against women, and prejudices. Shot in his home state of Guanajuato, The Untamed is Escalante’s most uniquely rendered project to date. It confronts four characters—a housewife tired of her abusive marriage, a gay man in a toxic relationship, a young girl desperate to please regardless of the consequences, and a closeted man unable to come to terms with his orientation—with an entity whose ability to provide pleasure is a double-edged sword. The soft touch of a tentacle intertwines these characters’ hidden yearnings.
This time over Skype, the director, who picked up the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice for this film, spoke to MovieMaker about designing the erogenous being from outer space, the nature of awards, and giving his cast a screenplay for the first time in his career.
Caros Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was the original intention to explore sexual desire from a mystical standpoint?
Amat Escalante (AE): Initially the screenplay didn’t have a science fiction or fantasy element. I wrote two versions of the screenplay alongside Gibran Portela, and that element didn’t exist then. But then I started to feel uninspired in a way. I was missing something tangible, something I could see. In a way, when I write or when I imagine something I try to undress the emotions, undress the situation, until I reach the heart of whatever I’m trying to talk about. With the themes in these films—like homophobia, machismo, violence against women—I didn’t feel comfortable when I reached the point where I thought I had found what the film was about. Then I got this idea of having a creature or an entity that could be the answer—the representation of what they are rejecting and yearning for simultaneously within them. At that point everything started making sense. I didn’t think of something mystical. I wanted to keep my approach to seeing things, but adding a fantastical element that wouldn’t function as magic—more as something natural, organic, physical. That’s why the movie starts in outer space, to justify and explain a little where the story is departing from. For me, space is not a fantasy; it’s unknown. What is there, and can come from there, is unknown.
MM: For the characters, and for all us, what we fear most is the unknown.
AE: The unknown is also what arouses people the most: what’s forbidden, even what’s grotesque. A quote by Woody Allen comes to mind. When his psychologist asked him if he believed sex was dirty, he replied, “Only when it’s done right.” There is a duality to sexuality. It’s pure but it’s also dirty or hidden at the same time.
MM: Because of the story’s rural setting, there is an added sense of taboo—in particular to the secret relationship between the two men. Could this work the same way if it took place in a metropolis like Mexico City?
AE: The film couldn’t have taken place in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, or Mexico City in the same way. Maybe somehow it could. What I’ve just told you I’ve said several times before, but thinking it over, I think what happens in those cities is that there is more anonymity, and anonymity seems like it represents a certain freedom. But I think that deep inside, even in metropolitan areas, there are still a lot taboos and moral judgments that are as present as in smaller cities like where I live, Guanajuato, which is also where I shot the film. These moral rules and prejudices that religion dictates are more apparent and are often more visible the surface in these smaller towns. The film originates from the location, Guanajuato. It was inspired by the idiosyncrasies and the culture of Guanajuato, where I grew up, where I’ve found inspiration, and where I’ve seen life and people. However, it could have also taken place anywhere else as well. I shoot here because I’m from here and because I know this place better. I get the elements to tell my stories from here. It was the same in this case.
MM: On a practical level, what are some of the benefits of shooting in a place that you know, where there is not as much film production?
AE: Exactly what you mention. People here still get surprised when they see films shoot. There are also a lot of people close to me who support me, who want to help, and who have affection for me. That’s part of the reason I stay here. I also know the locations very well, so when I write the screenplay I can imagine it and I know the area where it will take place.
MM: Did you ever consider not showing the creature at all and having it be more of an off-screen presence?
AE: I always knew I wanted it to be seen. The only reason we wouldn’t show it was if the technical and digital aspects failed. I never questioned whether it would be on screen or not; in a way that’s what inspired me to make it. I wanted to see it. I didn’t want it to be a fantasy. I wanted the creature to be very concrete and realistic. I wanted it to join the film just as any of the other characters as much as was possible, because of budget and time. If it was up to me, I would’ve liked to see more of the creature. I think it’s very interesting to see a being that we haven’t seen on Earth.
MM: How did you visualize the design of the creature? It could have looked a thousand different ways, but the version we see has tentacles and has a specific aesthetic.
AE: Initially in the screenplay the creature was something else. Visually it was different. I had a lot of ideas of how it could look but it wasn’t the way it looks in the film. I imagined a creature that would have a galaxy and stars on his back, and something more marine… then that developed into something else when Peter Hjorth came into the project, the visual effects supervisor from Denmark. He came on because the film is a co-production with Denmark. We worked with him and other Danish artists on developing the creature and designing it. It needed to be something that could stimulate and grab humans. It needed to be able to produce a lot of sensations all over the human body and that’s why we went toward something that would have a lot of hands, a lot of tentacles. We wanted it to have feminine and masculine elements. I didn’t want it to be something merely phallic. If we look at the creature in detail, it has textures and shapes from both genders, in part to make it ambiguous and to make it fully sexual, not just of one gender. We wanted it to have a fluid sexuality that would attract people. I think we achieved it because some people tell me they find the creature repugnant or disgusting and others tell me they would like to have one of those creatures. They want to know where to find one. The idea was for it to be something attractive, but at the same time something you would reject, just like the characters deal with sexuality. With these parameters, I went to Denmark for a month to sit down with the designers and then we worked over email for about two months. It took that long for the design to complete. It needed to be perfectly thought out and created before shooting, so that once we were shooting we could have the creature physically present, which was helpful on a practical level.
MM: What parts of the creature did the actors interact with?
AE: We had the head and tentacles physically present on set. We created them with a specific texture that could capture the subtleties of light against the textured surface. The visual effects supervisor believes in creating as much as possible a physical, tangible, practical thing, and then reinforces that digitally. There is of course a lot of digital work in the film, but it all is to reinforce what was a practical effect, what’s real. It was a similar process with the animals.
MM: This was your first time working with DP Manuel Alberto Claro, who mostly works in Denmark. How was this relationship different to that with previous collaborators? The Untamed is a decisively beautiful film even in its thematic darkness.
AE: It was a new experience for both of us. He’s worked on a lot of films, but not a lot in Latin America, or in Mexico specifically. That was new for him. For me working with a director of photography like him was new. It was enriching. There was a lot of planning. He gets involved very early on before the shooting. He came to Mexico, and we planned every take so that we could have more freedom during the shooting. I like the way he works with handheld cameras and his instincts. I trusted him a lot. We used references like paintings and other images, but I feel like those references weren’t that important. They helped, but we didn’t rely much on them. Instead we worked with what we had and trusted each other’s sensibilities. I like to trust my collaborators, including the DP, and with that trust I’m giving him an important part of the film. That’s how we worked. There is trust and commitment.
We worked on the color correction together in Denmark with his favorite colorist. Shooting in Mexico is difficult because the light is strong. There is a lot of contrast. In Denmark where most of the year there is a soft light, there is no direct sun so you can have more control of how textures react to light. In Mexico that’s different and it has its challenges, but I think directors of photography get inspired when they are not in their comfort zone.
MM: Did you want to go after a visual style different from your previous work?
AE: Not really. We didn’t use my films as references, but, because they come from me and I use a similar team—for example, I worked with the same art director as in my previous films—I know that I’m not going to be able to get too far from my “look.” I don’t fight it much. Since the way I work is also very practical and intuitive, I know there are going to be similar things. We didn’t set out to make something very different. I knew there would be new and different things because of how I wanted to tackle the themes. Since I was playing with genre cinema—horror, suspense, mystery—this film would take us to new things: the fog, the forest, darkness, allies, deserted places where you can feel someone is there but you don’t know who or what. I knew that type of atmosphere would bring visual elements absent in my previous films.
MM: Something that has defined your directing style is the way you employ new talent, like first-time actors, in your films. Are you still surprised by what you find in these diamonds in the rough?
AE: Of course. In fact, that’s why I take so long, because I need them to surprise me and to inspire me. I take very long in the casting. I don’t have a clear idea of how I want them to look. In a way I like not having it so clear because as I look at faces and meet people, it’s a creative extension of the screenplay. I feel like I’m still writing the film and that someone is going to fill those characters in a very interesting and rich way once they appear. I do get surprised, and I’m inspired by that search and discovery of people that are going to fill the film as characters. I don’t have a rule that they have to be actors or non-actors. In fact, out of the four main actors in this film, three of them are people who want to act professionally. Only Simone Bucio, who plays Veronica, the girl from the cabin who comes down to the town—she is the only that’s not interested in pursuing acting further. In that sense this time is a little different from my previous films. I also worked with them in a different way this time: This was the first time I gave my actors a screenplay. In previous projects, since the cast were not interested in being actors, we would work in the moment and they wouldn’t read the screenplay because I didn’t want to confuse them with a lot of information. But in this case since they were people who did want to act, I decided to try another method of working with them. I liked it. All the planning ends up translating into a liberating feeling when shooting comes around, which is what I’m interested in. I like to improvise and for that to happen you have to really plan things. That’s what I’ve realized. Arriving on set without planning, you are invoking disaster. The more we plan, the freer I am to find new things when shooting: new ideas, experimenting, doing something with someone we hadn’t planned to.
MM: What do you think the genre element adds to a story like this? What would be different if the story focused only on the social realist aspects?
AE: Genre is the physical, tangible and real representation of something very mysterious that human beings have, which has to do with our desires and sex drive. That’s also our imagination, so having the opportunity to use genre elements to represent what the characters have inside and bring it out with this creature—it opened me and liberated me.
MM: Were there any Mexican genre films that influenced you when crafting The Untamed?
AE: Cronos [by Guillermo del Toro] was a film that impacted me and was important, which I think has similar elements to The Untamed: sensuality, sexuality, a physical interaction with fantastical elements, such as the device in Cronos that wraps and penetrates the hand. There is definitely something there that influenced me. Also, Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre left its mark on me when I saw it. It was an important film for me when I used to watch a lot of films.
More in general, Eraserhead by David Lynch, Possession by Andrzej Zulawski, Videodrome and many others by Cronenberg, Terminator, Alien, and even RoboCop, which has an interesting relationship between the physical body and technology. When we knew there would be a sexual creature in the film, Possession cane into play and we had to reflect about that movie. I admired that film because of its audacity and the visual shock it packed, and of course because of Isabelle Adjani’s performance. That’s also why The Untamed is dedicated to Andrzej Zulawski.
MM: Each one of your films has received festival acclaim. What do these awards represent in your career?
AE: I think it’s best not to be conscious of it as you are going about your life or working. Personally, obviously it’s nice to win anything and for someone else to think what you made was good, but it can also be a trap you fall into and think, “I need to keep winning awards” or, “I won an award so I can’t fail” or, “My ideas are good because I won an award.” One has to be careful with that. Awards caress the ego. They do help the film and my career. Awards have been very important for me to finance my films nationally. They have helped me a lot for that. My first feature, Sangre, didn’t have any kind of government support until it was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and won an award there. Because of that I was able to easily get support for my second film. They carry a lot of weight in my career, but at the same time I have to be careful of not believing something just because I win awards. I also know how easy it is not to win awards. MM
The Untamed opened July 21, 2017 courtesy of Strand Releasing. Images courtesy of Strand Releasing.