ARMANDO HERNÁNDEZ (LEFT) AND JORGE ADRIÁN ESPíNDOLA IN SANGRE DE MI SANGRE. PHOTO BY: IGOR MARTINOVIC
Christopher Zalla could have written about a lot of things for his first feature. He could have done something on his childhood — born in Kenya, then living overseas in dozens of countries — or on the odd jobs (selling tomatoes at five years old, mowing lawns by the time he was 10 and working as a commercial salmon fisherman in his late teens/early twenties) he has hustled along the way. But when he sat down at his keyboard he started thinking about his father, who taught him the value of money by making him work hard to get it.
In Sangre de Mi Sangre (originally the Sundance ‘07 Grand Jury Prize winning title Padre Nuestro — more on the title change later), money and fatherhood are the main themes as we follow two young Mexican boys who jump the border en route to New York City for two very different reasons. Juan (Armando Hernández) is a charming grifter running for his life when he meets a group of border crossers. One of them is Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), a naïf on a journey to find his father, who he believes owns a restaurant in Brooklyn. The two become “friends” in the back of the 18-wheeler they‘re hiding in, but by the time they get to New York Juan takes off with Pedro‘s only means to find his father, a sealed envelope with his address on it.
The film then splits between the two boys as they explore the city. Juan quickly finds Pedro‘s father, Diego (Jesús Ochoa), who‘s actually a lonely dishwasher suspicious of everyone, especially a young boy who shows up claiming to be his son. Pedro, meanwhile, latches onto a drug addict/homeless woman named Magda (Paola Mendoza), who helps him on his search.
Shot in a jerky, voyeuristic-feeling handheld style by Igor Martinovic, this mistaken identity/morality tale is many things to its audiences. Some believe it‘s a commentary on the immigration issue in a post 9/11 America, others feel it‘s an old-fashioned story about the search for the American Dream. But for Zalla it‘s just about fathers and sons. “It‘s a story about a boy in search of his father,” he says. “It‘s absolutely inspired by my own relationship with my father, so it‘s a personal story for me.”
Since winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the search for distribution has been a frustrating one that has included a change of the title to Sangre de Mi Sangre (Blood of My Blood) from its original Padre Nuestro (Our Father). And even though IFC will release the film in May, as of press time the company says it doesn‘t plan to make a formal announcement of the title change. This was partly the cause of Zalla‘s frustration when we met for breakfast in New York City last month to talk about the film and the ever-shrinking distribution path for indies (especially foreign-language ones).
SANGRE DE MI SANGRE WRITER-DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER ZALLA. PHOTO BY: IGOR MARTINOVIC
Reading up on your background, it sounds like you were prepped more for the blue-collar world than the arts. Well, in my family you had to be a carpenter. Both my parents were academics, but to pay his way through Georgetown my father [worked as] a mason, a bricklayer. In our family you were required to work. When I was 18 I went to Alaska and worked as a commercial salmon fisherman, and that was a whole other thing — I loved and hated it. Mostly I hated it, but for some reason I did it for nine summers. It was so intense, you could easily work four days without sleeping because when the fish came they came and it was money, unbelievable money. I paid my way through school.
On a good day, how much are we talking about? $4,000.
But you must have been thinking, “I can‘t do this the rest of my life.” Oh, yeah, no way. It‘s a violent business emotionally, psychologically — you get into fights, hardcore stuff. But it‘s funny because it‘s similar to my experience in film. Basically there‘s a 1,000-foot-long net that goes out, the fish swim into the net, they go crazy and it becomes this whole clusterfuck mess and your job is to untangle the fish as quickly as possible. Basically each fish is this puzzle as it comes to you and, for lack of a better word, there‘s a system, or a craft, to pulling these fish out. You‘re always looking at the next one coming up as you‘re working on the one [in front of you]. There‘s actually a methodology, like getting a film together.
Were you always into movies growing up? I was a real reader as a kid. I would write stupid stories about guys with crossbows in the woods. I certainly loved movies, movies were a real place of escape for me, but I don‘t think I really ever got to the point where I understood that making movies was a possibility, that people really made them. It wasn‘t until I got to college and I started taking film study courses that I saw both what film could be but also the intention behind the films, that there was someone behind this making decisions, and I got really excited. It‘s totally cliché, but I saw 8½ one day and I was like okay, that is a worthy pursuit of one‘s life, to try and really do something so noble.
Sandre de Mi Sandre was supposed to be your thesis film at Columbia? Yeah. I just watched all these people around me put $25,000 to $50,000 into a short film. I thought I‘d want to put that into a feature.
So how did the story come to you? This is by far the question I get the most and hate the most, no reflection on you, but [there are a] variety of answers. There is no one thing, but you feel this compulsion to say, “Oh, this was the wellspring.” But the truth is, how do you articulate how in this vortex of ideas that this thing popped out? There were actually a lot of things that kind of came together. Yeah, there was a character that I imagined based on some experiences with people who are in this world, and, yeah, I wanted to make a film about New York following 9/11, I guess, but I also just wanted to make a movie about New York.
Were there themes you wanted to touch on? The critics seem to be proposing immigration as the big theme of the film. It‘s not a theme! I hate it, but what can you do? The funny thing is [immigration] wasn‘t even an issue in the public eye when I made the movie. It came after, so it got applied to it ex post facto. At first we thought, “Hey, maybe this will be good.” And then we learned we were “the immigration movie.”
People also call it a look at the American Dream. The funny thing is that line in the movie wasn‘t even in the script — it was adlibbed. We did so much adlibbing and improvisation and so when [Juan and Diego are] sewing and Juan asks, “How much are we getting for these things?” and Diego says, “Fifty cents,” Juan goes “Fucking American dream!” Diego laughs, and the laugh is real because he wasn‘t expecting Juan to say the line.
From the beginning did you want to tell the film in a foreign language? No, but the moment I decided that [the characters] would be Mexicans, yes. On some level not being able to speak English became this other great obstacle [for the characters]. I wanted to make a suspenseful, exciting film, a film that had a real visceral quality to it, and all these things to me just enhanced that — increased the stakes. The only thing to me about immigration is that while it never comes up in the movie, there is that sense that we as an audience have while we‘re watching it that it may come up. Somebody once told me that the movie made him feel anxious. Well, that was intentional.
Was any draft of the script written in Spanish? I‘m fluent in Spanish, but I wrote it in English and had it translated to Spanish by a Mexican friend. Then I did a further translation when I gave it to the actors. I wouldn‘t let them change the meaning or the lines, but I would let them change the words, because I wanted to have a real colloquial veracity for their area, for their culture.
It‘s so hard to find financing, but for a foreign film with no name talent it‘s even worse. How did you pull it off? [chuckle] I wanted to write something that was immediately producible but the one wrinkle was that so much of it was at night, which I didn‘t really think much about at the time. Basically I wrote for certain locations I knew or that I thought I could get, so I figured what I would be doing was raising that $50,000 for my thesis for a DV feature instead. Then I sent it to the Sundance Lab, and I didn‘t get in but I was the first alternate. Also, I managed to get the script to [producer] Ted Hope and [writer-director] Richard LaGravenese early on. They both read it and loved it and helped me get into the business. Essentially [they] got me representation. The script started spreading around town and suddenly there was all this interest. It got very sexy, I had all these incredible meetings, and all these producers wanted to make it — I got caught up in it. But six or eight months later I realized this wasn‘t going to happen, so I hired a friend of mine from film school, Benjamin Odell, who is a producer and who always had been a big fan of the script. I decided that whatever we get we‘re going to make this movie. I called everybody I knew. Often times it was really uncomfortable. It was like, “Dude, I haven‘t heard from you in five years and now you‘re asking me for money?” [laughs] But [from] friends and family we built a little core, I think it might have been $100,000 to $150,000. The funny thing about the business is everyone wanted to be the last money in but nobody wants to be the first. Ben then got a job with this company called Panamax that was making Latino and Spanish language films, and they put in a big chunk. And then Daniel Carey and James Shifren‘s Two Lane Pictures put in the final piece. At the end of the day, it was a $400,000 movie and we shot it on Super 35 mm for four weeks.
I thought Igor Martinovic‘s work was amazing. How did you hook up with him? Ben. He was friends with Ben. It was the only meeting I had with a d.p. I knew right away. Right away. Igor said to me early on, “Hey man, all this night stuff and we can‘t afford lights!” So we came up with our own style of lighting. He also understood that we didn‘t want to be a “woe is me” kind of neorealist film — we wanted it to be fastpaced and visually fun, and to really play with the darkness, which was my big thing. I wanted to do real darkness — I didn‘t want to see faces at times.
PAOLA MENDOZA IN SANGRE DE MI SANGRE. PHOTO BY: IGOR MARTINOVIC
How would you light scenes? We coined a new term on the film: “street gaffing.” During pre-production Igor and I drove down every street in New York City looking for places that were already very well lit with a certain kind of security lighting — mercury vapor. These lights gave off a cool, blue-green look, and gave a great kind of silver quality when we pulled out some of those colors in test stills. We actually chose several locations just because of the way that they were lit. Sometimes we‘d augment them by adding our own security lighting, which we‘d buy from Home Depot. In fact, there was one night exterior scene we had to reshoot after principal photography and we didn‘t even use a single light of our own, just some bounce-board. Then, to maintain continuity for interiors, Igor actually had the grip and electric guys build housings for our Home Depot lights. They were a little finicky, because they weren‘t made for what we were doing, but I think it really paid off in the end.
With the casting, did you try to find Mexican actors in New York City? Well ironically there are no Mexican actors in New York. It‘s incredible — believe me, I looked. I wanted to use non-actors at first, but what I quickly found out was that non-actors really didn‘t have the dramatic chops for this movie. I always knew I wanted to cast the boys in Mexico because the idea that I had was to bring two kids who had never been to New York to New York and just start filming. The father I thought maybe we could find someone who has been here for 20 years, obviously reflecting the story. But the casting people would keep bringing in Puerto Ricans and Cubans, so I went to Mexico and, believe it or not, it was also really difficult in Mexico. At the end of the day I cast the three roles based on character and talent. JesÚs Ochoa, he walks into the fucking room and is intense. My big thing with him was, was he going to have this lighter side? When you get to know him, though, he lights up when he smiles.
Is JesÚs Ochoa known in Mexico? He‘s huge. He always plays corrupt cops — there‘s a corrupt cop in every Mexican film — so this was really breaking the mold for him.
JESÚS OCHOA IN SANGRE DE MI SANGRE. PHOTO BY: GIOR MARTINOVIC
So you win the award at Sundance, then a whole other journey begins for you... Yeah. I call it the journey into darkness. [laughs] Sundance was an utterly traumatic experience. My Dad was in Africa at the time working, and he wanted to come back, but he was going to fly in for one night and then fly back to Africa. He wanted to know before the festival if he should show up for the opening screening or the awards ceremony, so that in a nutshell is the kind of pressure I had on me. It was the greatest moment [winning the Grand Prize] and then two weeks later when we realized no one was buying [the film] it was the worst moment. And they wouldn‘t buy it for the reasons you mentioned. It‘s not in English, no big names and the funny other thing is because it‘s “dark.” In the publicity leading up to Sundance our people would tell us, “Okay, these are the words we have to avoid: We have to avoid ‘small,‘ and it can‘t be ‘the immigrant movie.‘” But there was no way we could avoid that. “And it can‘t be dark. Dark is bad.” I was like, “I love dark movies.” And everyone wanted to sell it as a thriller. I was like, “Guys, you‘re kind of overstating the movie — it‘s not a thriller, it‘s a suspenseful drama. If we sell this as a drama, people will go, ‘Wow, I kind of got a ride there.‘ Doesn‘t that serve us better than to go in and say ‘thriller‘ and [the audience] going, ‘What makes this thing so fucking terrifying?‘”
Had you been talking to IFC from the start? We had. But the other thing was three-quarters of the buyers didn‘t come to see our movie [at Sundance]. So there was this whole process of trying to get them to see the movie after the festival and then waiting to hear back from them. And they all said the same thing: “It‘s an amazing film, we love it, how do we sell it? What‘s the poster look like?” So at first it was a heartbreaking process, now it‘s just an eye-opening process. I certainly understand now why people put name actors in their movies because it‘s a way to get people to see your movie. IFC was always there and the one thing that I‘m pleased about with them is that in fact they are the place for these kinds of movies.
How did the film‘s title wind up changing? The Mexican release was [titled] Sangre de Mi Sangre. What happened was a year or two ago in Mexico there was this right-wing Christian film called Padre nuestro. Then there‘s this Chilean comedy from two years ago called Padre nuestro. That film is showing up on pay TV channels with our info on it so if you click on it and watch the movie it‘s that movie, not ours. I get people calling me all the time saying, “Your movie was just on!” So we bring this up to IFC and they said they were aware of this, and what did they change the title to in Mexico? “Sangre de mi Sangre.” “Okay, let‘s call it that.” Which I‘m fine with, but if that‘s going to require a campaign to make people aware, that hasn‘t happened. That is what‘s pissed me off. But what can you do? In hindsight I wish I called it something else.
I guess you should have checked on IMDb to see if the title was ever used. [laughs] I did. At the time the last listing was a 1985 Spanish movie about a priest.
The IFC “day and date” model, with its small theatrical release and simultaneous availability on video on demand, is this release strategy just something independent filmmakers will now have to accept if they want their work to be seen? It‘s sure looking like that. I still have great hope that technology will be the answer, whether it‘s on demand or an Internet portal. The truth is most people see movies now on their 50-inch television screen, and I have no problem with that. Sure, you‘d love to have people see it in the theaters together, but there‘s so much competing for our attention. And getting a project started is just brutal in terms of how rigid the qualifications are that the money people need to [finance] movies. I have a few projects that have significant African-American roles and they say there‘s no international market for them. There‘s not a single African-American star who, on his own, can bankroll a movie, with one exception: Will Smith. Not even Denzel Washington, which blows my mind.
After going through this “journey into darkness” would you ever make a foreign-language film again? Sure. I‘d love to. But it would have to be a time and a place where I could afford to do it again. This was some crazy idea that I somehow pulled off, but I have to get a little realistic for a while. It‘s funny because Sangre was only foreign because that‘s what was real. The movie itself took me there so if any other movie takes me there that‘s where I‘m going.