Amat Escalante Interviewed for Heli

May 23rd, 2014
Author: Meredith Taylor

Matthew Turner spoke to Amat Escalante, the director of Mexican drama, HELI, which is currently showing in cinemas nationwide:

Matthew Turner (MJT): Where did the idea come from, first of all?

Amat Escalante (AE): I guess with all my movies, an image is the first thing I come up with. Here, the first image was a young man looking for his father in the countryside.That’s the first image that came and also the name, somehow. That was there from the very beginning and maybe had something Biblical about the name, also. Because right away, when I found the name, I looked up what it meant, the son of God or something like that. So there was this thing about father and son that was somehow intriguing and somehow inspiring. And that was the initial seed and then there was the location part of it also, where I was shooting it and what I could tell from that location, which was very near my house, around where I live. And so there’s this car factory there, a General Motors plant that put themselves there about 25 or 30 years ago and it brought a lot of families, a lot of people that work there. And I wanted to make a movie about one of these families and how they were affected by the corruption and the terror that is going on in many parts of Mexico.

MJT: How has the film been received in Mexico?

AE: Very well. It came out in August last year and it was surprisingly refreshing for a Mexican audience to see it and for it to have been very well received by both critics and audiences. That was very satisfying. Usually, my movies – my two other movies – have found a lot of people that like them and a lot of people that don’t like them, so it was always a half-and-half type thing. But now I would say it’s about 75 to 80% liked it or saw what it was supposed to be – they understood it, let’s say – and appreciated it. So we were happy with that.

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MJT: Were there any specific influences on the film?

AE: Well, I was inspired by – like with my last movie, somehow – by westerns, by Sergio Leone westerns a lot. And everything that’s in the movie is what everybody knows in Mexico, it happens, we see it in the newspapers, etc, and I basically made a story out of those things, but searching for the characters and the human side of things. In Mexico, we are used to seeing the images that I show, the images of hangings or beheadings etc, in newspapers and magazines and I wanted to go somehow beyond that, you know. To go through that, show it somehow, but also go beyond that, to see where I could get to if I showed more and to also tell the story of one of these families, out of the 100,000 people that have been killed from the War On Drugs, there are many stories of many families that have been destroyed or affected, you know? So I wanted to make a movie about that, basically.

MJT: You use non-professional actors in the cast. Why did you decide to do that and how did you go about finding them?

AE: Well, my brother, Martin, he does the casting, usually, for my movies. All my movies I have looked [for actors] in the streets, basically. I’m very inspired by people who don’t think they can act, people who don’t look like normal actors, people that you would find in an acting school etc. [So I look for people who] inspire me and then instead of just being inspired by them, I like to put them in the movies. I always look for actors and non-actors equally. In Mexico City we were looking for actors and we found the main actor of the film, he wants to be an actor, Armando Espitia. So we looked at about 300 actors and thousands of non-actors. They don’t read the script, I don’t show them the script, I just give each one of the main people – or anybody, actually – I give them a list of the difficult things they have to do, so ‘You have to be nude’, or ‘They’re going to hit you’ or ‘You have to kiss somebody’. So I give them a list, very detailed, of all the difficult things and they all accept whether they’re going to do it or not. Usually they accept, sometimes they don’t or whatever and then they don’t read the script and every day we go over the scene and I change the dialogue so that it’s the way that they would say it or I hear how they say it and I change it, I ask them ‘How would you say it?’, ‘Do you feel comfortable saying that?’ and it’s very much I don’t really care about the dialogue much, as long as what I want is somewhat communicated. So in that way, I’m very flexible and I adjusted to them. So whoever that person I cast is, the script will become them instead of them trying to become something else, so I find people that will be able to transform and make it interesting and that’s the way I work with non-actors.

MJT: I have to ask, how did you achieve that horrific shot of Beto’s genitals being set on fire?

AE: Well, it’s with digital technology. It’s quite simple, actually! You know, he was there, we put some tracking points, they’re called, and a lighter with a hole in it, so there was no gas at all. And they would fake it as if they were turning it on and then he screams and then later we put everything in there.

MJT: So as you were directing it, you were asking him to imagine his genitals were on fire? What pain did he draw on to scream like that?

AE: Mmhmm. Well, he knew if he didn’t do it right he would have to be hanging there for longer, like much more time. So he did it, actually, he did it good right away, it was surprising. I just told him, you know, ‘Just imagine that’ and he was naked there, he was showing anything. He didn’t care that much about it. I asked him about the kissing scene with the young girl and he said that was much more difficult than the burning for him. He was much more nervous and it was awkward and much more difficult, that scene, than when he was being burned. Actually, all that stuff, it was very difficult to shoot in that small room, but we were all having a good time, trying to have a good time, otherwise it would become too unpleasant, you know? So all that was done with a lot of humour and was a comfortable situation.

MJT: It’s very shocking here to see a 12 year old girl in this kind of relationship. Is it as shocking in Mexican society?

AE: Well, it’s common and you know the baby that is in the film, the six month old baby? The mother had to be on the set and the mother is 14 years old, she had the baby when she was 13. So we all know, once again, in Mexico that it’s something that is common, especially outside of Mexico City. And it’s a shame and it’s part of the problem, also. It’s part of the problem that there is, the violence has to do with very young mothers having babies and these babies growing up without a proper moral compass. And it was important for me to show that side, also, because there’s a reason for things, you know, and I’m trying to explore the reasons of why society is like that, is so undeveloped, society, that it still does things that savage people used to do hundreds of years ago. And not only in Mexico, they’re doing it all over the world, but to see why people get to that point and it has to do with people not being taken care of when they’re educating, when they’re small and when they’re being born. And that’s why it was important for me to put these young people there.

MJT: How would you categorise your relationship with Carlos Reygadas?

AE: Well, he’s a friend, for more than ten years now. I got close to him because I saw Japon, his first movie and I admired it very much and I contacted him from that. I had a script already written, Sangre, and I showed him my script. He believes in what I’m doing and I believe in what he’s doing. I edited Heli in his house, in his studio, sorry, for five months. Somehow we support each other, we’re colleagues, I guess you could say. I’ve only worked on one movie which is not my own and that’s [Reygadas’] Battle in Heaven and that’s the only other thing that I’ve done in the film industry. I didn’t go to film school. By the time I worked with Carlos, in 2003, I was 23 years old. And from the age of 15, I already had it very clear, what I was going to do and from 15 on, I was watching hundreds of movies and being obsessed with Herzog, Robert Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Fritz Lang, all these things. And then by the time I met Carlos, we had a lot of those people in common that we liked, so we were in synch in that way and that was a nice connection that has lasted so far and I hope it lasts longer

MJT: Is there a particular scene in the film that you’re especially proud of?

AE: Yeah, I like when things happen, when we get a certain thing in the sky and with the action, you know? For example, the scene where they leave the house with the military guys in the truck and then they leave into the sunset and it’s kind of going to rain. And then later you see that they drop off the father’s body and it’s raining in the distance. I like that type of stuff that’s not really planned and it turns out better than what you planned just because of nature. That type of stuff excites me, so, for example, when the kid gets up onto the stage in the burning scene, of the drugs, those things that happen there, at the moment, and we capture them, those are inspiring. When you’re shooting the movie, they give you fuel to keep on going the next day, instead of doing whatever the script says. That would be very boring for me, I need things that change everything, you know? And that’s in part why many scenes end up different from in the script, but usually it’s better, they end up better because I think life is much more interesting than my imagination can be, so I’m very open to life when I’m shooting

MJT: What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?

AE: To get right? I guess what I struggled the most with was with trying to tell the story through the actors, you know? Through acting, basically, which was something that in my other movies was much more difficult and I was less worried about, but in this one, I really thought I had to be able to tell the story through the characters, therefore the acting had to be, let’s say lubricated enough so that people would be able to go into the movie. And so I tried to take care of the acting as much as possible, from everybody.

MJT: Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to see go?

AE: Yeah, many things. I like to see gore a lot, gory stuff. I had more than what there is now, but I had much more and some things it was obvious they were too much and they had to be taken out.

MJT: So you shot more gore, you put the actors through it all, but you didn’t use any of it?

AE: No, usually, for example, there’s a scene where they shoot a dog, they shoot him and then Beto, the guy that’s there, the kid, he runs over the body of the dog again [makes squashing sound] and then we see how the tyre smashes the dog’s face and all the eyes come out.

MJT: [makes “Ewwww” face]

AE: Yeah, you see? It’s too much.

MJT: Yeah, that’s too much [laughter].

AE: But I liked it. And we made like this mannequin of a dog, filled with meat inside and things that looked like brains and everything and there was a close-up of the wheel and it went over and exploded and it looked really real, you know? It was like, very close and I had it. It’ll be in the DVD extras. Those types of things, because they’re fun for me and I like gore stuff. So that and many other things, of course, that I had to take out.

MJT: And finally, what’s your next project?

AE: I just did a short that will come out very soon on the internet. They asked me to do it in Mexico, kind of a campaign against violence, different types of violence. And they gave me the subject of human trafficking, of women. I chose women, young prostitutes, etc. It’s something I didn’t want to do so much, because again, it’s the type of subject that I will need to move away from, a little bit – I want to move on from that. But they’re going to show it at schools and it’s for a good purpose, so I did it and that will be on the internet at some point. And soon I’ll write and hopefully film something at the end of this year or next year, if everything goes well.



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