One of the highlights at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, Cary Fukunaga’s excellent debut Sin Nombre is a thrilling drama about gangs and illegal immigration in Central America. In a dangerous bid to start a new life in the States, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a teenager from Honduras, begins the journey across Mexico on rusty freight trains with her father and uncle. When she is attacked by the vicious, cold-blooded Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), leader of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, she becomes entangled with gang member Willy (Edgar Flores), who is forced to go on the run after he saves her.
Electric Sheep‘s Sarah Cronin sat down with the American director in Edinburgh to talk about Mexican prisons, tattoos and non-professional actors.
Sarah Cronin: Did you come to the idea for Sin Nombre through your short film Victoria para chino (about a group of immigrants who died in a refrigerated trailer when trying to cross the US border)?
Cary Fukunaga: Yes. We were doing our second-year films at film school, and I really wanted to do a short that was, not controversial, but something that was based on a real story, and not just explore my own family history in a ten-minute therapeutic short film. I didn’t have much money, and I wanted to figure out something that was of limited scope. I read about this trailer in Mexico and it was the perfect story to tell in a short format because we could get the audience in the trailer with the immigrants, and that would be a real experience. Victoria para chino wasn’t supposed to be the film that started up my career, but it started to travel around festivals and win awards, and suddenly Sundance was asking if I had a script to turn in for the Sundance Labs. I hadn’t really planned on that, so I had to quickly put together an idea based on the short film. I wrote a pretty mediocre draft of the script to give to the Sundance Labs, and they said it was interesting but I should keep developing it. So I went down to Mexico and started doing research.
SC: At that point, had you already included the gangs in your script?
CF:Yeah, the first draft was more of a triptych. It involved the trailer more, a kid in Honduras, and a kid in a gang who saves a girl. In the end, I kept the kid from the gang, he saves the girl and kills the leader. I made her one of the kids from Honduras because the first couple of people I travelled with in Mexico were from Honduras.
SC: I think one of the interesting things in the film is the hostility the immigrants face in Mexico, as in the scene where kids throw rocks at the train.
CF: There are a few things that are in the film but you just can’t fit in everything – there are no bandits, which are quite common, and very little of the immigration controls that exist – the Mexican version of the American INS or border patrol. There just wasn’t space for it in the story but they’re definitely there – also the smugglers, who are there controlling certain train cars. Maybe if I was a smarter writer I could have figured out ways to get in those details without taking time away from the main story.
SC: How did you gain access to the gang members when you were doing your research?
CF: My friend Gabriel Nuncio, who ended up doing the translation on the script, was a producer on my short film and his father was a journalist and an anthropology professor down in Chiapas. When you’re doing research, you meet one person and they say you should meet this other person, and then this person and this person. One of the people we really wanted to meet was Horacio Schroeder, who was the head of state security in Chiapas at the time. He’s always in the news, he’s one of the main people that you want to meet if you’re doing a story about immigration and gangs. He gave us his permission to visit prisons in Chiapas, so I started creating relationships with the prison in Tapachula and the one next to Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas. We started working with the social workers there and gained access to the gang members. In the middle of our research, the government changed in Mexico and basically everyone got fired. There was a whole new group of people running everything, but luckily one of the people placed in charge was a friend of Gabriel’s from high school. It’s all who you know, your connections. After spending about two years interviewing the kids in the gangs I had lots of fact-checking to do, and details that I kept having more questions about, so I started to develop a relationship with two guys near the prison in Tapachula – one was active, one was non-active, and they ended up being really helpful in creating the dialogue.
SC: They didn’t object to the way gangs are portrayed in the film?
CF: I told everyone I met – I’d say to them, I’m making a film about immigration, and you can choose to help me, and if not, I’m still making the film. They’re pretty aware of how poorly they’ve been represented in the newspapers, and in some ways they wanted to do a little PR work for the gang – not that my film necessarily does that.
SC: It’s very hard to tell what’s authentic and what isn’t – who’s a gang member, who’s a professional actor…
CF: In the scenes in the house, there are a couple of guys from gangs, not from the Mara Salvatrucha, but from other ones. That was interesting – I gave Tenoch responsibility for taking care of everyone there, so he was always the one who told them what to do when we were off camera, and got everyone ready.
SC:The tattoos are pretty amazing – they must have been difficult to do.
CF: Yeah, that was a process, figuring out what inks to use, how long they could stay on for. The ones on the hands and the face had to be washed off the same day, you couldn’t go home wearing those. There was one time when one of the actresses was having a cigarette off set when we were in Veracruz, which she shouldn’t have been doing, and a local pulled up in a truck with a machete and got out in front of her – she quickly went back to the set! There’s a lot of anger towards the gangs and if people see one by themselves they’re like the sick animal of the herd.
SC: Were the tattoos all based on photographs?
CF: There are a lot of photographs of existing gang members, but you couldn’t just copy the tattoos because there’s rights attached to them, so we had to change everything. The ink department was pretty busy the entire film and there were days when we had to get 10 extra people to help out and put tattoos on everybody. Edgar Flores, who plays Willy, got pretty good at doing his own tattoos with this little pen that’s like a Sharpie, but the ink is just subtly faded so the tattoos look real.
SC: How did you find Edgar? He’s not a trained actor, is he?
CF: No. He was a real non-professional, but by the end he was like Bowfinger, he knew all of the words, and he was really professional – he really liked it. It was fun for him at first, not because of the responsibility, but because of all the attention. Here was this kid from off the streets who’s suddenly being taken care of, talked to differently. Hair and make-up can be a director’s worst enemy, they’ll make someone feel like a star. I didn’t want Edgar to feel like a star, I wanted him to feel grounded, because he was surrounded by really good actors who were playing supporting roles, and he was starting to act a little cocky. I was like, Tenoch, can you please teach this young man a lesson and let him know how lucky he is. It was hard for him to concentrate as well, he doesn’t necessarily have the tools to jump from joking before the camera rolls to being in character. So I’d have to do things like antagonise or isolate him, or purposely not let anyone talk to him so I could keep him in character, and those kinds of things were very difficult for him. He was also very lonely on the shoot, leaving his father and grandmother behind and suddenly being alone in Mexico. Sometimes when the most amazing things are happening to you you’re also the most depressed – I don’t know why that is.
SC: He wouldn’t know if this would ever happen again, if he’ll ever make another film.
CF: I tried to tell him that this might be the only film he makes in his life, and he should save his money. I said, you’re getting a lot of attention, but then it’s going to disappear and you’re going to feel terrible. We talk once every couple of weeks. He’s a PA for a video production company in Honduras, but there’s not really a film industry down there, so it’s not like he’s going to become a leading man. And in Honduras, he’s considered black, because although there are Latino people with darker skin than his, he’s got these African features and he has black blood, and that puts him in a weird lower class.
SC: I think there’s still a lot of prejudice in South and Central America.
CF: Absolutely. It’s hard for me to figure out sometimes. It’s like Tenoch – amazing actor, charming, and handsome by Western standards, but in Mexico he’s too brown to be a true leading man, which to me is like, are you kidding me? Why not?
SC: What was it like riding the trains when you were doing the research?
CF: Well, it’s not Amtrak. It’s pretty similar to what you see in the movie, which is based on what I saw. In some ways it’s one of the most free-feeling, exciting ways to travel, and there are moments of danger between long hours of boredom. One of the roughest times was when I was crossing Veracruz on a night train and it was really fast and really rough. We were trying to sleep on top of some really sharp metal sheeting with these ridges, it’s like lying on a bed of nails, and I didn’t have a belt to tie myself onto the train car. I had to jam my arm underneath it, and the train was really jerky, I was trying not to roll off, and it was raining and I was wet and cold. I was not in a good mood the next morning – but it really gave a good sense of what it’s like. The best memories I have are some of the surreal moments.
SC: How important was it having Canana, the company started by Diego Luna and Gael GarcÃa Bernal, on board as producers?
CF: They weren’t on-set producers, but it was great to have them – it sort of legitimises the project in Mexico, and definitely makes it more of a Mexican production. It’s really a co-production in all senses – the only gringos on set were me and Abi Kauffman, the producer.
Interview by Sarah Cronin