Both The Girl and The City deal with the stories of immigrants. What draws you to telling these kinds of stories?
It came from my work in New York City, where I studied film at NYU. I was deeply affected by this incredibly vibrant new immigrant life, so much so that I started making my first film in the Latin American immigrant community. At the end of that process, I found myself driven to go down to the border and try to understand the story of immigration better.
I have no Latin American blood that I can trace. I think of these films as part of an attempt to understand what it means to be an American today. It’s almost accidental that I’ve been focused on the story of the Americas and haven’t been looking elsewhere. But, my interest is to try and understand what it means to be an American.
Much of the film feels as though it’s very in tune with the Mexican lifestyle. Was the style of the film informed by the feel of the setting?
What we consciously tried to do was to find a language with which we can talk about real life but with a lyrical or poetic voice. All the choices in regards to the cinematography were driven by that idea. The first decision was to reject the convention of realism being achieved only by hand-held camera. We also tried to avoid the more sensational stories within this landscape because there are many horrors along the border, but to deal with any one of them would obliterate the story we were trying to tell. The pacing came out of those two choices.
How much research did you do in preparation of the film, if any?
My weakness is that the research I do is exhaustive. I traveled the length of the border, from Tijuana to Brownsville, several times over the course of several years and interviewed people in every sector of the border landscape. All this time, I was trying to understand the border on its own terms. My most important discovery in the research was that my preconception of the border was false, and it’s not just my preconception but also the central myth in this whole issue. It’s this idea that if you make it into the United States, then you’ll have a brighter future. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s incomplete and implies that what you’ve left behind has little or no future.
Given your extensive research, how long have you had this story in your head?
I started the research right after The City in 2000. After traveling the border on and off for three years, I still couldn’t figure out how to write a script that expressed this feeling I had. I knew I wanted to have an American character cross the border into the south. But it wasn’t until I came to Oaxaca in 2004—I came here for six months, I stayed six years—that I figured out how to write the script. The script in its entirety is based on my research.
Maritza Santiago Hernandez and Abbie Cornish
Was there anything you watched for inspiration?
For me, the most important inspiration still remains the Italian Neorealist cinema. I’ve been trying to understand what it is that makes those films so enduring and universal. Of course, it is that they cast non-actors and filmed in real locations. But, also the stories they told were socially committed; they were not just entertainment.
We did watch two films repeatedly. One was Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon. The other was Walter Salles’ Central Station, the film he shot right before The Motorcycle Diaries.
How long did it take for you to find Maritza Santiago Hernandez, the young girl who plays the role of Rosa?
It took years. I looked at over 3,000 girls and brought about 600 in front of the camera for auditions. Of those 600, we worked with 12. Of those 12, we whittled it down to three. I spent two months with those three girls before finally choosing Maritza. The main challenge was that I needed a girl who was indigenous, not a girl from Mexico City who was very urbanized.
We’re lucky enough at the Film Society to have two films of yours playing here in the next few weeks. We have The Girl this Thursday and a short film of yours, Bricks, is screening as part of our celebration of 30 years of the Princess Grace Foundation. Could you tell us about how that film came about and how the Princess Grace Foundation helped you in your early filmmaking years?
I’m delighted that both of these films will be screening this month! The Princess Grace Foundation supports student filmmakers in a very special way, and they were the most important supporter of Bricks, which was my thesis film at NYU. That film is the second of four films that ended up making up The City. The arts desperately need the support of groups like Princess Grace. To figure out how the country moves forward, we need to know what people are thinking and how they are looking at the world. We need stories, dance, music; all the arts need to be supported and Princess Grace Foundation has done that for a long time, and I’m forever grateful to them. I love that the Film Society is hosting a 30th anniversary and cannot believe my film has been included.
It’s been over a decade since your last film. Can you talk about how the independent film world has evolved over the years?
I would start by saying that, unfortunately, being an independent filmmaker means being unemployed much of the time. It means carrying projects forward for years without support. Every independent film that finally makes it to the screen is a miracle because it’s so difficult. That hasn’t changed over the course of my career. But what really defines independent cinema to me is a level of personal commitment that will overcome every obstacle.