Posted on Friday, October 21st, 2016 by Jack Giroux
Desierto is Jonás Cuarón‘s sophomore effort as a filmmaker. The co-writer of Gravity made his directorial debut in 2007 with Year of the Nail, a movie he wrote, produced, shot, co-edited, and did the art design for. He had slightly fewer jobs to do on his second feature, but that doesn’t mean it was less of a challenge to make, thanks to some brutally hot weather.
But harsh weather conditions hardly compares to what the characters in Desierto experience. Cuarón’s lean thriller, which is almost more of a horror movie at times, follows a group of men and women illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, hoping to find better lives in the States. Most of the people Moises (Gael García Bernal) is traveling with are killed at the start of the film by a lone gunman (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a deadly racist who ends up in a game of cat and mouse with Bernal’s character.
Cuarón recently made the time to discuss crafting his thriller with us. Below, read our Jonás Cuarón interview, in which he discusses the film’s unnerving use of sound, a horrific death scene, movies that inspired the thriller, the Zorro film he’s directing, and the significance of Steven Spielberg‘s Duel.
Below, read our Jonás Cuarón interview.
I read that you spent a lot of time with your sound designer discussing making the sound an integral part of Desierto‘s atmosphere. How did you want the sound to engage the audience?
I knew that given the type of genre, sound is very important to immerse the audience in the visceral experience, to immerse them in this atmosphere. The sound designer, Sergio Diaz, I admire from previous works, like Heli. We worked with the composer because I knew it was going to be essential to create that rhythm, to create the tension. What I was really happy with that result is that Woodkid and Serio worked in parallel, in the way that the score doesn’t feel like something separate from the sound design. Everything just becomes this atmospheric sensation that carries on the tension.
Would Woodkid and Serio Diaz ever correspond?
They worked separately, but on the crucial scenes, they definitely kept sharing each other’s work. For instance, the massacre scene, there was always the debate on obvious reasons, the surreality that we needed, the percussions that one would create. On the other hand, the viscerality that the actual gunshots and the sound effects of that scene it creates, it was very important to have them both be in communication, because otherwise, they would not give it the space for each other.
With Gravity, you co-wrote a film set in zero-G. Here, you’re in the desert. Do you just prefer more overtly cinematic environments, or do you like creating challenges for yourself?
[Laughs] I guess a little bit of both. I remember when I first wrote it, thinking very naively it’s going to be such a simple movie, just two guys chasing each other in the desert. After Desierto, my dad and I started working on Gravity. I remember as we were writing Gravity, he had the same attitude thinking, Oh, it’s just two characters in space, so we don’t even need any sets! I guess that’s the beauty of writing, when you’re a writer you’re not thinking as a director, you’re just really imagining the movie you’d like to create, and then you move it up to the director to shot it.
Having now directed two movies, when you’re writing can you sometimes not help but to think of the logistics of shooting?
Much as I’d like to not think logistics next time… I might choose a way nicer location. Hopefully, it pays well and there’s a nice air conditioner. [Laughs] The reality, on the other hand, I really enjoy the power a blank piece of paper has. With cinema, you need to actually convince a whole team of people to be behind you, and you need to find all these elements when you’re working with the white piece of paper, you really can go anywhere your mind desires. I find that that’s a really interesting thing, and I think that one is a continuation of the other. One starts just like daydreaming onto the blank page, and then to allow the translation between what you dream and the reality that ends up making something even more interesting.
In Desierto, you see a lot of that with the dog. I kept writing the scenes, imagining what the dog could do. Then it wasn’t until I found the actual dog that I used that I realized that those dogs, in particular, could do way more than I could imagine. I remember the first day that we arrived on the set I saw the dog jump in and out of the truck through the window, and it’s those things that you see that inform the movie, that make the movie grow. In that sense, I love cinema because it allows you to start as a writer, but you end up being able to work with reality.