Interview: How Jonás Cuarón's 'Desierto' Was Inspired By Steven Spielberg's 'Duel'

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.

[Spoiler Alert]

The dog's death scene is incredibly unsettling. How did you decide how much to show of it on-screen? 

That scene was always important because I knew I needed it narratively. They needed to get rid of that obstacle, so I knew I needed that. Also, I knew that scene was going to give me one of the few opportunities to show Jeffrey's emotional side, and to even make the audience, for a perverse second, relate to Jeffrey. Something I've noticed is that's very curious is that a lot of the audience, even though that dog has killed a lot of Mexicans, still really suffer watching that scene. I remember the visual effects supervisor begging me regularly to cut away from the dog because it was a very complicated effect.

He kept saying, "Why don't you just have the moment where Gael shoots? We show a couple of frames and then go back to the Gael." To me, it was very important, not only with the dog but also with all the other characters that died, to try to show the violence in the most matter-of-fact [way], and not trying to shy away from violence.

My son is eight, so he's starting to be obsessed with all these new action movies and superhero movies. In a way, sometimes I worry because violence in those movies ends up being so abstract, no visual, and it's not respectful to the consequences of that violence, so sometimes I worry that that's an irresponsible approach to it. With Desierto, dealing with a very violent subject matter it was important to show the violence on screen.

[Spoilers Over]

Hearing you discuss your problems with how violence is often depicted in tentpole films, just like Desierto, do you want to ground your Zorro film, Z, more in reality?

I think that when you ground the film, it's so much more effective. A good example for that was what Jeffrey did with Desierto. To me, Jeffrey gave the villain a very human performance, and in a way to me that makes it even more terrifying. When you see the human side of Jeffrey, you realize that monster exists. Definitely with Zorro grounding the story is important. Again, the same thing with Desierto. I was trying to recreate what genre films from the 1970s used to do, which is do political movies, do movies that talked about important issues but disguise all of those issues under the genre. Obviously, not going to be the subtle, but that project, Z, interests me because it seems like a good jumping board for discussing lots of very important social issues, to work through and disguise in the genre.

When you first mentioned Desierto to your father, you both discussed cat and mouse movies. Was there one film in particular that you talked about or inspired you? 

To me, the most important title, because it's the title that when I saw that film it really inspired me to try to approach cinema in that way, is Duel by Spielberg. I saw it when I was a kid and I loved it. I re-watched it eight or ten years ago, and I was really amazed, not only by its simplicity and how it manages to keep you gripped to your seat with such a simple narrative, but how, at the end, it's just a story of a truck chasing a car, but it can become a story about so many other things.

It can become a story about bullies, about your boss at work harassing you, a person in the audience can project whatever they want on that truck. That was a little bit the idea with both Desierto and, I think, Gravity. Obviously, they have very specific meanings, but as an audience, you can watch those movies and see them beyond the politics of the film. You can see Jeffrey not only as a manifestation of hatred, but you can also see him as whatever person or monster you have chasing after you at that moment. I really believe that we all, in one way or another, are running away from one monster.