director AmatIn an exclusive interview with Independent Ethos, Amat Escalante, best known for receiving the 2013 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his recent film Heli, talks about winning that award, why his film is so controversial and violence on film, among other topics. A close collaborator with Carlos Reygadas, who also was awarded Best Director at Cannes only a year earlier, Escalante shines a light on independent filmmaking with a conscience. The director tackles one of the more important issues in his country: drug trafficking and the ills it’s surrounded by, such as corruption, power in the hands of the few and suffering.

Although Heli is only his third full-length film, Escalante has a strong voice and a particular point of view. His take on filmmaking includes a deep faith in audience members who do not want to be told how to feel or what to think. The Mexican director shows his own perspective through a realistic style that is closer to his own life experience than what he sees on popular movies or television. He was in Los Angeles when he called Ana Morgenstern, who wrote a glowing critique of the film yesterday (read the review here). They spoke in Spanish. You can read the English transcription below.

Ana Morgenstern: How did you feel about winning the Cannes prize for best director? Were you surprised since Carlos Reygadas won the award the previous year?

Amat Escalante: Well, while being in the competition you are aware that there might be a possibility of winning, maybe one in 20 or maybe more because there are 20 movies competing and five of those get awards. So, to begin, it was quite impressive to be able to be part of the competition for the first time. When they called us the last day of the festival, telling us to go to the awards ceremony, I was very happy to hear the news that we would win something, but we didn’t know what it would be. That’s when I thought that the best director award was out of the question because Carlos, who is a close collaborator and producer in Heli, had just won the previous year. heli.still.0013130I thought to myself, it would be too unlikely to win that prize. So, winning best director was absolutely surprising. It was great for the entire team that the film was recognized with such an important award after working on it for over five years. On top of that, it was so important that Mexico won best director for two consecutive years. In that sense, the experience was very rewarding, and it has helped boost interest in the film. When it opened in Mexico, I think being recognized in the festival helped a lot, because a lot of people showed up to watch the movie, and it’s been selling well in video. It has also been sold to 35 countries. I don’t think the success is due just because of the award. I think it’s because the film tells a story that envelops the audience, and it’s a thrilling movie, but the award has certainly helped a lot.

How have different audiences received the film?

In Cannes, the film was shown on the first day of screenings. Everybody was anxious to start watching the competing films, so being the first one meant that it grabbed lots of the attention. The audience in Cannes is mostly press; there are also industry people but mostly press. The first encounter with the press in Cannes was brusque. I think they did not understand some parts of the film, and they paid too much attention to the violent parts without seeing the love story that the film also tells. heli_still_0008482I was a little surprised by that. Later on, though, the jury, which was mostly composed by filmmakers, received the movie a lot better. They liked the film, including Steven Spielberg who said it was one of his favorite films from the past festival. He was also the president of the jury that year. In Mexico, the acceptance of the film by the public and also the critics was great for me. They understood the movie very well, and they thought it was important that a movie like that was made. We ourselves premiered and distributed the film in Mexico without the backing of millions of dollars, which is what normally happens with other commercially distributed films. Even so, a lot of people went to see the movie, and I’m very happy about that.

What do you think are the different reactions to your film between a Mexican and an American audience?

Paul Hudson of Outsider Pictures, who is currently distributing the film, is taking a risk because he loves the movie, and he wants people to go see it in the States. But this is a big risk to show it in theaters to American audiences. It would be easier to put it straight to DVD and TV. It’s very different, the public’s reaction in the States because when you do not live in Mexico, even if you’ve lived in Mexico or you’ve been living a few years abroad, you start to idealize the country. I think some people are embarrassed to see a situation that is taking place in Mexico. heli_stil_.0014121They do not see why that should be seen outside of Mexico or why to make a film about that. That’s what I’ve encountered in the States. But many people have liked it too, it’s shown in several festivals, and I just showed it at a University in California, and the reactions have been very favorable, to save a few of people who get angry and feel attacked by the sheer force of the film. I’ve seen that reaction abroad a lot, but less so in Mexico because in Mexico, the film came out of Cannes labeled as an extremely violent movie. But people in Mexico have been able to see beyond that, and I think a lot of people in the States will be able to see that too and that they’ll like the film because of the story it tells and because of the characters.

Why do you think the reaction to the violence in Heli has been so visceral?

I think it’s because of how I show violence. I think that we are used to seeing people die in the big screen. It’s the most common thing when you go to the movies that somebody dies or somebody gets killed; that’s what’s normal. If you think about it, it’s rare when you go to the movies and somebody doesn’t die. Out of 10 movies maybe there’s one where nobody dies. The most normal is that people get killed on screen. For example, in Batman Dark Knight about 15 people get killed in the first five to 10 minutes.  But there is a way of showing death that people are used to, but when you show it in a different way, as if you were sitting right there without diversions, it’s different. I didn’t want to make violent scenes that were sexy, or dynamic or cinematic. I wanted to make those scenes un-cinematic. heli_still_0027175For me, cinematic has to do with editing and camera movements but those scenes are shot in an “anti” cinematic way, “anti-Hollywood” let’s say. That’s why people have a bad reaction to it. In a similar way, people are not used to seeing the acting style shown in my film and react poorly to it. For instance, in Mexico, people can watch a lot of telenovelas and never complain about the acting, but to me that acting is completely false and not credible, but when they watch my movie they complain about the acting because they are not like in a telenovela. People have already been so programmed in the way they watch something that they can be upset when they’re shown something that’s not within the parameters they expect it to be. Not everybody, obviously, but when people are very set in a way and a movie breaks with that there might be a clash sometimes. But this is also why this movie is so powerful. It is outside of the way in which we normally see things.

How did you prepare for this film in terms of research, raising funds and pre-production?

It took about four years to raise the funds to make this film. Normally, one would take about two years to get money for an independent film. In that time, I was also writing the script with the other screenplay writer Gabriel Reyes and searching for the cast. We did not do research. Rather, we are very observant. I think of myself as someone who listens and is very sensitive. Everything that is in the film is known in Mexico. For instance, that scene with the DEA officer was taken from a YouTube video that I think you can still get if you look up “cops in León Guanajuato torture another cop.” Everyone knows that it happens, and I’m not revealing anything 7940295312_057c038a31_othat I had to go and look for. We are just simply connecting the dots. There are some things in the film that we took directly from the newspapers and some situations we took directly from real life, and from there we started to construct a story. It was not necessary to do research because everything in the film is taken from the public domain. I wanted to go a different route, not research, but showing humanity and sensibility. That’s also how we did the casting. We got people that are from that area, live there, and could be in that situation in some way. The cast bring with them a lot of the context and the reality that adds to the authenticity of the film. We also changed some of the dialogue to fit the way in which they would say something.

How did you carry out the casting? Are they all non-actors?

Yes, they are all from that region, except for the main actor, who is from Mexico City and was going to acting school when we cast him. My brother, Martín [Escalante], found everyone in the street including the girl and the detective. I interviewed them, took photos and started to get to know them, and that’s how I knew they were right for the part. None of them, except for the main character, had acting experience.

How do you think the drug conflict will evolve?

I live in Mexico and love my country. That’s probably why I made the film, out of concern. I think people with a lot of power in Mexico— that’s just a handful of people— are interested in having this ongoing violence and corruption. I think that it is something relatively easy to eradicate if people really wanted to, but there’s a lot of people that are doing fine with corruption and violence. I don’t mean common people but the top echelons, even from the United States. The conflict is making a lot of people rich. The war against drugs could go another way, drugs could be legalized or something like that to stop the assassination and extortion of so many people. EstelaEscuelaFullThose options simply do not exist because people with power are not interested in things really getting better. I don’t think a movie can really create a change, but I think that it’s important to reflect on the problems in the country. It’s important that we look at our own problems and that we let other people see them as well, and that gets you closer to a change. For instance, when you are sick, the first thing you do is go and tell someone else or show someone where it hurts. I think Mexico has a virus that affects certain parts of the country, or certain sectors of society, and through talking about it we can start to advance. The movie is also about young people, the new generation; that’s where I think hope lies, but we as a society need to look after those young people and those babies through education and care and not abandon them like so many people have been abandoned in Mexico. For example, the girl in the movie that has a baby at 13, the 6-month-old baby that appears in the film was born to a 14-year-old mother. This is not common, but it’s something more or less common in Guanajuato. That situation is related to education and all that. What that child that was born from a 14-year-old mother will become, it’s likely that he will end up doing something not morally correct.

Ana Morgenstern

Heli opens this Friday, May 30, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower TheaterProgram Note: Independent Ethos critics Ana and Hans Morgenstern will introduce Heli on opening night, this Friday, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 9:15 p.m. and again Saturday, at 7 p.m. Let us know if you will be there by signing up on our Facebook event page. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.

Update: Heli is also showing in Broward County Friday and Saturday only at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood … if you absolutely can’t come see in Miami Beach.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

You have to admire Christopher Nolan. Count him among those few Hollywood directors alluded to in an earlier post who can prop up a tent-pole film franchise with minimal artistic compromise. Nolan is also among those few former indie directors working in Hollywood with the fortitude to maintain his voice in the corporate machine of mass-consumption filmmaking. In the Dark Knight Rises, his third film following the comic book hero Batman, he finishes his trilogy with a giant flourish that never forgets its humanity. The film has a visually symphonic quality so brilliantly composed, it makes its near three-hour runtime fly past. In this day where filmmakers seem to pander to the continued shortening of attention spans to produce a film of such a runtime at Warner Bros. is a feat in itself. But the film also offers so much more. The key to the film’s brisk pace lies in Nolan’s unsentimental cutting of scenes, the invested performances of his actors and an ingenious plot design (whose major twists you will not find spoiled here).

Though the story of the Dark Knight Rises unfolds along the classical dramatic curve of screenwriting made famous by Syd Field, Nolan knows how to push it to edgy extremes and stay with it. When Batman and his beloved Gotham City seem to arrive at their nadir, the twists never relent, all the way to the film’s final frame. Watching the Dark Knight Rises unfold feels like watching an elaborate sculpture form out of an intricately laid out array of toppling dominoes that span an array of directions and double back. You can tell Nolan has learned a lot from his last film, Inception (2010), whose story of dreams within dreams wrapped in a mystery-heist-thriller, also probably owes a debt of its own existence to Nolan’s reputation as Batman’s current cinematic creator. Most everything that happens in the Dark Knight Rises feels connected and warranted. As he has firmly stated in interviews, this marks the end of his trilogy of Batman films, and it makes for one heck of a finale. The Dark Knight Rises even has an ending nearly as good as Inception.

Nolan inherited the Batman franchise on somewhat shaky ground in his career as an indie director gone Hollywood. He burst onto the mainstream’s radar with Memento (2000), a film with twists in its narrative structure so visceral it could leave an audience member dizzy by the end credits. However, a remake of the Swedish thriller Insomnia (2002) followed. It felt so devoted to the original, it left many with a “why-bother” shrug. Somehow Nolan was next handed the keys to Batman, after the famed DC Comics hero was re-envisioned from sixties-era camp to stylized Gothic hero by Tim Burton and then run into the ground by Joel Schumacher who would miscast a glut of distracting Hollywood stars.

With Batman Begins (2005), Nolan would re-write the degree of sincerity warranted to a form of entertainment (the comic book) invented to amuse teenage boys in the early part of the 20th Century. Until Nolan, Hollywood had long treated the comic book film as disposable entertainment. Even the Burton films feel slight in comparison to what Nolan created. Nolan instead focused on the gray areas that had long kept comic books alive with adult readers in the 1980s, when the term “graphic novel” appeared, as well as trailblazing independent comic book publishers that explored more grown-up dimensions of character and society.

Played by Christian Bale, Nolan’s Batman felt tortured and haunted. But beyond the characters, Nolan knew how to incorporate social malaise as part of his Batman stories. His second Batman film, The Dark Knight (2008), famously examined the moral compromise of a country spying on its own citizens in the wake of President George W. Bush’s administration policy to wiretap citizens without a warrant (read this). Meanwhile Batman’s antagonist was the nihilistic Joker, whose sole motivation for violence was to have a laugh. Heath Ledger would go on to win a posthumous Oscar® for his portrayal.

Picking up where the Dark Knight left off, the Dark Knight Rises brings a new nemesis into the mix along with another prescient story. Clearly inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the 1997 graphic novel written by Sin City’s Frank Miller, Batman’s alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne has gone into recluse mode. After Gotham City passes an ordinance that seems to put criminals in jail with minimal due process, Batman “retires.” The law, called the Dent Act, alludes to one of the other villains of the Dark Knight who ironically met his demise a martyr at the hands of Batman. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) used to be the city’s District Attorney, until his face was partially melted away by the Joker, turning him into the psychotically schizophrenic Two-Face. When Batman kills Two-Face to save the life of the police commissioner’s son, Batman takes the fall for the sake of Dent’s legacy and the passage of the law.

Enter the revolutionary: Bane (Tom Hardy), a misguided monster out to “save” Gotham from a perceived tyrannical rule that implicates the city’s wealthiest, including Wayne. References to class warfare abound. When Bane and his thugs terrorize brokers on the floor of the stock exchange, 98 percent of the audience will probably find themselves rooting for Bane.

The muscle-bound Bane almost shares as much screen time as Batman. He starts as an enigma who also wears a mask, which generates a tortured but eloquent voice, similar to Batman. His origins eventually come to light, and he becomes humanized to almost creepy affect, as a sort of echo chamber of all that seems rotten in today’s society.

Beyond Batman’s already established regular sidemen Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne’s father-figure butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the film introduces several new characters into the mix and takes time to flesh them all out with conflicted characterizations, one of the best, next to Bane, being Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Dumping the campy dominatrix quality of the Catwoman in Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), this Catwoman grows from ethereal mystery woman to a creature of charm and heart. But another delightful introduction into the mix is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an ambitious “hothead” of a rookie cop, John Blake. Both Hardy and Gordon-Levitt make returns from Inception, as does Marion Cotillard who plays Miranda, a cipher of a character more complex than she at first seems. Great performers are present all over this film, not the least of which is Bale himself who treats his Bruce Wayne/Batman with as much care as his portrayal of the real-life Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s amazing and underseen Rescue Dawn.

Though the film sustains an edgy, dark tone with its drab, cold color palette, the Dark Knight Rises defines itself with action. The set pieces, including a mid-air plane hijacking scene that introduces Bane, takes one’s breath away. Nolan incorporates digital effects with subtlety among live-action stunt sequences (that plane scene!). Unlike most of these films, Nolan seems to skip out on the digital “stuntmen,” heightening the film’s realistic qualities and, in effect, the film’s stakes. Nolan also avoided the temptation (and probably the pressure) to shoot the film in 3D. It was however, partially shot on IMAX, so the bigger the screen the better.

Having long ago set the tone for the current new era of proper super hero films, there is little room for Nolan to reinvent Batman, however. It just as well may end here (though his next job happens to be as producer on the reboot of the next Superman Film). I should not fail to mention that the Dark Knight Rises is not without its action movie tropes. The film indulges in a couple too many monologues of righteousness between characters that these do-or-die action films tend to lean on for characterization. Also, as much hype was placed on keeping Bane’s plan for Gotham secret, the film should be docked for giving us another climactic “countdown” that’s almost de rigueur in action movies. However, it does redeem itself for revealing the flaws in the goals of the Tea Party-type (or Occupy) extremist Bane. His plan to “give Gotham back to the people” results in a terrifying portrait of anarchy that Nolan does not fear dwelling on for an effective amount of screen time.

Another crutch that seems over-used at first but later brilliantly subverted includes the bombastic mood-enhancement of Hans Zimmer’s score. It can get grating in its obvious quality during the beginning of the film. I began to worry how much longer will the film rely on the layering crescendo of an orchestra and the boom from a barrage of percussion to make its point that this is scene or that scene is DRAMATIC. Then there arrives this fantastic moment about an hour into the film when Nolan eschews music to nerve-wracking effect. It happens during the first confrontation between Bane and Batman in the sewers of Gotham. You almost forgive the initial overuse of scoring ahead of the scene where the only soundtrack is the sound of physical violence. The moment also includes a wise decision by Nolan to include momentary cutaways to a few scattered onlookers, most of which are Bane’s henchmen. Contrary to many of these moments in the good v. evil canon, they do not cheer their leader on, but watch with a quiet, cold, curious interest. It’s the accumulation of these small but definitive moments inserted among terse action sequences that make the film such an awe-inspiring thing to watch unfold.

Hans Morgenstern

My favorite of the four trailers available, as of this post:

The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 and runs 164 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now in HD, 35mm and IMAX.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)