Gerardo Naranjo, Drama/Mex
Not many people can genuinely claim that cinema is their savior, but Gerardo Naranjo is probably one of the few. Growing up in the small Mexican town of Salamanca, he frequently got into trouble and was forced to move from school to school as a result of his problems with authority, but managed to escape his difficulties while watching movies. He ended up studying at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where he founded a cinema club called Zero for Conduct, — named after the Jean Vigo movie, a favorite which appealed to his sense of rebellion — in order to screen classic films he loved. While in Mexico City, he wrote film criticism and directed his first short, Perro Negro (1997), which ultimately led to him taking a Masters in Directing at American Film Institute in L.A. There he became best friends with fellow students Goran Dukic (whose Wristcutters: A Love Story is released next month) and Azazel Jacobs, the son of Ken Jacobs, who shared his anarchic spirit. After another acclaimed short, The Last Attack of the Beast (2002), Naranjo made his feature debut with the Scorsese-esque Malachance (2004) before co-writing and co-starring in Azazel Jacobs’ The GoodTimesKid (2005).
Naranjo’s sophomore effort, Drama/Mex, is a triptych following three interweaving stories set in Acapulco: Fernanda (Diana Garcia) discovers that her ex-lover Chano (Emilio Valdés) is back in town, putting her relationship with new boyfriend Gonzalo (Juan Pablo Castañeda) in doubt; aging office clerk Jaime (Fernando Becerril) decides to steal from his boss, quit his job and then kill himself; and teen runaway Tigrillo (Miriana Moro) joins a gang of delinquent girls who prey on tourists. Drama/Mex is stylishly shot, insightfully written and sensitively directed, and Naranjo’s emotionally resonant depiction of characters on the edge is never less than compelling. In the hands of a lesser director, the material would have become bleak and overblown yet Naranjo instils a sense of unshakeable optimism, simultaneously creating one of the most accomplished films of the year.
Filmmaker spoke to Naranjo — in preproduction on his next film, Voy a Explotar (I Am Going to Explode) — about his passion for film, the renaissance in Mexican cinema and why La Jetée makes Werner Herzog miserable.
Filmmaker: Where are you at the moment? What are you doing?
Naranjo: I’m in Mexico and I start shooting the new movie in 15 days. So it’s pretty crazy to have those things overlapped.
Filmmaker: What’s the new movie about?
Naranjo: The movie is about two kids that fall in love and escape and make a rebellion against the adult world. It’s inspired by the movies that show me the dark age of being a teenage guy, like Zero for Conduct, If…, 400 Blows. Movies about kids that don’t fit into society.
Filmmaker: You’ve just mentioned some really wonderful classic movies. You seem to have a very good grasp of cinema history, which is apparent in Drama/Mex.
Naranjo: I hope so. It was an interesting dilemma when we were doing the movie because I knew that in order to pay homage to these guys I admire I have to be modern. For me it was a challenge to free the form.
Filmmaker: At the start of Drama/Mex, there seems to be a sly reference to Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless. I presume this was intentional.
Naranjo: Yeah, it was definitely a reference to it. I didn’t want it to be too obvious. We thought about a direct homage to Breathless, but we thought we couldn’t put medals on ourselves that weren’t ours, you know? I decided to channel the spirit of Belmondo. Breathless is the movie that taught me about freedom and the spirit of anarchy — it means so much to me. The characters I like to portray are a little bit on the outside of society. I like to see them when they choose to get out of their normal surroundings. Like Jaime, the bureaucrat: I am not really interested in him as a mechanism of the system, [but] I am interested when he decides to break out of that relationship.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your inspiration for the film.
Naranjo: I made one previous movie, Malachance, that tried to be an homage to cinema. It was very respectful, it was all static shots — it was Bressonian for me, or pre-Kaurismäki, who I also admire. In Drama/Mex, I felt that I had to free the form and stop making homages and just tell the story more from the core: what it is to break out, what it is to know that you’ve been wasting your life and wanting to kill yourself, what it is to find out that your girl cheated on you. So I chose to throw [away memories of] every movie I had seen before,I tried to take [them] out of my mind and say, “I’m just going to do justice to the story.” Obviously, I was conscious that Dogma existed before, that cinéma vérité existed before, that there were so many currents that were documentary-like, but even so I really tried to push everybody not to think that we were doing a certain style of visual language, just serve the story. There was a controversy when we were editing that many people were asking to take the out-of-focus shots out of the movie. I really fought for them, because every time I see a Cassavetes movie, or any other movie that keeps out-of-focus shots running, I think it has magic. I feel it’s one of my victories, one of the things that I really like from the movie [is] that imperfection, the feeling that there were humans behind this, not a machine.
Filmmaker: I believe you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, so how influenced were you by Mystery Train? Your film has a similar approach of blending and overlapping three narrative strands.
Naranjo: I love that you tell me that because it is precisely what I was [going for]. I love Jarmusch because I feel he is the American representation of Kaurismäki, who I think is one of the best directors around. In Mexico, everybody relates the movie to Babel or to Amores Perros, which I always disagree [with]. Even if I think they are great movies and are incredible, it wasn’t my reference to break the time in the structure. I think there are movies that have done it in a much more respectful way. Babel is an incredible movie, but I feel it really moves you in the direction the director wants, not in the direction of the story.
Filmmaker: How much do you feel part of the current renaissance in Mexican cinema, as led by the so-called Three Amigos, Iñárritu, Del Toro and Cuarón?
Naranjo: I think the best thing about this phenomenon is that young people are feeling they are capable of doing movies. When I was starting in Mexico before going to the USA, the general feeling was that it was [run by] the old people, it was such a mafia-controlled system that you couldn’t make a movie. We had the concept that young, irresponsible movies wouldn’t be classified as movies. The best thing today is that there is this feeling that we can do something. On the other hand, the Three Amigos have been struggling personally and individually for a long time. It’s their fight, and I don’t think the Mexican industry has anything to do with that. I think it’s very talented people who have been pushing and struggling so much for such a long time, and the phenomenon is in [people’s] head. I don’t think any of the directors that I admire here from Mexico — the Three Amigos, [Carlos] Reygadas, [Amat] Escalante, and [Fernando] Eimbcke, who did Duck Season — share a common aesthetic. I think it’s such a diverse style that I don’t think we have much in common.
Filmmaker: How important was your move to the U.S. in your progression as a filmmaker?
Naranjo: It was incredible – it was like the sun coming up! When I was in Mexico, I was young and I was very frustrated because I couldn’t do movies. And then I got to the US, and I found out that all the lies and all the “theories” they’d been teaching me that movies are done with a lot of drugs and millions of dollars — that wasn’t true. I started seeing independent films on the streets of L.A. and I began to see young kids defying the status quo. It gave me so much confidence in trying myself. I saw so many people having the dream and going for it, and that wasn’t happening in Mexico at the time. So it changed me radically, and also I got a chance to study film more deeply. I felt the most important times were in the AFI library, in looking at films, in going to the New Beverly and watching movies and seeing that the movies that stand out are personal expressions. If you’re gonna do a low-budget movie, the only one that is gonna transcend is one that’s personal and you discover a new world. So it also gave me a lot of confidence to say, “OK, I’m not going to do genre films — if I don’t do genre, I might have a chance. If I tell my personal story, I may have a chance.” Also being in the shadow of the industry and seeing people who are waiting for their big break, that also changed me a lot, to see how the industry at times can be so dumb and lose so many opportunities.
Filmmaker: Were there any films that you saw early on in L.A. that changed your perception of cinema and the way that one can approach filmmaking?
Naranjo: At the Egyptian [Theater], there was a Scorsese retrospective where I saw all the movies of him, and at the New Beverly I saw Badlands for the first time, and that also changed my life. I’d seen it many times on video, but when I saw it on film it was like a completely new experience. Once, I saw Chinatown, and next to me was Faye Dunaway and she was crying. It was one of the most beautiful things. There are crazy things that you get to see in L.A.: one time at the Egyptian, we were seeing La Jetée, and when we went out there was [Werner] Herzog and he was a miserable person because he would never make a beautiful movie like La Jetée. Just seeing that, this master, this guy who had done beautiful movies paying homage to another great guy — it was so beautiful. I really got inspired by seeing the possibilities of film from breakfast to lunch to dinner, seeing films and talking about movies. It was the best time of my life because everything was possible at that moment and I had my friends [Azazel Jacobs and Goran Dukic] with me and we were dreaming. It’s so crazy, because now my friends from that time, the three of us from our [AFI class], are making movies — [but] nobody else has done one. We were the misfits, or the outcasts, so it’s very paradoxical. We weren’t following the rules of the school that much, and were getting into trouble a lot. The AFI is very industry-oriented, but for us the only way to do it was to make our movies our way.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Naranjo: I saw a lot of movies, but the first movie that I really remember is The Thief of Bagdad. It’s the one that I remember seeing as a kid and thinking it was real, that it existed. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, there are monsters!” The real first film that I saw when I was growing up, when I was 13 or 14, was La Dolce Vita. It blew me away — I never thought film could be like that. I was overwhelmed, and from then on I dedicated myself to seeing movies. I wasn’t much of a filmmaker, but I joined a cineclub, and they were showing movies and I really tried to know as much as I could. One day, I dropped the cineclub and decided to start making movies.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
Naranjo: Oh my God, that’s crazy… I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. I would like to have been on the set of any Jean Vigo movie. I had a very problematic childhood, and had a lot of trouble with authority, and the first time I saw Zero for Conduct I thought, “Cinema is a spiritual thing.” I felt that movie was done for me. It spoke to me and said, “You belong to this world. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get along with anybody or anything, you have the right to be an individual.”
Filmmaker: What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
Naranjo: Oh my God, such hard questions! I guess I’d say that films are not about production or connections or about money, they’re more about looking inside. I feel like the only advice that I would give any filmmaker is just to look inside and see what it is that is special about them. If they are going to make a movie, they better choose a subject that they are willing to give five years of their life for. We should stop for a second and reflect on what kind of movies we need. That’s the biggest problem: we are worried about making hits or great ideas, but I don’t think great movies are made out of great ideas, I think they are the reflection of who we are.