Alonso Ruizpalacios on Museo, Casting Gael Garcia Bernal For His Shortness and Never Meeting Your Heroes
Alonso Ruizpalacios’ two features to date are both about Mexico City’s recent past. The writer-director first gained international visibility with 2014’s Güeros, a black-and-white road trip movie set in the 1990s using the protests at the National Autonomous University of Mexico as backdrop for an intimate coming-of-age plot. For his sophomore venture, Museo, Ruizpalacios enlisted major star Gael García Bernal and one of Güeros’ cast members, Leonardo Ortizgris, to address a larger than life, yet based on real life, crime story. 1985 was a chaotic year for Mexico City, aside from the devastation left in the wake of a massive earthquake in September; the cultural heritage of an entire nation was endangered when two young men from the suburb of Satélite expertly robbed the National Museum of Anthropology. Nearly 150 invaluable pieces were stolen, and though they were later returned and the culprits apprehended, the philosophical implications of their actions is what the filmmaker gravitated towards. Was this a subversive act of anti-system patriotism, an absurd feat carried out by two bored losers, or maybe a combination of both? Initially believed to be the work of master thieves tied to a global black market, the incident raised questions about the security protocols safeguarding these artifacts, but also their value, their historical significance, and how we perceive these. Lines of people were seen at the Museum of Anthropology in the aftermath of the robbery eager to see the empty cases. In its absence, the art had earned new importance.
Cleverly, Ruizpalacios reinvents the two perpetrators, upper-middle class kids and former veterinary students, and equips them with confused ideals, insecurities, and a friendship that’s partly toxic and occasionally tender. Not only is the film a conversation between the past and its current repercussions, but also between two people united by a common misdeed but still worlds apart because of their motivations. Ruizpalacios chatted about his new artistically intriguing feature, which earned him the Best Screenplay Award at this year’s Berlin International Film and entered limited release on September 14.
Filmmaker: Before working on Museo, was the robbery to the Museum of Anthropology an event you remembered from when you were younger?
Ruizpalacios: I had a vague memory of the robbery from when I was a child, but it was something that was buried. When I finished filming Güeros and we were editing it, Yibran Asuad, my editor, told me, “I have a friend, Manuel Alcalá, who is writing a screenplay about the robbery to the National Museum of Anthropology, and he is looking for a director.” He told me a little bit about the story and I thought, “Órale, that sounds incredible. Seems like there is a crazy movie there.” I met Manuel, he saw Güeros and he asked me to direct the movie. I agreed to direct it as long as I could rewrite the screenplay. We stared rewriting it together. He shared with me all the research he had been doing for several years investigating the case. He had a lot of newspaper articles from the time, both from when the robbery took place and when they apprehended the thieves. Based on that we started structuring the story.
Filmmaker: Is it difficult for you to direct something you didn’t write?
Ruizpalacios: Yes, 100%. I’ve done it but for television. I’m a writer, or I consider myself a screenwriter, my short films and my first feature were all written by me from my ideas. It’s easier. It’s much more organic to be involved from the gestation of a project. That way you know it completely and by the time you arrive on set you see it all clearer, because you wrote it. When you didn’t write it, which is the case with the TV series I’ve worked on, a director has to go through a stage of appropriation and adaption of the screenplay. I prefer to have written it. With this story, there were many potential themes that interested me and that the original screenplay didn’t explore. I always need an emotional connection to want to make a movie. Making a movie is a process of several years, so it has to be something you are excited about making and that keeps you interested throughout that much time.
Filmmaker: With both of your movies so far, do you feel you have explored the recent history of Mexico City?
Ruizpalacios: Yes, it’s been a coincidence, but it’s true that these movies have that in common. They are a look to Mexico’s recent past. I always say that I’m not interested in looking at the past for mere nostalgia, there has to be something that clarifies why we live the way we do today. That’s what interests me, a look at the past that’s in dialogue with the present. This story had a lot of that.
Filmmaker: In both Güeros and Museo there are these mythical figures from pop culture: in the former it was musician and in this new film a vedette. Why do you find these popular icons curious or compelling?
Ruizpalacios: The vedette, Sherezada, is based on a real life character that was involved with the actual guys who committed the crime, and whose stage name was Princesa Yamal. We changed the name and reinvented her, but her inclusion was based on what really happened. I was interested in having her be a mythical figure for the guys, so that when they finally meet her there was already a connection based on idealization. I suppose I’m very attracted to stories about disappointment (laughs).
Many times when you finally meet your idol that’s what happens. In the case of Gael’s character with Sherezada, the encounter comes at a point in the movie where the story has already derailed. At that point they’ve forgotten what the purpose of the trip was and Juan is defeated. I thought it was perfect to include her at that point, because what interested me about the character of Sherezada was that she was already in moment of decadence. Her glory days in erotic comedies are behind her and she is also nearly defeated. They find each other at their lowest point. They connect and empathize with each other because of failure.
Filmmaker: Have you met a hero of yours that was disappointing?
Ruizpalacios: It happens constantly. It’s better never to meet them. I met Peter Brook, a famous theater and film director, when I went to Paris to see one of his plays while I was studying theater in England. I spent all the money I had to make that trip and meet him. I waited for him outside the theater for an hour after the show under the rain. Once he finally came out, I forgot the whole speech I had prepared. I got very nervous, and he was a jerk. He got in his taxi and left. If I had never met him, that wouldn’t have happened to me. The other day I met Herzog at TIFF. He was nice, but when you meet someone like that what can you really tell them besides, ”Hi, I love your movies,” and he’ll say, “Okay, thank you.” [laughs].
Filmmaker: When the art goes missing people are more interested in visiting the museum to see the empty cases.
Ruizpalacios: Yes! The quote speaking to this idea that we use towards the end of the film we took from writer Carlos Monsiváis. When they interviewed him about this robbery in 1985 he said, “I think the thieves actually gave Mexico a gift.” People reacted in shock: “What are you talking about. How could you say that?” He explained what he meant and said, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” In a way, cinema contributes to memory too. The other day a friend of mine who is a very intelligent museum curator told me, “I believe this movie is going to encourage people to look at these artifacts and pieces again. They will rediscover this museum that has been there for so long and that we have taken for granted.” Cinema is also an important part of a country’s memory, so the mere depiction of these pieces in a movie is significant. There was a lot of love in the way we reproduced and portrayed them.
Filmmaker: How were the pieces in the museum recreated? How laborious was that process?
Ruizpalacios: The most elaborate and complex element to recreate were the museum’s exhibit halls, because at the actual National Museum of Anthropology we were allowed to shoot the exteriors, the main Courtyard and the Umbrella, but they didn’t let us film inside the halls. Thank God they didn’t let us! [Laughs] Sandra Cabriada, the production designer, who is a gem herself, and her team, created three large halls inside the Churubusco Studios with all the pieces. It required several months of work, research and design. The 150 pieces they stole required a very special and intricate level of detail. They started making those many months before shooting. Sandra created a workshop with artisans and restorers that work at the museum and that are very familiar with the pieces.
Filmmaker: Maybe this is my perception, but do the characters feel that stealing these pieces is an act of patriotism in a strange way?
Ruizpalacios: That’s something we added to the screenplay. I don’t know if that’s how the real-life thieves felt that way. Some of the people we interviewed, who were friends of the real thieves, mentioned the anti-imperialist and anti-Yankee tendencies both of them exhibited. Nonetheless, what they did can be seen as an utterly unpatriotic act. They are very confused characters that don’t really know why they are doing this, at least those are the characters I wrote. They are doing it simply because they can. It’s not a clear act of patriotism, but there is an impulse that points to that. The fact they are confused is essential to the story.
Filmmaker: There is also a power imbalance in the friendship between both of these characters.
Ruizpalacios: Every time you write a duo a power dynamic is established. There is a game of shifting roles and hierarchies about it. It’s true, however, that you always have to define who guides and who follows. We got some hints from the real story, but most of this was my and Manuel’s invention while writing. We decided Juan was clearly the leader, the intellectual author of the crime, and Wilson has the know-how to carry out the robbery. In the original treatment there were more vignettes that showed Wilson was a kleptomaniac, and we saw his dexterity to steal. Slowly that was left out of the movie because it didn’t fit with all the things already in it, but the idea of it remained. Juan guides and Wilson follows. We also imagined Wilson as a simpleminded guy with a younger mental age. This decision made the relationship fun and endearing. There is condescension and abuse in this friendship, but there is also plenty of affection deep down. This also allowed Juan to be a son of a bitch and then redeem himself in the end through sacrifice.
Filmmaker: The film is very specifically set in Satélite, a suburb in the outskirts of Mexico City. Is that a part of town you are familiar with? What was the impulse to center the narrative there?
Ruizpalacios: I’m not from Satélite, so I’m not a sateluco, but I have friends and family that are from that part of town. The real-life thieves were from there—they were actually from Echegaray, but they hung out in Satéllite. That’s why we set the story there, but beyond that we also found a deeper meaning in this, which is that they are in this suburb that’s part of the city but at the same time removed from it. Due to this, Satélite has its own cultural identity. We spent plenty of time exploring Satélite and looking into the history of this part of the city. Many of the extras and people with small parts were from Satélite. The guy who runs the hardware store is actually the guy who runs it in real life. Many of the actors who played members of Juan’s family are also from there, and even some people in the crew. It was important for us to have that authenticity and attention to detail.
Filmmaker: Was there a casting process for the two principal roles or did you have Gael García Bernal and Leonardo Ortizgris in mind right from the onset?
Ruizpalacios: When Manuel and I were writing, we started thinking about Gael early on. Gael and I were eager to make something together, we’ve known each other for many years. We felt we were destined to collaborate at some point. This time around the project lend itself for it because we needed an actor who was short in height, first because the real character was short himself, but then from that we also tackled other ideas like the Napoleonic complex that wants compensation for the short stature. There was also comedy in the fact that he is a short character. We needed an actor that could deliver a dark and turbulent interior life, but with a charming fellow on the outside. He needed to be a villain you could fall in love with. Gael can do that.
For the character of Wilson we did extensive casting. We tested Gael with many people, even with some non-actors. I had this idea of having him do it with someone that have never acted, and then we tried it with theater actors. But I’ve worked a lot with Leo, in Güeros and in theater, since he is part of my theater company. It hasn’t occurred to me to ask him. It sometimes happens that you don’t see what you have closest. One day it finally occurred to me and i took him to meet Gael. There was instant chemistry. Leo has the really cool quality of being sweet, and appears very naive, while being very smart and astute underneath.
Filmmaker: You also have two great supporting actors from international cinema, one being Simon Russell Beale.
Ruizpalacios: Simon Russell Beale is a great British theater actor, but he also worked a lot in movies. Originally the character was written for a gringo, so we started looking for American actors. Then it got complicated and the producers wanted a big star and all I wanted was a great actor. I didn’t care for having a big star, just a good actor to play this character. While my producers had delusions of grandeur and were looking for Brad Pitt and who knows who else, I though, “I’m going to be realistic and going to focus on the quality that I want for my film.” I started looking for actors in England. I studied there, and there are many theater actors I admire there who are easier to have access to. In all honesty many of them are better actors than some of the big name stars, like Simon. I contacted him through a friend that worked with him. It was very easy. I wrote to him like three weeks before we started shooting. I sent him the screenplay and he said, “I actually have a free week and I can go shoot in Acapulco. I loved the screenplay.” I thought, “Chingon.” He came and it was incredible. When you have an actor of that caliber it’s all super easy, you only have to be a good spectator. His scene is almost entirely done in a long 10-minute take where they have this conversation about pillaging. I needed an actor of that caliber to carry out a scene like that without cuts. Gael and Leo loved that challenge as well. Simon puts the bar very high and I think the guys were right up there too.
Filmmaker: Then there is the great Chilean actor Alfredo Castro.
Ruizpalacios: With him something similar happened. We were initially looking for Mexican actors to play Gael’s father, but they didn’t convince me. A friend suggested Alfredo. I had seen him in Larraín’s movies, but I thought, “He is not going to want to come to Mexico to play a supporting role.” My friend told me, “He is a toda madre, call him anyway. What can you lose?” I called him and he said, “Sure. I’m actually available this week.” That happens a lot, the best actors are often the most humble. Those who are true artists and not just stars are often very proactive. Both Simon and Alfredo are so charming.
Filmmaker: Did you have to ask him to work on his accent?
Ruizpalacios: That was a small issue. Perhaps in the end his accent is not perfect, but I ultimately didn’t care so much about it. I thought it was worth it to run the risk of having a dad with a strange accent in order to have this great actor play him.
Filmmaker: I understand the film will be the first Latin American feature for be released as part of YouTube Premium. What’s the benefit of this decision?
Ruizpalacios: Fortunately they are being very progressive, because they are supporting a theatrical release for the film before debuting in their platform. We are going to have the best of both worlds, as opposed to other streaming services that don’t give their films a theatrical run. We will be in cinemas before the movie hits YouTube Premium. We are able to have a localized release for cinephiles and they can come and see it in theaters and experience it the way we shot it—it was shot on 35mm. At the same time it will be accessible for many more people that may otherwise not see it.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English by the author for Filmmaker.