“Punk Gave Me the Tools To Start Questioning Everything”: Michelle Garza Cervera on Huesera: The Bone Woman
Pre-natal anxieties and an entity from Mexican mythology are deftly and devastatingly woven together in Huesera: The Bone Woman, the feature debut from director Michelle Garza Cervera. Co-written by Garza Cervera and regular collaborator Abia Castillo, the film centers on Valeria (Natalia Solián), a young woman in Mexico City delighted to learn that she and her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) are expecting their first child. This giddy sentiment is eclipsed by nerve-shredding terror when Valeria witnesses a neighbor commit suicide from her bedroom window. From that point on, she becomes the target of a strange entity with broken bones and limp appendages, dragging itself around her apartment and the entire city hoping to eventually catch Valeria in its clutches.
Akin to the widely-known La Llorona, the tale of La Huesera (its literal translation being “the bone woman,” the film’s titular clarification unnecessarily panders to an exclusively English-speaking audience) concerns a ghostly woman who traverses the desert and collects bones in order to recreate a wolf skeleton. Similarly, Valeria finds herself in a vast and seemingly inhospitable landscape (especially as her husband and family believe she’s going mad), constantly digging for the missing link that will make her existence feel whole. Suffice to say, marriage and motherhood don’t seem to be filling that internal chasm, causing her to stray when former lover Octavia (Mayra Batalla) reintroduces Valeria to her punk rock roots.
I spoke to Garza Cervera over an espresso at a Bowery hotel in NYC. She was in town for some post-screening Q&As of the film, during which she revealed that her father’s mother was excommunicated from the family decades prior when her own actions mirrored that of her film’s protagonist.
Initially bonding over our shared Mexican heritage, the Huesera writer-director and I delved into the film’s richly folkloric (yet deeply personal) background, her ongoing involvement in the Mexico City punk scene and how she hopes the film challenges preconceived notions of gender and child-rearing.
Huesera is now playing in theaters and on digital platforms.
Filmmaker: I want to know a bit more about the background of this film, because you mine both from Mexican folklore and your own family history. Were you first inspired by the Huesera figure or your family ties? Or were the two developed in tandem with each other?
Garza Cervera: It was really organic. I read about La Huesera while I was going through the process of losing my mom. During that mourning process, the legend really accompanied me, then it stayed inside of me. It’s weird, because the film is not the only thing that I was working on [during that time]. Of course it was the huge thing that I did [with the legend], but I was also playing in bands and wrote several songs about La Huesera. I had a certain kind of obsession, because I felt like I was discovering things about my family and myself that I hadn’t known before. It was very raw—from my guts—and it cooked from there. But it was very instinctive.
Filmmaker: You also worked with a co-writer, and I’m wondering how her involvement helped you find the strongest aspects of this discovery to concentrate on and flesh out.
Garza Cervera: It was also organic, because I met her a very special and random way. We met close to Acapulco, working for this video mapping company. It was just a day job, you know? We had to sit together, then the boss made us share a room in the hotel. She’s actually from Acapulco, and I was talking to her about the film and being a little bit unsure in certain areas. She started giving notes and feedback and I was like, “This is exactly that way I wanna go.” That’s how we started working. It was awesome, because it’s very hard to find a collaborator. It’s like finding a [romantic] partner! We share the same politics and sensibilities; we really care about finding ways to keep something political but entertaining at the same time, like trying to hide the vegetables in cool ways. She’s also very disciplined, which I was not. [laughs] She’s always like, “If we have a deadline, we reach it.” That’s something that I really appreciate from our collaboration.
It’s been a conversation that suddenly we are so emotionally involved with each project—we have four now—meaning that we give so much of ourselves that the project starts giving us something back. They start giving you the answer. They have a life of their own; it’s not us.
Filmmaker: This is certainly an extremely political film, particularly what it’s saying about motherhood and the role of women in the nuclear family and world at large. I’m not sure if I’ve even seen motherhood depicted in this light while still presenting a hopeful or “happy” ending. Was it challenging to fully embrace this narrative? How did you both come to such a strong conclusion and know that this was the right way to tell the story?
Garza Cervera: It was very challenging, and it had to do with my process regarding this fear in my family. I myself had a judgmental position toward [Valeria], because she was the concept of a “bad woman,” a bad mother. That’s very hard to dissect. But going through the process allowed me to understand that she was in a very complex situation and I actually had so much in common with her. There was this development of empathy, to identify with a fear that’s a certain kind of [personal] jail. But how do you create greater empathy for a character that does something our society sees as terrible, you know? The good thing with Huesera is that we knew where we wanted to go. We always had a path and were just trying to follow it. But there were so many rewrites, conversations and investigations around that theme. And I love that you say it’s a hopeful ending. We also think that, because the alternative was really terrible.
Filmmaker: Did the making of this film affect your own thoughts about motherhood and child-rearing in any way?
Garza Cervera: Totally. My family relationships changed radically, starting with the fact that my father was very generous in the way that he opened up to talk about this figure [in his own life]. We can’t erase the pain he went through—that was real. But silence cooks up other kinds of violences; if you don’t open up and speak about these things, it’s hard to change. We got to that point of having conversations that were in a box for decades. Those conversations really changed my family dynamics and his conception of women. It’s been radical.
I did change a lot throughout the process of making this film. I naively thought my job and my personal life were different things, but of course they aren’t. It all had to do with the fact that I started questioning everything in my life. What things I was saying “yes” to when I really wanted to say “no”—I started to set those boundaries for the first time in my life. Now my way of relating to and thinking about my family feels like I’m in a maze. But I’m so happy I opened that door, because I was definitely following a path of expectations. Now I’m like, “OK, I know I don’t want that, because it doesn’t really make me happy.” I feel like the next step is opening the door of alternatives, which are vast and uncertain, but I love that. I feel like this not only happened to me, but to so many of the people involved in the film. Even for some of the actresses who are in their 60s, the film really opened up conversations in their personal lives that were very necessary and liberating in ways that are hard to label.
Filmmaker: Yeah, there’s a notion in pretty much every society in the world that the only feeling you’re supposed to have when you become a mother is happiness and joy. The truth is, there are more complicated feelings. Do you believe that Valeria was coerced into the decision to settle down with a man and a baby? Is your film compelling us to embrace alternatives, particularly as they relate to the nuclear family?
Garza Cervera: To me, it was about the hope that I wanted to give the character as well as myself. For me and so many of my friends, it is such a [daunting] conversation. Everyone is telling me that the only way to reach happiness is this path, but I don’t see it that way. If I follow other paths, am I going to be miserable or sad?
Filmmaker: Or a monster.
Garza Cervera: Yes, am I a monster? Honestly, there have been so many moments in my life where I thought that. But I’m surrounded by so many people who have the same questions. So, we have to open this up and maybe there’s a hopeful alternative. Because it’s not like we are in the minority now! I feel like it has something to do with the times we’re living in, politically and economically. To me, it was very important to have a character that has the “whole package,” then have a supernatural entity break that thing down. But alongside that, it was important not to keep her in loneliness as a Frankenstein[-esque] creature. She’s actually surrounded by folks who have already broken those clasps, and they are doing OK. They are happy, they don’t have to be set up for depression. I wanted to offer that hope because I wanted to convince myself that it’s possible. To me, that was very important, to be like, “Hey, this is something that exists and I want to believe that’s possible.”
Filmmaker: Motherhood is such a prominently explored theme within the horror genre. So many horror films deal with this issue. I’m curious if you looked at any references that you did or didn’t want to emulate?
Garza Cervera: Definitely. I think [that fascination] has to do with the fact that we all come from a woman. We are all potential parents. But how many of us, if we’re not doctors, are actually able to watch the labor process? We all want to turn our faces from those situations, which all of our mothers went through and that we can go through ourselves. There’s so much that has to do with the subconscious, it’s not a surprise that horror is one of the only genres that allows us to address a taboo that’s hard to speak about on a daily basis. Actually, many other horror, suspense or sci-fi movies—even the ones that aren’t labeled as “maternal horror”—are also about motherhood if you dig into them a little bit. We did a lot of research while writing—not just of other films, but on analysis of horror films, like Men, Women, and Chainsaws and The Dread of Difference.
I love films like Alien and Rosemary’s Baby—their narratives and cinematics—which I know is very problematic in terms of Polanski, but it’s something I’ve been obsessed with since I was a teenager: Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. But if you analyze most of these films, 99% of them basically say that no matter how emancipated and empowered you are as a woman, you will always have a maternal instinct. We were very deliberately trying to say, “No, that’s a social construction.” I know so many women who don’t feel that way, but also don’t feel like they need to change that. But in Rosemary’s Baby, it doesn’t matter that there’s a group of Satanic cult members surrounding her. The moment she sees her baby, she’s going to stay, because apparently that’s something innate to us.
Filmmaker: There’s still a very real monster in this film, and I’m curious about the creature design that you came up with. How did your team conceive of and execute the monster’s design? Also, the legend of La Huesera takes place in the desert, and you’ve kind of transposed this figure into the city, so I’m wondering what kind of conversations there were when it came to portraying her.
Garza Cervera: It was very long. It took us years. We had no money, and then we had the pandemic, so it was a long process of writing. We had the legend, but we knew it had to speak about someone who is finding pieces of herself that are missing. So, the bone representation was perfect. It’s very cinematic—something that cracks and has sounds and images associated with it. We kept that from the legend, as well as her going through a difficult process to find those pieces [of herself]. Then we were really working on the main character: “What is Valeria doing? How is her family? What is her backstory? Who is this character?” Just really trying to understand her. Having her as a priority started giving us the answers to how the entity of La Huesera needed to be, because it was really a reflection of this character. We needed to understand her before being able to abstract it.
The entity went through many faces, and we were forcing the horror into the film [at first]. But then I’m very glad we got to the point where it came out of Valeria, this woman that is erased and fractured in her body. Then we were like, “How do we do the gradual taking over of La Huesera?” We were very limited on budget, of course. And I’m not really a CGI fan. I mean, I feel like I’m the kind of director that if I could, I would mix practical with CGI. I’m not against it, but I feel like you have to have the resources. I didn’t have that. So we were like, “OK, maybe we build this symbolically.” It would make sense to use real, female “broken” bodies. When that image came, it was so exciting. We contacted this amazing choreographer from Mexico City, Diego Vega, and he was immediately on board to make a horror film. We started casting dancers, and they needed to have very specific bodily characteristics. A lot of rehearsals and conceptualization came from analysis of the script itself.
Filmmaker: I want to get into the film’s soundtrack and the music used in it. I understand that your own band’s music is featured, as well as other local Mexican punk bands. How did you go about integrating these sounds and this music into the fabric of the film?
Garza Cervera: I really wanted my first film to feature some of my favorite legendary bands, including those that are Latin American, Spanish, Peruvian and from Brazil—bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s and bands from today, including ones I belong to. We really wanted to be faithful to what the character or the scene needed, but I was always telling songs to my co-writer, and she would be like, “Oh my God, this is perfect.” We went through many different proposals. For me, it was great to even have the chance to approach some of my favorite musicians. They were so happy to do it and it was so cool! I became close friends with some of them, very legendary old school bands and other bands [currently] from Mexico City.
It also shows something that has been very important [in the punk scene], which is a sense of community. And yes, the song featured in the flashback scene where [Valeria and her friends] run [from the police] is from one of my bands. It’s an all-woman band, and we had so many conversations about the themes in this film. We’re the kind of people that were always thinking, “How do I want to make a family?” All of them are very radical in their family decisions. It was really emotional for me to have the film finished and put that song in there. Two of [my bandmates] live in London, another in Argentina, and they all went to watch [the film]. I know they were crying so much. It was really a present for them in many aspects.
My friends that made the soundtrack were also from the punk scene, and it’s the first film [they’ve worked on] and they included some of my favorite bands. One is from Venezuela and the other from Mexico and Peru. So, it was a very Latin American punk feel. I wanted that raw sound. They worked from their homes with little machines and they’re very against big mixes or sounding “perfect.” I feel like it worked out very well. They even designed the singing of the witches in the ritual, two punk guys in their 30s working with these three amazing actresses and making a musical collaboration with their voices.
Filmmaker: You definitely capture punk subculture in the film, which is interesting because the film starts with a young mother who looks like an average woman with an average boyfriend, apartment, etc. Then we get this flashback later on and we see her with a bleached, shaved head running from the cops. It’s like a regressive liberation for her. What factored into conjuring that subculture onto the screen, that stark divide between who she was and who she’s becoming?
Garza Cervera: It was very important to bring this palette of different ways to be a woman in this city. To me, punk has been a blanket in my life. It has given me a sense of community. I don’t know the word in English, but fuga [leak], when something breaks a little bit and then there’s a lot of energy coming out. It has opened me up to so many conversations since I was a teenager that, at least in my personal life, I don’t know if I could have reached on my own. For example, the meditation and reflection I had on my own family—punk gave me the tools to start questioning everything, including the way to make films.
I really wanted to keep the film very personal. As an inhabitant of Mexico City, I wanted to give this very specific aspect to the character, because I felt like this was the kind of company she needed to give her hope. I didn’t want her to be miserable, like in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which was a reference, of course. But if you think about Nora at the end of that play, you imagine her completely alone with nowhere to go. Like Frankenstein, that inherent loneliness to the monster. I feel like there are other paths for this kind of character.
Filmmaker: The landscapes and colors in the film are very effectively evocative of Mexico City. It’s very realistic while maintaining a supernatural feel. There’s the grunginess of going into these punk spaces, as well as the vibrant color palette that resonates with the broader culture of Mexico. How did you and your cinematographer Nur Rubio Sherwell capture these stark colors and tones?
Garza Cervera: The cinematographer is great. She’s very emotionally driven. She has her own technique of doing things. Of course, she knows perfectly well how to do things conventionally. But during our conversations analyzing the script and doing the shot list together, it was all very instinctive. She’s very colorful, and we had a proposal of building a whole domestic world that was very harmonious and sugar coated, but also making it horrifying. We were inspired by having even primary colors become terrifying, then having the punk world, which is dark colors, being full of freedom. We wanted those contrasts, and it’s impressive how even during color grading, she managed to have some frames capture every possible color. I was like, “How does she do it?”
Filmmaker: Yes, the yellow and blue blanket becomes so scary. It’s an insane inversion to have those colors that are associated with a revered and holy being become semi-demonic.
Garza Cervera: I’m so glad that you caught that! I think it has to do with your Mexican heritage, but yes, those colors are associated with La Virgen de Guadalupe.
Filmmaker: Right, and especially for a newborn baby, it’s very customary to give these protective talismans. Finally, I’d love to know about what’s coming next for you, if there’s anything else people can look forward to that’s in the works.
Garza Cervera: The next thing that’s coming out that I’d really love people to watch is this TV series called La Hora Marcada. It’s [a reboot of the show] where Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón started their careers in the ’90s. It’s ViX+, which is this streaming platform that just started, but it’s Latin American and also available in the U.S. They picked nine directors from Latin America who have all been doing horror for a long time. They did a good job picking a very cool group of directors, and they gave us a lot of freedom, honestly. I felt very free writing; I wrote the script with my co-writer as well. We made a very personal short film, in a way. The lead character is the one who plays the aunt in Huesera. It was such a fun project and I’m very happy about it. I’m really hoping that people will actually go and watch it. I think it’s very special because it’s all Latin American, and they really supported each filmmaker’s voice.
I’m also working on several projects. I’m actually between so much right now. I’m very happy that the next doors are opening. The next film that I’m going to make is set in Mexico, as well. I do have a fascination with the horror genre, at least at this moment of my life. I’m attracted to dark dramas. I also love dark comedies, which is something I’ve been discovering about myself. My next film goes a little bit into the world of cosmic horror. It’s going to be set in the southeast of Mexico. I don’t understand why we don’t have more Latin American horror. It’s something I would like to support and see more and more of. That’s the kind of film I’m attracted to right now: something that keeps our roots, way of seeing life and growing up.