Christopher Zalla, Padre Nuestro
This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.
Padre Nuestro exemplifies the modern, international face of American independent cinema: the first-time director, Christopher Zalla, was born in Kenya, raised overseas (and is fluent in Spanish), schooled at Columbia, and created a stylish thriller that begins in Mexico and winds up in New York City. A smart film that — one could argue — uses its border-hopping protagonist’s stolen identity as a metaphor for globalization, Padre Nuestro will certainly spark debate at Sundance.
Padre Nuestro screens at Sundance in dramatic competition.
Can you say a little bit about your background? Where you’re from? I was born in Kenya in 1974 and spent much of my youth overseas. My parents separated and moved around for work, and my older brother and I went back and forth between them. Before it was over I had lived in dozens of countries on four continents. I sold tomatoes door-to-door as a five-year old, mowed twenty lawns a week when I was ten, worked as a rough carpenter in high school, and spent nine seasons as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska.
Education? BA Oberlin College
MFA Columbia University Film School
Film experience prior to this film? I started off as a PA on sets, but after I few months I realized that wasn’t going to teach me anything craft-wise. I then worked as the assistant to a producer named Cary Woods (Kids, Scream, Swingers, Gummo, Citizen Ruth) and probably read a thousand scripts, which was really helpful in giving me a sense of what kind of material I like. Ultimately, though, I saw producing wasn’t going to teach me how to actually make a movie, so I went to film school.
I’ve been doing writing work since I was in film school, including Marching Powder, for Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, about a British man thrown into a Bolivian Prison. Don Cheadle is attached to that one. As for filmmaking, other than some short exercises, this is my first film. Padre Nuestro was originally supposed to be my thesis.
Can you briefly describe what inspired your film? I began writing Padre Nuestro the week after 9/11. I spent that first day digging through the rubble searching for the survivors that just weren’t there. I remember leaving the experience so devastated, and yet at the same time so touched by the incredible sense of connection and community that poured forth from New Yorkers toward each other. Normally, this is a city where people put up all sorts of boundaries between each other, but when there was a shock to the system, you could see the deep need for connection that we all have laid bare. It really struck me on that day that New York is just this big city of outsiders who are looking for some sense of connection. Although Padre Nuestro is a suspense film, on it’s deepest level I think it’s really about that search.
Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with? (actors, producers, DP, editor, composer, etc.) I was absolutely blessed with collaborators on this film. I’ve learned that the most important part of the directing process is choosing the people you’re going to work with, from the producer through the actors all the way down to the PA’s.
It started with Ben Odell, a producer that was a classmate of mine in film school. He has a background like mine (spent several years writing Spanish language TV in Colombia), and he really understood the moral complexity of the piece — the idea that morality itself is a privilege. It’s very easy for us to reduce the world into simple black and white, and I think Latin culture in particular is less prone to judgment and more tolerant of the picaresque sensibility in Padre Nuestro. Ben saw Juan, the impostor character in the movie, the same way I did: he’s just this charming kid that’s funny and having a good time and does what it takes to survive.
Ben introduced me to Igor Martinovic, our DP. Igor has done a lot of work on docs – including the Croatian war – and I was really looking for someone that was going to be bold, fearless, and willing to break some rules. He saw Padre Nuestro like I did — as a suspense film — and agreed that it required a heightened sense of realism. The script really does some unexpected things, and we wanted the audience to feel like the movie could really go in any direction at any moment. Most importantly, because Igor is also as hardcore about preparation as I am, when it came to shooting we were of one mind.
Another crucial collaborator in the film was Tommaso Ortino, our production designer. Mise-en-Scene is central to the sense of realism and atmosphere in a moody film like Padre Nuestro. On some level the movie is about New York City, and Tommaso understood that we had an opportunity to characterize the city in a really specific way. Although a lot of people balked when they saw the kinds of location we were finding — abandoned warehouses, construction sites, even crawl spaces under buildings — Tommaso was able to take what was already there and really bring it alive. He’s amazing. The payoff was immediate when you saw the actors walk into a space and immediately feel it. It gives them this great outside-in approach to their characters: “Oh, so this is where I live….”
Of course, there really isn’t room in this interview to do justice to the work done by the actors. I always believed that this project would live or die based on their work, and they proved me right. I sat with each of them and let them rewrite their dialogue so that every line would be delivered as they would say it. Each of them completely took possession of their characters and made them their own. They just laid themselves bare. It’s the first thing anyone talks about after they see the movie — and I think they are all going to get a lot of well-deserved attention for it.
There was also Aaron Yanes, our editor. This was Aaron’s first feature but you would never know it from working with him or seeing the final movie. Aaron is one of those editors that you can just turn off the monitor and talk about the movie with for an hour. I learned in this process that features require the ability of the editor and director to really listen to each other, but it also requires our ability to listen to the film itself. Once it’s shot, you’re starting all over again, and you have to be extremely open to the possibility that the film will take on a life of its own and become something other than you expected. I’ll always cherish the long, often exciting conversations we had as we started to recognize some of these new realities emerging. It was an intensely creative process.
Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently? I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so if I didn’t make any compromises on the film, I’d probably still be shooting the first set-up. Filmmaking is all about compromises on some level — you’re constantly pressured with this balance of money and time, no matter what budget you have. The key is to know when and where to spend those things. That said, it’s a lot easier to get what you want when you have incredible actors and such a great crew to work with.
Any film influences? (this could also include literature, art,
music, etc.) The books I read a lot of while I was writing were by Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Graham Greene. I listened to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen and “Clandestino” by Manu Chao.
What are your expectations for Sundance? Other than getting distribution, which is my primary hope for the festival, I’m really looking forward to the Q&A’s after the screenings. Padre really provokes people, often in pretty opposing ways, and I can’t wait to look into people’s eyes and have the conversation that I think the movie will generate.
As for the other aspects of the festival, this is my first time ever being there so I’m not really sure what to expect.
Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance? Cocalero, the doc about Evo Morales of Bolivia. The screenings I could go to were sold out when I went on line, so I’m hoping someone might be able to find me a couple of tickets (hint, hint).
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking? A movie is a marathon. Get in shape before you start.
What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors? What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?