“There’s a square there, there is a world that you create inside there where anything can happen. You can create all these emotions and tell a story and make people scared and make people cry and laugh – and it’s just showing people (in my case) something that’s inside of me and I think that’s amazing. It never stops surprising me, I think it’s a kind of magic.” Amat Escalante1
Across four features, Amat Escalante has established himself as a major voice in contemporary cinema (Best Director at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals for his 2013 film Heli and 2016’s La región salvaje respectively). From the formal elegance of his 2005 feature debut Sangre, each film is more ambitious in scope, yet bears his distinctive filmic voice. I spoke with Escalante to coincide with the Australian theatrical release of La región salvaje (The Untamed), however the conversation turned to the previous features (2005’s Sangre, 2008’s Los Bastardos, Heli), his beginnings, filmmaking process and the notion of being an auteur.
Carlos Reygadas’ remarkable film Japon (2002) heralded a major renaissance in Mexican cinema. By the middle of the decade, filmmakers such as Fernando Eimbcke (2004’s Duck Season, 2013’s Club Sandwich), Amat Escalante and later Michel Franco (2015’s Chronic, 2012’s After Lucia), joined Reygadas on the global stage. Escalante has referred to this ‘generation’ of filmmakers as international. Their critical success has afforded them enormous reach to audiences and artistic collaborations. Escalante’s second film, Los Bastardos was edited in Turkey by Ayhan Ergürsel (known primarily for his work with Nuri Bilge Ceylan), while in the closing credits for Heli (2013), international filmmakers such as Bruno Dumont are acknowledged, one must assume as much for inspiration, as artistic supporters.
Sangre, Los Bastardos, Heli and La región salvaje form a comprehensive dialogue with one another through their shared aesthetic and production choices – the use of non-actors, muted colour schemes, direct shooting style, minimal cutting and bursts of violence. This coherence extends to the dominance of interior, domestic settings and narratives which privilege familial dislocation and redemption. Their thematic preoccupations of injustice, guilt and the origins of violence, serve to illuminate aspects of contemporary Mexican society but in a larger sense offer audiences a distinctive insight into the uneasy relationship between the United States and its southern neighbour. “I noticed that in each film I’ve tackled more-or-less directly the way American culture impregnates Mexican society. Since I’m American from my mother’s side and Mexican from my father’s, the presence of this power relationship in all my films is fairly logical.”2
Raised in the Mexican city of Guanajuato, Escalante spent his youth oscillating between the two countries, first during summer vacations and then moving to the United States aged twelve. He left school at fifteen to pursue filmmaking but his ambitions were clear from an early age. “My father is a painter and musician and my mother used to play music also. They would take me to the theatre and cinema so I remember when I was very little, I wanted to be some kind of performer. When I was 12 years old that changed somehow, but up until that point I wanted to be an actor, in movies, I think.” He continued, “Once I discovered movies I would still sometimes think, if I’m not able to make movies, what am I going to do? I had some ideas, like becoming a chef maybe or a tattoo artist [laughs] but that didn’t last too long. When I did my first short film, I was pretty clear with what I wanted to do.”
Inspired in part by its independent filmmaking scene, Escalante moved to Austin where he worked odd jobs to raise money for films and immersed himself in cinema. “The Austin Film Society showed great movies [on film] which was really important for me.” Filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick (Escalante famously watched A Clockwork Orange every day for six months) made a deep impression, as did his childhood home of Mexico. “It’s very interesting to live somewhere else of course but I was imagining, always imagining Mexico. Somehow you idolise and you dream more about a place you’re not in. When I came to shoot my first short film, all that inspiration and energy of daydreaming about being in Mexico helped me.”
Largely credited as a self-taught filmmaker, Escalante participated in filmmaking workshops as a teen, making a video short, 2001’s Alone at Last. “This got some awards at Children’s Festivals so it was important for me but I don’t consider it my first film. My first real short was [Amarrados, 2002] which I made in Mexico when I was eighteen.”
The brutal (sur)realism of Amarrados chronicles a young glue sniffer on the streets of Guanajuato and the individuals and addiction that ensnare him. Escalante travelled to Mexico with his brother Martín and actor/crew member Kenny Jones who have both continued to work across his features. Small crews and longstanding collaborations reinforce much of the aesthetic continuity for Escalante, “the way I work is very practical and intuitive. I know there are going to be similar things – for example, I’ve worked with the same art director (Daniela Schneider on all the features). I know that I’m not going to be able to get too far away from my “look”, so I don’t fight it much.”3 When we spoke about his approach to working with different cinematographers Escalante noted, “as I make more movies I care a little bit less about showing paintings or references. I see my movies and it looks almost like it was the same person painting them. It’s good to have references, to understand each other as people but I’m not sure how much of that you end up seeing [on the screen].”
A collaboration which has informed much of Escalante’s career is his connection to fellow director Carlos Reygadas and producer Jaime Romandia from Mantarraya Productions. “I was living between Guanajuato and the United States when I saw Japon. It was exactly the type of movie that I was inspired by – Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson – but I didn’t know anybody in Mexico who was into that. I wrote to Carlos telling him I really admired his movie, he answered very nicely, saw my short film and that’s how I got involved with professionals in Mexico.” Escalante worked on Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005), and Reygadas served as associate producer on his debut feature with Romandia producing.
Sangre charts the existential crisis of a middle-aged man Diego (Cirilo Recio Dávila), whose daily routine of eating, watching telenovelas and having sex with his wife Blanca (Laura Saldaña Quintero) is thrown into chaos when his adult daughter (Claudia Orozco) reappears. The long, static shots capture Diego’s actions in real time; bringing the subtle comedy of his suffocating routine and heartbreaking situation to the fore. For his debut Escalante said he wanted to “have lots of rules, I wanted it to be restricted. I had this idea of not showing the sky until the end of the movie. It was a challenge but good to be limited to interiors, I wanted to see how that felt. You know a lot of what’s considered festival movies they’re successful [some of them] because they’re shooting exteriors a lot, you know, a lot of country scenes. I’m not sure why exactly but it’s something and in my first movie, I went the opposite way. I don’t know, maybe I try a little bit to go the opposite [laughs] of what I might perceive of being in style.”
The domestic sphere’s propensity for dysfunction and terror is explored in Los Bastardos. Undocumented Mexican day-labourers Fausto (Rubén Sosa) and Jesus (Jesus Moises Rodriguez) eek out an existence in Los Angeles however on this day, the wages are higher and Jesus carries a shotgun in his bag.
An urgent commentary on class, immigration and notions of the Other, Escalante wrote Los Bastardos with his brother Martín. “I didn’t want to make something about Mexicans as victims or showing only one side of the situation. The inspirations are just the feelings I had of how it felt being in the United States, the landscapes, the marginalisation of not being able to speak the language, isolation and this clash of cultures. These guys (Jesus and Fausto), are there to find comfort, to find warmth; the house serves as a metaphor for the United States.”4
Meshing genre thrills and austere observational filmmaking, Escalante was “inspired one particular film by James Benning called Los”. Made in 2001, the two films share a number of locations, Escalante noting that “on reflection it was really apparent to me where that first shot came from.”5 The first half of the film is largely an exterior affair but as the action moves inside, the tension and violence boil over. “When I’m writing, I want to challenge the viewer, get them to a point where you almost want anything to happen because the tension has been so high. The shots were quite long and I was conscious of this feeling, of wanting the shots to be over, then the explosion happens. This idea of showing [the shooting], I didn’t imagine it as a provocation but I wanted people to jump, to feel like you’re on a roller coaster.” He continues, “I admire movies that don’t have killings or where nobody dies, it’s interesting, I wish I will do one of those [laughs]. Normally in movies we see gunshots and killings but I was very much anti-gun, against weapons being so available and how easy it was to cause so much damage by pulling a trigger.”
“I think what I’ve been addressing throughout my movies is where violence comes from, where hate and rage come from.”6
Violence, guilt and familial redemption are central to Escalante’s most well-known film, Heli which explores the crippling effect of the Mexican drug war on a working-class family in Guanajuato. When the film opens we meet Heli (Armando Espitia), a young father struggling to regain the intimacy within his marriage after the birth of his first child. Meanwhile, his young sister (Andrea Vergara) is also navigating sexual relations with a young police cadet whose desire to ‘take her away’ leads him to embark on a scheme that plunges Heli’s family into the middle of the drug war and domestic corruption. In Heli, the television serves as an initial conduit to the horrors of the outside world. “In Mexico we didn’t have electricity in my house until very late so I had no television but every time I would go to visit my Grandmother [in the US] I was very amazed by the television. I’ve always admired how powerful it is; fulfils certain desires or becomes a window and that you experience life through television.” In the early moments of Heli, Escalante plainly frames the family eating dinner watching the catastrophic effects of the drug war on the nightly news. “In my movies, the couch of the house is somehow important – the violence that’s on TV will somehow reach there.”7 Escalante stages another two crucial scenes on the couch – a depleted Heli resting in the lap of his wife quietly lamenting the loss of his father and his young sister reposed on the couch cradling a baby. In both, Escalante plays the action in real time, inviting viewers to contemplate the irrevocable residue of extreme violence on individuals but with an undercurrent of optimism that the family unit will somehow repair and move forward.
“I’m much more visual. I like to be very direct and for the metaphors and the intellectual side to come out naturally, like in life when you see a sunset, it’s not intellectual, you see somebody die, it’s not intellectual, it’s just there and it’s very emotional and it can be very powerful but it’s not manipulative and that’s the way I’d like to approach my images.”8
Given the strong thematic, aesthetic and production continuity of Escalante’s cinema, he’s reticence to identify with the classical notion of the auteur perhaps speaks to his desire to let images permeate on an instinctive level. “I would like to become invisible when I’m making a movie, I don’t want to be reminding people that me in-particular made it. I want people to get lost and forget maybe that they are even watching a movie.”
“I’ve felt it somehow in the later work of Luis Buñuel or (Manoel de) Oliveira. There’s simplicity and experience. They know exactly how to do it and they don’t care about how “they” would do it, they just know how it works. Of course [these filmmakers] are very much considered authors but there’s a purity there. I’m not sure if it’s exactly a style, it’s just very beautiful pureness. When I see those things it’s not about the director trying to be present in those shots, it’s beyond that somehow.”
“I admire flexibility in filmmakers, I think it’s a danger when you believe your own style and you think you have a way that you should do those things because that’s how you did it, that could be dangerous at some point.”
After developing such a strong cinematic framework, Escalante is currently exploring a literary adaptation. “A lot of the filmmakers that I like have mostly worked with existing material or sometimes even come in and made a movie that they were hired to do, that’s interesting to me because it would be very new. Right now, I’m developing a book, [in English] which I’m doing with a writer. It’s a first experience for me, it’s one of those things that could maybe never happen but I’m doing that and I’m curious about it.”
- 3Sat Mediathek, Kennwort Kino, 20 August 20, 2013 http://www.3sat.de/mediathek/?mode=play&obj=37646 ↩
- Vivian Van Dijk, “Amat Escalante narrates Cruelty & Fear in Heli Film”, EYES IN Magazine, 15 May 2013 http://eyesin.com/article/book-film-music/film/amat-escalante-narrates-cruelty-fear-in-heli-film ↩
- Carlos Aquilar, “Pleasure and Pain in Guanajuato: Amat Escalante’s The Untamed is an Unusual Sort of Creature Feature” Moviemaker.com, 1 August 2017 https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/tentacle-love-amat-escalante-on-creating-the-creature-in-the-untamed-and-filming-in-his-native-guanajuato/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Linda Marric, “Mexican director Amat Escalante on innovative thriller The Untamed”, 18 August 2017 https://www.heyuguys.com/amat-escalante-interview-the-untamed/ ↩
- 22nd Sarajevo Film Festival Interview with Amat Escalante, 18 August 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28qx53M6y20 ↩
- Eric Lavalle, “Interview: Amat Escalante”, Recorded at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, published 20 July 2017 https://www.ioncinema.com/interviews/amat-escalante-the-untamed ↩