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Interview with Amat Escalante

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In the late 90s, Mexican cinema reignited the imaginations of local audiences. Films such as Cronos, Y tu mamá también and Amores perros were arthouse phenomenons that launched the careers of directors, Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, The Shape of Water), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant), alongside actors Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle, The Motorcycle Diaries) and Diego Luna (Star Wars: Rogue One).

After these filmmakers embarked on Hollywood careers, a second wave of directors, led by Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Silent Light), heralded another major renaissance. By the mid 2000s filmmakers like Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Soup, Club Sandwich), Amat Escalante and later Michel Franco (Chronic, April’s Daughters), joined Reygadas on the international film festival scene, achieving critical acclaim, prestigious awards and drawing attention back to Mexican cinema.

In just over a decade, Amat Escalante has established himself as a major voice in contemporary cinema, winning numerous awards including Best Director at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals for Heli and The Untamed, respectively. From the formal elegance of his feature debut Sangre (2005), each film is more ambitious in scope, yet bares the hallmarks of his distinctive filmic voice and narrative preoccupation of using the domestic or familial sphere to explore broader social commentaries on contemporary Mexican (and to a lesser degree, American) society.

In an interview with Variety, Escalante commented, “My films are very social. I like to use real people, real locations, dealing with situations in Mexico, because that’s what I’m close to.” With his latest film, The Untamed, Escalante says he wanted to, “mix things up, challenge myself, to search for a larger metaphor to express my views”.

Though he took filmmaking workshops in his youth, Escalante is largely credited as a self-taught filmmaker whose intuitive approach was fuelled by ferociously reading about, and watching, cinema. 

“When I was very little I wanted to be some kind of actor or performer. When I was fifteen and discovered movies, I would still sometimes think, if I'm not able to make movies, what am I going to do?” Escalante laughs when he recalls, “I had some ideas, like becoming a chef maybe or a tattoo artist... but that didn’t last too long. I worked any type of job possible (to raise money for films) and when I did my first short film, I was pretty clear on what I wanted to do.”

Raised in Guanajuato, Mexico to an American mother and Mexican father, Escalante moved to the United States at 12, but his filmmaking voice and inspirations were always dominated by Mexico.

“Mexico was always like an escape. In my most formative years, when I was watching a lot of movies and reading books, and investigating and learning about cameras and all that, I was living in Austin, Texas. The Austin Film Society showed really great movies every Tuesday for free, on film, which was really important for me but I was always imagining Mexico. I don’t know why, it also had to do with me not being in Mexico at that time you idolise and dream more about a place you’re not in. When I came to shoot my first film, all that inspiration and all that energy from daydreaming about being in Mexico helped me.”

After spending five years making his first short, Amarrados (2002), Escalante returned to Mexico and attempted to attend film school, or at least get into the industry, in Mexico City. Unfortunately, he wasn't successful.

“What already existed was very old in a way, it was a closed industry, bureaucratic, very uninspiring and it showed in the films."

However, while living between Guanajuato and the US, Escalante saw Carlos Reygardas' Japon (2002), a film that didn't adhere to the bureaucratic rigidity he'd previously experienced in Mexican cinema.

"It was exactly the type of movie that I was inspired by – Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson – all these things I was very into 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 ended up working with him, it wasn’t because he was my uncle’s friend or something – the way it used to be.”

Escalante worked as assistant director (second unit) on Reygadas’ sophomore film, Battle in Heaven (2005) and their relationship was cemented. When Escalante made his debut feature, Sangre (2005), Reygadas produced, alongside his regular collaborator, Jaime Romandia, who has continued to produce Escalante’s subsequent features, Los Bastardos (2008), Heli (2013) and The Untamed (2016).

Despite the strong continuity in his films, Escalante is reluctant to call himself an auteur. “I would fit into the author category I guess... because each movie I’ve made has been done without anybody interfering. It’s been ideas that come to me, the humour or the tragedy is very much the way that I've perceived something and translated it into film. In that way, it’s very close to my sensibility but I don’t think about (being an auteur) so much because... I would like to become invisible when I'm making a movie. I don’t want to be reminding people that I made it, I want people to get lost and forget that they're even watching a movie.”

While Escalante hasn't had much interference in his process, he does collaborate regularly on scripts. ”It’s almost like a necessity. I wish I didn’t have to have anybody else to write with but I’ve felt that I’ve needed it. It’s always out of a little bit of frustration... I have an idea and I have to get it out. You need a lot of patience to be a writer, every time I have a little bit less patience, I think. That’s maybe why I only wrote my first movie by myself.”

This collaborative approached helped on Escalante's second feature Los Bastardos, which he co-wrote with his brother, Martin Escalante, Gabriel Reyes (Heli) and Gibrán Portela (The Untamed). “It’s a big motivation, it's a little bit like... when you’re doing exercise, it’s better to have somebody for motivation. But the way I see this is the same process that I do with anybody (editor, sound designer, cinematographer), it’s a very respectful collaboration. I work with people that I respect and admire, and what they come up with. I like also to discover people, to discover a new person is nice.”

This sense of collaboration and openness to ideas is essential to each of Escalante’s projects. “You can do a lot of storyboards, plan things, but there’s always something I want and need in the moment that should complete it. By being open to things, something better than I could have ever imagined could happen. If that happens a few times in each movie, that’s good enough. It makes it much richer.”

To date, Escalante has largely worked with non-professional actors, however for The Untamed, he took a different approach. “Even though they weren’t professional actors, they did want to act and I decided to do it as if we were working conventionally – reading the scripts, rehearsing – it was interesting, I had a good experience. But if I was working with the same people I worked with on Sangre for example, I wouldn’t have even been able to do what I just did.

Sangre, Los Bastardos and Heli, to a lesser extent, have very little dialogue because they weren’t actors. I didn't want to touch those characters because the people playing them were what I wanted them to be on the screen. What I wrote was these people, these faces. The script had to sometimes suffer a lot because of that, and that was fine for me. I decided I wanted real people in front of the camera – people that could actually be in that situation in real life. It was a little bit of a mix of documentary somehow."

On his first three features, Escalante took a particular approach to working with his performers, particularly when it came to difficult scenes like fighting or nudity – the performers could analyse the script and decide if they'd partake – otherwise Escalante kept their characters' trajectory obfuscated.

"I was always trying to be very secretive about what was going to happen to them. It’s exciting for them also, not knowing and discovering things. But it also limits me a little with [writing] dialogue, going over the script just before shooting... we would change a lot of the dialogue to how they would say it. I would then rewrite it and that made it easier to remember. I think that’s why my instinct was not to show them the script, it’s more interesting for me when they don’t know. I’ve encountered some really difficult situations with some actors but that’s part of the method.”

For his actors, Escalante acknowledges that “it’s a strange experience for each one of these people. It’s a strong experience but I feel it’s been positive, they become more sure of themselves. I’m always very careful to tell them that this doesn’t mean that now they’re going to be movie stars and not to be fooled.”

When asked about future projects Escalante says he’s open to working with professional actors but "It’s more difficult to find an actor that works for a movie than a non-actor somehow – it’s really a balance – I’m not sure one’s better or worse.”

After creating a strong filmography of original projects, Escalante is now open to the possibility of working with source material rather than cultivating more original ideas. “I’m curious about it. I’m always reading books. A lot of the filmmakers that I like have worked with use existing material or sometimes make a movie that they were hired to do, so that’s interesting to me because it would be very new.”

In the meantime, Escalante is developing a book. “It would be in English. I'm doing that with a writer and 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.”

Kristy Matheson, senior film programmer

The Untamed is currently screening at ACMI in an exclusive limited release.