Gabriel Ripstein on ‘600 Miles’

Ripstein’s debut receives a special screening at Mexico’s Morelia Fest

Variety first interviewed Gabriel Ripstein about “600 Miles” when he was still “delighted, very surprised and very excited” at being told his film would open Berlin’s Panorama: A remarkable achievement for a director who had never directed anything before “600 Miles,” not one short. There’s been much water under the bridge since then. “600 Miles” went on to win Best First Feature at Berlin, win the Guadalajara Festival’s Mezcal Prize for best Mexico feature, and be chosen as Mexico’s Academy Award entry. Ripstein also produced Lucia Films partner Michel Franco’s “Chronic,” which took best screenplay at Cannes. Lucia Films, with Guillermo Arriaga, co-produced Venice Golden Lion winner, “From Afar.”

A drama-thriller-come-road movie and relationship drama, “600 Miles” has Roth playing ATF agent Hank Harris, who is following a young gun trafficker between the U.S. and Mexico. After a risky mistake by Harris, Rubio makes a desperate decision: He smuggles the agent into Mexico. The only way they will survive this decision will be to trust each other.

“600 Miles” comes from a Latin American generation that increasingly drinks from two wells: the social-issue realism of Latin American festival films, and European autores; Hollywood genres. When movies hit the sweet spot between the two, results can be stimulating. “600 Miles” will be released in Mexico on Dec. 18 by Videocine – the theatrical distrib operation of Televisa which has handled near all Mexico’s biggest recent domestic hits.

This is a human story set against the background of the guns business with the format of a thriller while also a kind of socially driven buddy movie. It’s as if you wanted to use some mainstream formats to tell a story about two human beings and to reflect on a huge problem in Mexico and the U.S.

It’s a very good read. Although many of the people in the story are members of what we can assume to be drug-related Mexican organized crime, I didn’t want to tell a story about drugs, but guns, and about the perverse relationship between Mexico and the U.S.  We need each other and hate each other: Drugs flow North, money flows South, then guns flow South again. In the U.S. border states, Mexico is one of the biggest buyers of firearms. It’s illegal to sell guns in Mexico.

“600 Miles” is inspired by a real ATF operation…

Several years back, the ATF set up an initiative called the Fast and Furious, allowing straw buyers to buy a huge amount of firearms, obviously for Mexican criminal organizations, in order to track their serial numbers and so link gun smuggling and the drug trade. It was in my opinion a very naive plan. Thousands of these firearms were lost. The AFT didn’t know how to track the serial numbers and decided not to make any mention of this situation until a border patrol was killed in December 2010 and the firearm found on the crime scene is one of the weapons that they allowed to flow to Mexico. So I use that as part of the back story. I didn’t want this to be an overt political film but the Tim Roth character is an ATF agent tracking sales.

And how would you describe the film genre?

In terms of the genre, yes, it is a thriller, but staying away from clichés, such as flash Mexican drug lords with big belt buckles and pointed boots. I wanted to show a criminal world which was much more grounded and much more scary for me. The essential story, however, is two characters in a desperate situation on a road trip from the Arizona-Sonora border to Culiacan. That for me was an opportunity to force these two characters, both disposable middlemen, and both very different from each other, to interact and to see what happens during that interaction.

You’ve worked as an exec in the independent sector, as a studio executive, for Sony Pictures, and as a scribe-for-hire. Why choose “600 Miles” as your debut?

Over the last five years, I’ve written many projects for hire, very commercial mainstream films. But when I decided to write something as a vehicle to direct, it was much closer to my personal sensibility. I wouldn’t say necessarily my worldview is bleak, but this is not a romantic comedy. I wanted to tell the story in as realistic a way as possible, to try to show a side of this world which was not seen in many other films from Mexico which were very successful, for example Luis Estrada’s “El Infierno” a couple of years back…

You’ve talked of realism. Your d.p. was Belgium’s Alain Marcoen, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s cinematographer.

I’m a fan of how their films are shot. I wanted a realistic, quasi-documentary approach, with a camera very close to the action and characters. The film is comprised of long takes. I reached out to Alain through LinkedIn, told him I was a big fan and wanted him to do my film. And he did.

“600 Miles” is produced by Lucia Films, which Michel Franco co-founded. I believe you produced “Chronic” and Michel “600 Miles.”

Michel and I are very close friends. When I worked with Sony, I ran local film production in Mexico and Michel was a very young filmmaker – he’s still very young – and would come to my office and pitch me comedies. I always told him “no.” But we became very good friends. And we had looked to collaborate for a long, long time. This is the first opportunity, running parallel to my producing his film, “Chronic,” which was shot in Los Angeles last year. We basically shot back-to-back with Tim who stars in both films. It was a couple of years where he was very immersed in my script and I was very immersed in his. The fact that he’s a director makes him a very interesting producer.

“After Lucia” is another film about relationships, with the background of school online bullying. These are films in a mid-area between art house and mainstream.

It doesn’t come from design, just has to do with Michel’s sensibility. I think Michel believes in story telling and not in contemplation, in plots and things happening. Our basic rule is: We can’t bore the audience.

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