GUADALAJARA – Rarely has Mexico seen such an epic production. A hard-boiled penitentiary thriller “The 4th Company” won Guadalajara’s Co-Production Meeting in 2007. It took nine years for it to return as a finished film. Monica Lozano, who backed Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu debut “Amores Perros” and Eugenio Derbez’s U.S. Spanish-language box office record holder “Instructions Not Included,” produces with directors Amir Galvan Cervera and Mitzi Vanessa Arreola, Mexico’s Ozcar Ramirez (“Days of Grace”) and Michel Merkt (“Elle,” “Journey to the Stars”). But 23 execs take various forms of production credits in the film’0s IMDB listing. At one point, production halted when one of its actors fell into coma. The fiction feature debut of Amir Galvan Cervera and Mitzi Vanessa Arreola, “The 4th Company” derives some of its force from being based on true events. Set in 1979, it turns on the Santa Martha Dogs, a real-life jailhouse American football team that doubled up as a death squad, car thieves and bank heist gang, filling the coffers of Mexico City’s Chief of Police. Painstakingly researched, shot in Santa Martha itself, the most notorious high-security prison in one of the world’s most violent countries, it is a searing put-down of Mexico’s penal system – the body count is horrendous – the film also points the Mexican state’s not just collusion in but active promotion of organized crime, “The 4th Company won at the 31st Guadalajara Fest a Special Jury Prize, best actor for Adrian Ladrón and, among parallel plaudits, a nod from Mexico’s Network of Film Journalists.
Just as Pablo Trapero’s “The Clan” saw characters appeal to family touchstones – filial obedience, patriarchal care – to hold together a abduction/assassination business, “The 4th Company” has its ethically befuddled Santa Martha Dogs robbing banks, killing inmates in the name of team spirit. Something was – is? – wrong in the state of Mexico. Variety talked to directors Amir Galvan Cervera and Mitzi Vanessa Arreola:
”The 4th Company” plays like an auteur genre movie. It’s a big house drama, a survival thriller that should be one of Mexico’s biggest box office bets of 2016 but also deliver double denunciation: Of the appalling standards of Mexican penal system, and not just state collusion in or with but state organization of organized crime. Would you agree?
Galvan Cervera: Yes, we do agree that “The 4th Company” is an auteur film, but conceived with huge audiences in mind. Cinema is, from its very outset, art and industry, and we think that both things are complementary with this form of expression. As auteurs we project things from a very personal look, a chapter of our past that deals with how the State was involved in organized crime. At the same time, the film, which is set in a very emblematic prison, also brings to light some of the most gaping shortcomings of the Mexican penitentiary system.
When you set out to write, Mitzi, were there any movies that influenced you?
Arreola: In “The 4th Company,” there is direct reference to films I like, but there also is reference to films that are part of popular culture (that most people can identify with), and which I draw upon in striving for a specific effect. With regard to “The Longest Yard,” there is a strange historical coincidence that sports reporters noted in its day. And I fall back on it because of the curious parallels between certain aspects of the story which are there, and have been well documented, between what the country of Mexico as a whole lived, around the final being played by the American football team of the prison, the Santa Martha Perros. However, unlike the Hollywood classic, in “The 4th Company,” there are no goodies and baddies, just men who are the product of a social process, and who in turn end up writing history. The small universe of this film expresses something which, in broader terms, is familiar and still very much part of what Mexicans are living.
And when you both set out to direct, what decisions did you take about direction?
Arreola: We took all the decisions together. The search was all about enriching the creative process and our discourse, bringing both perspectives together. To give great vitality to artistic creation through dialogue with the sole aim of giving even greater dimension to the story, and greater force to what we set out to do cinematographically.
One aspect which is bound to impact spectators is the appalling body count of prison inmates. Was that the fate of some of Los Perros, or a reflection on the destiny of offenders in general in Mexican penitentiaries?
Galvan Arreola: Death in prison is something which, in the period dealt with in the film, was “regulated” by the stipulations of the authorities derived from an “honor code” which all prisoners in Santa Martha knew about. One of the functions of The 4th Company was to make sure it was carried out. Transgression of this code sometimes resulted in death. But yes, it would appear that death is what modern society seems to envisage as an answer to delinquency, and it is something the film homes in on.
In terms of the film’s art, there’s a large presence of blue and green: Was that just coincidence, coming from the location and uniforms, or looked for? It gives a kind of nightmarish suggestion to the film?
Arreola: It is deliberate. Miguel Lopez, DOP, Jay Aroesty, production designer, and the colorist, Øyvind Stiauren, were key to us getting the right visual treatment, where, on the one hand there was an aesthetic search, and on the other the need for a specific cinematographic experience (a state of mind, certain atmospheres, etc.).
The film was shot in Santa Martha penitentiary itself and used real inmates as extras, right?
Galvan Cervera: Yes. We shot in the Santa Martha penitentiary, because from very early on, we decided to take that on board as an authorial posture and also as a recourse that would filter through with powerful truth to all the other departments. We wished to take the story to the very realm in which it took place in real life, we wanted the faces of the inmates of today to aptly represent those inmates we talk about in the film, the faces of all those who are prisoners of the circumstances the film holds up to view. For that to be possible, we set up several things: a series of workshops in the prison which went on for several years, thorough research, in close collaboration with the authorities, and the design of the logistics necessary to make shooting possible in the prison. Inmates participated not only as supporting cast and production support. It is very clearly reflected on camera just how much going to those workshops was crucial, but it is also clear that a lot of work went on behind camera as well. So many people joined in other departments in keeping with specific needs and interests, skills, discipline and level of compromise with the entire undertaking. So we took work to the prison, we were consistent with the posture taken at the outset, and prison further enriched the narrative.
“The 4th Company” takes elements of mainstream movies. The multiple camera shot-set ups, a huge number of shots: Could you go into what cameras you used, the editing process?
Galvan Cervera: In this film, we unhesitatingly used all the recourses available to cinema to tell the story. We used 4K and 6K RED cameras, with anamorphic lenses. We did that with a particular aesthetic in mind, where the use of light was especially key, as were the mixture of temperatures and the color pallet. With regard to editing, Vanessa was in charge of that entire process, taking into account that editing represents the final phase of writing, and that she was the person who best understood the complexity and dynamics of the story. We had a basic intent, but with the experience and advice of several different editors, the process was further enhanced, to ultimately bring greater force and better pace and rhythm to the story.
I suspect there was a long post-production process, including VFX work….
Arreola: Yes, it was a long process, there is huge VFX work done here, at the service of the narrative, atmosphere, and reconstruction of era. In all, some 215 effects were made for the film. And the sequence of the final alone accounts for over half of those effects, because we shot in an empty stadium, which had to be filled with people.
Amir, you once called “The 4th Company” jokingly the “Apocalypsis Now” of Mexican cinema. I wonder if you could go into a very few brief details.
Galvan Cervera: There is a Mexican saying: “Between joke and joke, you eventually get to what’s really true and serious.
And the fact is that making this film was a very complex exercise. Here’s what I mean: An actor suddenly became panic stricken a few days before shooting was scheduled to start. Shooting was twice interrupted, for as long as a year and a half between both interruptions. The script had to be re-written many times…even during the shoot. The entire viability of the film was in doubt several times, and we were forced to scale it down to a viable production proportions.
One of the prison dormitories, the main location, was demolished during one of those periods of interruption in the shooting and we had to rethink and reconceive the sets right there in the prison itself. The film grew out of proportion budget and cost-wise as we went along, due to its share scale and magnitude.
The biggest such cost was the life of an actor, the 4th most important in the cast, whom we greatly valued and whose work was highly respected. He got seriously ill – we suspect he got a rare type of pneumonia – in the prison. His body ceased to react to antibiotics and he was induced into a coma. He was in coma for over four months and eventual rehabilitation took another five months. During that process, he had to learn to speak and walk again. This put the entire project in great jeopardy, in terms of willingness to invest in it at a crucial time, and there was doubt at one time as to whether we would be able to finish the film at all. Not to talk of our own personal, financial and family situation. We all wound up bankrupt from making this film.
All of this, of course, without having to shoot for months in the jungle, with all the uncertainty that entails, or having to ship a boat through a mountain…as I often say in jest, but it’s all so true…
Amir, you told Mexico’s “El Universal,” if I remember correctly, that “The 4th Company” was “ambitious, difficult, historic.” Would you change any of that description?
Galvan Cervera: Yes, making “The 4th Company” really pushed us all beyond all imaginable personal and professional limits. A film is a living entity, which, in this case, refused to lie down and die. To be presenting “The 4th Company” here in Guadalajara is proof that miracles do exist.
Do you have a sales agent on board? I believe Elle Driver was attached at one point….
Arreola: Yes, a contract for international sales was signed with them. But it took so long to finish the film, we are still in the process of finally defining the terms of the same.
Will Alebrije handle distribution in Mexico and Latin America?
Arreola: Alebrije Distribución is handling distribution.