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Jonas Cuaron’s ‘Desierto’ Dazzles

With Jonas, Alfonso, Carlos Cuaron in attendance, Gael Garcia Bernal immigrant thriller bows to large applause in Mexico

In Morelia for the Mexican premiere of “Desierto,” helmer-scribe Jonas Cuaron came with the full support of his family: Oscar-winning father Alfonso Cuaron, his acclaimed helmer-scribe uncle Carlos Cuaron, and grandmother among others.

Made for roughly $3 million, “Desierto’s” early 2016 release in Mexico will also mark the official launch of Cinepolis Distribution, the theatrical arm of Cinepolis, the world’s fourth biggest exhibition circuit, which aims to release about 16 pics a year, including four to five Mexican films.

“Desierto” is “without doubt the most ambitious title in Cinepolis Distribution’s short life,” said Miguel Rivera, Cinepolis programming head.

He added: “Given its issues, it is a highly relevant title for Mexican cinema and also an action title that creates large dramatic tension. And we’re obviously very happy to work with Jonas Cuaron who’s one of Mexican cinema’s great young directors.”

“Desierto” is produced by Alfonso and Carlos Cuaron, Alex Garcia of AG Studios and Charles Gilibert. Variety spoke to Cuaron and Garcia:

What’s it like to transition from co-writing an Oscar-winning science fiction drama like “Gravity” to making a film more grounded in reality?

JC: I always joke with my dad that “Desierto” is the “down to earth” version of “Gravity.” Both films have a similar drive and concept. They both arise from the idea of creating a nail-biting thriller that has many possible readings, and juggles various themes. And yet, due to the environments in which each film takes place, they were completely different experiences. In “Gravity,” the main challenge for [cinematographer Emmanuel] Lubezki and my dad was to create a reality. In “Desierto,” the main challenge was to adapt the script to a reality that was already there.

The subject matter of “Desierto” – migrants trying to cross the border – is quite topical. What were you hoping to bring to the national debate with this project? 

JC: The main thing I wanted to achieve with “Desierto” was to spark a conversation about the phenomenon of immigration, and even though this subject matter is quite topical in the U.S. right now, I believe it is a theme that resonates across the globe. This film takes place on the U.S./Mexico border, and yet it could’ve also taken place in Asia, Northern Africa, Central America. This is why I always envisioned “Desierto” as a movie with little dialogue, as I wanted it to be a visual and emotional experience that was universal, and transcended all languages.

On the other hand, I’ve always been a fan of ‘70s films: the duels, the action thriller elements. I’ve always been impressed by how many layers they have, how they’re always very political films. However, in making a movie about migration, I didn’t want to make a movie where I was preaching to the choir, either.

Alex, this is a social action thriller, which audiences can react to on various levels. Would you agree?

AG: I don’t consider that I have a voice regarding Latin America, its socio-political environment, problems or advantages, even. I just enjoy telling stories and enjoyed the idea of an action thriller, and the idea of having a reason for that action thriller to happen. If that reason in this case happens to be some social issue, that’s something that I don’t really analyze that much. I just analyze the story. If the story feels truthful, and if the end result is a great movie that keeps you on your chair watching it, that’s basically what I go for.

Jonas, how has working with your father influenced your work? 

JC: Writing for my dad can be an exhausting process – his constant search for perfection means that you have to write over a hundred drafts. It is a great learning experience and has given me very important tools that I have applied to my own film. In both films the themes arise from the juxtaposition of characters against their environment. In both “Gravity” and “Desierto” there is little dialogue, and it’s the characters’ actions that drive the narrative.

What were the unique challenges you faced in making “Desierto”?

JC: Working for more than two hours in a desert location in 110-degree weather, no cell phone reception, rattle snakes– in brief, working in the desert. After writing the script, I spent three, four years scouting locations all over the world, both to find locations and to inform myself. As a writer, there’s a certain limit to your imagination, and the desert itself gave me new threads, new obstacles. So I ended finding this desert, which was in the middle of nowhere…in Southern Baja California. Many of the action sequences were done without stunts.

Alex, where would you place “Desierto” in the growth trajectory of AG Studios?

AG: That’s a very complicated question. AG Studios has moved into very different directions as a whole company: Not only film but music, Internet, all kinds of things. This is one of the AG Studios bets. I like to give new talent opportunities, and bet on them. In “Desierto,” the person I was basically betting on was Jonas. I think he is a very, very talented director. This is just the beginning of what he will accomplish. Little by little I developed a relationship with the Cuaron family, producing Carlos Cuaron’s “Besos de Azucar,” for instance. But I wasn’t thinking about how I would take the next step as a studio. It was basically how to take the next step with a great young talent.

In “Desierto,” people speak in English and Spanish but not enough maybe for it to be considered as a foreign-language film in either Mexico or the U.S.

AG: From what I remember “No Country for Old Men,” it had that infrastructure in a way, where basically it’s not so much the language, not so much what they say, but what is happening which is important. I didn’t help make “Desierto” as a U.S. movie or a Mexican movie. I produced it as a movie. One of the big examples that I’ve seen lately would be Jose Padilla’s “Narcos” where the language ended up not being an issue.

Jonas, did you always have Gael Garcia Bernal in mind for the lead role?

JC: Since I started writing I knew this was going to be a one-man role mostly carrying this dramatic force. Gael is an actor I really admire. I knew I’d need an actor that could carry an audience. I also knew that in creating this hero, who is normally a faceless migrant, I thought it would be interesting to use a star, a face people everywhere could relate to. Also what intrigued me about Gael is that he’s very knowledgeable about the subject of migration. Once I approached him with my first draft, he became my number one partner, pointing me out to great research, his actual documentaries. Right before we filmed, he had just done “Dayani Cristal” where he embedded himself in the migrant route. We cast a lot of non-actors and he would coach them, tell them stories.

You seem to have cultivated skills in writing, directing, editing, cinematography, and even acting. Which appeals to you most?

JC: All of them. I believe they are all tools for a director to tell his story.

What is your next project?

JC: I am working on a film I co-wrote with my dad, which we are producing with Lava Bear. But I’m still coming out of the desert. Even when I’m working on my own, I’m always collaborating with him and Carlos. Whether we work together or not, we’re always seeking feedback from each other.

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