You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Imaz and Olaizola on ‘Epitaph,’ and an Epic Conquistador Feat

Mexican filmmakers capture De Ordaz’s ascent of Popacatepetl, how Mexico was won for Spain

In 1519, on the verge of retreat and defeat, Cortes orders conquistador captain Diego de Ordaz to summit Popocalpetl, a 17,887-foot volcano, the second highest mountain in Mexico. His ascent turned Cortes’ campaign in the conquistadors’ favor, changing the history of Latin America. Sold by Media Luna and world premiering Sunday at the Tallinn Festival, “Epitaph,” chronicles an extraordinary feat for the age. Shot on the Pico de Orizaba – Popacalpetl was spewing ash at the time, as it was in 1519 –it captures the landscapes of Mexico. It is the conquistadors’ mental landscape and will power, particularly De Ordaz’s, however, that dominate the film, with “Epitaph” playing out like a psychological adventure film. He climbed with two soldiers. At one point, one looks at him in sheer amazement. Imaz and Olaizola fielded Variety’s questions:

The title of the film is “Epitaph.” But whose? Diego de Ordaz’s?

Emperor Charles V allowed De Ordaz to include the volcano on his coat of arms. In that way, it is a kind of epitaph. De Ordaz didn’t receive a Christian burial, his body was thrown to the sea, he had no formal epitaph. His epic achievement and his death symbolize an epitaph to humanity: Here lies humanity, which conquered but was defeated.

“Epitaph” contrasts mindsets – some would say myths and superstitions – of the Tlaxcaltectecas, the local villagers, and the Conquistadores. The first are anthropomorphic – Popacalpetl is their “grandfather” – the Conquistadors’ mentality bases actions on long-terms strategic objectives. One example. De Ordaz’s aim was to be admitted into the Order of St. James.

Climbing big mountains is like a mystical journey, a pilgrimage in silence as oxygen runs out, provoking dizziness, vomiting, deliriousness, even death. In the ancient world where everything could be called into question, these characters didn’t know what they0’d find at the end of their climb. It’s key that these three soldiers had been fighting to the point of exhaustion for three long months. Perhaps for these couple of days, they could pause, forget about armies, the indigenous population. The film is a journey of initiation, like an evening with a shaman, or a psychodelic experience.

The film also gives other reasons for the epic ascent of Popacatepetl: To open a new route to the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan; the importance of sulfur for gunpowder. Cortes supplies these reasons in his letters or De Ordaz?

Yes. Our principal sources are these texts, which mention different details of the expedition. The sulfur is a theory of historians, but you just have to read the chronicles a bit and the facts are evident. After the Night of Sorrows, the Spanish were very depleted, on the point of retreat, bit Cortes knew that if he returned to Cuba having not failed to conquer the Aztec Empire during this campaign, he’d never get the chance. Thanks to Diego de Ordaz’s expedition, the Spanish knew about the sulfur on the crater’s lip, and sent a small army to bring it down, make gunpowder and besiege the Aztec capital for eight months. Today, the pass between the volcanoes is called Cortes’ Pass, though it was De Oredaz who explored the route. Cortes got the credit. It was a strategic military play, to enter Tenochtitlan by the back door not the main route….

How did you split up direction?

We did everything together and we didn’t establish responsibilities, we were both into everything, even make up and script. Since we began the project the two of us saw the same film and we shared the same vision in the way of producing it. The rest was to emulate the conquistadors, persevering without giving in.

The film is an adventure movie with ideas. Is it also an attempt to reach a wider audience?

We make the movies we want to do. The commerciality or authorship for us is secondary. We are moved overall by the complicated search for truth. Wanting a specific audience for a film is as absurd as wanting your child to have a specific eye color. Mexico’s conquest is a shocking subject and the details are poorly known. But when you know the facts it is easy to see a big metaphor for human history. We believe that “Epitaph” can move every type of audience.

The shoot must have been a challenge, to say the least…

Every member of the crew became an mountain climber for a couple of months, we had training and preparation. It was vital in order to avoid any accident because it was indeed a very complex and dangerous shooting. Normally when one is filming one thinks the movie is above everything, in this case the security of the crew was always more important. Inside the crew there were two guides specialized in high peaks and we were accompanied by a group of porters, the Hernandez family from a town on the slopes of the Orizaba peak called Hidalgo. It’s important to note that Emiliano Fernández, the DP of the movie, is also a very experienced climber and was the main link between the world of filmmaking and climbing.

After its world premiere at Tallinn, where will the film be seen?

This is the first time that one of our movies has an international sales agents before being screened It’s up to them to program the route of the movie, they are Media Luna New Films of Germany. That’s a question is for them.

“Epitaph” pulls down Mexican Eficine 189 tax coin, has five co-producers, multiple sponsors, including the Gabriel Figueroa fund, two other producers and a services house. Is this typical for Mexican films?

We think so. Maybe the difference is the amount of sponsors, but the type of production allowed this. We needed mountaineering equipment, climbing gear for example, Marmot and Coleman supported us a great deal. Also we were sponsored Atman, Gatorade and a brand of lip balm called Galba. This may sound like advertising but it’s part of the deal we made with them. That’s how a sponsor works.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Nina Wu Midi Z Un Certain

    Chinese Indie and Indian Films Dominate Pingyao Festival Lineup

    Chinese indie and Indian films dominate the lineup of the Pingyao International Film Festival. The main selection for the festival’s third edition will include 28 world premieres, organizers revealed on Monday. The event will screen 52 films from 26 countries and territories, with all of them having their China debut. The opening film is set [...]

  • 'Sound of Metal' Review: Riz Ahmed

    Toronto Film Review: 'Sound of Metal'

    “Sound of Metal” is a film with a potent, searing hook. It stars Riz Ahmed, who is such a sensational actor (just watch him in “Jason Bourne” or “Nightcrawler” or “The Sisters Brothers”), as Ruben, a punk-metal drummer, heavy on the tattoos and peroxide, who has been thrashing away as part of a caterwauling noise [...]

  • David Goodman

    WGA West's David Goodman on Agency Strategy: 'We'll Start Meeting as Soon as Possible'

    David Goodman, who was resoundingly re-elected president of the Writers Guild of America West on Monday, said the guild plans to meet with several talent agencies soon in an effort to ease the impasse over packaging fees and affiliated production. “Many agencies had indicated that they wanted to wait to see the results of the [...]

  • Australian Outback

    Legend Media Seeks Trio of West Australia-China Co-Productions (EXCLUSIVE)

    Perth, Australia-based production company Legend Media is preparing a slate of three feature films to be produced with partners in China. The company styles itself as one that recognizes the opportunities for Asian engagement that have fallen to Australia, through geography, trade and culture. The company aims to make use of the bilateral film co-production [...]

  • David Goodman

    David Goodman Re-Elected President of Writers Guild of America West

    David Goodman has been convincingly re-elected to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America West, beating Phyllis Nagy in a bitter contest that became a referendum on the guild’s ongoing battle with talent agents. Goodman received 4,395 votes to Nagy’s 1,282 in an election that yielded record turnout among the WGA [...]

  • Issa Rae Portrait

    Issa Rae Developing Re-Imagining of Crime Thriller 'Set It Off'

    “Insecure” star and co-creator Issa Rae is in early development on a re-imagining of New Line’s crime thriller “Set If Off,” which starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. Rae will produce with plans to star in the project. Syreeta Singleton and Nina Gloster have been hired to pen the script. [...]

  • Thomas Golubic GMS Conference

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content