The release of “Desierto” marks a seven-year journey for Mexican writer/director/editor/producer Jonás Cuarón, who brings the story of a border crossing to the screen just as the national debate on immigration has reached fever pitch. The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015, but bowed this month in theaters.
Cuarón’s inspiration came during a trip to Arizona when he heard hateful rhetoric toward immigrants. When he formed the film’s concept, he turned to his father, “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón, for advice. “My dad became really interested in the idea of nonstop action intertwined with visual metaphors. It was important to create a narrative that turned the migrant into a hero. In many ways, they are the real modern hero.”
“Desierto” tells the tale of Moises (Gael García Bernal) and a group of men and women who encounter a merciless vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as they attempt to cross the treacherous desert terrain at the U.S.-Mexico border. “The desert plays a role in the film, with one the themes being the juxtaposition of characters and their actions with the landscape,” says Jonás Cuarón of the Baja California Sur shoot. The location, well-suited for the story, was nevertheless a logistical nightmare. Crew members had to drive hours to get there, and there was no infrastructure and little available shooting time once they arrived. “We had to film complicated action sequences without many hours of light, because temperatures quickly reached over 100 degrees,” Cuarón says.
During the 10-week shoot, Cuarón and cinematographer Damian Garcia used the daylight to their advantage, relying only on available sun and bounce. Wide lenses captured scenic landscapes, in constrast to character close-ups. “Even though there’s not much dialogue, you want the audience to have an emotional connection with the characters,” Cuarón says.
A German Shepard named Tracker played alongside Sam, the rifle-toting villain. Cuarón tapped animal handler Javier Lecuna, who normally trains dogs for security, not cinema. “Jonás was interested not only in what he wanted the dogs to do, but how they fulfill their tasks,” says Lecuna. “We used three dogs, not because they couldn’t execute the action, but because of each dog’s individual preferences toward people.”