Antonio Méndez Esparza on Race, Class and Understanding in ‘Life and Nothing More’

Spanish director’s second film turns on a family condemned but never defined by race

Director, 'Life and Nothing More'
Courtesy: Pedro Hernandez

Selected by Variety’s chief film critics as one of their 10 best movies at Toronto, “Life and Nothing More” turns on a struggling African-American family in northern Florida, its frustrated single mother (Regina Williams) and teen son Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), written off as a juvenile delinquent. Variety talked to director Antonio Mendez Esparza (“Here and There”) about the Toronto-festival bowing film, which is produced by Pedro Hernández.

Would you see “Life and Nothing More” as a coming of age film about family and its need for reconciliation? 

I’m glad you see the film that way. This film started out as the story of a single mother who works in a Walmart.  Along the way, it transformed. For me, when you stop filming, you stop looking. When you film, your gaze crystalizes, you hunt and capture, you aim to understand, to share, to aim to reveal truths and intimacies.

How did you come to make “Life and Nothing More”?

I wrote a film that we were never able to make. Two years later, I found myself living in Florida, teaching. I make films accidentally. Stories I stumble upon. My wife was a single mother before she met me. I have always admired the strength of single mothers, and wanted to tell a story about that. I started interviewing single mothers in Florida, in Tallahassee, where I live, and kids in the local school system. The pre-production/casting/writing period took over two years. There are certain things in the film I might never have explored were it not for that process. For example, the subject of incarceration seemed an unapproachable one to me. But then, school, after school, there would be a constant: a missing parent… and that’s when you start feeling that you have a responsibility to tell the real story. The same happened with the criminal justice system: the more I researched, the more it became part of the film. There may have been a beginning and an end, there were certain key episodes, but the details and words all come from the actors. For me, filming was a constant conversation with them.

At a time when Kathryn Bigelow’s directing “Detroit” was questioned in some quarters, what was the reaction to you – white and Spanish – directing a film about a black family in the U.S.?

That is always a concern. Why should I tell this story? Do I have the right? For me, a film is an act borne of a desire to understand and then to create from that understanding a work of fiction. In a way, that question, and the approach to film, drives me to make the film as we did – embracing the non-professional actors, their experiences, and observing their lives as they blossom on set. My answer is: I give my full trust to the actors and I hope that I earn theirs. All of us asked this question, from the actors to the crew members and now, probably, the audience. The community offered me their trust, all of them aware I was a stranger. They opened their hearts and homes to me and I hope the film does justice to them. I think the film will offer the people who see it an answer to the question.

Race issues remains latent for much of the film, then suddenly flare. Does this reflect a social reality or your film’s focus on other issues?

I was interested in the portrayal of a system as a whole, of a community. If you approach a film as an examination of social issues, or even attempt to be truthful about economic circumstances, you will talk about class, and by doing that, in the U.S., you will also talk about race. To me, making this film was a way of rejecting pre-conceived ideas, and embracing a place and time.

Via the figure of Regina, your film presents a contemporary vision of an intelligent woman questioning whether her life should be just work and motherhood. Yet her attempt to go beyond this is not particularly successful…

Regina, for me, is a titan. With her faults and her virtues – she has many layers, and I admire her character tremendously. And she, Regina the actress will always surprise me. I am willing to say, without giving away the plot, that perhaps, in a way, she succeeds by the end.

The film often feels like near documentary. But we sense that everything, such as where you put the camera, was thoroughly thought-through….

I worked with a fantastic camera team. The cinematographer, Barbu Balasoiu, who also shot Aquí y Allá, and his team, are definitely guilty of that.

We wanted to capture things as they were. The camera had to try to be invisible. We had a small team, and we took our time placing the camera and shooting the scenes. The takes were long and things often changed – a scene that started one way, ended in another place entirely. We framed and designed shots quite pragmatically, always aware that every step we took defined the following shot.

One important decision we took early on was the choice of several wide lenses that gave us quite a range in terms of wider shots.