Conor and Jake Allyn ride into AFM with “No Man’s Land,” a drama set on the border of Texas and Mexico that delves into issues about immigration and family and cultures through the straight-up chase-thriller lens. But “No Man’s Land,” directed by Conor and co-written by Jake, gives audiences a nuanced look at life along the border, while not taking sides and turning a lens on life in Mexico that’s rarely seen in a U.S. film.
In the film, Jackson (played by Jake), is a promising pitching prospect for the Yankees, but he loves life on his family ranch along the Rio Grande. His parents (Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell) and brother Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) do everything to help him grab that life off the ranch. They are used to smugglers routing immigrants through their property, but one night, an incident turns deadly and Jackson flees for Mexico.
His journey there opens his eyes about life in Mexico and the people there. Variety talked with Conor and Jake about the film, which was produced by their shingle Margate House Films; Voltage is selling worldwide rights at AFM while IFC picked up the film in June for distribution in 2021.
Also on the Margate House Films slate is Jonathan Rhys Meyers starrer “Rajah,” which BBI is repping at AFM.
The brothers, who have been making films since they were little kids, talked about the research that went into the screenplay. Athough Jake wrote it more than five years ago, he kept the script a “very living, flexible thing. … And then once I met David Barraza, my co-writer, and started to physically go down to Mexico to write with him, or to go and see Guanajuato that was going change things. But I really think that the thing that I’m most proud of is never been to married anything,” says Jake.
That flexibility served them well. It’s when they were in pre-production that they came upon a New York Times story about areas along the U.S.-Mexico border where the wall had already been up. But the people living there on ranches and farms were living in an “almost countryless environment where they’re forgotten. And where the wall went up really, really ruined them financially,” says Jake, noting that those residents also had to show their passports to go run errands locally. The immigration problem was very real to them, with people “in their backyards, and they feel unprotected,” Jake says.
Seeking authenticity, Conor and Jake pivoted the story.
“We already had this whole story. And we looked at this immediately, we’re like, ‘wow, we should be starting with this. We shouldn’t just be on some branch on the border, we should be here and you attach yourself to that.’ And every time you make a little change like that, that’s specific to a time or place, it makes the product more authentic. We were really, really trying for this film to be as authentic as possible and to feel as real as possible on both sides of the border. Whether it’s the script, or the casting,” says Conor.
That authenticity extended to using locations in Mexico and Mexican crew and actors to play Mexicans. “And we do have George Lopez, a Mexican-American, he plays an American but all the other Mexicans in the film are all are all Mexicans, and whether they’re speaking Spanish or English, or in most cases, a little bit of both. That was really important. And, frankly, and this goes to the cast, the Mexican cast, and also the almost entirely Mexican crew outside of ourselves, bringing filmmakers to Mexico is like bringing sand to the beach,” Conor says. He noted that the international status of the Mexican film business is “elevated’ and several Oscar winners over the past few years have been Mexicans.
“If anything I think, with our resources [were] really elevated by having wonderful Mexican filmmakers and Mexican actors and playing these parts that we shot in the States,” Conor says.
Jake also spent time with on a ranch with real horsemen in Mexico, who are also in the movie. “I was super lucky to be able to have the time down in Mexico. I knew how to horseback ride, generally speaking. But I was very lucky that I got about two and a half weeks before the movie in Mexico, with the charros that we had hired to work on the movie. We just went riding every single day. And not only did we go riding every day, but we talked about horses every day,” says Jake.
But the heart of the movie is Jake’s journey, fleeing the consequences of his actions in the U.S. but also coming to understand the world outside his own narrow experience.
“The message that we’re trying to tell is that like,’ yes, fixing this problem isn’t going to be easy,’ ” says Jake. “But once we accept that there is a problem and be willing to pay some price for it, that is the first step and hopefully fixing issues along the border. I’ve always had a fondness for Mexico. And also immigration stories. I just particularly love movies like ‘Sin Nombre’ and travel movies like ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ But you know, where I thought I fit in, as a writer and storyteller was, wow, I haven’t seen this movie in reverse. I just kind of wondered if — Americans in particular — don’t watch movies like ‘Sin Nombre’ or ‘A Better life” and say, ‘oh, OK, that’s sad. Oh, well, carry on.’ I just wondered if that person that they saw immigrating and going through all these problems and issues was me and had survived was American. I wondered if they wondered, I find empathy rather than just sadness.”
Conor adds: “We really tried to be as careful and thoughtful as we could, to not let the politics seep into the movie, to keep it as as intimate and human of a story as we could.”
As for 2021, Margate House has family drama “Ride” queued up, ready to shoot in January although nowadays nothing is certain. “You definitely can shoot in this environment. You have to do it safely. You’ve got to be really smart about it,” says Conor.