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Cross The U.S.-Mexican Border In 'Sin Nombre'

Carey Fukunaga, writer and director of Sin Nombre, got the idea for the film from a dangerous train ride he took — three times — through Mexico. His film's lead characters, Willy and Sayra, take a similar train trip when Willy flees his Mexican gang after a terrible crime.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

In the new feature film called "Sin Nombre," a terrible crime sets off a cycle of revenge. Willy, a Mexican gang member runs for his life and meets a Honduran teenager named Sayra, her uncle and father who are headed toward a new life in New Jersey. They travel the length of Mexico by train on top of freight cars, dodging police and assassins among hundreds of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, all moving north.

Cary Fukunaga is the almost improbably young writer and director of the film, which is already showing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It opens in other cities this weekend. To make the film, Cary Fukunaga took that same train trip several times. If you've seen "Sin Nombre," you might want to give us a call: 800-989-8255. Cary Fukunaga joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

Mr. CARY FUKUNAGA (Writer, Director, "Sin Nombre"): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And you made a short film before this called "Victoria Para Chino." And I understand that this new picture basically started out as a bare-faced lie.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: As a bare-faced lie?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Well, I basically, they asked me if I had a feature script and I said that I did. What I mean, they, it was the Sundance Institute looking for directors out of the Sundance Festival to - short film directors to move on to the feature world, and they give them opportunity to turn in their scripts and workshop them at the institute. And I didn't have one ready yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So you told them you did. How long did it take you to work one up?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: I made a very rough, rough version of a script in about two weeks.

CONAN: Did you know about this train already, the train that forms the spine of this picture?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: I did. While researching the short film, which is about Mexican immigrants mainly inside of a trailer in Victoria, Texas that was abandoned, I had learned about the Central American aspect of the journey and about crossing Mexico on the freight trains. And it really struck me because I had never before that heard of that or even imagined that the border crossing story could begin so much further south.

CONAN: And you started, in fact, at least part of your story is set in Honduras where a group - this small group - family group decides to move north. And the father of the group thinks he knows the way north and has the plan and, well, they set out, cross the river into Mexico and board this train. And the strange thing to me was that the setting of the train itself, it looked like some post-apocalyptic, it was "Mad Max" without all the neat stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Well, definitely - especially the gang aspect makes it feel a lot of "Mad Max" sort of tattoo all over the face sort of, you know, standing up on top of these moving freight trains and having these sort of battles taking place. Yeah, it definitely feels like "Mad Max." And the train yard where it took place, I spent a lot of time in this train yard in Tapachula. I mean, that place alone is sort of a crossroads for all kinds of weird happenings. It could be a play just about that train yard.

CONAN: And you took this ride on that train how many times?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: I rode across Chiapas first, and then I rode across Veracruz.

CONAN: And did you ride across it later with a camera crew to shoot this picture?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: We - there was - we mainly shot around Mexico City, but we did one section on the real trains between Tierra Blanca and Orizaba in Veracruz, which is, you know, where the real immigrants are riding across. In fact, the train we were shooting on that day, some immigrants tried to jump on the train, and we had to politely ask them to take the next train because of insurance reasons.

CONAN: Insurance reasons. Liability, of course, you couldn't guarantee their well-being. It is an astonishing thing to do. The life that is described of these people making their way north riding on the tops of these freight trains vulnerable to these bandits, these gang members and to, well, the police. One of the characters in your films is killed when he's being chased across the roofs of these freight cars and there's a sudden lurch and falls to his death.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Right. That was based on - actually when I was making my short film, I actually - even though it takes place in Texas, I shot it in Mexico with a couple of friends from film school that were from Mexico. And while I'm making the short film next to some train lines, that happened in a train yard the same week we were shooting and it was in the newspapers about an immigrant basically was being pulled off the train when the police caught them and had fallen to her death.

CONAN: How did you cast this picture? There are hundreds of people in this film. They are extras who are, well, in all kinds of different roles, but the ones we're interested in are the ones riding on top of the freight cars.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: There was always a goal, at least on my part, to try to cast as many real people as possible. I wanted to definitely cast Central Americans, but it's difficult because there's not really an infrastructure there. So, you know, we went about this sort of traditional casting with a casting director, as well as some street castings and then several trips down to Central America looking for the protagonist of the film.

And I had actually gone down there looking for the Sayra role and found the Willy character in Honduras. Willy was written to be Mexican, but I actually ended up casting a Honduran because I found him so captivating. And then once I decided to cast him as the main role, I needed to cast an actress with a bit more experience to sort of balance him out, so that we can make our days, since we had such a tight shooting schedule. And so I cast this young Mexican actress named Paulina Gaitan - did a really good job.

CONAN: And she did do a great job, but it must be unusual for these people to be suddenly, well, elevated into the limelight.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Definitely, I think for - the guy who plays Willy is a young Honduran named Edgar Flores. And basically he comes from a very, very poor neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, dropped out of high school. He's had a pretty rough life. And he kind of went to this casting on a whim. He'd done a PSA beforehand on HIV awareness in Honduras, and the producer urged him to go to this casting. And they found him on a street casting in his neighborhood.

But once he'd done that, the producer thought he did a great job and urged him to go to this casting, and he came and he waited all day to see me. And, you know, he had something immediate - that the camera loved him, and he had this intensity that was perfect for the role. But like you said, this is not what I was going to be taking him to, what - how his life was going to change just doing this film and the exposure he was going to get.

I knew that it could also be very hard on him, and the transition would be very difficult for him. And especially, if he got all the attention, then, you know, you later no one thought about him or talked about him anymore, and suddenly was out of the limelight.

CONAN: And has that come to pass?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Well, basically, since the very beginning, since even before we started shooting, I was like, this is going to be a moment in your life. You can't think that it's going to be like this forever or it's going to keep getting better, like, whatever money you make you have to save it, you know. I was really trying to, like, explain to him that it's a wonderful thing, but it's also, it doesn't mean it's going to be like this forever. And you have to prepare yourself for what happens next as if your life had never changed, even though it will.

CONAN: And let's get back to that other Mad Max aspect of it and that is the gang. This is Willy, is a member of the gang and he has done a terrible wrong by one of the leaders of the gang. These are people of Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13 sometimes known as, in various phrases. And they are absolutely terrifying.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Yeah. I suppose the things that they commit are pretty terrifying, along with many other gangs that do very similar things, if not, worse. There's just one gang of hundreds that have come out of California and other places and been exported to Central America. The Mara Salvatrucha's presence in Tapachula is specific to immigration in terms of its being in control of those sort of hubs. So that's the reason why I chose that gang specifically.

But I think that Willy's character is based on a lot of the gang members I met, some who were active and some who weren't, who really want to change their life, but they had no idea how to enact it.

CONAN: And were those cast as professional actors?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Some are professional. There's actually some real gang members amongst the gangs and - but the main guys, the leader and the second in command and Willy, are not real gang members. And the tattoos are actually makeup.

CONAN: I was going to say, are those wash-off tattoos?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FUKUNAGA: We actually - we had to make sure that the tattoos for his face, and neck and hands, all of that needed to wash off and needed to be cleaned off before we send any of the actors home because they are real insignias and makes you a target.

CONAN: And the hand gestures, all of that sort of stuff, that's the real thing?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: That's all based on research, yeah.

CONAN: And how did you negotiate with the gang? Is just - can we get 40 guys to work in the picture?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: I wish there was, like, a headquarters I could've submitted my film permit to. But really it was just me with the specific prisoners and some guys out on the street, as well, down in Chiapas, who sort of created the world for me. And I kept going back and back, each time I had more questions as we're getting closer to shooting.

And especially about a month out of shooting, Gabriel Nuncio, who did the translation of the script, a good friend of mine, he did research, as well, he went down to the prison and did our final, sort of, copyedit of the Mara Salvatrucha dialogues. And they helped us copyedit to make it as correct as possible.

CONAN: It was fascinating, though, the use of the word homey in particular.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Oh, yeah. There's a lot of, I would say, Anglicized Spanish words in their language. I would say it's very metaphorical. The way they speak, everything's a reference to something else or an image. And homey and hina are, you know, like, homeboy, homey, and then hina comes highness. There's a lot of different words that come from English that are…

CONAN: As you looked into the structure of this gang, a lot of this - do you think this is a gangster movie, is this a chase movie, is this a movie about immigration?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: This was my first script as well, so I didn't really have a genre in mind when I was writing it. I just really wanted to focus on the journey and sort of the elements that would happen. And I let these characters sort of percolate in my mind. So I decided what they would do based on their personalities and then let everything else happen from there on out. And I guess because of that there's elements, I think, of different kinds of genre. I don't think that was - I didn't do that on purpose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's another gangster - I guess it's fair to call them - in the picture, a young boy named Smiley. He's not a professional actor, is he?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: When you're 12 years old, I'm not sure how professional you could be. And his career has been pretty short. But before this he had done a couple of telenovelas in Mexico. But he was really eager to do a real film. And we brought him back to casting about three times. I was pretty sure I was going to cast him. And we told his mom that we would let him know the next day. And he tried to play hooky from school so that he could stay home and find out if he got the job or not. But his mom made him go to school. She's a good mom.

CONAN: Good for her. Yeah. We're talking with Cary Fukunaga. He's the writer and director of "Sin Nombre," which opens in many cities around the country this weekend. It's already showing in New York, and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you a little bit more about how the picture got made in the first place and how it got funded. You made this short film. You were accepted into the Sundance, now, this was submitted to Sundance and you were accepted as a fellow there?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Well, the first - that first two-week draft got denied, as it should've been. But they were very supportive of the concept of what I was trying to do and focusing on the family aspects and about the Central American journey across Mexico, and they encouraged me to develop it.

So what I did is Sundance is in January, and they have writing labs in July, then they would have one the following January. So I said, reapply for the following January and keep working on the script. And I went down for that summer and that's when I rode the trains in Chiapas and started doing my real first-person research with immigrants and with gang members and…

CONAN: By yourself?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: No. I brought down Gabriel Nuncio, who did - who was the producer on my short film and then ended up translating and doing research on the feature film.

CONAN: And that's when you started working up the real script for what became the real movie.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: There was a couple of characters in that first two-week draft that stayed. Willy was in that first draft and under a different name, but the character is basically the same. And he basically attacks his gang leader and saves a girl in the process, or does it to save a girl and escapes with her. So that element was in the first draft, but it was very underdeveloped.

The research process really changed everything, I think, in terms of - that on this day is sort of a catalyst in the story, but I think that there were so many other things that were - that came out of my research and specifically came out of me riding the trains. I think every scene that the train's in there is based on something that happened to me while on the train.

CONAN: And as you went ahead, then, you finished the research, you come up with a much more polished script, then who do you bring it to?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Well, my short film that had been at Sundance when they first asked me to turn in the script had gone on to more film festivals and ended up winning a Student Academy Award. And out of that I was able to get a manager and an agent. And so they were the first people to see the script, and they immediately wanted me to submit it to Sundance, were very supportive of that. So I wrote the script up again, another two-week version of the draft.

Basically I got home in August, and I had to turn in the draft by September to get it to qualify for the labs. And so I wrote in two weeks a new draft of the script and submitted it. I went down to Central America again to continue my research. And while down there I found out that the script had been accepted to the Sundance Writers Lab for January.

CONAN: And does that mean, hey, I'm going to get to make this picture?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: No. There's no guarantee you're going to make it, but it's a really big thumbs up that you have that more, much more of a chance to meet other producers and people who could potentially make your film. I hadn't really thought about the financing aspect of it while writing it. I just wanted to write a good script and then figured I'd cross that bridge when I got to it.

And what happened is that right after the writing lab, which was an amazing process in and of itself, but right after the lab, I met Amy Kaufman, who ended up becoming the producer of the film. I just had a general meeting with her at a coffee shop in Park City. And…

CONAN: In Utah, yeah.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: In Utah. And she found a way to get a copy of the script and bring it to Focus. And Focus was immediately interested, and within a month, about a month and a week after the writing lab, I was already making a deal with Focus Features to develop the film.

CONAN: And from start to finish, how long has it taken?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Well, what are we now? It's April.

CONAN: April 2009, yeah.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: 2009. We're looking, four years and six weeks.

CONAN: Four years, six weeks, and how much does it take to make the picture?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Six weeks of shooting.

CONAN: And six weeks of shooting. So all of that is six weeks of shooting and then presumably quite a bit of post-production.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Yeah. Five months of post-production. It's just amazing. You know, just basically four years and change, you know, to get to that six weeks of shooting, just to have an hour and half on screen.

CONAN: And then you're going to be facing the reviews. They're coming out, well, you've already seen some.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Yeah. I've been told not…

CONAN: Not to look?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FUKUNAGA: …read too hard into things.

CONAN: Could you stop yourself?

Mr. FUKUNAGA: No. Of course you want to find out. Everyone wants people to like their baby, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FUKUNAGA: I think that it's hard. You put yourself out there and you spend all this time and years of sacrifice in many ways. And then people get to take it apart and judge you.

CONAN: And it's going to be up and out, and you know the movie business far better than I do, it could be up and out and over in a matter of a couple, three weeks.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: That's right. And that's just the nature of it.

CONAN: Interesting. Let's see if we can get a quick caller on the line. This is Brent. Brent with us from Walla Walla.

BRENT (Caller): Yes. I was just curious if the story was influenced at all by the reading of "Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario? It's a very similar story…

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Yeah.

BRENT: …about a boy's dangerous odyssey to meet his mother in the United States.

Mr. FUKUNAGA: "Enrique's Journey," I think that won the Pulitzer in 2003. Definitely, that opened my eyes into what the immigrant journey across Mexico was like and how dramatic it could be. Also, Don Bartletti's photographs were amazing from that article. And definitely his journey, like, he ended - he really rode the trains and rode with a bunch of immigrants. And his experience actually inspired me to ride the trains, as well.

CONAN: Brent, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And Cary Fukunaga, best of luck with "Sin Nombre."

Mr. FUKUNAGA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Cary Fukunaga is the writer and director of "Sin Nombre," in theaters in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. This weekend it opens in several other cities, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego and Washington, D.C. He was with us today from our bureau in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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