Sin Nombre Takes Sundance

Cary Fukunaga, the winner of the U.S. directing prize at Sundance this weekend, talks to Scott Macaulay about his debut feature, Sin Nombre.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre premiered in Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award and also the U.S. Dramatic Excellence in Cinematography Award. It’s a thriller about the collision of Sayra, a Honduran teenager traveling with her father and uncle through Mexico in hopes of finding a better life in the U.S., and Caspar, a gang member on the run from his violent past. Also among Sin Nombre’s cast of compelling supporting characters is the 12-year-old Smiley, who has survived his own brutal gang initiation and is now eager to show the rest of the brotherhood his abilities.

Developed at the Sundance Labs, Fukunaga’s picture was hailed by Variety’s Todd McCarthy as an “enthralling feature debut that takes viewers into a shadow world inhabited by many but noticed by few.” And about the cinematography and production, he wrote, “Injected with brilliant colors and great mobility, the film’s widescreen images are exceptionally vibrant. Interesting detail -- gang habits and mores, the absence of visible institutions and authority, the not falsely ennobled stoicism of the characters -- abounds, and great technical skill has been brought to bear in all departments to bring off a project that cannot have been easy to mount.”

We spoke to Fukunaga just a few hours before the film’s world premiere.

FilmInFocus: In the production notes you describe the film as something of a Western. Why is that?

Fukunaga: The themes of the film are those of a Western. I think [producer] Amy [Kaufman] sees it as a Greek tragedy, but I see it as a Western because of the trains, the story of crossing the plains to get to a better life, the bandits, and the old fashioned sense of morals. You break the rules and you get punished.

FilmInFocus: How did you come up with the film’s striking visuals? The images are both realistic and almost expressionistic at times in terms of the lighting and their compositions.

Fukunaga: [Cinematographer] Adriano [Goldman] and I sat down several times before we started shooting in my little room in Mexico to break down the scenes. I didn’t do shot lists and storyboards. [On set] we would block out the scenes, do one or two rehearsals, and then Adriano and I would talk about [how to film] them. We both have a similar aesthetic; we like to play with foreground and background. There are a lot of moments, like during that oppressive journey on top of the train, when I wanted [the film] to have a slow, languid feel. I would just imagine photojournalism and think, how would I frame this in one image in one frame to capture an emotion? In my mind, there wasn’t anything specific [to the shooting style] other than elegance, and, maybe, no shaky handheld.

FilmInFocusr: I don’t remember any shaky handheld.

Fukunaga: 98% of the film is handheld, but it’s not meant to feel like it’s handheld. We avoided any handheld where people would get nauseous. We stayed on the wider lenses, the equivalent of a 50mm in 2.35 [aspect ratio]; we wanted the film to have the perspective of the human eye, like in neorealism. We shot with Fuji Vivid stock, which is a really gorgeous film, and then we [finished the film] with a DI [a digital intermediate] and are printing on Kodak.

FilmInFocus: How long was the shoot, and what was it like shooting in Mexico as compared to the U.S.?

Fukunaga: Six-day weeks for six-and-a-half weeks. The sixth day was always a half day. As for the two countries, I haven’t shot a feature in the U.S. so I can’t really compare. But there was definitely a “sense of family” on the Mexican crew side. The end of the week was always good. There would be soccer games with the technical departments versus the art departments. You know, shooting a film is your life when you are a crew person, and I think they wanted it to be a good experience.

FilmInFocus: What was the hardest thing about making the movie?

Fukunaga: The hardest thing about the movie was post; it was the hardest for me psychologically. Being at the helm of the production, I was on adrenaline the whole time, and then I was isolated in this little editing room in this Canadian city.  

FilmInFocus: Did the film change much in post?

Fukunaga: We readjusted the final tempo so that the film is a few beats per minute faster than I had originally imagined.

FilmInFocus: I was stunned by the casting of the gang members in the film. Everyone felt completely true to their parts. Where did you find these actors?

Fukunaga: Well, to be honest, Luis Fernando Pena, who plays El Sole, he’s a well-established actor in Mexico. He’s got a lot of qualities I wanted for [the character of Caspar], but he was about seven years too old. A lot of the other “maras,” some of them were ballet dancers, some were actors, and others were in boy bands – they all did a great job of filling in their angst! But the extras, some of them were gangsters.

FilmInFocus: So their incredible face and body tattoos weren’t real?

Fukunaga: [Hair and Makeup Designer] Carla Tinoco designed them, and [makeup designer] Alfredo Garcia was a rock in terms of making sure those tattoos got done.  Tenoche [Huerta Mejia], he had full body tattoos and had to come in three days ahead of time. It was a daily, scene-by-scene maintenance. We even gave them his own tattoo pen so he could fill them in on his own.

FilmInFocus: Tell me about the character of Smiley, the young boy who initially gains the audience’s sympathy but then turns into something of a villain. His character walks the line between someone you want to like and someone you are almost scared of.

Fukunaga: Smiley wasn’t a major character in the first draft. After the first Sundance Writers’ Lab, it became evident that a key character, someone who would bring everyone’s arcs together, was missing. I went in to write the next draft, and Smiley’s role became bigger and bigger. He’s a character who wants to be something other – something harder, bigger and tougher – than who he is. Maybe I was drawing on my own feelings of being a dork in high school… In terms of “walking the line,” I hadn’t thought of it like that. But I did think, how far can you push these characters before they become despicable? You needed to be able to understand their world and realize that there’s a context to their bad decisions. And you need to see their redeeming qualities so that even if [these characters] do bad things, you still empathize with them and understand their humanity.

FilmInFocus: What’s your biggest hope or expectation for the premiere tonight?

Fukunaga: I’ve been so close to the movie for so long, I’ve lost perspective on it. I’m just going to enjoy the process of relearning the film as I watch it with an audience. I just want to see how people react. I have nothing more to do than watch.

For a more extensive interview with Fukunaga and other stories about Sin Nombre, return regularly to FilmInFocus.

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