Crossing Over (2009): Interview with Director Wayne Kramer

Writer-director Wayne Kramer wanted to depict the authentic challenges on both sides of the immigration issue. “I wanted to show how the system works from the law enforcement side and from the side of the immigrants.  It’s not black and white, or us versus them. It’s not people trying to invade our border and do us harm. These are people just like you and me, looking for a better life.  Some are educated, some aren’t. Some have come for refugee status, some for economic gain.  Some want to live in a country with freedom of speech, and some just want to get into the entertainment industry!” Kramer remarks.


It was clear early on that Kramer was passionate to the issues facing immigrants and law enforcement personnel.  Producer Frank Marshall notes, “We were excited about working with Wayne.  He pitched us this movie and three weeks later handed us a script.  There was no development process.  He was going to make the movie whether we were involved or not.”


“Immigration is an essential part of the American identity.  Our country has always been identified, as a ‘welcoming’ country and it’s sad that there’s so much anti-immigrant sentiment being expressed today,” notes Kramer.  “CROSSING OVER is about the America of today, not the Ellis Island America.  I’d like people to understand just how difficult it is to achieve legal status in this country now, wherever you’re from.  For all of those immigrants with good intentions and big dreams, the sad truth is the system is overburdened because so many people are desperate to get here,” Kramer points out.

The topic of immigration has never been so contentious. Every 2008 Presidential candidate had an opinion on the spectrum between increased enforcement and retroactive immunity for illegal immigrants. The public debate was ferocious with pundits inflaming both the immigrant and American-born populations.

Thousands of residents are naturalized every day in the United States, and in 2000 Wayne Kramer took the oath himself.  “It was a very emotional experience for me,” Kramer remembers.  “The very day I became eligible for naturalization, I had my forms in the mail.  First you have to go for an interview and after you pass that, they set an oath-taking ceremony date for you a couple months later.  You wait for that day, and it is a crossing over. And it’s transcendent because you now feel like you have all the rights of the society.”  Kramer arrived in the U.S. from South Africa in 1986.  He fondly remembers the day of his own naturalization.  “You see faces from almost every country in the world. It’s surreal because they’re nothing like you, but you all have joined together because you believe in the country and the Constitution.”    


Harrison Ford plays ICE agent Max Brogan who has lived in the world of immigration enforcement far too long. “He’s a bit burnt out and has come to the point where he doesn’t quite fit in anymore.  He’s a little less strict with the rules than some of the newer agents, and it puts him in conflict with people at work,” Harrison notes.


Harrison Ford

Kramer knew this complicated character was pivotal to the story.  “I needed someone who could make the audience, male and female, feel this was a decent guy caught up in a tough job,” said the director. “Harrison Ford is obviously an American icon with the gravitas of a tough leading man like William Holden or Robert Mitchum.”


“It is so important for people to understand what it feels like to do and be something different from what they are,” says Harrison.  “CROSSING OVER is not a polemic, but it allows an emotional understanding of the circumstances of people from various backgrounds who have come here out of appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy,” he adds.

“Harrison definitely has an iconic presence, but he’s a lot more fun in person than you’d ever guess.  With a twinkle in his eye, he deconstructs his own star status,” say Cliff Curtis who plays Brogan’s ICE partner, agent Hamid Baraheri. 

Baraheri’s affluent family emigrated from Iran.  His family brought their culture and their fortune when they came to America.  His sister Zahara, born in the US, is completely assimilated presenting a common challenge to parents wishing to instill a traditional upbringing.  When the costume designer asked actress Melody Khazae, who makes her feature film debut in CROSSING OVER, what would truly horrify a Persian mother she answered quickly and unequivocally: “Goth!”


Melody felt very at home in the role. “Sometimes on set, it was like a real Persian party—everything extravagant, great food and music, just the way we do it,” said the actress.  “I felt like I was going to an aunt’s house and getting the evil eye for looking like I did.” 


Khazae was fortunate to play opposite Ford.  “Imagine it’s your first film and the very first time you’re stepping in front of the camera is along side Harrison Ford. Typical of Melody, there were no signs of any nerves, she was in complete command and it turned out to be one of the best scenes in the entire film,” said co-producer Gregg Taylor. 


Brazilian actress Alice Braga plays Mireya, a mother desperate to provide a future for her young son that Mexico will never offer.  In constant fear, she illegally works in a dressmaking factory that is raided.  There is little concern for her as she pleads to Brogan and his fellow officers that she has a young son who will be abandoned if they take her. Unmoved by her plight, the officers herd her like cattle with the rest of the illegal immigrants, to the waiting bus back to Mexico.

“This film shows immigration from the inside because Wayne has been through it and knows it is a human situation, not just a bureaucratic one,” says Alice Braga. “Immigrant or not, you’re still a human being.”

It is not uncommon for children, born as US citizens, to have parents that are illegally in the US.  There is no advantage since a child’s citizenship has no bearing on the status of the parents until they reach the age of twenty-one.  These children are entitled to every American benefit and inalienable right, including an education. Families often are mixed with young children who are born in the country and older ones who, like their parents, are illegally here and risk deportation at any moment. When they are detected the family is irrevocably torn apart.

Such is the case for the Jahangir family in the film.  They fled Bangladesh with one child and then had two born in America. “Taslima was American in every way except that she lacked citizenship. I think she was just looking to belong somewhere when she picked up the Koran,” notes Summer Bishil who plays the eldest daughter—devout and an illegal.

Picking up the Koran initiates her undoing.  An essay suggesting that Americans look deeper into the motives of the 9/11 terrorists and perhaps even have sympathy for their cause ignites a chain of events that may separate her from her family, and the only country she really knows, indefinitely.

An expression that some think warrants discipline for an American student is misconstrued as terrorist activity when expressed by Taslima.  Even with the aid of seasoned immigration defense attorney Denise Frankel, played by Ashley Judd, the prospects look grim and once the “terrorist” moniker is attached to an illegal alien, there is no incentive for authorities to work with her and her family to make things right.  

Denise is well aware of the odds as she fights for a young African child to remain in the country. The innocent child’s only hope for survival is to stay in America and not return to a life that offers only poverty and despair.  The girl has no relatives in the US and Denise offers to accept the responsibility for her wellbeing.  Even given that pledge, the immigration system is not in her favor.

Ray Liotta plays Denise’s husband Cole Frankel who works as a green card application adjudicator. In his hands, an application for residency can be approved or denied simply by stamping the document. Unimpressive to most, he yields the ultimate power to those desperate to gain legal status.  Alice Eve plays aspiring Australian actress Claire Shepard who inadvertently bumps into Cole.  This chance meeting presents an opportunity with benefits for both—but at a huge personal cost.  

Cole takes full advantage of the vulnerable, albeit savvy actress. Many say they’d do anything to obtain citizenship but choose to draw a moral line for themselves.  Claire will stop at nothing and as a result is subjected to Cole’s sexual whims in exchange for a green card.  A virtual slave to his insatiable sexual appetite, the coveted green card comes at the expense of Claire’s dignity and may prove as empty as Cole’s marriage.

Her relationship with her UK boyfriend, Gavin Kossof is tenuous as neither have legal status.  He travels a different route that is far more benign but equally as unethical.  Through a personal connection, Gavin gets a job at a Jewish day school, despite being non-practicing and unable to speak Hebrew.  The one caveat is that he must not reveal his immigration status to anyone.


When casting the role of Gavin, Kramer knew he had to get British actor Jim Sturgess.  “We were always wondering if the actor we’d cast as Gavin would be able to sing,” Kramer recalled. “I was willing to bring in someone else to do the voice, but when I saw Jim singing Beatles’ songs in his audition for ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, I knew he was our guy.”   Sturgess wrote the song he performs in a sequence filmed at The Echo, a popular venue in LA’s Echo Park district.  


Director Kramer feels especially connected to Claire and Gavin’s goals.  As a child, America always held a strong allure for me and I fully immersed myself in American culture—film, TV, music, books, etc.  I knew from the earliest age that I would one day chase my dreams in the US.  I identify with the struggles of Claire and Gavin in the film because as artists, it’s vital that they, too, can chase their dreams in America—a country where success in film or music translates into worldwide recognition,” remarks Kramer.


Foreign workers—including those in the entertainment industry—must obtain authorization to perform in the United States.  Actors and filmmakers born outside the US gravitate to Los Angeles for the multitude of opportunities and dreams of being discovered.  “There are definitely legal obstacles to living and working in LA.  The United States doesn’t just throw its doors open to anyone who wishes to come here,” notes Kramer.  “It’s surprising how many famous actors and filmmakers from other countries I’ve met and almost each and every one of them will recount some kind of immigration obstacle they had to overcome when they first arrived—before they were established.”


After the foreign actors in CROSSING OVER had been cast, the production had to ensure all their documents were in order.  “We had to contend with getting foreign actors over to LA and ensure that they had the right visas to enter the country and work on our film.  Anyone who applies for a visa is suddenly thrown into a bureaucratic nightmare in America,” Kramer explains.

Entertainers are fortunate in that they are unlikely to attract the attention of agents.  The ICE agents are engrossed in a far more volatile world of immigration and homeland security.


Los Angeles has the most naturalized immigrants in the United States (based on 2007 estimates).  There are many coalitions and support groups fighting on behalf of the vast immigrant population—regardless of their status.  It’s a difficult transition, especially for teenagers, who have spent most of their lives in another country.  Many immigrants migrate to LA because they feel at home with others who speak their language and share their religious beliefs in micro-versions of the places they fled.


“There are very vibrant immigrant communities within the geographic area of Los Angeles,” said production designer Toby Corbett, a naturalized American who was born in England.  “It’s such an interesting polyglot of cultures here, particularly in downtown.  You have Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Bangladeshi, Korean, Japanese and Chinese families living in close proximity to each other.  This is one of the very exciting things about Los Angeles.”


The city of Los Angeles is an important character and Kramer focused on the city’s working class core.  He chose Manuel Contreras High School, a state-of-the-art school in a hard-luck neighborhood, the Holiday Motel on a worn-out stretch of Third Street and warehouses in the downtown industrial zone.  “CROSSING OVER was shot where the city’s immigrants live and work.  On May 1, 2008, the same day that immigrants’ rights rallies clogged downtown streets, the filmmakers enacted ICE raids at a rag factory east of the LA River,” notes Kramer.


“Thousands and thousands of people are naturalized every month,” Kramer observed.  “I don’t know of another place in the world that has mass oath-taking ceremonies full of people so eager to become citizens of their country.”