Sin Nombre: Interview with Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and Producer Amy Kaufman

Focus Features will release “Sin Nombre,” which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest, in March.


Q: How did the project take shape as first-time feature director

Cary Joji Fukunaga: It came about through my short film, Victoria para Chino, which was about a truckload of immigrants who were abandoned and suffocated in Victoria, Texas. In doing research for that and filming in Mexico, I learned about the Central American side of immigration; when we think of immigration, we usually think Mexico-to-the-United States. But there are Hondurans, Guatelmalans, and Nicaraguans who are traveling north to get into Mexico and then go Mexico-to-the-United States. I knew this was a story I wanted to tell in a feature film. It struck me personally. I wanted to have audiences experience this from a human perspective, one which has nothing to do with politics or agendas about what immigration “means” or what it “should” be.

The Web and newspapers and books have information, but for me it is hard to get a sense of things unless I go in person to see what someplace is like. Now, the short film played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and I was asked to submit a script for the Sundance Lab. I had spent all my time finishing the short, so I had just two weeks to draft the feature script. I drew on the research I had done for the short, but I knew I needed to find out even more about the things that I didn't know about and write more drafts. I wanted authenticity.

Q: What with the larger scale, were you considering another director

CJF: No, it was always going to be a project I would direct, and I always planned on filming in Mexico, because that's where the story takes place.

There was no way I could have written Sin Nombre without seeing what I was writing about. So, in the summer of 2005, I went down to Chiapas and Tapachula, Mexico with a couple of friends who had worked on the short, to do firsthand research. We spoke to police. We went to jails to meet with gang members who were part of the immigrant smuggling trade. We went to the borders, and saw rafters on the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico. We
visited immigrants at train stations and yards and also at shelters, including one that is designated for immigrants who have been injured on trains; 16-year-olds who lost their legs, for example. These are people who were headed north to try for a better life for themselves and their families, and now they had gotten hurt and never made it north.

After seeing them, my friends decided they didn't want to ride the trains. So I ended up doing that by myself. One night, at 2:00 AM in the Tapachula yards, I jumped on a freight train with two Hondurans that I'd met the night before. I had invited them to stay with me at a hotel rather than wait all night at the station, which was dangerous. We all jumped on and traveled across Chiapas; a lot of what happened on that 27-hour trip – within the first couple of hours – formed the basis for what happens on top of the train in Sin Nombre. The bandit attack that happened not far from us, and the camaraderie with the immigrants enriched my perspective.

Q: Chaos on the trip

CJF: Well, if you see drama or crazy stuff, it happens instantly and then it's gone as soon as it came. What surprised me is how mundane a lot of the journey is – like ordinary life. Here's the way I learned to look at it from the immigrants' perspective; whether bad things or good things happen, it's just another day and everything and everyone is in God's hands.

If they're on top of the train and completely dehydrated, they'll say, “It will rain and we will collect water.” If bandits attack the trains, they'll say, “We'll run and then come back to the train when the bandits go away.” Whatever happens, they will roll with it. They don't dramatize what's happening in their lives.

Q: What did you learn that motivated your storytelling

CJF: The immigrants that I met knew that the journey, and the life they were going towards, was going to be hard. I didn't meet any who thought that the streets were going to be paved with gold in the U.S. That's not the perspective people have any more. The journey is now one of survival, necessity, and basic economics; at home, they make 45 lempiras a day, and milk costs 15. You have people who can't make enough money to meet the cost of living or feed their families in their country, where the economy is falling apart.

We would be stopped for several hours, and they would be looking in irrigation ditches for water, along the way. At that point, there is nothing else to do but talk, and I would get asked, “What are you doing here” I would answer, “I'm writing a story.” The idea that someone would have all the time in the world to sit and conceive and write a story…I'd write in my journal, and some people would say “Good for you” and others would say “Please tell our story.”

By the end of the trips, I had learned so much and lived some of it myself. So I felt even more responsibility to tell the story.

Q: What does the title mean

CJF: The title Sin Nombre translates as “without a name,” or, “nameless” in English.

Q: What drives the main characters

CJF: This movie is about people in our day, in our time, at this very moment. They are living their lives and they have made the decision to try to look for something better. Smiley is looking to be part of a community. Having been raised by his grandmother, he had no male images of role models. Casper, as a member of the Mara, is his example. There may be standard stories of why kids join gangs, yet every case is an individual one.

Casper and Sayra are both looking to reconstruct families they have never had; that theme is set against the worlds of immigration and gangs. When they meet, a trust builds up between them bit by bit. They become linked to each other, yet at the end of the story are in very different places.

Q: Amy, what appealed to you about Cary's script

Amy Kaufman: Most of all, how it was based on the real stories that Cary learned about in his travels and his research. For him, it was important to tell the authentic story of how families travel from all over, to try to get to the United States, and we don't really know just how much is involved in the journey. For me, it read as a Greek tragedy.

CJF: I see it as a Western, actually.

AK: Either way, there was drama and much of it takes place on top of a moving train with people functioning in an extreme situation – so I knew it would be exciting, too.

I had seen Cary's Victoria para Chino, which I thought was incredible. When I found out how he had made it – and for no money – I thought, “I have to meet him.” When I did, I learned that he had a feature script, written in Spanish, that he wanted to make in Mexico. I decided I wanted to try and work on it, so I brought the script to Focus Features – where I am based as a producer – and they were enthusiastic about it.

Q: Was it just one trip that got all you needed to write the script and prep the movie

CJF: Oh no. I made more trips back to Mexico. The last train I rode was in the summer of 2006, across Veracruz. A year and a couple of months later, we were filming scenes where I had traveled –

Q: You filmed in the fall of 2007

CJF: Right, and right where I had been before. We were creating a fiction in spots where the real thing is still happening. The ac
tors would be on camera, and a few feet away there would be real immigrants who had just traveled for days.

Q: What were the challenges of shooting

CJF: During filming, I would sit and wish that I had written a story about two people in a cafe talking about life and relationships. I mean, we had trains, rain, hundreds of extras, nearly daily location changes, blood and other effects. One of the most difficult things was the time it took just to get everything in synch, and realize the mise-en-scene I wanted all on a tight schedule.

The original plan was to shoot from Honduras all the way to Texas. When we learned how expensive that would be, we knew we couldn't film all the way. But the locations we filmed at were beautiful. The only sad thing was that we never had time to take advantage of them because we were on to the next one; we weren't in any one for more than three days, and usually it was just one day. Luckily we also had a second unit capturing parts of areas we had to move on from first.

Q: Where did you shoot the movie

CJF: On Mexico City locations that were so diverse; we were able to find so many in a 200-mile radius. For example, Orizaba is gorgeous with its colors and light. The Tegucigalpa, Honduras scenes were filmed in Naucalpan. You see how they built those concrete houses on the edge of a valley…

Q: How did you find the crew

CJF: Everyone did their research and would get inspired. Sometimes I didn't have to say anything; they would just do their thing, and I would get excited once I saw what they came up with. The crew ran like a family; a lot of them had been together on Mel Gibson's “Apocalypto” for eight months.

AK: The crewmembers proved to be incredible, and so supportive of Cary; I would make another movie there in a second. People welcomed us into their homes.

Q:  How did you work out the visual approach

CJF: Well, since we were mostly using real locations, Pache [the production designer] and I talked a lot about colors and textures. We went for a saturated, yet not overt, palette; there are these natural decaying backgrounds mixed with hot spots of color.

In terms of the cinematography, Adriano and I talked from the beginning about doing less inflected camerawork; no messing with the negative. We wanted the camerawork to be natural and let what happens be the drama.

Q: How did the key actors come together

CJF: That was also in terms of it being authentic; we had it written into the contract to make the movie that we would be casting Central Americans. For the principal roles, I wanted people who caught the spirit of their parts. So through casting director Carla Hool, we cast people with a lot of experience, like Paulina Gaitan, and people with practically none, like Edgar Flores; she could give me four variations on a scene, while he was in a lot of ways just being him. So it was a good mix for me, and it meant that I couldn't over-plan a scene – which I don't like to do in the first place, since I like spontaneity. Yet I can also control the dramatic flow of a scene towards authenticity.

AK: We cast out of Los Angeles, Mexico, and Honduras. Edgar, whom we found in Honduras, brought something raw – and that helped his chemistry with Paulina, who has been acting since she was younger. Those with experience were able to meld nicely with those who had less experience.

CJF: Exactly; experienced actors can help inexperienced actors through scenes and with feedback. I like to give advice, and not just direct; I'll ask one of the actors to talk to another one, actor to actor.

It's something I learned to do when I was making short films. When I had kids and adults in the cast, I would have them spend time together so they could create a bond that would then come across naturally in a scene.

For example, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, who plays Mara leader Lil' Mago is a natural leader and charismatic, so in the gang scenes I would say to him, “You control your guys and you decide how things are going to happen.” That strengthened the dynamic on-screen. During the writing, I found that character starting to take over scenes; despite all the bad things he does, you still want to like him. That was true of certain gang members I met, too – and with Luis Fernando Pena in playing Sol.  We cast people off the streets, because I had always hoped to cast as real as possible.

AK: We were able to do a lot of on-site casting based on locals who were around on a given day, and were happy to be extras.

CJF: They were, and for the barrio dieciocho (Barrio 18) scene, where Smiley and Sol are in that neighborhood [and pursued by a rival Mara gang], we found three real gang members – two of whom had been part of the Mara. For a scene like that, you don't necessarily direct; you just set up a scenario and let them live it.

AK: I met with some former Mara who are now living in Los Angeles, because we also wanted to be true to what they have gone through.  The Mara scenes were so important, so it was a challenge to find someone as young as Kristyan Ferrer, who could do everything that we needed him to do. He's amazing; I think we'll be seeing a lot more of him.

Q: As the film's producer, what other challenges did you face

AK: Trying to figure out the best way to shoot everything; that was a giant puzzle, what with the trains and the budget and location constraints. Some of the trains in the film were actual trains, and some of them were freight cars that we built on top of flatbed tractor trailers – sort of a “process train,” if you will. In both instances, we had an entire crew with equipment, and cast and extras, atop a moving train car going through actual landscapes. We did do just a couple of process shots.

This was a hard film to make in only seven weeks, given that we spent so much time on the tops of trains. Of course, we had harnesses and safety people, so imagine what it's like for the immigrants who really are traveling on trains.

I have to say that when we met and talked with immigrants, what we found is that they are friendly and open and helpful. Seeing Sin Nombre, I hope that people will have more of an understanding of what immigrants go through to access opportunities that a lot of us are born with; and more of an understanding of how and why people are enticed into the Mara.

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