By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—An epidemic of criminal violence is plaguing Mexico, stemming from the lucrative but dangerous illegal drug trade. As depicted in “Miss Bala,” no one is safe from its devastation, even an innocent young beauty pageant contestant. The title equates the Spanish word for bullet with the Baja location where the pageant takes place.
Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo directed and co-wrote the film, based on research and personal observation. The story is inspired by an actual incident in which a beauty pageant winner got caught up in a narcotics bust. Model and actress Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant, who inadvertently gets caught up in the middle of a drug war.
“Miss Bala” is a huge hit in Mexico, even though authorities have done little to support the film. (The Mexican film academy, however, voted “Miss Bala” the official Oscar entry from Mexico, even though it did not make the final cut.)
Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, co-stars of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and two of the co-founders of Canana, a Mexico City-based film and TV production company, produced the drama in hopes of spurring dialogue in their country about the growing problem of drug-related violence. As the film’s epilogue states, more than 35,000 people have been in killed in drug-related violence in that country over the past five years.
Front Row Features sat down with Luna, Naranjo and Sigman at Canana ‘s Los Angeles offices to talk about “Miss Bala,” and the danger lurking just a couple hundred miles away.
Front Row Features: How did you cast Stephanie?
Gerardo Naranjo: She was the first one I met. As a way to be sure she was the one, I would go around and interview other actresses. She wasn’t very happy about it. Six months later, I wrote her and said it’s you. And now I’m sure.
Front Row Features: Stephanie, did you have to audition?
Sigman: I did a monologue that Penelope Cruz did in some movie. Then I started to do some sequences they gave me before I read the script.
Naranjo: Then she had to (act out) the whole movie in four days on videotape. That was a way to practice and find out if Stephanie was the one.
Front Row Features: Did you use any of the footage in the movie?
Naranjo: No. It was on video. We didn’t have guns. Instead of guns we used brooms. Instead of cars, we used chairs. It was important to me because we found a language how to communicate. It was important also because we found she was the one. Also, she understood what I wanted from each shot. The movie was constructed in 130 shots that were specific and had a clear choreography. So when we did it for real, it was easier for her to put in the emotion.
Front Row Features: How dangerous was it to make this?
Sigman: I want to think it’s safe because it’s art. Also because the movie doesn’t point the finger at anyone, it only shows what we’re feeling as a society, I don’t like to think that way.
Naranjo: It’s wishful thinking that we’re not in danger. We didn’t attack anyone specifically. The movie is told from a point of view from an ordinary person. If it were done from the point of view of a criminal, then we’d have to show much more than we showed. Even the criminals aren’t shown in a bad light. They’re shown as workers of the crime. I believe if they had an alternative to the crime world, they’d be doing it. One of the first things the movie tries to show is that the crime world is not glamorous, it’s not fun, and it’s not cool as many other media projects want us to believe. There are no gold chains, girls and parties. These guys are living a pathetic life, a very gray life and the glory is not there.
Front Row Features: How did you deal with the difficult stuff you had to do in the film?
Sigman: It was tough because of the psychological and emotional part but also the physical (part) because it was tiring and at times I got hurt. I always trusted in the process and in Gerardo and we were doing a good movie.
Front Row Features: Did you have doubts about doing it in the beginning?
Sigman: A lot of times. Not just in the beginning. I didn’t know if I was doing it right or having the contained emotions. I wanted to explode sometimes and say more. I would talk to Gerardo and understand what he wanted. He didn’t want the melodramatic thing—acting.
Naranjo: I truly believe that melodrama in Latin American (movies) is like a virus. It infects movies and every artistic thing we do and makes it bad. So I explained this to Stephanie that I thought it was important to bring dignity to the character. One thing I told her is that you can’t communicate any way except your eyes. A normal Mexican film about this subject she would be crying asking God why she’s being punished. You will accept the responsibility of what’s happening to you and express your emotions only through your eyes.
Front Row Features: Laura is a very passive character in the film. Why doesn’t her character fight back?
Sigman: Do you think she could do that? I don’t think so. If she (fought back) she would have been killed. She has no choice or time to come up with a strategy like you see in action movies. This is more human and realistic view of the situation.
Naranjo: I feel Mexican society is frozen and isn’t reacting to the fear it feels. The character, Laura, doesn’t react. I know it’s frustrating for the audience. Everything we did in the film had to pass through a logic filter. She has no expertise in military behavior or no knowledge how to use weapons. If this were a Hollywood film, she would take the gun and kill everybody. But this is based on what we hear in the street and research. Most of the times, people are frozen. Even if it’s frustrating for the audience, we wanted to project that.
Front Row Features: She’s a metaphor for Mexico then?
Naranjo: This generation of Mexicans won’t be able to fix the (drug problem). The biggest challenge for me and for Mexico is to recognize the problem. There are certain people in Mexico who say there isn’t a problem and that we’re traitors to the country and that we’re exploiting the fact that there are thousands of people who are dead people. I disagree. I think we should talk about it. We should come together as a society, and something the movie attacks is the society.
Front Row Features: Talk about how you were able to overcome that obliviousness to become the official Oscar entry for Mexico.
Naranjo: It reflects the feelings of a community. I was surprised by it because we’re not part of the status quo. Somehow, they are sending us so I guess they have a strong feeling about the movie and they want to endorse what the movie’s saying. The movie’s popular in Mexico because its been attacked by the authorities. We haven’t been censored but they haven’t helped. Having someone attacking you makes you more powerful.
Front Row Features: Who were your influences on this movie?
Naranjo: When we started this movie, we decided not to have movie influences. We tried to stick to the phenomenon we tried to research. The biggest guideline was to ask ourselves how would it feel, how does this happen. What would you do? When we started this project, we knew it was going to be a movie about violence. We didn’t know the subject. I was researching violence in Mexico. At one point, the movie was going to be about the DEA agent.
Front Row Features: Do you think a movie can help change the situation there?
Naranjo: It can help shake people up. It won’t fix anything but maybe convince people to start recognizing the problem, and then we can start thinking about solutions. I’m a filmmaker, not a politician. My role is to say what I feel and I feel the movie is the best way to express my opinion.
Luna: “Miss Bala” achieves something that rarely happens in film. The connection with reality is so intense that there is no way to say there is a better film this year that represents what’s going on in Mexico. No matter where you are in Mexico, you cannot hide from what’s happening today. Before now, you could say, ‘oh, that happens in the north,’ or in certain areas, but (drug-related crime) is everywhere. There are victims who were going to school or to the grocery store. Everyone has a friend who has some connection with this violence. Cinema has power and should be used more often as a tool of change. It’s a mirror to reflect what’s going on, and this film shows audiences what’s happening in Mexico today. This film is part of something bigger happening in (Mexico) and we’re happy to be part of it. What Gerardo gave us is to allow us to get out a shout that’s been trapped for a long time.
Front Row Features: Was there any physical danger while shooting the film?
Naranjo: We were lucky. We used a fake title while filming and presented it as a romantic comedy. That’s what we told the locals. We didn’t get permits so no one knew where we were shooting.
Diego, will your production company be making more films like this? Political? Social?
Luna: We want to do things that matter to us. Everything we’ve done has come from an honest viewpoint, and films we’d like to see as an audience. As a production company we will behave like this. Unless I wake up with a dream of science fiction and say I can’t sleep unless we do this.