Following an explosion at Sundance where Cary Joji Fukunaga picked up prizes for best direction and cinematography, “Sin Nombre” came to theaters this weekend almost as if it were propelled there by the sheer force of its buzz. (At Sundance, Fukunaga described the ease with which he sold the story to Focus Features in a video interview with IFC News.) The film tells of Casper (Edgar Flores), a disgraced gang member who hops a train headed to the States in an attempt to get away from his former crew. When he saves Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) from an attack among the hundreds of would-be immigrants lining the roof of the train, the two go on the run together. But love isn’t in the air for Casper and Paulina, only flying bullets, and the gritty thriller becomes a refreshing blast of no holds barred filmmaking that seems to stem directly from Fukunaga’s fortitude, a personality trait that likely came in handy for the NYU grad as he researched the film by traveling on the same trains in Mexico and witnessing horrors that eventually made it into the script. Fukunaga recently brought the film to SXSW, where he took the time to talk about the perils of expanding a short film into a full-length feature and shooting on a moving train.
How did you become interested in this subject?
It’s really accidental. I did a short film while I was at NYU called “Victoria Para Chino” and while doing research, learned about the Central American part of the journey. It’s just something I never heard before, and so when I had the opportunity to make a feature film, that’s immediately what I chose to focus on. They’re kind of one and the same in that sense, the short film and the feature film. They’re not going to be my only direction in filmmaking, but they kind of exist as a pair.
One of the most striking aspects to me was how you handled the treatment of immigrants as they were passing through different parts of the country — first being greeted by apples to eat in one area and being attacked by rocks from the hands of children in another section. Was that something that came from your own research?
Part of it was my own experience and part of it was…I met a kid in Reynoso, [near] the Texas border, and he was telling me about one part of his trip in northern Mexico where the local kids were throwing rocks at him, and I had also been on trains in the southern part of Mexico where they threw food to you, so it was an interesting contrast within the country. There were many times when that was almost cut in the script and in the edit, and I really fought to keep that scene in there, with the kids throwing rocks.
There have been many immigration-related dramas lately and while this film stands on its own, was it in any way a response to other films you may have seen?
I didn’t really watch any immigration films beforehand. I haven’t seen “El Norte” since I was 10 years old and I guess “Maria Full of Grace” is its own crossing story, or “Traffic” or “Babel,” but I knew that at least for this story, my structural model was the journey — it’s basically its own version of a road film. But the elements I liked in terms of how to treat it cinematically were drawn from westerns, so I watched Peckinpah films, some Ford and Huston, and got a sense of how they covered landscape. Although I wasn’t going to be doing these grandiose Utah Cinemascope shots, I wanted a few wide shots. I got two or three near the end. [laugh] But I think of it as a post-industrial wild west story, if not a western.
In terms of structure, when you make a feature-length version of your short film, can you possibly get so attached to some of the ideas in your short that they become obstacles in expanding the story?
The short film in the first draft I did still existed within the script, [but] in this sense, no. The short film was written and directed to be an experience for the audience, and not so much trying to express any sort of political perspective. It wasn’t propaganda for either side or either perspective. I just wanted the audience to feel a connection with the characters, so for the feature, it was the same thing — focus on the journey and make it an experience. That was the goal and that’s it. So it wasn’t an obstacle, it was actually a great theme to be able to stick to, just as a way to keep my bearings as I was going through it.