EDITORS NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Alex Rivera‘s directorial debut, “Sleep Dealer” is set in a near future world full of chaos: airtight international borders, militarized corporate warriors, and an underground class of node workers who plug their nervous systems into a global computer network that commodifies memory. “Dealer”‘s protagonist is Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Pena), a young man who lives with his family in a small town and dreams of a big city life full of technological wonder, comes across a transmission that could change the future in a way he’d never expected. indieWIRE spoke to RIvera about the film, which opens in limited release April 17, 2009.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m a filmmaker and digital media artist. Before working as a filmmaker, I worked as an editor, and before that I worked as a part-time shepherd at Hampshire College, where I studied media and political science. I was born in New York City, raised in Wappingers Falls, NY, and now live in Brooklyn.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
I became a filmmaker, in some ways, to avoid writing papers. While I was studying political science, I was searching for a way to make dynamic and accessible arguments about what I saw happening in the world. I found video and film, and convinced my professors at Hampshire to let me make videos instead of writing final papers.
The theme of immigration has always been central to my work. I’m interested in immigrant stories as windows into urgent realities: global economics, labor politics, border policy, identity, nostalgia, and the search for ‘home.’
Have you made other films? How did you learn about filmmaking?
I didn’t go to film school. I was brought into visual storytelling by an assortment of friends, media theory professors, arts institutions like the Sundance Institute, and old-fashioned trial and error.
One unique thing about my storytelling is that digital imaging has been central to my work — from my first short film all the way up to “Sleep Dealer.” But I don’t use technology simply to add ‘flare’ to my stories. I use technology because I believe that the camera alone cannot capture many aspects of our lived reality.
I’ve found that, to depict political realities, I sometimes need to use the tools of fantasy. In my work, animation does as much to represent an immigrant’s mind-space as the documentary camera does. Sometimes laughter opens an audience to reflection. And pop-culture genres like science-fiction are repurposed, forced to look at realities at the margins of our world. I try to let my thematic objectives drive my digital experiments.
I am committed to telling new Latino stories, and specifically new immigrant stories, through a visual language that busts down borders.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
The first seed of an idea came to me in 1997. I was living in New York City, working as an editor, and the dot-com economy was booming. The cover of WIRED magazine prophesized the coming of a “Global Village.” At the same time, the Clinton administration was executing “Operation Gatekeeper,” and building a wall on the border with Mexico. Governor Wilson in California was supporting a series of propositions that attacked immigrant children. Something odd was going on — as the world was connecting through technology, it was becoming more divided by borders.
It dawned on me that the “Global Village,” seen from the other side of the giant border wall, must look pretty strange.
So I started a process of thinking about the future from that point of view. Over the years, I mapped out a near-future world of open technology and closed borders, and I slowly began to imagine a few characters who would live in this world, and give us access to a different points of view on it.
The longest struggle, for me, was getting to know the characters, and how their lives intertwined. Working with my co-writer, David Riker, I found three characters: Memo Cruz — a migrant worker in Mexico who works in a futuristic sweatshop, Rudy Ramirez — a soldier in America who uses remote control drones to protect corporate assets around the world, and Luz Martinez — a futuristic ‘blogger’ who sells her memories, using technology to let her audience see what she sees.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
My earliest films were inspired in part by the ‘found-footage’ movement, and outlaw filmmakers like Craig Baldwin, Dee Dee Halleck, and Guillermo Gomez Pena, who make visual work by using old footage, copyright or copywrong, and asking no questions. Like them, I made my first films in large part from borrowed footage that I took from old industrial films, Hollywood blockbusters, TV news, and the web.
Without knowing it, this strategy let me do important work: write, edit, hone my voice, and, most importantly, not wait for anyone’s permission or budget to start making movies. On these early films, I went straight from the script to the edit room. I skipped production entirely, and replaced it with a trip to Blockbuster Video, and repositories of old images like the Prelinger Archives.
I still believe that it’s something like a human right to re-use imagery that surrounds us in any process of making new visual work – even if it’s technically illegal.
To make “Sleep Dealer” we had to do everything legally, and we had a budget. But I once again relied on a strategic use of “found-footage” (from the web, from my previous films, and from archives) to realize visual sequences that would have been impossible otherwise. “Sleep Dealer” is a unique science-fiction in that its futuristic visuals are interwoven with archival visuals. The effect is a sci-fi that, hopefully, has a dynamic and permeable relationship with our present and our past.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
It’s hard to know what was the ‘biggest challenge’ on “Sleep Dealer.” There are a lot of contenders. We shot in three regions of Mexico, on fifty locations, with fifty actors, and with over five hundred extras. We had over four hundred visual effects shots. On one set, we blew up a building. We filmed aerials on a hang-glider. We shot in a shantytown on the U.S./Mexico border at night and had glue-sniffers stowing away in the grip truck. On my previous film I had a crew of one. “On Sleep Dealer” I had a crew of one hundred.
Most of the challenges radiated from an insanely ambitious script written by maniacs (myself and David Riker), limited resources (no budget would have been big enough), and the fact that I’d never even been on a real film set before I showed up to direct this one.
Are there any upcoming projects you can reveal?
As soon as the strike ends. :(
What are your thoughts on the state of independent film today.
For me, the answer starts with acknowledging the state of the world. Between nightmarish never-ending wars, ever more vicious attacks on immigrants, and impending environmental doom, I can’t help but feel like we’re on the screwed side of the spectrum these days.
I think it’s not an exaggeration to say we’re living in a state of emergency.
So, for me, to evaluate the state of independent film, I need to first answer a question: should independent film address this emergency in a different way than studio-driven film?
I believe so. I believe for “independent film” to be a meaningful phrase, it needs to refer to a terrain of independent critical thought – thought that is not possible, or much less possible, within the confines of the market-tested world of the studios.
If “independent film” refers only to a question of financing, and the unique challenges of making and distributing films outside the studios, then I guess, independent film is doing fine. It seems that every year there are a few films made outside the studios that make an impact.
But if ‘Independent Film’ has a higher meaning – a unique role in responding to the emergency we live in – then the evaluation needs to be more complicated.
I feel like the world of independent documentary is clear in its purpose, and has a track record of success: documentaries get made, they find huge audiences, and they impact the public discourse on crucial issues time after time. In recent years, films such as “Trembling Before G-d,” “Supersize Me,” and the power-point driven powerhouse “An Inconvenient Truth” have all shown that independent documentary is playing a clear and crucial role.
Independent fiction is in a more slippery zone. There are certainly many filmmakers who are making fictions that address ‘the emergency.’ To me, some recent examples would be “Children of Men, “The Road to Guantanamo,” “Syriana,” and “Maria Full of Grace” to name a few.
But it seems like in many cases, most notably in the recent crop of Iraq-war fictions, the films struggle to find an audience, and the films somehow don’t make the impact on the public discourse that they could.
I don’t have any answers – or even a really precise sense as to why I feel this way.
But I do feel like independent fiction film is at a crossroads. There are huge global audiences are deeply unhappy with the status quo. New imaging technology lets independent makers put images on the screen that would have been impossible a few years ago. Technology is warping the ways in which films get distributed.
All of this together, makes me feel like this time of great crisis is also a time of great opportunity for independent filmmakers. If there ever was a perfect time for storytellers who want to push the limits, who want to tear away at old habits and assumptions, who want to use powerful imaging tools in tandem with a critical consciousness, if there ever was a time to create new, urgent, film fantasies, this is it.