The following is a reprint from our coverage during the London Film Festival.
Aside from Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" over a decade ago, there haven't been a lot of decent movies focusing on the drug trade just over the border. Sure, the cartels crop up from time to time, but mostly in villains in dumb action movies, and it feels like quite a while since we've had a really smart, incisive look at that terrifying world.
Fortunately, at this year's Cannes, one came along; "Miss Bala," the latest film from Gerardo Naranjo, the director of "I'm Gonna Explode." Not really on anyone's radar until it bowed in May in the Un Certain Regard section to rave reviews (including ours), the film follows Laura Guerrero (newcomer Stephanie Sigman), a 23-year-old woman from Baja California, who, after entering a local beauty contest, is drawn into the clutches of the local cartel, showing us a ground's-eye-view of the war on drugs. With the film finally starting to roll out all over the world, we caught up with Naranjo and Sigman together last week to discuss the visceral, gripping thriller. Check out five highlights from our chat after the jump.
1. A real-life Mexican beauty queen, Laura Zúñiga, was arrested for links to drug cartels in 2008, but the film was already in the works at that point; it was only a happy coincidence.
Laura Zúñiga was a 23-year-old winner of the 2008 Nuestra Belleza Mexico contest, but was arrested that December with seen men carrying machine guns and nearly $50,000 in cash. Naranjo acknowledges that he was inspired to give "Miss Bala" its particular viewpoint by the case, but the decision was made to fictionalize the story. "We met her, we interviewed her, but we found out we didn't want to tell her story, because she told a crazy story full of lies. Everything was because she believes in God, because she wanted to help her retarded brother, you know."
But at the time, the director was already researching a project set in the world, and had been planning it for a while. "The very beginning was the sickness, some paranoia that I had looking at the news in my studio and just being crazy and very scared about what was happening," the director said. "And I thought let's make a movie about this, this fear that I feel, and rebel against this fear." It was particularly a response to what the director sees a glamorization of the cartels and traffickers. "We look around and we see the films, soap operas, that talk about the violence in Mexico, and we felt most of them, we didn't agree with the way they were done. I think they are portraying crime in a very strange way, I didn't understand why, all the criminals had the cold chains, the 'Scarface' thing, the Pancho Villa thing, brave men surrounded by women and wealth. And I felt it was quite different from what I saw in the streets."
2. The film is, in part, about how innocence isn't always a virtue.
Innocence is generally seen to be an admirable quality in your movie characters — think "Forrest Gump" or "Being There." But not so Laura Guerrero in "Miss Bala." As the director says "In many cultures, innocence, and having a clean soul, is an asset, it's something you want, and admire, that she has a clean heart. But for her, it's a flaw, it's a very bad thing to have in the society she lives in. You have to be wise, you have to know the tricks. That thought, that conclusion, is terrifying to me, that we have to become more evil to survive."
But as Sigman, who plays Laura, says, even when she tries to play the game, it doesn't work out, the manipulations of others overwhelming her own attempts. Sigman says of her character "I think she's not ready to be the crime girl. I think she just does that because she's really angry. She didn't look for it, but she's in with this criminal. She's been through a lot, it's very logical what she does, but it doesn't work for her."
3. It's a firmly feminist movie, examining the lack of choices available to women in a Mexico where even pop stars associate themselves with the cartels.
The world of "Miss Bala" is a firmly macho one, with the women reduced to pawns or girlfriends of the cartels, and for Naranjo that's a sad reflection of reality. "It is a truth about the world, powerful people have trophies. The rich guys, the young girls are willing to sell themselves, that happens all the time. In Latin America, it acquires a strange and twisted phase, the girls, get acquainted with the crime, and take it on their own. It has many faces. For instance, the pop stars in Mexico, many of the singers that acquire some faith, many times they're related to these groups. Which is weird, because they already have power by themselves, they don't need to be making pacts with crime. But that's happening."
The fact is, however, that that life is appealing to many in the country, simply because they have so few other choices. "I really wanted to talk about the macho culture," the director says, "and how few opportunities a woman like Laura has to survive in this world. She can sell clothes with her dad, but how many ways of having a decent living does she have? If she doesn't become a hooker, a stripper, the girlfriend of a criminal? How many options does she have? I don't think many."
4. Sigman, a former model, had never acted, and that's exactly how Naranjo wanted her.
Discovered in her teens and plucked to become a model, Sigman can identify with some aspects of her beauty queen character, although her experience was never as unpleasant. "I was in a contest," the actress told us, "for the Elite modeling agency. When I was 16, that's how I started. I met a lot of generals! For the contest, I had fun, I worked a lot. Never had that dark experience."
She'd had no real acting experience before, but Naranjo was adamant that he wanted someone with a similar naivety to his protagonist: "I knew I needed a certain attitude, that was very important to me. I had some experience making a movie, and I knew if I didn't have somebody who was very hungry, I wouldn't have that person 100%. I saw Stephanie in a shampoo advert for the first time, I met her, she seemed eager, I told her many lies, saying the movie was much darker, more brutal, and she said she was interested. That was very important to me, to see that she wouldn't get scared."
5. With the film proving such a phenomenon on the festival circuit, they have plenty of offers rolling in, but different views on the kind of movie they want to do.
Considering the film's unusual, excellent take on action sequences, it's unsurprising that Naranjo's being courted by Hollywood. "I get a lot of offers for action movies because there are a lot of action scenes here, and they think that's what we should be doing," the director says. "But I'm not in a hurry. I'll do my next film in Mexico, I think. I'm interested [in studio projects], but not in just doing the factory thing. I don't think I'll ever get in the 'Die Hard' world. There are directors who are doing intelligent action films — very few, but they exist. I'm interested in that, but I'm not going to make a stupid film."
But don't expect his next Spanish-language picture to have the same socio-political undertones of "Miss Bala" either. When we asked him abut his next project, Naranjo responded "I'm writing it. I think it'll be an adventure. I don't want to make a movie about social inequality, I don't want to talk about crime and my country any more, because it was something very hard for me, it's been very hard to promote in that way, about the bad things that happen in your country. Everything I had to say [on that subject], I've said it."
As for Sigman, she's happier to take the genre dollar, although there are no firm offers in yet. "I want to be a badass! I don't want to be the crying girl anymore." Like Naranjo, her next project is a Mexican one. "I'm doing a film in Oaxaca, about the independence of Mexico, it's about a national hero, [José María] Morelos, and I'm in a love triangle. And then I don't know what's going to happen after that." The project, entitled simply "Morelos," follows the revolutionary hero, who was executed by the Spanish in 1815, and is directed by Antonio Serrano ("Lucia Lucia").
"Miss Bala" opens on Friday, January 20th.