Known for his neo-realist film about the plight of Latin American immigrants living in New York City, “La Ciudad,” indie writer/director David Riker has spent the better part of 14 years evolving story of his latest feature, “The Girl,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. In the minimalist drama, Abbie Cornish plays Ashley, a minimum wage earner working in a podunk South Texas chain store, who is determined to get her son back; taken by child services after a drunken mistake. She finds out her wandering, absentee father (Will Patton) is on a self-proclaimed “lucky streak,” which turns out to mean he’s using his truck driving job to sneak Mexican immigrants into the country. When she tries her hand at it out of desperation, it goes terribly wrong — except she now has to deal with Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez), a little girl that forces her to help find her mother and deal with her actions.
The Playlist spoke with Riker and Cornish over the weekend to discuss how the director and Aussie actress came together for the independent project, working with non-professional child actors and just how polarizing a message the film can send.
Right off the bat, what’ve you been working on since “Sleep Dealer”?
David Riker: I’ve been working on this film now for a long time. It had a lot of false starts and complications going for it. This has been going on since longer than 2008. I think I wrote the script in 2006 and it’s been a long complicated job to get it made.
So how did Abbie uncomplicate it enough to get the role?
DR: Oh my god, this is the first interview we’ve done together, Abbie [she laughs]. Having her here makes it a little more awkward, but as a director you watch all the films you possibly can. Occasionally you see a new actor or actress that really changes things for you. [The 2004 Aussie film by Cate Shortland] “Somersault” [in which Cornish starred] did that for me the first time I saw it. Since then I’ve seen everything that Abbie’s been in. Never dreamt that she’d be up for putting her rational life aside and come to Mexico to do it. But we eventually got the script to her, and she said I do. Or I will. What did you say?
Abbie Cornish: I don’t know, I don’t remember.
Well, it’s rare for an actor to drop everything and move to Mexico for an independent film and learn Spanish from scratch.
AC: We had a decent script and amount of time to rest two weeks rehearsal as well. We prepped — David took me to Mexico about a month before we started and we had three days there together, which was an amazing time, just me and David hanging out. We had rehearsals and workshops with Maritza. Then a month went by, we went back and did two-week rehearsals, which felt like a long time. We did a lot of work done in those two weeks, I was itching to film toward the end. David had so much work to do, he really put in a lot of time and effort. In the month between the prep and rehearsal, David had been working with her the entire time, so that when I tuned up, Maritza knew every line in the script. She knew exactly what was happening in the film, with her character, it was really impressive.
Something I want to get into about the script — well, the spoken dialogue, and how it shifts predominately into Spanish over the course of the story. What’s the preparation for going into not only a new language, but a dialect and foreign language.
AC: Well, the way that we started, I was really lucky because the way that David and (producer) Paul Mezey were accommodating with the fact that I wanted to start learning Spanish. They hired a Spanish teacher for me a month and a half to two months leading up to the film. So I just learned as much as I could. When I went to Oaxaca, I started with a Spanish dialect coach so fine-tuning the sound and the inclination and making it right, basically. Then I had to find an amalgamation of this Texas woman speaking English with a San Antonio accent and then speaking Spanish. We found that you couldn’t do the Spanish with a Texas drawl, it sounded ridiculous; it broke down the language until it sounded like some weird language. So, we find the character, the core and the tone of her voice in Mexico — it’s the same thing.
It’s a very regional detail, which is interesting because most of David’s characters are set around New York. Yet here we’re on the border. So why the shift down south and not around New York?
DR: The story dictates where you have to work and I left New York to go to the border to try to understand the border. And the truth is I went down there with a ready-made story that I had written out and that had given me a fellowship to do this and write the script very quickly. The script would’ve been interesting but it wouldn’t have said anything about what I was seeing. As soon as you start accepting what you’re seeing as a writer that you don’t know, you have to throw out all your plans and take out the tape recorder. It requires this adjustment that I’m here to learn and I need to be led a little. It was a process that dictated everything that followed, not only that I’d be filming a film outside of New York City, but that at a certain point I realized I wanted the main character to be an anglo character, even though I was dealing with a subject that traditionally has a protagonist from the south, like a Mexican. Then I needed to focus on anglo characters whose lives are intersecting with or transformed by the border, by living near there or crossing it. That began a whole other process as a writer. Bringing the film to life with Abbie, it had to be on the border and the irony was all the years it took me to make the film, the border became suddenly impossible as a place to film. I say “the border” generally, but you were not allowed to film by insurance companies film anywhere near the border on the Mexican side. The place where the story was set was really gruesome with what was happening. So we had to film in Oaxaca, which is a thousand kilometers south.
So, all exteriors in Laredo were Oaxaca?
DR: That was all Oaxaca. The only thing we shot in Austin, Texas is what would appear to be the border crossing on the Mexican side with the sniffer dogs, which we shot in a garage in Austin. Because in the last moment we were denied a permit by the Department of Homeland Security. It is what it is. Part of being a small film is you have to be able to improvise constantly. And since Abbie is here, I would just say one thing about improvising: when I first met Abbie, I knew her previous work. I knew what I had observed. For me the finest actor, you’re not looking at the actor, you’re quote “disappearing into a role.” But you don’t necessarily know the person. And I just didn’t know that I’d have someone to carry this enormous weight with me and to deal with very hard conditions and to always be cheerful. To have more energy than the rest of us. So, losing the border — the river. A lot of scenes were shot on this river and I spent months and months scouting to find the perfect river. It’s extremely complicated because (of) the rainy season and the dry season, you have to anticipate what the river will look like. A week before we were gonna film there, a 20-year flood cycle happened and the whole area was flooded. We had to constantly improvise and try and turn our weaknesses into strengths.
There’s a sort of “human politics question” the final shot brings up, as Ashley leaves Rosa behind there’s this little smile. We know she’s on her way back to her son as a changed woman and mother, but all this comes at the expense of Rosa’s mother and separating this family.
AC: For me, the events that unfold over those five days are there for Ashley to redeem herself. She felt like she was dealt bad cards; no relationship with her mother, an absent father and she also feels that there’s a whole world against her. The whole system is against her. I think she was a loving mother to her son, but not a really good mother if you know what I mean. That’s why she’s made mistakes, and ended up with her life. She’s carried this anger and resentment, but the incident where she lost her son to the welfare system, I think she’s never forgiven herself for that — the blame and the guilt she feels for that. So, the incident for bringing these people across the border, for it to go wrong, for her to try and ditch this kid, the tragedy that unfolds, all of these things are bringing every single issue of her whole life to the surface. This thing of feeling alone in the world, of not knowing how to be a mother, not loving herself, not being able to let go, or forgive — she’s a very dissected person. I like everything for her.
I think we had discussions about it. To not judge Ashley, to let her be. It’s not about popularity with her, it wasn’t about how we show this woman in a way that’s likeable. Not just that she’s cranky, she messes up, and she’s just not a very good person. That’s who she is. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person at the core of herself, she’s just not connected to that core. There’s so many levels of this film that are political and spiritual, but for me the beauty of the film in regards to Ashley’s character was the journey into her life. The letting go. You see that moment you talked about, that moment that’s hope, that’s light.
Do you have anything you’d like to add onto that?
DR: I would just say life is complex. I, as a writer, am interested in the question, can we change? In Mexico, I found myself describing Ashley — I haven’t mentioned this much outside of there — as representing, in some ways, the United States, and Rosa representing Mexico. If you look at the history you can say the U.S. has a lot of accounting to do. But does that mean the destiny of the country is already been written, or can there be a new future? In the same way with Ashley, first of all, I myself don’t know if she’s really responsible for the mother’s death. I think it’s ambiguous. For which I say at the moment, at the river’s edge, people are saying we need inner tubes, she says I’ll take you back to the plaza. People make a decision, but she certainly feels that guilt. It’s what drives the rest of the story. And her process of awakening, of change, is set in motion by a tragic event in which she does have a hand, no question. But for me, what gave me energy to make the film was that I believe people can change, because if I don’t think I can change, I wouldn’t make another film. And if I don’t think we can change as humanity, you’d have to scrape me off 34th street as a drunk.
Because it’s a bleak future if we can’t change. We have a character who clearly has all of this baggage and pain. And in a sense she lives this isolated life, so much anger, is it possible for that person to change? And if so, what’s it going to take? It won’t just be reading a book, it has to be an event that throws everything upside down. I love to say this — Rosa grants Ashley a second chance at the police station. Ashley can repeat what she did with Georgie, or she can break that pattern. And she gives her a chance to have a different future. Ashley, despite having involvement with her mother’s tragedy, grants Rosa a second chance by taking her home and away from the orphanage. The smile, for me, is funny. As an editor and a filmmaker, that shot goes on for a long time. Abbie gave me so many moments in terms of the last moment of the film where I would cut it. I remember I would keep taking frames off so it would just be a slight smile, a glimmer of hope.