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PARK CITY '07 INTERVIEW | Christopher Zalla: "I wanted the audience to feel like the movie could rea

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 21, 2007 at 3:00AM

[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
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[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]

"Padre Nuestro," directed by Christopher Zalla, tells the story of Juan, who flees Mexico by hopping a truck transporting illegals to New York City. On the way there, Juan befriends Pedro, and later enters New York as a completely different man. The story develops into "a provocative tale of stolen identity and fate," according to the Sundance Film Festival, and "is also an insightful examination of the human longing to be loved." The film is screening in the Dramatic Competition category.

Please introduce yourself. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

My childhood was one of constant movement. I was born in Kisumu, Kenya in the mid 70's. My parents divorced and over the next 18 years I was shuttled back-and-forth between them to wherever in the world their lives lead us. I lived in Africa, Europe, and South America, where I stayed for several years with extended family in Bolivia. When those 18 years were over I could speak three languages (I've forgotten one), I'd gone to 13 different schools, I'd lived in 21 different homes. I've worked as a rough carpenter (4 years), commercial Alaskan Salmon fisherman (9 years), and am now a professional filmmaker. I've been in New York for 10 years. It's the closest thing to home that I know.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

The biggest single circumstance has certainly been my life experience. When you're an outsider in a foreign land, you often can't rely on language for communication. Many thoughts are internalized and moments of interaction get reduced to their visual essence. I suppose because of this I developed an early interest in both writing and photography. Filmmaking was just the logical evolution of those interests.

"Padre Nuestro" director Christopher Zalla. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

How did you learn about filmmaking?

I moved to New York in '97 to pursue filmmaking. Having no idea about how one actually learns to make movies, I first starting working in physical production on sets - and saw very quickly that wasn't giving me access to the kind of creative decisions and craft that I wanted to learn.

I next went into production and development, where I became the Assistant to a producer named Cary Woods ("Scream," "Kids," "Swingers," "Gummo," "Citizen Ruth"). While there I read over a thousand scripts, which helped me develop a sense of what I liked and gave me a innate feel for structure, but I also found that it offered nothing in terms of actual craft.

Graduate Film School was the only remaining step, so I went to Columbia University, where I was mentored by the greatest teacher I've ever had, Nicholas Proferes. He understands that film is simply an expression of life and so that's what he teaches - how to see life - and how to show others what you are seeing. Of course, having a lot of experiences of the world helps one do that.

Please talk about "Padre Nuestro" and how the initial idea come about?

"Padre Nuestro" is about a Mexican boy who smuggles himself to Brooklyn to meet the father he's never known - only to have his identity stolen upon arrival by an impostor who seeks to steal the fathers' fortune. On its surface the movie is a suspenseful drama about stolen identity, but on a much deeper level it's a film about family relationships and the ambiguous nature of morality.

I began writing "Padre Nuestro" in the week following September 11th, because I felt compelled to make a movie about my city. I spent that entire first day digging for survivors, but there was just nothing. It was such a complicated moment because there was so much devastation, so much tragedy, and yet at the same time it was one of the most beautiful human moments I'd ever experienced. It was like an instant x-ray. For a short time you could see what the basic stuff that bound people together was. Intellectually I'd always understood that New York is an international city, but I didn't really grasp it emotionally until that day. And then suddenly and profoundly I could now see how deeply fundamental our desire for community was. We have put up all of these boundaries, these borders between each other, but ironically we're all looking for some sense of connection, of family. On its deepest level, that's what "Padre Nuestro" is about: the search for family.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, as well as your overall goals for the project.

Any film about New York must inevitably have the city as a primary character. This place is an assault on the senses, and I tried to bring that out in the directorial style and tone of Padre Nuestro. I wanted us to feel like everything is caving in on top of us; oppressive; claustrophobic; overwhelming. I wanted the busyness of this world to translate into a kinetic image, especially when characters are outside, or at work (the same can be said for the use of sound). On the other hand, the direction had to also allow for those somber moments of poetry - of lyricism - to show us that despite the severity of this world, beauty - even love - persists. In those moments the camera needed to soften and tenderly capture the sublimity. Especially in a film which deals with borders, each moment can be treated with its own essence.

Verisimilitude was also crucial to my directorial approach. Essentially, "Padre Nuestro" is a kind of suspense film, and creating a heightened sense of realism seemed like one of the best ways to really make the viewer feel like they were in the middle of it all. When we feel artifice as viewers, we tend to disengage and become lazy, expecting the movie to fall into certain formulas and conventions. The script really does some unexpected things, and I wanted the audience to feel like the movie could really go in any direction at any moment.

How did the casting for the film come together?

Originally, I wanted to cast non-actors in the primary roles, but I soon realized that these people simply lacked the emotional and dramatic chops required by the script. I'd always wanted to cast the two boys in Mexico in order to capture that energy - that shock - that everyone feels the first time they arrive to New York City. I also didn't want an American audience to recognize them, so I traveled to Mexico City and hired Manuel Teil, who discovered Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and cast films like "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "21 Grams" and "Babel."

Just as it was important to me to find the Mexican actors in Mexico, I knew I had to find Magda, the female lead, in New York. Magda is quintessentially a New Yorker. There's a certain wittiness and gruffness that's unique to this city that you only absorb by living here. We hired Orpheus Casting who discovered Catalina Sandino Moreno of "Maria Full of Grace" and Michelle Rodriguez of "Girlfight." Their specialty is open casting calls, and in all we saw several hundred girls.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

The biggest challenge we faced in the movie was our decision to question the conventional characterizations of hero and villain. Even though it's human for the audience to try to identify and root for "their guy," I find these moral constructions too simplistic - and the story lines they generate too flat and predictable. Most people's experience of human behavior is much more complicated than that. Kindness and brutal self-interest are a possibility for everyone in every moment. It's a bit risky, but the movie becomes so much more suspenseful and provocative if the main characters sometimes act in ways that run counter to our initial assumptions about who they are.

What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?

Obviously, my primary goal for the festival is distribution for the film. Filmmaking is about starting a conversation. "Padre Nuestro" really seems to trigger strong (sometimes conflicting) reactions and feeling that vibe with a full house - looking out at the faces afterward and hearing people's thoughts, even arguments- that's what I'm really looking forward to at Sundance.

Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?

I was alone in the country in upstate New York when I found out. To be honest, I was completely relieved. That lasted for about ten minutes, and then the stress of all of the preparation I needed to do set in.

What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2006?

I love the masters. To me, moviemaking is essentially a filmmaker's way of saying "this is how I see." When you watch something by a Fellini or a Bergman or a Cassavetes, you get to see how someone else looks at the world (which is something most of us could do more often). The great ones just have a more interesting way of seeing. - and of conveying that to the rest of us.

I didn't get to see any movies in 2006. I was too busy making mine.

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

My primary resolution is to take a serious vacation. My second one is to pick up the phone and reconnect to all of the people in my life that I've neglected during the last few years of this project.


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