Director Jose Antonio Negret‘s thriller “Towards Darkness” stars Roberto Urbina and America Ferrera in the story of Jose, the son of a Colombian banker living in New York. While visiting his family back home for the Christmas holidays, he is reunited with a streetwise old flame and reacquainted with the casual violence that mars his country. Within days of his return, Jose is beaten and kidnapped, his captors demanding an exorbitant ransom from his parents. Aware that the local police would do more harm than good, Jose’s frantic parents enlist the aid of a covert American special operations team to recover their son alive… Peace Arch Entertainment Group opens the film in limited release beginning Friday, March 25.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was lucky enough to grow up traveling around South America. As I went from Colombia, to Brazil, to Ecuador, to Mexico…I saw a lot of people and places along the way. And this is what primarily drew me to filmmaking — that desire to tell these stories I encountered. That interest remains strong, but has also grown beyond borders. At this point I am just fascinated with finding and telling good, involving stories.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Towards Darkness” came about…
“Towards Darkness” initially came about from some real-life kidnappings that happened to my extended family in Colombia. However, it is important to note that I was very young at the time, and was never directly involved in the kidnappings. Instead, I simply remember being a young kid and watching my parents go through some very difficult and emotional times, [and] that memory always stayed with me.
I strove to make a film about that feeling more than anything — and not about what happened to my family, but rather about what can happen to any family when someone they love is taken. As such, I did a lot of research on other kidnappings and events in order to put together a more symbolic story.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film as well as your goals… And did you have any influences in mind while shooting “Darkness?”
We knew from the very beginning that it was going to be a low budget film with very high ambitions. And I was very lucky to be surrounded with a great cast and crew that really believed in the importance of the story. Whether shooting in the humid jungles or low income neighborhoods, we all came together and really pushed to get that story on screen. In terms of the approach, what helped us most was being open to the unexpected. If it rained heavily, we would find ways to incorporate the rain into the film (like at the soccer game). We simply didn’t have the time or money to wait until all conditions were ideal, and ultimately that brought some great moments to the film.
In terms of influences, I have always been influenced by Kubrick and Hitchcock. I have also been a big fan of the energy found in William Friedkin‘s films, whether it be “The French Connection” or “To Live and Die in LA.” So I really tried to bring some of that to the film. Also, I have to say I was very inspired by the recent work of Latin filmmakers, particularly Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Fernando Meirelles, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo Del Toro. Those guys are incredible.
As for the overall goal of the film, I really wanted to make an exciting thriller that also opened people’s eyes to what is going on in Colombia today. To add to that, I would say that the goal was never to place the blame on any one group or organization for Colombia’s situation, but rather show how there are so many groups in conflict that innocent people often find themselves caught in the middle.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I think it took some people a while to grasp the structure of the film (with the flashbacks and time jumps). I really wanted to tell a story where the more you found out about the past, the less time you had in the present to solve it. None of us wanted to make a formulaic thriller, so we strove to tell it in a very interesting way. Another aspect that has been challenging for some is the bilingual nature of the film. The American characters speak English to each other, but are surrounded by Spanish speakers. I wanted it to be authentic on one hand, but also comment on how language barriers cause a lot of problems in today’s world. The fact that the negotiators aren’t fluent in each other’s languages only elevates the tension. So the language and the structure are the two aspects that make this film both unique and challenging. Luckily, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response throughout the process.
How did the financing come together?
The money was raised independently through a variety of sources. It started with friends and family, and then expanded. One of the places we got a lot of the financing from was a small town in California where I had previously screened a short film as part of their festival. It turns out one of the producers was from that town, and when he took me back, we had a wonderful group of people who remembered me and supported the project. All in all, we had an amazing group of investors that took a big chance on us and helped make the movie a reality. And for that I am extremely grateful.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I really want to continue making smart, visceral thrillers. Right now I have two thrillers I am attached to and very excited about. One is for Spyglass Entertainment and Millenium Films, and the other is an independent for Thousand Words.
As film is becoming more and more international, I find myself increasingly interested in setting thrillers in foreign locales whether it be foreign countries or environments where the characters simply feel out of their comfort zone. That is definitely something I will continue to explore.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent filmmaking is finding a way to make the movie you always imagined, without being forced to change it for reasons that aren’t true to the story. If you can go and tell a story that means a lot to you, and you can keep it close to you throughout the process so it doesn’t lose its original goals, then you are making an independent film. I think it has more to do with the spirit of the filmmaking than with the actual budget.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Well, I am just getting started myself, so I don’t know if I am in a position to give lots of advice. But I would just say go for it. It is really hard for people to just give you a movie if you haven’t done anything. And it is also really hard to convince people of your style and story telling if you have very little to show. So just go out there and make a movie (short or feature) however you can. With a calling card, you have something to put in front of people for future projects.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
Surviving the shoot! (laughs) I don’t know, that is a tough one… I have to say getting a standing ovation at the Tribeca Film Festival during the premiere of the film felt pretty incredible.