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Meet Mexico’s Award-Winning Hot Young Director of ‘Gueros’

Alonso Ruizpalacios black-and-white 'Gueros" is a must-see portrait of student unrest -- and gorgeous cinema.

Writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios’s “Gueros,” which distributor Kino Lorber will release on Blu-ray and DVD on Oct. 20, was the big winner at Mexico’s Ariel Awards in May, taking home five: best picture, director, first work, cinematography and sound. The dazzling film had already collected best first feature in Berlin’s Panorama section and a cinematography prize at Tribeca. I screened “Gueros” as a New Auteurs juror at November’s AFI Fest, where it won the screenwriting prize and the audience award.

Shot in stunning black-and-white, “Gueros” is a riveting, unpredictable and emotional joy ride through sprawling Mexico City. It’s a valentine to Ruizpalacios’ home town as much as Jean-Luc Godard’s Paris in “Breathless.” The Blu-ray and DVD editions are packed with special features, too: deleted scenes, two short films by Ruizpalacios, an interview with the director, and an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire.

Set during the Mexico City student protests in 1999, when Ruizpalacios was attempting to start his National University studies, the film follows three disaffected students and one younger brother as they pursue an elusive pop star.

Ruizpalacios and I sat down and talked in New York City earlier this year. While he’s predictably being chased by Hollywood, he has not signed with an agent and is prepping two upcoming movie projects In Mexico on top of his day job directing theater.

He’s rewriting one film he wants to shoot by the end of year, based on a true story of a heist in the anthropology museum in Mexico in 1985. Two middle-class kids from the suburbs planned a Christmas Eve get-rich-quick scheme. They stole about 150 pieces, many of which were valuable ancient Mayan and Aztec, and took them out in bags. The investigation presented them as an expert band of international robbers. But it was two veterinary students.

The second project is an adaptation of a British play set in the ’50s, “The Kitchen,” which he mounted as a theatrical production of about 5 years ago. It’s one day in a big industrial kitchen, exploring the lives and relationships of the cooks. “It’s such a powerful play,” he said. “It’s about capitalism and all these big issues, but placed so simply and effortlessly.”

When Ruizpalacios couldn’t start his studies in Mexico City, he studied acting and directing at a little theater school with a Polish director, and then went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I always wanted to know how to direct actors by being one somehow,” he said. “Still one of the things I enjoy most is directing actors.”

After he left London and returned to Mexico City, the director put in his 10,000 hours working at a children’s TV channel for five years. “I had to turn up with stuff every day,” he said. “I had a crew and camera and could do whatever I wanted. It was good for me. I was reading filmmaking books, and the next day with my tiny crew I got to try whatever I was reading about, tracking shots and camera moves.”

“Gueros” isn’t hat-tipping “Breathless” specifically. “I did set out to portray Mexico City in ways that I felt weren’t being portrayed in films, he said. “It’s one of our dogmas, not to go to the commonplaces of ultra-violence and drug wars.”

“Of course the New Wave is there,” he admitted. “My personal favorite is actually Truffaut. Godard was the brains, but Truffaut was the heart, he was a warmer guy.” When Ruizpalacios took one of his shorts to a festival in Paris, he went with a group of young directors to the Cinematheque library, where they store notebooks of great filmmakers from Hitchcock to Tarantino. They each got to sit at a separate desk with a notebook for an hour; he got one of Truffaut’s, “full of little sketches and drawings and funny notes,” he said. “I realized that he was such a playful man, in his approach to filmmaking and life.”

He wrote the first draft of “Gueros” 10-11 years ago, when he first came back from London, unemployed, living with his parents, having panic attacks. “Writing was my occupational therapy,” he said. “It drove the panic attacks away.” Then he left it for a long time. “I didn’t think I would film it, but it kept coming back to me. I was obsessed with the story of kids driving around Mexico City. Three or four years ago a friend I had written a play with helped me to restructure it, he came on board, got to working on the structure, cutting things out. It’s an episodic tale, not a three-act structure.”

Ruizpalacios watched road movies, from “Vanishing Point” and “Two Lane Blacktop” to Wim Wenders’ road movies and David Lynch’s “Straight Story.” “In the process we always had a map of Mexico City nearby,” he said. “The route informs the story and the story informs the route.”

The characters were all alter-egos, he said. The other writer, Gibran Portela, was more like easy-going Santos, while Ruizpalacios was more like Sombra the worrier. “We wrote different scenes. I did want the two characters to be symbols of different ways to confront a crisis. If you are a student and don’t have a school, it’s a deep existential crisis. One of them confronts it with uncertainty and worry and panic attacks, the other one takes it as it comes. If a day brings nothing he’s happy, or adventure, he’s happy with that too.”

The actors in “Gueros” are terrific; Tenoch Huerta starred in three of Ruizpalacios’ shorts. The female lead in the movie is his wife, actress Ilse Salas. “I come from the theater,” he said. “I like to fool around a lot in rehearsals, I enjoy being with actors and talking rubbish and improvising. That informed the final script. We never gave a script to the young kid; I wanted him to react. I was very clear that I wanted a lot of time, for the shooting to be as long as possible. I spent more money on time than fancy equipment.”

The filmmaker loved shooting in black-and-white and credits his cinematographer Damian Garcia, with whom he talked through the movie over the years. “We shot mostly with natural light on the Alexa.”

Ruizpalacios is not thinking about Hollywood partly because he’s happy raising his family in Mexico City; he wants to rebuild the broken relationship between audiences and moviemakers in Mexico, where there is not a big market for smart cinema. “There is a production infrastructure but not for exhibition. The art house circuit is nothing.”

He wishes that Hollywood filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron would return to Mexico and give back to the film industry there: “Mexican cinema needs trust from the Mexican people.”

Who does he respect among the filmmakers working today? Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”), Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”), Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), Mike Leigh (“Naked”), Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”), Laurent Cantet (“The Class”) and Abdellatif Kechiche (“Blue is the Warmest Color”).

Makes perfect sense.


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