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How Dir. Michael Dwyer Devised a Neo-Western About a Conflicted Pocha in ‘Hostile Border’

How Dir. Michael Dwyer Devised a Neo-Western About a Conflicted Pocha in 'Hostile Border'

Due to the myriad of people seeking refuge from the
precarious conditions in their homelands or about crimes committed along the
extensive area it crosses, the border that attempts to divide Mexico and the
United States is an endless fountain of thought-provoking stories, sometimes
uplifting and others gruesome, which have become prime source material for film
productions on countless occasions. But while there are very few aspects of
this interdependent relationship that haven’t been already explored in cinema,
director Michael Dwyer’s “Hostile Border” (formerly known as “Pocha: Manifest
Destiny”) follows a singular character with a dubious moral compass, cultural
ambiguity, and whose identity is difficult to classify.

Claudia (Veronica Sixtos) is a Mexican-born undocumented American, and while
that description may sound contradictory, is perhaps the closest to explain
what her situation is. She identifies with American culture, as the only place
she has ever called home is the United States, yet her status as an undocumented
immigrant places her in a limbo that has no easy solution. When a series of
terrible choices lands her back in Mexico, a country foreign to her, she
realizes that the fact she can’t speak Spanish and doesn’t know what rural life
involves alienate her here too. As a pocha, or someone of Mexican descent who
doesn’t speak the language or relates to the culture, Claudia is force to
reconsider who she believes she is, at least until she can find a way to return
to the U.S. by any means necessary.

We chatted with director Michael Dwyer about his unexpected
take on a new type of border story, one that takes from genres like the Western
and thriller, and becomes its own unique brand of cinematic social commentary.

Hostile Border” opens in Los Angeles on April 15 from Samuel Goldwyn Films. 

Aguilar: I was born in Mexico. I grew up there and then I moved to the U.S, so I’m always hesitant about the portrayal of immigrants in film and of the
relationship between the US and Mexico. However, “Hostile Border” has a very unique and authentic angle on these stories that I hadn’t seen on screen before. The concept of a “pocha” or “pocho” might be familiar to people in the Mexican community but foreign outside of it. How did you
come in contact with this story? What was it that drew you to this specific part of
the relationship between the two countries?

Michael Dwyer: Primarily
I wanted to tell a story that takes a hard look at the American Dream. For me,
growing up around the border, the border is a place where there’s not just two
cultures, there are many cultures pushing up against each other. I think
within that space you’re able to question your own cultural values, be it
Mexican or American, and that was really important for me growing up, having different perspectives on what’s really important about the choices you
make, on issues of morals and family. I feel like that’s
where I’m coming from, that I wanted to tell a different kind of story about
the American dream. I think that there are of a lot of cheering, happy stories
of people who come to the US and who aspire to do amazing things, and it’s not
that I want to diminish that, but coming of age amidst the financial crisis,
where there was no consequences for any of that corruption, gave me a certain feeling that the American dream wasn’t designed for
everybody, and there are people who are pushed out. I think that
perspective is valuable, because I think that there’s this a dark side to the
American dream where people get hurt, and that’s very real.

Aguilar: Your
protagonist, Claudia, is in this very ambiguous cultural
crossroads , because she doesn’t speak Spanish and she’s sent back to a county
that she doesn’t know.  She not from here but in a sense also not from there. She connects more with American culture, but her birthplace definitely has an influence in her destiny. Can you tell me about creating
this character and devising that ambiguity of what she is or what she thinks
she is? 

Michael Dwyer: I
should say that I had been developing this story for many years, and a real
turning point for me happened when I was at the border late one night and I witness the
deportation of maybe 100 people. I ended up standing on the line with
several of them, and I met people who, like Claudia, didn’t speak Spanish
and knew very little about Mexico. That was kind of the “inciting
incident” for crafting a different story about somebody who is caught in between the two
cultures, the two countries, but then it’s also about being caught in between
very difficult choices, and the moral implications of each of those cultures. I hope those all tie together and that there’s a through line there.

Aguilar: She is also not “victim.” She’s a very strong character. Often stories made
about the immigrant experience are about victimization or powerless characters. Claudia is powerless at times in the film, but she’s has this arrogance about her that doesn’t let her entertain the idea of failure. Why was important for you not to have a character that’s defined as a victim, but rather one that’s partly responsible for her circumstances? 

Michael Dwyer: We really wanted to show her as this very strong character. I
always wanted to make a Western. I wanted her to be the leading character
in a Western, be strong, make bold choices, and be somebody who you can
judge but also really root for. I think that that’s something we don’t
really see a lot in movies – strong female characters who are  both good and bad, and complex, and
have a character trajectory that
we can grapple with. It was definitely about that, and working with the
writer and co-director of the movie, Kaitlin McLaughlin, we definitely brought
to it our sense of feminist values and we tried to put that in without making
it a message thing. We just wanted to give her strength and determination not to
be a victim.

Aguilar: Tell me
about your choice of genre and the fact that it’s not a drama. It definitely exploits the elements of a thriller. Its very gritty and intense in terms of the violence and tension, but the film still manages to convey all these other themes surrounding the action. Why did you feel that using a blend between Western and thriller elements was the ideal way yo depict these ideas?

Michael Dwyer: I wrote a version of the script a
long time ago that was much more exploratory and experimental in terms of the characters.
I was very much inspired by José Antonio Villarreal and
his novel “Pocho,” and that element of the border. But what we really came to
figure out is that the feeling of being caught in between cultures and impossible
decisions, is a feeling of intent, suspense and tension. Ultimately we felt
that the best way to capture that feeling and put the audience with Claudia was
to do that with some of the elements of a thriller, and really playing on the
suspense. That’s what Kait
McLaughlin, the writer, was really great about – pulling those story beats and
really trying to move the story as quickly as possible and raise the stakes as high
as possible. 

Aguilar: Did you shoot the film in
Mexico or was it easies for you to shoot in the United States? Was that decision affected by the importance of authenticity or having a realistic depiction of the spaces the characters inhabit? 

Michael Dwyer: We
shot two weeks in Los Angeles and another seven weeks in Mexico, around Tijuana.
I come from a background in documentary film, so I feel like authenticity is very
important. The part of the filmmaking process that is really rewarding to me is
drawing from the elements of a location, and really listening and responding to
people that you are following. I say that because in a way we tried to have a
bit of that documentary feeling to it. There are scenes in here involving
large amounts of cattle, and that definitely came out of our documentary
approach and listening to our friends telling us, “Hey there is this roundup
happening and they are going to be doing vaccinations on all of these cows. “
We would stop our day to go see that. We were a small crew, since the film was
made with a lot of passion by a very few people, and that also gave us the
flexibility to jump around, respond, and not impart a sense of, “This is what I
think this place is,” but instead let the place come alive on its own terms.

Aguilar: There visual style on display is vibrant and transforms the landscapes into incredibly beautiful, almost dreamlike, visions. Where does this approach come from? 

Michael Dwyer:  I’ve worked as a commercial
cinematographer and the visual language is part of my passion for filmmaking
and storytelling. I’ve been inspired by great cinematographers like Emmanuel
Lubezki. I think that because this is a difficult story I wanted it to be
beautiful and I wanted it to pull you in. I hope that this adds to bring the
audience into her feelings and her world. That was always the driving paradigm for
the choices we were trying to make in terms of the framing and the camera
movements. It was about how these heightened the feeling of being in Claudia’s shoes – being
caught in between impossible choices. We tried to add to that suspense and
feeling of unknown and fear.

Aguilar: Veronica Sixtos is a revelation. Although she had appeared in previous film projects, this is an outstanding lead role for her. How did she come on board and what made you believe she could portray Claudia with all her facets? 

Michael Dwyer:  It was interesting. We had a pretty
extensive casting process trying to find somebody who could play this
character. It’s a very complex role because we are pushing the line of
likeability. We were brought to Veronica through her costar Jesse Garcia who
came on to the project very early on and eventually became a producer on it. He
brought us to Veronica and I immediately knew that she had both the physicality to
carry it, but also the layers to be sympathetic in the way she makes bad
choices. I felt that in our first audition and I’m so happy that it all worked

Aguilar: The film was originally titled “Pocha,” then became “Pocha: Manifest Destiny,” and now for release it’s called “Hostile Border.” Why did you select each of these and why was the decision to ultimately change it taken? It feels like “Pocha” is really the single word that best describe the cultural complexity you are dissecting here. 

Michael Dwyer: For
me it was always “Pocha” because I think that term doesn’t have just one
meaning. You can talk to anybody in the southwest and ask them what a “pocho”
or “pocha” is and you’ll get a different answer every time. It’s not one thing.
I think we can all agree that it generally becomes one thing but what changes
are the different connotations that it carries. To me that captured the
ambiguity that we were after, about somebody that’s stuck in between two
cultures and difficult moral choices. When we went to the festivals they wanted
an English title, so we wanted something that spoke to this idea of the distorted
American dream that we wanted to show. I think the terminology of “Manifest
Destiny” is definitely something that I enjoyed playing with at the time
because “manifest destiny” is a very dangerous term. Historically I don’t think
we recognize how much that term was used to justify a lot of enormous violence
and human cost. We are trying to speak to what are the human costs of certain American
values and ways of thinking like the American dream. I really liked that
connection and thought it would speak to it, but ultimately we wrestled with it
and we got great feedback from our distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films. I think
we came up with a title that I hope is good in its own way and helps reaching a
broader audience.

Aguilar: What was the most rewarding aspect of working between Mexico and the U.S. on this film and how each of these places add their own unique qualities to the storytelling? 

Michael Dwyer:  Absolutely. When we were casting
the project we were casting both here in L.A. and in Tijuana at the same time.
I think that experience of casting in both places helped made better decisions
about the casting decisions. I’d like to mention Jorge Sanders, our
production designer, who is Tijuana-based. Working with him was a great
collaboration, there were a lot of great collaborations in this film, but that
one was especially important and meaningful. He brought authenticity to how
everything should be and how it helped tell the story. He contributed an enormous
amount. He is a great artist and a great friend.

Aguilar: Did you ever feel like an outsider telling a story that belonged to someone else and how did you approach it in order to understand it from your point of view?

Michael Dwyer: We
really struggled with issues of appropriation. Who am I as a white American to
tell this kind of story? But ultimately I hope that we were able to capture the
complexity and that we did it on terms that are a critique of American values.
I think critiquing American values is something that anybody can and should do.
I hope that it can speak to lots of different audiences because of that.

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