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Michel Franco Welcomes the Backlash to Controversial Films Like ‘New Order’ and ‘Sundown’

"Some people were concerned like, 'Are you OK, Michel?' I'm not just OK. I'm very happy to see that my work triggers such conversations," Franco tells IndieWire about his body of work.

Michel Franco poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'La Caja' during the 78th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

Michel Franco at the 2021 Venice Film Festival

AP

Michel Franco’s “New Order” went off like a bomb at the Venice Film Festival in the summer of 2020. This dystopian social-uprising thriller that erupts with almost Hieronymus Boschian levels of chaos pits the lower Mexican class against the super One Percent as the under-served and under-represented begin picking off the wealthy. And it all unfolds in explicitly violent, free-for-all fashion from the Mexican director of films like sibling incest drama “Daniel and Ana,” bullying nightmare “After Lucia,” and the end-of-life caregiver drama “Chronic,” starring Tim Roth.

But the chances of “New Order” getting a wide release quickly sank when backlash began to emerge in Mexico in response to the trailer. Critics were quick to point out perceived racial stereotypes in the film, including that the uprisers were more dark-skinned than the lighter-skinned One Percent, and that the Black Lives Matter-inspired protesters in the film were glibly portrayed as one-note, violent monsters. Something got lost in Franco’s angry commentary about wealth disparity in Mexico — and the world. (“This trailer repeats many racial stereotypes: brown people are poor, they’re savages, they’re resentful and want revenge,” José Antonio Aguilar, executive director of RacismoMX, told The Guardian at the time.) “New Order” ended up grossing just over $1.8 million worldwide. It’s a limited release in the U.S. in May 2021, almost a year after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, barely made an impact stateside.

But the 42-year-old Franco, looking back on the film well over a year later, both expected and even still welcomes the backlash. “I knew it was gonna stir things up. And I think people were even more sensitive. But to me, that’s very flattering interest. Some people were concerned like, Are you OK, Michel? I’m not just OK. I’m very happy to see that my work triggers such conversations,” Franco told IndieWire over a recent Zoom interview.

For a director of such bracing and often confoundingly disturbing fare, Franco is in jovial spirits. He’s got a new movie coming out, “Sundown” (Bleecker Street, January 28) starring Tim Roth as Neil, a listless American adrift on vacation in Acapulco with his sister, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her two children. They’re the mogul family behind a slaughterhouse empire who, while in Mexico, get the news that their beloved matriarch has died. While Gainsbourg and the kids head back to the states to deal with the loss, Neil opts to extend his vacation — under the pretense that he’s lost his passport — and sit this one out. There, he takes a lover and gets entangled in a vague criminal plot that leaves the audience to fill in many of the blanks.

Which is precisely Franco’s style. Below, he tells IndieWire about how “Sundown” was wrought from a personal crisis, why the backlash to “New Order” didn’t shock him at all, and why he won’t be selling out to direct projects that portray “Mexico in a silly way” any time soon.

IndieWire: This is your third project with Tim Roth after directing “Chronic” and producing 2015’s drug cartel drama “600 Miles,” directed by Daniel Ripstein. Do you conceive these projects with him in mind at this point?

Michel Franco: When I wrote “Chronic” in 2013, almost 10 years ago, I had the idea before meeting him. It was a character and then I changed it for him because he asked for it, to my surprise. It was challenging and intriguing, and I was very happy to do that. Now, it’s different. Now, sometimes when I think of a role, Tim comes to mind. I wrote “Sundown” in the middle of some sort of personal crisis. Before shooting “New Order,” I was also not knowing what was going to happen to that movie. That was a big movie that I still don’t know how I pulled off.

But then I was approaching 40. I had some sort of middle-aged crisis, and I wrote something very quickly. Tim knew a little about the idea of somebody staying behind on a family trip… when I connected it to my existential crisis, I wrote something very fast, sent it to Tom, and I didn’t know if there was a movie there. He immediately said, ‘Don’t change much. Let’s shoot it soon.’ He fell in love with the character because Tim and I keep challenging each other. ‘Let’s make a film with less dialogue. Let’s raise more questions.’ He’s a fantastic actor who’s not often offered opportunities to really prove how good he is.

"Sundown"

“Sundown”

TIFF

It’s not clear what Neil and Alice’s relationship is at the outset of “Sundown.” Are they brother and sister, husband and wife? Were you trying to throw us off?

I like presenting situations and characters to an audience and letting them judge. It might read as misleading, but if you look closely, on a second view of a movie, it’s always a brother-and-sister relationship. There’s that moment when she said, “Thanks for coming with us on the vacation,” and then when the singer is supposed to be flirting, that normally wouldn’t happen if they were a couple and these were their kids. I am interested in how the audience accepts what we’re watching. We are normally always on the same side. We always think one plus one is two, and there are codes that mean only what we want to interpret from them. That’s a very boring approach to filmmaking. People walk into movies thinking it’s all information. “Ah, now I understand this, this, and this.” I like playing with those expectations.

Some of your earlier movies are more rigidly composed., whereas “Sundown” has a looseness. And “New Order” is a bit of an unloosening, too. How meticulous of a director are you right now? 

I can give you an example of how loose it was [on “Sundown”], which I, of course, encouraged. There were two options. A normal production would have closed down the beach for two or three days, fill it with extras, control everything, and that’s it. You make the wide shots. And I said, “No way. Tim’s gonna have to bear with this.” We’re going to put them every day on that crowded beach, and we’re going to gamble and see what happens. That’s the right way to do it because Acapulco is a character in itself. I want to capture that. I shoot in chronological order so I am also changing the story or certain details while I’m shooting and editing. When I shot my first movies, I was obsessed with control, and with no moving the camera. “Chronic” was the last of that approach. In “Chronic,” Tim and I knew exactly what we were going to do, and Tim trained for four months as a caregiver. “Sundown” is a different thing. Tim didn’t know how to prepare himself for this, and I didn’t know how to explain to him what it was. I wanted to put myself in a tough position where I knew we were going to be lost, and the challenge was together to find the way again. But it became frustrating sometimes and hard to give up control. I’m very proud of this movie for that reason.

Neil is a cipher. There is a spiritual journey he goes on while floundering in Acapulco. Where did this guy come from? Do you feel solidarity with him?

Having watched the full film and knowing why, looking back into his motives, and at different ways, to say, “What is wrong with this guy? I’m very frustrated.” It’s really a movie that I hope grows in you. I do see a lot of me in Neil, especially the fragility and looking back on my own life and trying to understand if it makes sense or not. This character is asking the big questions and letting go and drifting. I think he’s very brave, but there’s something sad about the movie, about his journey, that it proves that freedom doesn’t exist. We’re not free at all, and that’s interesting to analyze.

Sundown

“Sundown”

Venice Film Festival

“New Order” was cathartic for a lot of people who saw it and liked it because of the moment that it came out — it felt like a release of a lot of rage at the end of summer 2020. As you were in post-production, getting ready for Venice, was it on your mind that you were bringing it out at this particular moment?

Since I was writing in 2014, I knew it was going to be a “bomb” so to speak, and then the world was getting closer to the dystopic scenario I was imagining, with Trump and craziness everywhere else. And then who would have imagined the pandemic? I was ready to put out the movie, and the world closed down, and I was wondering whether to save the movie for when theaters would fully work and for the world to be back to normal. And then Black Lives Matter really made me say, “You know, you got to put the film out because somehow it’s relevant now.” So I decided not to wait, and I think it was the right decision. And I knew it was gonna stir things up. And I think people were even more sensitive. But to me, that’s very flattering interest. Some people were concerned like, “Are you OK, Michel?” I’m not just OK. I’m very happy to see that my work triggers such conversations.

"New Order"

“New Order”

TIFF

There were obviously criticisms in the Mexican press that I know you dealt with in terms of the perceived colorism, and you had to speak to that when the trailer came out. But another criticism was that people felt the protesters were portrayed as violent monsters in that movie, and that they were one-dimensional in that sense.

That only came up in Mexico. Every critic and [any] audiences from every other country, including Spain, nobody read it that way. In Mexico, it became a political thing, on whose side you are politically. I don’t care for those things, and I wrote it long ago, so it’s not about that. It’s about social disparity. “New Order” is just a way of saying, “Things have to change, otherwise we are headed in the wrong direction.” Again, only in Mexico, half of the people saw it differently. But that’s interesting, that’s part of the conversation. I didn’t take that criticism seriously at all, and I saw it coming.

Has the reception to “New Order” in Mexico chilled Mexican audiences to your work?

Not at all. People were already very split about my movies which, again, I am happy about. My movies are either loved or hated. I prefer when they are loved, but when there’s criticism and when people are passionately against them, I listen, and I’m very intrigued by what my work triggered in them. “Sundown” is my seventh movie. There’s a body of work. I don’t feel afraid, in that sense. I mean it when I say it’s very flattering, all those reactions.

You’ve always made the movies you wanted to make. Were there ever moments when you’ve ever been tempted by studio or mainstream forces?

I’ve been offered stuff. Many people wanted to turn “New Order” into a limited series. I’ve been offered scripts. I’ve been offered to direct some of these TV shows that actually portray Mexico in a silly way — violent, drug-related — which people embrace and I find stupid. The answer is no. The pleasure comes from challenging the audience as far as I can. Again, with my actors, that’s where the pleasure comes from. I’m happy with where my filmmaking is at.

I’m glad to hear we’re not going to read “Michel Franco guest-directs a ‘Narcos’ episode.”

Thank you.

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