Saturday, November 10, 2007

Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro

Fleeing a pack of henchman on the Mexican side of the border, Juan hops a truck transporting illegals from Mexico to New York City. En route he befriends Pedro, an innocent from central Mexico who is headed to New York to seek his rich restaurateur father, Diego. Pedro shows Juan a sealed letter that his mother, now dead, has given him--an introduction to the father he never knew. When the truck pulls into New York City, Pedro wakes to find both his belongings and his new friend gone without a trace. He is cast onto the street and stumbles around, lost in an unknown city. Juan, meanwhile, shows up at Diego's door with the letter, claiming to be his long-lost son, Pedro.

Points of comparison, Bobby (for the view of the American dream) and Dostoyevsky's notes from the underground. Possibly, Maupassant's the woman of the port, or Hugo's Les Miserables.

Padre Nuestro, Christopher Zalla's smartly scripted first feature, is an exhilarating dog-eat-dog thriller brimming with style and exceptional performances. A provocative tale of stolen identity and fate, Padre Nuestro is also an insightful examination of the human longing to be loved.— Shari Frilot

This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.

Padre Nuestro exemplifies the modern, international face of American independent cinema: the first-time director, Christopher Zalla, was born in Kenya, raised overseas (and is fluent in Spanish), schooled at Columbia, and created a stylish thriller that begins in Mexico and winds up in New York City. A smart film that — one could argue — uses its border-hopping protagonist’s stolen identity as a metaphor for globalization, Padre Nuestro will certainly spark debate at Sundance.

Padre Nuestro screens at Sundance in dramatic competition.

Can you say a little bit about your background? Where you're from? I was born in Kenya in 1974 and spent much of my youth overseas. My parents separated and moved around for work, and my older brother and I went back and forth between them. Before it was over I had lived in dozens of countries on four continents. I sold tomatoes door-to-door as a five-year old, mowed twenty lawns a week when I was ten, worked as a rough carpenter in high school, and spent nine seasons as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska.

Age? 32.

Education? BA Oberlin College
MFA Columbia University Film School

Film experience prior to this film? I started off as a PA on sets, but after I few months I realized that wasn’t going to teach me anything craft-wise. I then worked as the assistant to a producer named Cary Woods (Kids, Scream, Swingers, Gummo, Citizen Ruth) and probably read a thousand scripts, which was really helpful in giving me a sense of what kind of material I like. Ultimately, though, I saw producing wasn’t going to teach me how to actually make a movie, so I went to film school.

I’ve been doing writing work since I was in film school, including Marching Powder, for Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, about a British man thrown into a Bolivian Prison. Don Cheadle is attached to that one. As for filmmaking, other than some short exercises, this is my first film. Padre Nuestro was originally supposed to be my thesis.

Can you briefly describe what inspired your film? I began writing Padre Nuestro the week after 9/11. I spent that first day digging through the rubble searching for the survivors that just weren’t there. I remember leaving the experience so devastated, and yet at the same time so touched by the incredible sense of connection and community that poured forth from New Yorkers toward each other. Normally, this is a city where people put up all sorts of boundaries between each other, but when there was a shock to the system, you could see the deep need for connection that we all have laid bare. It really struck me on that day that New York is just this big city of outsiders who are looking for some sense of connection. Although Padre Nuestro is a suspense film, on it’s deepest level I think it’s really about that search.

Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with? (actors, producers, DP, editor, composer, etc.) I was absolutely blessed with collaborators on this film. I’ve learned that the most important part of the directing process is choosing the people you’re going to work with, from the producer through the actors all the way down to the PA’s.

It started with Ben Odell, a producer that was a classmate of mine in film school. He has a background like mine (spent several years writing Spanish language TV in Colombia), and he really understood the moral complexity of the piece — the idea that morality itself is a privilege. It’s very easy for us to reduce the world into simple black and white, and I think Latin culture in particular is less prone to judgment and more tolerant of the picaresque sensibility in Padre Nuestro. Ben saw Juan, the impostor character in the movie, the same way I did: he’s just this charming kid that’s funny and having a good time and does what it takes to survive.

Ben introduced me to Igor Martinovic, our DP. Igor has done a lot of work on docs – including the Croatian war – and I was really looking for someone that was going to be bold, fearless, and willing to break some rules. He saw Padre Nuestro like I did — as a suspense film — and agreed that it required a heightened sense of realism. The script really does some unexpected things, and we wanted the audience to feel like the movie could really go in any direction at any moment. Most importantly, because Igor is also as hardcore about preparation as I am, when it came to shooting we were of one mind.

Another crucial collaborator in the film was Tommaso Ortino, our production designer. Mise-en-Scene is central to the sense of realism and atmosphere in a moody film like Padre Nuestro. On some level the movie is about New York City, and Tommaso understood that we had an opportunity to characterize the city in a really specific way. Although a lot of people balked when they saw the kinds of location we were finding — abandoned warehouses, construction sites, even crawl spaces under buildings — Tommaso was able to take what was already there and really bring it alive. He’s amazing. The payoff was immediate when you saw the actors walk into a space and immediately feel it. It gives them this great outside-in approach to their characters: “Oh, so this is where I live....”

Of course, there really isn’t room in this interview to do justice to the work done by the actors. I always believed that this project would live or die based on their work, and they proved me right. I sat with each of them and let them rewrite their dialogue so that every line would be delivered as they would say it. Each of them completely took possession of their characters and made them their own. They just laid themselves bare. It’s the first thing anyone talks about after they see the movie — and I think they are all going to get a lot of well-deserved attention for it.

There was also Aaron Yanes, our editor. This was Aaron’s first feature but you would never know it from working with him or seeing the final movie. Aaron is one of those editors that you can just turn off the monitor and talk about the movie with for an hour. I learned in this process that features require the ability of the editor and director to really listen to each other, but it also requires our ability to listen to the film itself. Once it’s shot, you’re starting all over again, and you have to be extremely open to the possibility that the film will take on a life of its own and become something other than you expected. I’ll always cherish the long, often exciting conversations we had as we started to recognize some of these new realities emerging. It was an intensely creative process.

Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you'd do differently? I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so if I didn’t make any compromises on the film, I’d probably still be shooting the first set-up. Filmmaking is all about compromises on some level — you’re constantly pressured with this balance of money and time, no matter what budget you have. The key is to know when and where to spend those things. That said, it’s a lot easier to get what you want when you have incredible actors and such a great crew to work with.

Any film influences? (this could also include literature, art,
music, etc.) The books I read a lot of while I was writing were by Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Graham Greene. I listened to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen and “Clandestino” by Manu Chao.

What are your expectations for Sundance? Other than getting distribution, which is my primary hope for the festival, I’m really looking forward to the Q&A’s after the screenings. Padre really provokes people, often in pretty opposing ways, and I can’t wait to look into people’s eyes and have the conversation that I think the movie will generate.

As for the other aspects of the festival, this is my first time ever being there so I’m not really sure what to expect.

Any films you're excited to see at Sundance? Cocalero, the doc about Evo Morales of Bolivia. The screenings I could go to were sold out when I went on line, so I’m hoping someone might be able to find me a couple of tickets (hint, hint).

What's the best piece of advice you've read or received about filmmaking? A movie is a marathon. Get in shape before you start.

Director Christopher Zalla, PADRE NUESTRO (USA)

Christopher Zalla, Padre Nuestro

"That's what essential New Yorkers are -- they're outsiders who have come here to chase something."
(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

For the record, can you give me the story background on Padre Nuestro?

The very quick version is: A Mexican boy smuggles himself smuggles himself to New York to meet his long lost father, and along the journey, he has his identity stolen by an imposter who shows up at his father's place in order to steal the man's fortune. That's sort of the very quick synopsis.

How was the story conceived?

It's pretty complicated, but the story really began the week of Sept. 11 -- the week after that. I live downtown, and I woke up actually to the second plane hitting. I ended up running down there and I spent about a day and a half digging through the rubble. I emerged from the experience really wanting to make a movie about my city. I was working on something at the time; I was in film school at Columbia, and I don't even remember what it was. I just said, "This is superfluous." And I think while I was there, it was such a morally ambiguous moment for me, because on some level it was such a terrible, tragic moment, but on another level, it was so incredible to see this outpouring of humanity and, really, a kind of international humanity.

It's one of the things about 9/11 that I found so ironic: Of all the places it could have hit, I realized New York isn't an American city as much as it's an international one. If you were down there, you realized it wasn't about America or Americans. People from all over the world were just there to help in the effort. You just got an X-ray for a moment of what it was this city was all about, and normally it feels like such a separate city; a city where we're all kind of sucked into our own little lives. At a moment like that, you could see it's this city of outsiders who need to be around other people like themselves. That's a mouthful, but there a lot of just kind of ineffable feelings I was having, and I left the experience wanting to explore those emotions. That's really where the story was born. There were a lot of specific inspirations that played into the story itself that I could talk about if you want to hear, but that was the context.

It's an incredible surge of ideas to grapple with. How long did it take you to focus them into this specific story?

Actually, the whole story almost came to me that week. I'd had a character in my mind before this happened; it was a character who was going to be in the background. It was just an interesting character. You keep a log of things you fn d interesting in the world and think that maybe someday you'll use them. I had a friend of mine who, after college, came to new York -- he was Argentine, actually -- after his student visa expired. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He ended up taking a job in a kitchen in Brooklyn and I would go hang out with him after work, and I got to know the guys he worked with. They were predominantly Mexican, and I heard the same story over and over again, which was essentially about these kids who, at the age of 16, 17, 18 years old, were coming here pretty much with the stated goal of working for 20 or 30 years and then going home and retiring relatively wealthy.

I guess I just imagined somebody who was at the end of that period of his life; most of them wire money home via Western Union to family or relatives. I just imagined somebody who didn't have family or who for some reason or another who wasn't sending money home to them. And you know, because he's undocumented, doesn't have the ability to get the typical bank account and is forced to stash their money. There was this image of this money - a lot of these guys who work in restaurants or in construction, a lot of them will take work six or seven days a week -- most of them are required to work at least six -- and a kitchen could be 12 to 14 hours a day. So essentially that pile of money is all one has to show for the last 20 or 30 years of his life; it suddenly takes on a greater weight or greater significance. It was really that image of that pile -- that paper really -- being all someone had to show for his life, because it showed so much hope and so much vulnerablity. It was just a really fertile thing to start with, and I thought, 'Hell, I'll keep that in mind and put it in the background of a movie somewhere someday."

Ed Gonzalez in the Village Voice

Interestingly, the director didn't set out to make an "issue film." "I wrote the story a few years before the most recent wave of awareness and debate exploded onto the scene," Zalla explains. "Immigration as an issue is never directly addressed in the film. Of course, it does provide a context for the world and a sense of jeopardy, which frankly allowed me to increase the stakes for the story." Indeed, implicit questions about immigration do encroach on almost every scene—about family, trust, the American Dream and whom it belongs to—and Zalla welcomes the discourse, noting that reactions to the film seem tied "to people's own sense of the meaning, and function, of morality."

Beginning with its title—in English, "Our Father"—the film is fixated with issues of privilege and notions of individual and collective belonging. The zeal with which Juan attempts to ingratiate himself into the life of Diego Gonzalez (Jesus Ochoa), posing as the lonely dishwasher's son, is disturbing, maybe even a little absurd, but a palpable sense of emotional necessity underlines the young punk's pathological agenda. He may be trying to con Diego out of his fortune, hidden somewhere in his ratty studio, but he is also trying to engineer a surrogate family.

The title is also not without its spiritual implications, and Zalla admits keenness for the Lord's Prayer line "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." "Even as a child, I was struck by the prayer's assumption that, on a daily basis, I would hurt other people and other people would hurt me," Zalla says. "It's an idea that I think fundamentally undermines the dominant moral paradigm in our society, so heavily reinforced by Hollywood, that divides the world into simple good versus evil. Problematizing that paradigm was probably my central purpose in making the movie." Zalla does so metaphysically, suggesting an "invisible force that connects Pedro and Juan," which he says the possessive "our" in the title implies. "They are brothers of fate. Circumstances are such that they switch places beyond the literal level."

Zalla's depiction of Brooklyn as a dog-eat-dog obstacle course helps communicate the message. Like Magda (Paola Mendoza), the homeless girl who alternately helps and scams the frightened Pedro, the city appears wasted and exploited—a seedy underbelly transmitting indifference. Zalla says that because "the central action in the film is one of crossing borders or boundaries: geographic, spatial, cultural, moral, etc.," he wanted to create a dynamic frame that would allow him "to convey viscerally to the viewer what the characters were feeling—the sense of being an outsider."

Zalla's vision isn't far from our post-9/11 world, in which illegal immigrants have been forced to live even deeper under the radar. Whether fighting for day labor or offering a strung-out Magda's body to a stranger for $50, Pedro conveys a resonant desperation, and it's easy to think of him as a specter of one of the illegals who died inside the World Trade Center. This isn't hyperbole. Zalla worked as a volunteer at ground zero after 9/11, where the story for his film began to take shape. He remembers sneaking his way into the area, hauling debris as part of a human chain alongside an 18-year-old Mexican volunteer who didn't speak English. "He couldn't have been here for very long, and yet he was a New Yorker who risked his health and safety for other New Yorkers," Zalla remembers. "It was such a heartbreaking, really devastating time, but I remember looking around at one point and seeing these people from all over the world who were all called by some invisible sense of connection, some desire to help, some feeling of home."

Sounds earnest, but Padre Nuestro does not lack a necessary cynicism. One of the most revealing moments of the film is when Magda attempts to help Pedro locate his father in downtown Manhattan. Though he's not naive enough to buy the streets-paved-with-gold line, he believes in an America that is ripe with opportunity, and so too believes that his father owns a restaurant. Asked if he knows Diego, a Mexican who rises through a sidewalk hatch from a basement establishment scoffs at Pedro's delusion, pointing the boy and his guide toward his mansion. Zalla considers the man's skepticism a complex response to the way jealousy and competition exist alongside solidarity in a multi-ethnic society like New York's. "The man in the restaurant is reacting to Pedro's almost pompous or self-righteous sense of entitlement coupled with his ignorance," Zalla says. The man also helps to shatter what Zalla considers "the implicit reinforcement of the American Dream" that many, more saccharine, movies about immigrants are content to push.

It's not a perfect movie: Zalla's characters are broad and their arcs too neatly delineated (by film's end, Magda and Juan are redeemed and Pedro and Diego tarnished), and the film's overly calculated screenplay sometimes squanders its humanism. But Padre Nuestro feels urgent, now more than ever given the right's scapegoating of illegal immigrants and the efforts of ghouls like Bill O'Reilly who try to trivialize the human value of illegals on national television. Zalla illuminates how political oppression stunts us emotionally and reveals the communal purpose immigrants serve in this country. As for the thriller gloss, "It makes the film more accessible," Zalla says. "I think the worst thing a filmmaker can do is make an issue film with an overt agenda. I think when we feel someone preaching to us, we tend to stop listening."
Structured as a labyrinth—a journey with unexpected stops--the aptly titled "Padre Nuestro" contests the very meaning of family, contrasting biological versus sociological foundations, challenging in an insightful way the nature of (post) modern morality, friendship, and existence.

Though Zalla constructs a strong, suspenseful plot-driven movie, he dwells on the characterization of a triangle of men and their shifting, tangled web of relationships. As a border (or immigrants) feature, "Padre Nuestro" goes way beyond the sentimental melodramas we have seen over the past two decades on the small or big screen, such as Gregory Nava's "El Norte" or "My Family."

Rodada con cámara en mano y en escenarios naturales, el film de Zalla desprende un voluntarioso realismo desolador pero carente de verdadera emoción y significado. El maridaje entre intriga y descripción social no encuentra ese sugestivo equilibrio que haga de Padre nuestro una película que supere la aséptica corrección formal –un habitual estigma ‘indie’– en la que está anclada. A favor se encuentra ese prometedor desvío genérico inicial –del drama social al thriller sórdido–, una dirección de actores notable y una visión casi apocalíptica de una ciudad hiperdesarrollada solo en apariencia a la que, posiblemente, por razones presupuestarias, no se le concedido mayor importancia. Esta, en cambio, corre a través de las deprimentes peripecias de sus sufridos protagonistas, abocados a transitar por los bajos fondos de una urbe demencial. Pedro, Juan y Diego y demás transeúntes son víctimas de la precariedad económica, de la desigualdad social y de la soledad urbana, y es su instinto de supervivencia el que marca el devenir de los acontecimientos. Zalla lo sabe expresar a través de los rostros y de los cuerpos de sus intérpretes, sin excesiva complacencia pero bordeando a veces un molesto tremendismo, como el que caracteriza las acciones de Magda, una vagabunda yonqui cómplice de Pedro en la búsqueda de su padre. Todo, de principio a fin, es demasiado penoso y lamentable en la historia e imágenes de Padre nuestro –también podríamos decir, quizás, demasiado real–, pero semejante estado de ánimo no logra elevarse más allá de su esforzado enunciado y de sus loables intenciones.

Óscar Pablos in Cosas de Cine.

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