From Sundance to Sundance

Sin Nombre's director Cary Joji Fukunaga returns to where he started.

If one were to search for the perfect place to premiere Sin Nombre, Cary Fukunaga’s tremendously suspenseful story of Central American immigrants facing danger as they travel through Mexico to the U.S. border, Sundance might not seem to be it. The film paints such a vivid portrait of a beautiful, dangerous and very, very hot landscape that the experience of viewing it alongside the snowy mountains of Utah, with one’s parka stuffed under one’s seat, would seem to feel just too incongruous. On a deeper level, however, Sundance is the perfect premiere spot for the film. Prominent in the film’s end credits is the phrase, “Desarrollada con el apoyo del Sundance Institute Feature Film Program,” speaking to the fact that the Spanish-language film was supported through its development by the Sundance Institute.

Fukunaga’s relationship with Sundance began when the programmers selected his short, Victoria Para Chino, for its program in 2005. That Student Academy Award-winning film is a sad, tense tale of Mexican immigrants who are abandoned and suffocated in a locked truck in Texas after they’ve illegally crossed the border. During the making of the short Fukunaga learned about the plight of Central American immigrants who face adversity in Mexico as they travel towards the U.S., and he began researching a script that would explore immigration issues from this other angle. “The short film played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and I was asked to submit a script for the Sundance Lab,” says Fukunaga. “I had spent all my time finishing the short, so I had just two weeks to draft the feature script.”

Fukunaga submitted his quick draft to the Sundance Labs, an intensive workshop program at which filmmakers work with industry mentors on screenplay development and, in the Directors’ Lab, even shoot scenes from the script with professional actors and crew. It was accepted, so he headed back to Utah in the Summer of 2006 where he worked his scenes in such equally incongruous backdrops as a plush condo (doubling for a dirty ravine) and a lyrical mountain path (standing in for a train, train tracks and the muddy ditch in which our heroes are chased by a gang). I sat in at the Labs in 2006 and watched Fukunaga shoot that chase sequence. He had ambitiously wrangled 15 extras and the Sundance steadicam, and in a place where most directors stage simple scenes and focus on performance, Fukunaga choreographed an elaborate sequence that he called “the Sundance equivalent of a ‘money shot.’” “The scene takes place on top of a freight train,” Fukunaga explained at the time, “but Sundance doesn’t have a freight train, so I rewrote it for a field – I think I could get a job as a second-unit director!”

The director Keith Gordon was one of Fukunaga’s Sundance advisors, and told me,“[Sin Nombre] is almost like a Hitchcock [movie] combined with a tremendous social consciousness. I think it could be successful commercially in the best way.” Of the work he felt Fukunaga needed to do, Gordon said, “For [Cary], the challenge is working on character. He hasn’t dealt with professional actors before, and while his short is really effective and powerful, it’s very much ‘the big picture.’ What he hasn’t yet developed is how to bring out in his actors all the subtle little truths that make you invest in a character. Everyone here has one thing they have to learn, and that’s his. That’s his journey.”

Gordon’s diagnosis was accepted by Fukunaga. Shortly after the Labs he said, “The hardest stuff for me at the Labs was the emotional stuff because I’m still discovering how to convey human behavior. After the Labs I did a whole rewrite. Once the actors became my characters, I realized I had to rewrite and simplify things like the character arcs. For me, the Labs were a process of discovery… which is just a fancy word for practice.”

Sin Nombre is one of the rare films with distribution to be accepted into the fest’s prestigious Dramatic Competition. And while the agents and producers who will be packing the first screening will surely take note of Fukunaga’s facility with the camera, with his ability to place audiences in the middle of scenes crackling with physical action, his Sundance Lab mentors and advisors will most likely be remembering his work and there and concentrating on the subtleties of the performances by leads Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores, and Kristyan Ferrer.

For Fukunaga, the key to finally eliciting the film’s strong performances came from adhering to a sense of authenticity in casting. “We had it written into the contract to make the movie that we would be casting Central Americans,” he says. “For the principal roles, I wanted people who caught the spirit of their parts. So through [casting director] Carla Hool, we cast people with a lot of experience, like Paulina Gaitan, and people with practically none, like Edgar Flores; she could give me four variations on a scene, while he was in a lot of ways just being him. So it was a good mix for me, and it meant that I couldn’t over-plan a scene – which I don’t like to do in the first place, since I like spontaneity. Yet I can also control the dramatic flow of a scene towards authenticity.” That authenticity extended to scenes which relied on non-traditional, real-person casting. For a scene in which two of the leads are pursued by a rival Mara gang, Fukunaga says, “We found three real gang members – two of whom had been part of the Mara. For a scene like that, you don’t necessarily direct; you just set up a scenario and let them live it.”

He continues, “Experienced actors can help inexperienced actors through scenes and with feedback. I like to give advice, and not just direct; I’ll ask one of the actors to talk to another one, actor to actor. It’s something I learned to do when I was making short films. When I had kids and adults in the cast, I would have them spend time together so they could create a bond that would then come across naturally in a scene.”

About Fukunaga’s direction, Gaitan, who plays Sayra, the young woman making her way across the border, comments, “Cary is very helpful because he tells you specifically what he wants. For instance, he would say ‘Decrease the intensity.’ We didn’t improvise very much, which I preferred.” The drive that Sayra displays as a character was echoed by Gaitan in her fight to land the film’s lead female role. As Fukunaga noted, he wanted to cast Central Americans, but Gaitan, who has been acting since age 9, remembers, “I am Mexican, and Cary wanted a Honduran actress to play Sayra, so he offered me the role of Martha Marlene. But I said, ‘If I’m not Sayra, then I won’t be in this movie.’”

Says Kristyan Ferrer, the 13-year-old boy who plays Smiley, the young antagonist inducted into the Mara Salvatrucha 13, “My most difficult scene was when he has to cry; he’s sad because he’s been hit and kicked, but he’s happy because he belongs to the Mara. So he’s feeling pain and happiness at the same time. Cary helped me make the character real and to control my emotions while performing. Playing Smiley, I had to become aggressive; he was another part of me that I thought didn’t exist.”

Comments producer Amy Kaufman, “The Mara scenes were so important, so it was a challenge to find someone as young as Kristyan Ferrer, who could do everything that we needed him to do. He’s amazing; I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.”

Sin Nombre premieres this Sunday at Sundance in the Dramatic Competition. Check back to FilmInFocus for further coverage.

Check out a visual production diary of the film.