Cary Fukunaga on the Making of Sin Nombre

The debut director talks about the journey to the big screen of his new movie about immigrants making the arduous trip to the U.S. border.

Cary Fukunaga announced himself as a promising young director early on, when he completed his second-year NYU Grad Film School short, Victoria Para Chino, and it won numerous festival prizes and the Silver Medal at the Student Academy Awards. In its taut ten minutes, it mirrors the construction of Fukunaga's first feature film, Sin Nombre. We watch as a group of immigrants dream of a new life on the other side of the Mexico/U.S. border, and then are gripped when those dreams are cruelly threatened. In addition to its topicality, Victoria Para Chino compelled audiences by virtue of its keen visual sense and, most importantly, the emotions expressed by its characters. Rather than being faceless Labor Department statistics, Fukunaga's characters became, in its brief running time, real people whose lives we cared about.

Sin Nombre is another balancing of dreams and danger, but this time the scale is epic. In fact, as Fukunaga notes below, there's almost a Road Warrior-esque quality to the film's cross-country trek through a violent, decaying landscape. And again, while staging gripping action and violence, Fukunaga keeps his focus on the characters. The film tells the tale of a beautiful young Honduran woman, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who joins her father and uncle on train-top odyssey across the Latin American countryside en route to the United States. Along the way she meets a teenaged Mexican gang member, El Casper (Edgar Flores), who is fleeing his own violent past and trying to elude his unforgiving former associates. And then there's Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), a young boy whose desire to please the fellow members of his newly joined gang clashes dramatically with the dreams of Sayra and Casper.

We spoke to Fukunaga about immigration, shooting on trains, editing, and why life on a movie set can be the happiest time.

For video of this interview, click here.

FilmInFocus: You've made two films - the short Victoria Para Chino and now Sin Nombre - that set their action against the broader story of immigration between the Mexico and the U.S. today. How did you wind up attracted to this issue?

Fukunaga: Ending up in the immigration world was completely accidental. I grew up in California so immigration is a topic I've seen throughout my life, but I think it was specifically because of an article [I read] about the truck in Victoria, Texas, and those immigrants being abandoned that sparked the short film, and then the short film sparked the feature film. It wasn't something I was really on the lookout for. In terms of why I think I've become so fascinated with that world, I think that happened when I finally traveled with immigrants, was living with them, was dealing with some of the same issues and dangers they deal with, and then, at the same time, experiencing some of the camaraderie of traveling with them. That made it absolutely real [for me]. That was the moment when [I] actually felt part of something and could write about it. The characters in my film are all a collage of the stories I heard and the people I met.

FilmInFocus: Tell us a little bit more about the short film.

Fukunaga: The short is called Victoria Para Chino, and it is based on a real incident that happened in May 2003 in Victoria, Texas, where a truck load of immigrants dying of heat exhaustion was abandoned by the driver. He was eventually caught along with the entire ring. The short film focuses mainly on those moments before getting on the trailer and what happens inside the trailer as people start to pass away. I made that at NYU for my second-year film.

FilmInFocus: So when did you travel with immigrants? Before making the short film?

Fukunaga: I traveled with immigrants when I was doing research for the feature film. I made the short film, it came out in Sundance in '05, and then [the Sundance Institute's] Ilysse McKinney asked me if I had a script for the [Sundance] Labs, so I put together very quickly a feature based on the third-person research I had done for the short film - newspaper articles that talked about what Central Americans go through to get across to the U.S. It was something I wanted to talk about in the short film because I found it so fascinating, the idea of immigrants riding on top of trains; bandits and gangs that were tattooed - this whole world felt absolutely cinematic. It didn't even feel part of North America but it was, it was this old West thing, or like hobos in the 1930s, but it had this weird Mad Max kind of feel to it too. I don't think I really understood [these things] until I was down there with the immigrants, traveling with them. I rode a train with about 700 immigrants, and it was a pretty crazy experience.

FilmInFocus: As a New York-based filmmaker, how did you gain access to this world?

Fukunaga: We contacted this guy named Schroeder, he was the head of the State Security Police and he gave us access to the prisons but also to his local SSP officers. So, we were riding around with guys who had AR-15s in the back of trucks going to these locations, but we realized that wasn't helping us. Every time we'd go to the locations with this truckload of police officers, all the immigrants would scatter away. So we eventually ditched them, but [Schroeder] was kind of our entree into that world. With [him and his police] we went to all of these places and got a sense of what they were like, and then we went without them and had a very different experience. We were able to meet immigrants, talk to them, and to hang out in the train yards for days and days.

FilmInFocus: You referenced Mad Max when discussing this film, and obviously the tattoos and almost tribal qualities of the gang evoke this comparison. But what about the landscape?

Fukunaga: There is something post-apocalyptic about some of the locations in the film, this post-industrial decay. You have these train lines run by U.S. companies and Mexican companies. They used to be nationalized and run by the Mexican government, but now they are completely abandoned. You can go through the whole journey [of these characters] and almost not cross normal civilization. You're just on these trains with bandits. The law and civilization in the form of rules don't seem to exist.

FilmInFocus: You have both drama and action taking place on top of moving trains. Were these scenes difficult to shoot?

Fukunaga: The trains were one of those things that I don't think you realize when you're writing how hard it is going to be. I think the physical production executives did, but I didn't realize what it meant to be shooting on top of a train and having to reset all the time. Actually, shooting on top of the real train ended up being easier than shooting on top of the process train that we built. We built these two train cars and then a piece of a third car on top of flatbed trailers. We did that to be safe because with pneumatic wheels if someone fell off a real train with steel wheels when we were doing the more physical-action type stuff, that would have been it. But it was actually much easier shooting on the [real] train because we had complete control of it. We could stop, move back, move forward, speed up, slow down, but with the process train, because it was trailers you had this jackknifing scenario. Every time you wanted to reset something you couldn't. You backed up and the train would get all discombobulated. So we ended up having to shoot moving forward [on the process train] all the time, and if we needed a tree in the background for continuity we had to move forward until we found another tree that was similar.

FilmInFocus: You've mentioned before that you've thought of this film almost as a Western. Why so?

Fukunaga: The environment feels like that of a Western. You can't have trains or bandits without thinking of Westerns. And also the themes - you think of John Ford, Huston, some of the bigger Westerns and there is a sense of retribution. A lot of the stories are about justice, closing a chapter on something that happened earlier in the film, so in that way [Sin Nombre] is definitely constructed like that. Looking for a new life, hope - those are themes found in Westerns.

FilmInFocus: How did the character of Smiley, the young boy who wants to be a gang member, evolve?

Fukunaga:: Smiley had always been there from the beginning. From the [Sundance Writers] Lab and on he was always necessary to make Casper's story complete. You don't know which way it's going to go. He could complete Casper's story in a good way or in a tragic way, but he was necessary. He's a character I had written a lot more scenes for that didn't wind up in the film. [During editing it became] one of those things: well, who is the protagonist, who do we focus on? Do we focus more on the girl, more on Casper, more on Smiley? They are all interesting characters, at least in my mind, and I think they all could have been their own films. When I got done with [the Sin Nombre release] I want to write a story about one or two characters instead of several, because one of the hardest things with the two-hour format is focusing on one thread but giving enough of the other threads so you still get a sense of these other characters because they are all important ingredients of the soup.

FilmInFocus: He's a fascinating character because the audience has such empathy for him, but he's also somewhat of an antagonist too.

Fukunaga: The point of many his scenes is to show him maneuvering this new environment, this new world, and how he is still a child. There was a scene in which he calls his grandmother and lies to her and tells her that he has work and that he's traveling. She's happy he is working, and then he goes and meets the gang. I really like that scene but we cut it out because it was taking focus away from the main drive of the story. And I had another scene with him where he was with the older kids, the main gang members, and he's trying to act like he's one of them and they are just tearing him down and making fun of him. That scene just didn't work because it wasn't a good scene. It was my fault, and we actually cast him because of that scene - that was the scene we used for the casting [sessions]! He was so funny in it. [That humor] is what I wanted, but then it tonally felt out of place in the film. It was [placed] towards the end [of the film], and we needed to increase the danger, not take away from it. It's interesting how you find that balance in the film, and how people react to things because the audience is absolutely sensitive to each scene, to what you are building upon and what the emotion his, and to how you are controlling their journey. So those scenes of Smiley's were taking away from what we needed.

FilmInFocus: What was the actor, Kristyan Ferrer, like on the set?

Fukunaga: He's a good kid. He's about as innocent and good as you can get. He's really good to his mom, and his mom is "iron fists" - she disciplines him. He's the best-behaved kid in the world. I took him to Six Flags with the production designer and D.P. and their kids, and it was a lot of fun. [Sin Nombre] was his first real feature. He had only done telenovela work. I think now he misses our time together, but movies are like that. You're in this concentrated place together for two months, emotions get high, relationships get deep, and suddenly everyone is spread out, and it's like this disapora. I like to think that it was a good experience on our set and that people will always remember it positively. I had to give a speech, a little talk when we first started shooting. You have to play the part of leader to a certain degree. I introduced us all before our first day, and one of the things I said is that the filmmaking part is really our life. The movie, the end product, is absolutely important, it's what we are working towards, but this day-to-day, what we're doing on set, this is our life. So their safety is important to me as is finishing each day being happy with what we've done. There are going to be hard days and days we want to kill each other, but in the end we are looking out for each other and want to make it as good an experience as possible. You know, five or six weeks into a film, people get tired and people just want to be done, but that's when I think our crew was doing its best. We had soccer tournaments every weekend, I think we created some relationships and some long lasting friendships, so it was cool.

FilmInFocus: Many times when watching a film with subtitles it can be confusing keeping track of people in the beginning because you are reading the dialogue as opposed to first focusing on the people saying it. But that wasn't the case here because, I think, each character had his or her own distinct look in the film. Did you think about the experience for a non-Spanish-speaking audience of reading the subtitles?

Fukunaga: I was definitely sensitive to it. It was something we worked through a lot, reducing a lot of the text to what it needed to be to get the story across so people could spend less time reading that line and more time watching the scene. I also know that some of the Spanish speaking audience has a problem with the way the Mara speak because they speak in such a metaphorical, colorful language. It's still Spanish but it's like you're always a few seconds behind realizing what they're saying even if you're a Spanish speaker. Someone asked if we are going to do subtitles for the Spanish speaking audience like they had subtitles for the English speaking audience in Trainspotting!

FilmInFocus: One of the most striking aspects of some of the characters is their tattoo work. Is this true to life or embellished for the film? And how did you research this?

Fukunaga: There are definitely tattoos, they are still prevalent, but today they are becoming less overt. Facial tattoos you almost never find, except for people who got them years back. Usually they put them on the chest or the body or behind their tongue or in some clandestine spots. There is also a certain amount of iconography in terms of what [the tattoos] mean, and I spent a lot of time trying to discover that, but for every one image there were like five different answers. But I did enough research into the characters so that I felt I knew how they would decorate themselves. Casper's pretty contained to his arms and his hands and little bit of his neck - he doesn't have any major body stuff. But Lil' Mago is a fanatic and is so dedicated to it that his entire body is covered. And Sol, he has just a little bit. He's just someone who has accepted his fate. He's living his life, he knows the rules, and he's accepted the dangers if he ever leaves [the gang]. I had a shot in the film, a dolly-in with him and his kids, and another shot where he's helping his kid water the plants in the house, but we ended up cutting them out. But [with these shots] you got the sense that [for Sol], this is his life, this is the way it's going to be until he dies. And that's the philosophy of a lot of guys there: it's not worth having a green light on your head to run away, because where are you going to go to?