Train of Thought: Making Sin Nombre

Director Cary Fukunaga talks with Scott Macaulay about upcoming feature Sin Nombre.

Since the birth of cinema, directors have been obsessed with trains. Louis Lumiere's 1895 The Arrival of a Train at the Station heralded the birth of film realism when the picture famously panicked a Parisian audience who thought the train was bursting through the screen. Eight years later, Edwin S. Porter shot and directed The Great Train Robbery, the father of the modern heist picture and one of the first movies to shoot on actual locations and employ continuity editing.

Showing how little can actually change as film technology marches on, director Cary Fukunaga is, right now, thinking about trains. Specifically, how he's going to realize the complicated chase and fight scenes on board–and on top of–the train charging through the Mexican countryside in his debut feature, Sin Nombre, which Focus Features has just green-lit for production.

"My film is about Central American immigrants crossing over into the United States through Mexico, and they do it by riding on top of these freight trains," Fukunaga explains. "But it's unsafe to shoot on real trains."

Fukunaga's problem is compounded by the fact that while his film takes place over a 2,000-mile stretch of the Mexican countryside, "we'll only be shooting in a 200 mile radius around Mexico City." Adds producer Amy Kaufman, "It's the equivalent of shooting a road movie that starts in Florida and ends in Maine but shooting it all around New York."

On the other hand, for Fukunaga, it's great to have worries like these. It's been a fast track from his Student Academy Award-winning short film Victoria Para Chino to the eve of Sin Nombre's production. The writer/director grew up in California and attended U.C. Santa Cruz before moving to NYU Film School as a grad student, where he made Victoria as his second-year project in 2004. Shot for just $5,000 in Mexico, the film tells with uncommon emotional power the tragic story of a group of Mexicans attempting to smuggle themselves over the border.

Victoria Para Chino was a Student Academy Award winner, and it got Fukunaga noticed by the Sundance Institute, which invited him to its Director's Lab to workshop the script for Sin Nombre. At the time, Sundance Institute Advisor Keith Gordon said to Filmmaker magazine, which selected the young writer/director as one of its "25 New Faces of Independent Film," "I think Cary's project could be successful commercially in the best way. It's almost like Hitchcock combined with a tremendous social consciousness."

Fukunaga cites Michael Winterbottom as a director he admires, and, like the director of The Road to Guantanamo, he is making sure his dramatic script is reflective of the real world. "A lot of my research [into my characters] is coming out through firsthand interviews," he says. "Through a lot of conversations you begin to see what the truth is."

Fukunaga's NYU short also attracted the attention of producer Amy Kaufman. Commenting that "there are not a lot of studios financing Mexican features," Kaufman persuaded Fukunaga to allow her to produce the project and then put together a production team that includes, as executive producers, Canana (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna's production company) and Gerardo Barrera, the line producer of La Miasma Luna. Finally, Kaufman brought the project to Focus, where she has a production deal.

Says Focus V.P. of Development Kahli Small, "It's a powerful and timely story, and Cary is such a gifted and promising filmmaker. And it's a really challenging project. Sin Nombre is Focus's first foray into making a foreign-language film. It's not falling into our international division or with a foreign company that is bringing it back to us–we are overseeing a Spanish film for the first time."

For Fukunaga, the realism provided by not only a Mexican shoot but also non-traditional casting is essential to the project. With casting director Carla Hool (Apocalpyto) he is currently looking for cast in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. "There's no film or television industry in Central America," says Fukunaga. "So it's tough. We're seeing a lot Mexicans who want to play Central Americans, but that'd be like getting someone from the middle of London to play someone in East L.A. One of the most important things to me is authenticity and realism–I even made Focus sign a contract that we are casting Central Americans."

"Well," Kaufman laughingly interjects, "he asked me about this so many times I finally just said, 'Look, we'll put it in writing!"

With production just a few weeks away, Fukunaga and Kaufman are figuring out their various production challenges. To make it seem like their story takes place over all of those 2,000 miles, they'll have a second-unit crew shooting "very specific masters" throughout the South to blend with his first-unit footage. "Once we put them together you'll believe we were in all these different places," Fukunaga says.

Fukunaga has the train issue worked out too. "We decided to build this rig," he says. "It's going to be like the cars of a freight train on a flatbed trailer. There were conversations about doing green screen, but we ultimately decided to do it as practical and real-life as possible."

Check this spot–we'll have more reports on Sin Nombre as it makes its way from production to theaters sometime next year.