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raymac Written by raymac
Jun. 12, 2014 | 6:01 AM





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Q&A WITH DIRECTOR AMAT ESCALANTE OF “HELI”



Heli


HELI is your third movie after SANGRE (2006) and LOS BASTARDOS (2008). They could be seen as a trilogy about contemporary Mexican society. Is that how you envisaged them?
Not consciously, at least! Of course, you can draw links between them. I noticed that in each film, I’ve tackled more or less directly the way American culture impregnates Mexican society. SANGRE showed the perverse effects of this globalization, and how the American spirit infiltrates everything: television, food, and so on. In LOS BASTARDOS, we saw two Mexicans who went illegally to the United States and tipped into murderous violence. The narrative in HELI takes place in a city which is like the one where I grew up: Guanajuato, five
hours’ drive from Mexico City. General Motors decided to build an automobile plant there. People moved in to be close to their new place of work, so homes had to be built quickly to house them, leading to great deal of unchecked development. The ecosystem, the landscape, and the atmosphere of the place were transformed. Watching HELI, I notice that everything that relates to the auto industry in the end remains on the fringes of the narrative. Nonetheless, the environment that I depict is marked by that presence. Since I’m American from my mother’s side and Mexican from my father’s, the presence of this power relationship in all my films is fairly logical.

The environment and also the social context you describe are very precise. Do you make films motivated by the desire to show a reality from your own country?
My aim isn’t to deliver a message, nor to develop some sort of thesis. I’m more obsessed by the particular atmospheres that I can create through my direction. Not having experienced the things that the characters in HELI experience or undergo, I had to extrapolate and use my imagination. It’s the psychological dimension that interests me, more than the specific facts. How does one live in a permanent climate of fear? My characters suffer violent acts, and as a result find themselves under tension. It’s this tension that I’m trying to show and to share with the spectator. I show extreme situations. In Mexico, everyone lives with a kind of fear in their gut. Violence is a reality at every moment even if it doesn’t affect you directly.

Where did the idea come from for this story of corruption and its devastating effects on an innocent family?
Once we’d decided on the filming locations, my co-writer Gabriel Reyes and I imagined the story of a family which moves close to the automobile factory and tries to adapt to the rules of this new life. As for the trials they would face, we just had to read the newspapers, watch the TV news, and stitch together the various strands of the story. Problems linked to corruption and drugs are part of daily life for Mexicans. Images of killings, decapitations and hangings are shown with no restraint in the media.

How does your own story overlap with that of your protagonists?
Once again, I haven’t experienced anything comparable to what is shown in the film, despite growing up in a fairly similar environment. My parents divorced when I was young. My father is both a painter and musician, but above all he’s a great handyman. He helps me on every film, notably in making the rail systems for tracking shots. My mother is nowadays a social researcher for a university. While I don’t specifically mention the city of Guanajuato in the film, certain details like the mountain range in the background are very representative of the area. On several occasions you glimpse the statue of Cristo Rey, the equivalent of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. This region is very religious. During the shoot, we had to stop for four days because the Pope was visiting the city. The religious aspect is very present in the film. Here, abortion is banned and severely punished. That’s why lots of very young girls – like the heroine in my film – become mothers when barely teenagers. To give you an idea, the real mother of the infant in the film was on set, and she’s only 14. Recently, seven girls who had accidental abortions were sent to prison. With HELI, I wanted to show how families live on top of one another under the same roof. The notion of community is very strong, as is the absence of intimacy. I, myself live next to most of my family. That’s common in Mexico.

You mentioned the atmosphere that you like to breathe into each film. How do you establish this?
It’s the cast which determines the overall mood. Everything starts from the choice of the bodies, the faces and the looks of my actors. They dictate the tone of the film. The actors remain the vector through which a filmmaker transmits emotions and feeling. The sets also dictate the overall tone. That’s why, at the time of writing the script, everything remains abstract. I never know in advance what the whole is going to look like.

That said, was it straightforward to cast the film?
No. Finding the right person to play HELI was a long and difficult process. I’d seen at least 3,000 people. I couldn’t make up my mind. I didn’t have any particular profile in mind. I was looking for a face or personality with which I felt a connection. I had perhaps invested and projected too much onto this character. Turning down every suggestion was a way of rejecting myself, of putting my ideas to the test. Armando Espitia was one of my favorites, all the same. So I picked him, thinking: “OK, let’s go for it, otherwise I’m never going to make this film!” So I set Armando up in the region where we would film so he could absorb the local vibe. He lived with a family for a while. He had long hair and pale skin. We cut his hair very short and had him get some sun. It was while we were making all these changes that I realized I’d found the right person. That’s often how it goes with my actors. My first task with them is to change the way they look. Without this modification process, - I can’t project myself. This method is so much easier, which is why I rarely work with professional actors. In HELI, only the actor who plays the father of the family had previously worked in film.

Was the choice of the name HELI a way of linking this story to any particular mythology?
No. I read a short article in the newspaper about a boy aged 10, called HELI, who was involved in a shoot-out between his gang and the police. That story left a big impression on me, so I used the name in my film. I liked the sonority.

Do you always adopt the same working method?
Yes. In order to throw myself into the shoot and find the right rhythm for the film, things have to be well organized from the start, otherwise it goes all over the place. I know what I’m like, I tend to be a bit chaotic! So I write a very detailed script, then I make a complete storyboard. All the shots in my film are therefore imagined and thought out in advance. With that as my starting point, I modify and explore new avenues during the shoot. On set, we improvise a lot. The important thing is to always shake up the routine. You have to be able to break something to move forward. Each day has its own rhythm, its own pace. The script and the storyboard are like actors; they are at first fantasies that go on to be transformed by the reality of the shoot.

HELI is the first film you have shot on digital. Why did you choose this format?
It was a way of going as far as possible with my actors without worrying about whether there was going to be enough film. I wanted to really experiment with things. I did a lot of takes, perhaps too many! I also knew that, unlike my other films, there were several action scenes that would be difficult to film, with complicated camera movements, and digital allows for unrivaled flexibility.

The proliferation of footage you spoke about is surprising, because your directing style seems, on the contrary, very stripped down, almost ecstatic at times.
Lorenzo Hagerman, my director of photography, has a documentary background. He knows how to film without using additional light. So that was ideal for adapting my directing according to the unforeseen elements I mentioned before. However, we limited ourselves to using one particular lens. Like Robert Bresson, we worked with a 50mm lens – or even 40, in some cases – in other words, getting as close as you can get to the human view. This lens doesn’t afford much margin for maneuver, however, especially in confined spaces. It
means you have to stay concentrated on the frame. I wanted the viewer’s vision of events to be as natural as possible. The power of the images had to be enough to convey the story.Unlike SANGRE and LOS BASTARDOS, which left lots of question in suspense, I wanted everything to be clear in the viewer’s mind at the end of HELI. So I was very focused on the narrative progression. In that respect, M by Fritz Lang is a masterpiece; everything is said in the image, in the editing. You could almost watch it without sound. In all modesty, I strive towards that kind of perfection. Of course, not all the shots in the film have the sole purpose of moving the narrative forward, and some serve to create a climate or feeling

Such as the almost-burlesque shot with the tank in front of the house?
Exactly. I wasn’t specially trying to create a burlesque effect, but rather confusion in the viewer’s mind, thereby breaking up the linearity of the narrative. You don’t know if that shot reflects a dream or paranoia – it’s ambiguous.

HELI contains an unbearable torture sequence. Why be so explicit?
Take my previous film, LOS BASTARDOS. I depicted rising tension, until the point where my hero cracks and fires. It’s a very violent, desperate act. This kind of behavior in human beings makes me deeply sad. By filming it, I’m not trying to impress, but to convey the sadness that comes out of such acts. Their perpetrators are not just monsters, but human beings, and often children, as I show in HELI. I’m not inventing anything; you can look on internet, you’ll find some horrific images. Without meaning to, I reproduced a torture scene which happened the same way in real life. I want Mexican viewers to look reality in the face. When you think of gangland settling of scores, you always imagine a big dude with a moustache and hat. But the gangs pay kids to do this kind of dirty work. I felt a connection. I had perhaps invested and projected too much onto this character. Turning down every suggestion was a way of rejecting myself, of putting my ideas to the test. Armando Espitia was one of my favorites, all the same. So I picked him, thinking: “OK, let’s go for it, otherwise I’m never going to make this film!” So I set Armando up in the region where we would film so he could absorb the local vibe. He lived with a family for a while. He had long hair and pale skin. We cut his hair very short and had him get some sun. It was while we were making all these changes that I realized I’d found the right person. That’s often how it goes with my actors. My first task with them is to change the way they look. Without this modification process, - I can’t project myself. This method is so much easier, which is why I rarely work with professional actors. In HELI, only the actor who plays the father of the family had previously worked in film.

Is there always the dilemma of fascination/repulsion with such images?
Hitchcock used to say that things are more powerful when you hide them. On the contrary, I want to see what effect it produces if you show things unflinchingly. I’m not trying to create suspense. In another way, having never been personally confronted with extreme violence, I felt I wanted to explore this mystery with my camera.

The film opens with a very powerful sequence which then triggers a long flashback. Why did you chose to structure the narrative in this way?
I always intended to start the film with this image: a man hanging above a bridge. This image is very common in Mexico. You see that sort of thing all the time in newspapers. I wanted to show it outside of its context, and then go back along the narrative thread to reveal the reality it encloses. Behind each image like that, there is a human tragedy, innocent victims of indiscriminate violence. In short, a story that has to be told, otherwise people will always reassure themselves by thinking that the man hanging above that bridge deserved it.


HELI opens June 13th at the Laemmle NoHo7 and Laemmle Playhouse 7.
















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