Desierto: An Interview with Director & Writer Jonás Cuarón
Jonás Cuarón came up with the idea for his latest movie Desierto ten years ago. It took him two years, however, to start writing the first draft of the script. “I didn’t know how to approach it,” he told me during an interview. The only thing he knew at the time was that he wanted to make a movie about the desert. (Desierto means ‘desert’ in Spanish.) “I’ve always found it really intriguing how you can really create a whole narrative out of juxtaposing a character against its environment.” That’s exactly what his father, Alfonso Cuarón, successfully accomplished in his acclaimed space odyssey Gravity (2013), a film he co-wrote with his son. He placed an American astronaut in space and watched the character struggle through life-threatening circumstances.
Now it seems that Jonás has borrowed the same premise from his father’s film, but grafted it onto the barren wastelands of the U.S.-Mexican border. Chronology indeed makes it seem that way. (Gravity was released almost three years before Desierto.) It might surprise many, however, to learn that it was Gravity that took inspiration from Desierto, and not the other way around. About eight years ago, Jonás tells me that his father read an early draft of Desierto and said, “Oh, let’s do something like this but in space.” So he did, and ended up completing his film before Jonás had even started his. What held Jonás back for so long?
“I had actually never gone to the desert when I wrote the first draft,” Jonás said. “I remember back then my research was through YouTube videos. I [also] watched a lot of survival reality TV shows. That helped us get a rough idea of the type of obstacles one could expect to find in the desert.”
After that, Jonás spent five years traveling and visiting various locations, mostly in the United States and Mexico, but also in Europe. One desert he kept frequenting was one in Spain where Sergio Leone filmed most of his spaghetti westerns. “Those trips completely changed the script,” he said. The main story beats remained the same, but there were changes he made to the script that were inspired from firsthand observations. The most obvious one comes at the end––a chase scene around a mountainous rock formation. “Originally, [the scene] was supposed to happen in a slot canyon, like the one the character in 127 Hours gets stuck…but everyday on my way to the set I kept seeing these mountains in the background and suddenly they started to remind me of old westerns.” The original plans with the slot canyon were nixed, and Jonás decided to improvise the whole final sequence with his two main actors.
Jonás hired Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, The Walking Dead) as his leads. Morgan plays a rifle-toting American named Sam, who’s hunting for rabbits in the U.S.-Mexican border and spots Bernal’s character, Moises, attempting to cross illegally with a band of unarmed Mexicans. Without hesitation, Sam opens fire, kills most of them, and spends the rest of the movie hunting down Moises and a female companion, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo).
Jonás became interested in the topic of immigration when the 2010 Arizona laws were being passed. “Already back then, there was a very strong rhetoric of hatred” surrounding immigrants, particularly Mexicans. “Lots of people die every day crossing through the desert. Any person with empathy just knows that that’s wrong. We can’t keep letting that happen.” It was clear that this topic impassioned Jonás and propelled forward his original idea to make a film in the desert. He was wary, though, of engaging the audience in the “realm of the intellect where everything’s debatable.” Nowadays, too many films with thorny subjects at their core try to move their audience through rhetoric and drama. Instead, the director took inspiration from his favorite genre movies––Spielberg’s Duel, Konchalovskiy’s Runaway Train, and Miller’s Mad Max––and decided to approach the subject on a visceral level. “I remember I watched Duel by Spielberg and I thought it would be really interesting if I approached this subject matter but through genre…Genre films connect with audiences in a visceral way…through the stomach.” It was clear that Jonás wanted to make a film that made that bodily connection and create a stomach-churning experience. “Sometimes it’s just better to bring the audience and make them feel the horror so maybe you spark a little bit of empathy.”
It’s hard to feel empathy, however, for Morgan’s character, Sam. When I asked Jonás about his decision to omit any kind of backstory for Sam––one that explained his psychopathic motives––the director made a very valid point. “In Hollywood we have an overrated obsession with backstory,” he explained. “We can’t be presented with a story without needing to know exposition.” We need not look far to notice this “overrated” obsessions with backstory. Superhero mania has propelled studios to make and release Marvel and DC character movies like pancakes, most of them weighed down by an insatiable need to include as much origin stories as possible. And even if Jonás shares this frustration, credit where credit’s due: he actually shot the scenes that explained Sam’s backstory and gave a more profound motive for his slaughtering tendencies. “But two things happened,” Jonás explained. “One is they took away from the action.” In the editing room, once Jonás and his editor got into the rhythm of the story it was clear those scenes didn’t fit. Suddenly, venturing off into psychoanalytical moments to dissect Sam’s psyche proved to kill the rhythm. “Even more important,” Jonás said, “was that I started to think, ‘Look, there is nothing that could have happened to [Sam], as horrific as it may have been, that justifies going around and killing these immigrants.”
No, it doesn’t. Our empathy always lies with the unarmed band of immigrants, especially Moises and Adela. The characters are not as resourceful as we want them to be. Jonás really makes them fight for their lives, and it feels like every second might be a character’s last. Plus, Desierto displays many qualities of a horror movie. “Watching [the movie],” Jonás said, “I realized it also really [adheres] to…the structure of an actual slasher movie––except for the fact that it happens in plain daylight.” It’s because the movie shares elements from genres across the movie spectrum that we know nothing is ever off the table, including our protagonists possibly being killed by the end.
Thankfully, the movie resists giving us an ending that is either happy or sad. It’s much more complicated than that. We’re left with the sense that the odyssey continues for any immigrant who dares to make the journey to this country. We’re also more conscious by the end of why they take such a journey. “In all of this discourse,” Jonás explained, “there’s a wrong notion that people are coming [to the United States] to look for a dream, and in many cases we forget that they’re having to leave their homes. People forget that individuals hate to leave behind their roots.” In the end, we don’t know what that future looks like for most immigrants. All we know is that it’s a dangerous thing to uproot oneself––in this case, that danger comes in the shape of a rifle-wielding madman.