Beauty and the bullet

Gerardo Naranjo talks about crime thriller Miss Bala

by Amber Wilkinson

Stephanie Sigman as Laura in Miss Bala

Stephanie Sigman as Laura in Miss Bala

Miss Bala - Gerardo Naranjo's feature follow-up to teenage runaway drama I'm Gonna Explode - is an altogether more serious affair, although as in his previous film, the action hinges on a central female character. This time it is would-be beauty queen Laura (Stephanie Sigman) who forms the beating heart of the film. A chance encounter with a local gangster sees her simultaneously on the route to realising her dream and entering into a living nightmare.

When I catch up with Naranjo after his film has screened at San Sebastian Film Festival, I ask him about the change of tack.

"I get the feeling that films should reflect who you are at the moment," he said. "I was that person before when I was making those movies. My main interest was chasing girls and being a little bit, you know, the fool. And then I think I changed.

"After I'm Gonna Explode I found myself being very worried about society in Mexico and very worried, obsessed and not having a great time. I was feeling so sad that I said, I have to do something not so much for my country or anything but for me - I'm going to exorcise my fears. Because when I was doing this research and I was looking at the news, I started to get very obsessed but also without leaving my house. So I thought what's the best way I can rebel against this. And I thought if I go out to the street and I make a movie about the fear. So that's the beginning of it all."

The result - which is Mexico's official entry for the foreign language Oscar this year - is a ride that delivers thrills but in a way that makes you think about the real-life situation for many in Mexico today. And Naranjo admits that he used a real-life event to fuel his film.

Director Gerardo Naranjo
Director Gerardo Naranjo

"I was developing a script about a DEA American agent who went to Mexico to fight a war," he said. "It's well known that the US Drug Enforecment Agency somehow controls Mexican police - I mean, the good Mexican police, because there are not very many good Mexican police, as you can see in the movie. But the DEA is against the law. So it was an agent who has an American way of thinking, very naive, he believes in good and bad and then he goes to Mexico and sees that good and bad don't have a clear face. Along the way, when I was finishing the script and getting ready to shoot, this news appeared. A Miss [beauty queen] is caught with some criminals - so I throw this previous script in the trash and I begin a new one.

"I had been struggling with the previous script a lot with one thing. I really didn't want it to justify the minds of the criminals or the acts of the criminals and somehow I was seeing the psyche of the criminal in the previous script. But when this news of the girl appeared, something happened, it gave me a perspective so that I could get rid of those problems. So, I thought if I stick very rigidly to these laws, I will get rid of this problem and commit to the ignorance of Laura. I had many laws for this movie - one was not to show drugs, one was not to see the act of killing in cruelty - I failed in that because you can see in the battle that two of them are wounded and maybe one of them will get killed. But I succeeeded in not showing drugs and there were many other laws that we imposed on ourselves."

Although there is violence in the film, there is certainly no glorification of it, as Laura's situation becomes ever more desperate. And even as Naranjo uses elements of the action film and thriller genres, he simultaneously twists them. The last time we spoke (read that interview here), he told me about his rebellious teenage years. It strikes me that not much has changed, except the way that he's choosing to rebel.

"I'm rebelling. Precisely," he said. "Against genre. I think the movie was about contradictions. It's an action film without the rules of the action film, it's a thriller but betraying the rules of a thriller, because you don't know what's in the mind of the bad guy. So yes, we were working with genre but against genre at the same time. We felt it was a good explanation about how absurd Mexico is. She wins but there is no glory or anything - there is nothing good coming from that.

"The biggest effort while we were making the movie was to keep the mystery, not to show too much and to over-explain. I think films, especially when they deal with society things they tend to be very didactic, very literal and with a lot of dialogue. So a guy is saying, 'Oh, you know, Mexico is this way because of history...' I feel many times we fall short because I think we underestimate the mind of the audience. So we said here, let's challenge these guys and see how much they can keep up with us. And I'm very satisified with with this effort because people appreciate that they have to put together some information."

Stephanie Sigman
Stephanie Sigman

With its focus firmly on its leading lady, the role of Laura is crucial to making the film work and Sigman puts in a break-out performance as the vulnerable yet stoic Laura. But it seems Naranjo didn't have a problem casting her - although he did have to read her the riot act about what might happen to her on set.

"She was the first person I saw," he said. "I saw her in a shampoo commercial. I thought she could act and if she can receive a lot of attacks and blows, maybe she will do it. I met with her and told her horrible stories of what would happen to her and she said she was interested. For me it is very important to have people who are hungry and ready to sacrifice a lot to work at a naive level. That's why I don't work with very traditional actors because it gets in the way all the time and they are trying to teach you things. When I work, I like to begin from the point that we are all idiots and ignorant and that we are all finding out and discovering things and when you have a wise guy, it's very hard to do. I would never do it, I don't know how that works, I don't want to work with experienced people."

As for those "attacks and blows", Naranjo freely admits that because of the lack of a tradition of action films in Mexico "we didn't do things very well". In order to minimise the risk, however, he says that they shot the whole film first as a sort of rehearsal video, to get a feel of what they would be up against.

"It was very fast," he said "We didn't have guns, we had brooms and chairs and all that. But as you can see the film is made out of long shots, so we found the choreography of those shots with the video. So we shot the video as the movie would be and it's around the same length. Because when we did the movie we had to go to the streets. It was a little bit dangerous so we had to be effective and tight as a group. We were very protective of each other. The dynamic was that the actress was alone, we would say 'action' and she would get damaged or beaten or hit or whatever and we would say 'cut' and then everyone was going to see her and take care of her to check that she wasn't wounded that much and take her to the doctor if she was."

And when it comes to the underlying politics of the film, Naranjo has a fairly bleak view of the state of modern Mexico - and specifically the population as a whole.

"I think we're having a dark time," he said. "I do believe it's a problem of the people, with society. I don't think it's a problem with the government. I think we just lost faith. I think this is the climax of a tendency we had before. We think we are better than the others - that we are superior to the person next to us. And we belive that we're wiser also than then. So, when I was growing up the common concept was that you should trick the other, you should skip the rules and do little tricks so you could get ahead.

"I think the climax of it is that we have a group of people together without any sense of a group. We don't have any fraternity. I think the moment that changes everything will change but I think the main thing is we need a spirtitual change. I think we're being very selfish and this is the result of it."

You can see what Naranjo thinks is the result of it leads to in selected cinemas across the UK from today. For more information, visit the official site

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