Reconnecting with tradition

Christopher Alender, Marcos Gabriel and Brigitte Kali Canales on the themes of The Old Ways

by Jennie Kermode

Brigitte Kali Canales in The Old Ways
Brigitte Kali Canales in The Old Ways Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

In the first part of my interview with director Christopher Alender, writer Marcos Gabriel and star Brigitte Kali Canales from Glasgow Film Festival Frightfest pick The Old Ways, we discussed the development of the script, which explores a Mexican/US journalist’s return to her roots and the ritual exorcism she is subjected to when local people come to believe that she’s possessed. We also talked about casting and some of the things that happened during the shoot. In part two, I began by asking Brigitte about the central emotional relationship in the film, between her character and her cousin who stayed behind when she left the country.

“I feel like I related to that because I have relationships with some of my cousins,” Brigitte says. “And some I was very close to when I was little. And you know, you outgrow relationships, unfortunately, or fortunately. And so this kind of felt like a connection for me, and allowing my cousin to know that even though we've gone our separate ways, there's still something that really unites us, and that is the fact that we're family. I feel like sometimes we don't see that enough, especially in this in this genre. That was that was really interesting to me and Andrea, my co-star. She was awesome. Working with her is great because she's one person when she's working, and then we finish and she's like, ‘Alright, we're good,’ you know? It's complex, to be honest, but it was great. That relationship allowed me to feel more drawn and more connected.”

The story hinges on Brigitte’s character, Cristina, looking for a bit of cultural colour for her US readers and finding something different from what she expected. Frightfest viewers also had some of their expectations subverted. I ask Marcos how he developed those aspects of the story.

Marcos nods. “For me personally, that journey of discovery – I mean, I'm somebody who was born in Puerto Rico, but I was raised in the ‘States for the most part and so there is like this loss of connection with my roots there. So as I've grown older, I get more curious. And I get more like, ‘Oh, let me look into this a little bit more or visit Puerto Rico now,’ something I never did as a kid, really. Because it's so for me, that was like a deeply personal thing to put into the story, this idea of getting to a point where you've even lost your language, all these connections, so it feels like a foreign thing when you step back into it. But the closer you get, the more connected you feel. And you go ‘Oh my god, wait, there’s this thing that I remember! You've always told me about this thing.’ So that was something that I definitely I knew I wanted to explore a bit in the story and really find that in the character of Christina. And I'll let Brigitte speak to how she connected to that element of it.”

Brigitte smiles “Well, yeah, just to add on, I think, whenever you visit home, you know, like, where all your family is – I don't know if you live near your loved ones but I have family in Mexico and I visit them every summer and everyone's there. And then eventually, you start getting older and you decide you want to go on a vacation with your friends, not your family, and do other things. And then years go by, and obviously, that space between family is evident, you know, but there's something about being with a loved one again, a cousin, even though you haven't seen him for six years or however long, you're like, the minute you're with them, I just feels like no time has gone. At least for me, even though we're so different.

All around, politically, spiritually, there's something about just knowing that that person is your family that you just can't deny. It's like, it's blood. It's a connection that goes beyond surface roles. So I felt that that was very evident in the writing. And then in the relationship that Andrea and I have, even though I felt like she was so naive, and I wanted to talk sense into her, she ended up talking to me.”

I ask Chris how he approached bringing those elements to life on screen.

“Coming at it from that angle was helpful,” he responds, “I think because that's the angle that me and Marcos have, which is, we're not from Mexico, you know, but the kind of archaeological side of it, where we'd have to do the research as someone coming in. What would it be like to be completely inundated with different worlds? That was what excited me because I don't have a connection to whoever my ancestors were, there's no traces. A lot of Americans in the second and third and fourth generation had that issue, where, you know, you’ve got people from Germany and Spain, who knows where, but there's just a complete disconnect, so the idea of getting there, to go and explore that, and then see how much of that is kind of encoded into your DNA, or just the kind of like, trickle down family traditions and stuff like that, I think is really interesting.

“We went into the whole process as a learning experience and a group experience where we would bring in other artists, you know, from our hair and makeup, set design, and photography, and everybody who was involved. They brought their own experience, ideas and cultural touchstones and stuff like that, that just really fleshed it out. Also the music and everything. So I think that experience we all went through was like a mini Christina experience of our own, making the movie, so a little bit method on our side as well.”

Marcos tells me that he tried to be on set as much as possible to help and to watch his script come to life.

“You know, sometimes you get asked the question, when you write something like this, ‘Is this how you saw it?’ And the answer for me is ‘Absolutely not.’ It's way better, especially with all of our actors. I mean, Sal Lopez, Julia Vera. Brigitte, it was unbelievable. The character just became so much more real and tangible. And Brigitte would keep us honest, you know, when she was living it. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this kind of funny line I wrote doesn't work at all. This moment of levity, or this. Let's just remove it and let's be honest.”

Did they have many expectations for the film when they were making it? Did they have festivals in mind?

“Yeah, the whole time we were filming it, we literally were saying ‘This would be perfect for the Sitges Film Festival in Spain,’” says Chris. “We had another movie play there that I produced. And it's just, you know, they speak Spanish and they love horror and fantasy. And it's supposed to be an amazing festival where they give standing ovations and stuff. And then we got in and premiered there. And unfortunately, it was during Covid so we didn't to go see it. So we still haven't seen it with an audience yet, ourselves, even though it has been played in a theatre already.”

“The whole movie was shot with the intention of seeing it in a theatre,” adds Marcos. “And that's why it's really sad for us. It was shot anamorphic, it was mixed at the highest levels we can mix it, it's all you know, 4K. I mean, every decision we made was based around like, ‘Oh, man, I think the audience is really going to like this.’”

“We wrapped production two days before lockdown,” says Chris. “We finished our last week of filming in Puerto Rico. We didn't even get to have a wrap party because the time between our wrap and the wrap party was when everything got shut down and stuff. We did the whole of the post in these same rooms. It was a weird, different type of filmmaking experience, for sure. But we got it done. And you know, we can get out there now. We're excited for everybody to get to finally see it.”

“You know, there's way more that we also put in, hoping that there's somebody who would never have seen a movie like this, if they happen to see it would find a lot of pull out of it,” says Marcos. “We wanted to make a movie that worked on one level, because we wanted to make it on the other level. I’m really excited by all the other stuff, the culture, the characters, the journey, that we kind of put in for a second viewing, if somebody were so lucky that someone watches it twice.”

Were they able to do other work during lockdown?

“ We were,” says Chris. “We made a TV show for Disney+ with the Muppets that we were finishing post production on during lockdown, so that’s coming out now.”

Brigitte is now going on to appear in more episodes of Fear The Walking Dead, as the final part of the season is filmed, whilst Chris and Marcos have their hands full with festivals, artwork and a few final tweaks to The Old Ways.

“We're trying to figure out what's next,” Chris says..” We don't really know. And nobody does, I guess, what scale of things is going to be possible in the next 12 months. Are we talking about doing another small, contained, low budget thing or something with a little bit more ambition? It’s hard to tell until we see how the virus reacts in the next few months. We're trying to work on all fronts at once and hopefully get behind the camera again in 2021.”

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