Gerardo Naranjo's thrilling new film Miss Bala drops its audience right into the heart of the Mexican drug wars alongside its terrified, bewildered protagonist – a young woman who just wanted to be a beauty queen. It's a sensational film that showcases both its director's visual and storytelling flair and a lead performance of raw emotion from an actress making her film debut, and it simultaneously succeeds as a gripping action movie and a look at the criminality and corruption that appears to be endemic in Mexican society. I met both Gerardo Naranjo and Stephanie Sigman last week when they were in town for the London Film Festival to talk about it.
Gerardo, you wrote your previous two films yourself but on this film you worked with a co-writer, Mauricio Katz. Why did you make that choice and how did you work together on the screenplay?
Gerardo Naranjo I don't really consider myself a writer. I write what I want to see but I invited my friend to help me be more clear about what I wanted to see. What happened with Drama/Mex and I'm Gonna Explode was that I made these movies that were eight hours long, you know, it was just based on improvisation and they had a playfulness. I think I was that kind of person back then, but it was very painful because everything was extended and I had to cut these eight-hour movies back to two. When I decided to make Miss Bala I said I was going to start making the film I wanted to make, so I had to discover what that precise film was and I think having a writer with me helped me discover that. He also helped me find the ways in which I was lying to myself. For example, I would say, "In this scene they kidnap her and take her to the headquarters, and I want to see that in real time." He would tell me that if I wanted the sequence in real time it would be five minutes on the screen, so I would decide that we need to see an ellipsis of that. I needed him for time administration.
Even though you decided against the five-minute shot you do have a number of very long and complicated takes in Miss Bala.
GN It was all about the internal time of the actions that Stephanie does. I explain to her in the best way I could that her actions were going to define the rhythms of the film. She had to know the rhythm by herself and once she knew it then that was going to be the rhythm of the film. She and the other actors brought the emotion by themselves. I didn't tell them what they were feeling in the scene, I just created a situation and they were reacting to it.
Stephanie, what was it like for you to be at the centre of scenes like the gunfight, when you're reacting to such chaos?
Stephanie Sigman Well, it really was chaos! [Laughs] Gerardo was talking about the rhythm and we did all the scenes of the movie on video first, to work out the choreography. We did it without the emotions or the guns, but it really helped me because I knew what every shot was going to be like, and then I knew it was going to be tough and emotionally and physically tiring. It was a dark process, being this character, but it was also about trusting the people you work with. I think Noe (Hernandez, who plays the leader of the cartel) is an amazing actor and he gave me everything to work with because he really scared me a lot. It wasn't easy and there were moments when I thought I wasn't going to finish it, but I carried on because I didn't feel alone in that process.
This is your first film role. I understand you've just done some TV shows in the past.
SS Yeah, but I haven't done that much.
GN When I cast her she hadn't done it, and then she signed up to do it and I was very angry.
SS He was very angry!
GN I wanted a virgin! [Laughs]
SS It's an incredibly intense role because Laura spends the whole film in a state of fear and anxiety. Was it tough for you to sustain such extreme emotions?
It can be easy to do something like that because it's not like you're constantly frustrated and you cannot explode. At the end of the filming I felt I was totally dry, I didn't know if I could even cry. It's part of doing something that's a challenge for everyone and you want to give all that you can give to the project. I don't know, I enjoyed it somehow, maybe I'm a masochist. [Laughs]
It's interesting to see the drug wars from the point of view of an innocent and an outsider rather than a cop, criminal or agent. Did you feel you had to take a fresh perspective on this subject?
GN There is a ton of material being done about crime in Mexico and most of it is completely surreal or ridiculous. There are movies that are very comedic or farcical in tone and they are doing very well. I was so surprised by this and I feel there is almost an agenda to show crime in a light, entertaining way. That was very strange to me because I had this perception that crime was something very different, and when we went on to research we found out that the crime world is very ignorant, pathetic and grey. We didn't find gold chains or girls all around, you know, we didn't find people having a great time. We found a lot of paranoia and people who were very mistrustful of the people around them. We felt it was a good opportunity to talk about that because nobody was saying that crime was an ugly world, everybody was fixated on this Scarface promotion, and I don't think crime in Mexico has that side. Even the biggest drug lords live a very pathetic life; they are not in a luxury castle but in these dark apartments hiding. It was very important for me to talk about that, to show how these criminals behave and how much they lack a sense of morality. It was kind of an anthropological statement.
How has the film been received in Mexico?
GN It has certainly been very controversial. I think there are many people who think that if we don't look at it and we evade the subject, then maybe it will disappear. We think we have to look at the phenomenon in the face, identify it, and only then can we start to solve it. Many people think we are talking badly about the country, we are not patriots, we are doing the country harm, but we don't think so. I think the first thing we knew would happen with this movie was the controversy but we wanted to people to discuss it and the box office is very good, so a lot of people are seeing it and either loving it or hating it.
SS It's 50/50 in Mexico. A lot of people hate the movie, and a lot of people hate my performance in the movie – "Call that acting? It's so easy!" – but I think it's perfect what is happening with the movie.
GN I think it reflects how polarised our society is. It's so weird to me when people talk about criminals as bad Mexicans and good Mexicans, but I want to ask what is the seed of a bad Mexican? I think it's a country that doesn't give the same opportunities to everybody, and a country that can have the richest person in the world and the poorest. The country gives so few opportunities to people that some kids decide to join this "suicide club," which is a life of crime. They know they will be killed, they know it will be a five-year action, which is the average action for a life of crime in Mexico, but they have no other future. I think we should talk about a country that has lost its sense of community. I don't think the movie attacks the criminals or the government, I think it attacks the community,
SS There are a lot of reasons why this is happening and it's so easy to blame the president or to blame the cartel, but I think this movie makes the story personal for people, to make them understand and...I'm sounding like a Miss. [Laughs]
You're such a method actor, you're still in character.
SS I want world peace! [Laughs]
What was it like shooting in the areas where this sort of crime happens regularly?
SS I was really focused on what I was doing, but I'm sure there was a lot they didn't tell me...
GN I think we were very tight as a group and very clear. The first thing was to protect the group and we said we were shooting a film called Madame Bonita, a title that inferred we were making a romantic comedy, something very lovable, and we never told people we were making a crime movie. Certainly, we felt the influence of these guys, but that's just common life, I mean, when you see the black truck with tinted windows you don't wonder about who these guys are. When I did research I met a lot of criminals, in jail or active, and their words were very practical: if you mess with them you get punished. We tried to be respectful and in the movie we made our own cartel, so we didn't make the movie about them, it's much more a movie about a feeling or something that is in the air.
There's a scene in the film when Laura goes to a policeman for help and in that single take we slowly realise that he is driving her back into danger. The scene suggests that corruption is everywhere, so how can the problems in Mexican society be rectified when that's the case?
GN I think this is the climax of something, a concept that you have to be quicker or more sassy than the other one so you can get ahead. We have focused so much on the greed and getting ahead of the rest that we have lost sight of the fact that there has to be rules, and there has to be a way of doing things. Everybody is having his own battle to survive and the rules or the law don't exist, so I feel that we need a spiritual revolution. If we feel like we need to take the rules into account and we start to consider ourselves as a group, then things will get easier for everybody, but I don't know when we'll see that.
Stephanie, now that your first film has been such a hit I assume you're getting a lot of offers. Do you know what you'll be doing next?
SS I'm working on a film in Mexico but it's totally different, it's about independence. It's about a national hero called Morelos, and it's a love story, a love triangle. After that, I don't know. I hope it's something interesting.
GN Will you consider "artistic nudes"?
SS No, only for money. [Laughs] Every actress in Mexico is asked, "would you consider a nude scene" and they always say, "only if it's artistic," but you have to think about the rent, you know?
Gerardo, how much money do you have?
[Checks pockets] I only have two pounds. [Laughs]