Amat Escalante on 'Heli'

Martyn Conterio

Amat Escalante has emerged on the world cinema scene as an uncompromising chronicler of 21st century Mexican life and its tough realities. Along with Carlos Reygadas – a close friend and collaborator – the pair have established themselves as Mexico’s most controversial filmmakers. Escalante's latest effort, Heli, bagged the prestigious Best Director gong at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

GFW: What’s the story behind Heli and was there a personal association with it?
Amat Escalante: No, but it always has to come from somewhere inside. Otherwise, it’s difficult for me to approach it. The first image I had was a young man looking for his father in the countryside. It was night-time and he’s illuminated by the lights of a car. From there, it evolved into what it is [Heli]. I didn’t even have this initial image in the final movie. So it was something about a father, a son and a family and how they are affected and corrupted by what is happening around them.

Where did you shoot the film?
I shot it where I live, which is Guanajuato. It’s right in the geographical centre of Mexico. But it doesn’t really matter where the story is set – it could be anywhere.

I assumed, because of the scene in which an American is seen training soldiers, that it was a border town.
That scene was taken exactly from reality. There was a video on YouTube and I copied it exactly. The American wasn’t F.B.I. but a private security individual. Although it’s not the border, it’s still got an American influence. Where I live, it’s a tourist city with a university – it’s a very nice and beautiful town – I shot around it and there’s not that much extreme violence. In other states and many other parts Mexico, there is.

Did you meet any issues with local gangsters?
I was very careful not to mention any names. Nobody knew I was filming, and it’s a safe area. I don’t think it would have been wise to film in a border town or a place where there’s wars going on with cartels. I don’t mention any direct [real-life] situations… maybe a few but it doesn’t matter and I wasn’t worried. If I’d have used real names then, for sure, there would have been some trouble. What is in the film is really everything people know [that is going on Mexico] already. I made a story from those elements.

It’s a bleak movie; was there a negative reaction in your hometown? 
Not really. As I said, I don’t mention the location in the movie. For Mexicans it wouldn’t mean anything – or make sense – to mention where the film is set. So that doesn’t matter. The general attitude has been that they’re proud of the film and proud that it was a success [at Cannes].

I’m sure many people have asked you about the level of violence in the movie. Do you think there’s a double standard at play, where people get upset about graphic violence here, but lap it up in Hollywood flicks?
It’s just about the way they’re filmed, I guess. The usual way you see murders and shootings is very different. Every time you see one – any movie that has these killings – every killing is done in an entertaining way. I think it’s much different when you see it [in Heli]. There’s nothing fun about it. In real life, nobody likes to be slapped, let alone shot. To approach it in that way, it’s just honest. It’s a little bit of a lesson: to question how much we enjoy violence in movies.

While we’re on the subject of onscreen violence: I’ve wanted to know, ever since seeing it, how you created the shotgun death scene in Los bastardos (2008); how was it done?
It’s a lot of layers. We shot it many times, with different elements. One was a shot of the couch; one was a mannequin exploding; one was a woman doing motions and reacting like she had been shot. Then there’s digital work. I’m not sure how they do it, exactly, but slowly every frame comes together. Thanks to technology and things being cheaper movies like mine, that don’t have much of a budget, you can do crazy things like that.

Where did you get the inspiration for the bridge-hanging or the cricket bat scene?
The hanging is all over the news. Every week. Beheadings and all that stuff. I wasn’t interested in those. What is happening in Mexico is far stronger [than in the movie]. I mean [in comparison] the movie is quite light. The scene with the cricket bat – I didn’t know it was a cricket bat, I just wanted something in a certain shape – but it ended up being a little bit like that. The other scene, with the lighter fluid, came from my imagination… but I’m sure it’s been done.

Do you see yourself as part of a Mexican New Wave or are you more a maverick type?
For me, it’s difficult to really understand that so well. I think I should keep to doing what I want to do. I know it’s very easy [in the media perception] to go up and down [in popularity]. I have to take care of myself and try not to think about how others perceive me.

Amat Escalante: "What is happening in Mexico is far stronger than [what you see] in the movie."

What about your ties to the film industry?
I stay away from the industry... but not purposefully. I just don’t know anybody. I met Carlos Reygadas via e-mail and then worked on his movie Battle in Heaven (2005), and that’s it. I think it helped not being part of a group.

You're close with Carlos Reygadas, who also makes controversial work. Do you see yourselves as the bad boys of Mexican cinema? 
I see him a lot. I edited Heli for five months at his home, which you probably saw in Post-Tenebras Lux. I was there a long time. Like I said, you have to be careful with all those things. You win an award or have success with something and it’s almost a handicap. It’s much better to forget about those things or any labels. My own thing is to not repeat myself [as a filmmaker].

Your films chronicle working-class Mexican lives, often using grim scenarios. Will your work continue in this vein?
It’ll probably be related to that. But I want to advance. Every movie has been a big learning curve for me and you need to do things that challenge you. 

Follow Martyn on Twitter: @cinemartyn

'Heli' is released on 23 May. Images courtesy of Network Releasing.

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