Rigoberto Castaneda is the director of two powerful horror movies, one a ghost story set in Mexico City that draws on an ancient folk tale, and the other what amounts to a drawing room thriller without the drawing room.
I spoke with him recently about ghosts, fate, and the Norse.
Castaneda, 36, lives in Tepoztlan Morelos, a small town one hour from Mexico City. Lurking in the background of 2007′s “Kilometro 31″ is La Llorona, or “The Crying Lady” who, depending on what part of North or South America you visit, is either a tragic or evil figure. The Mexican version fits securely in the latter category. But everyone agrees that La Llorona drowned her own children in a river to better her chances with a suitor. In death, she wanders by the riverbank and wails. If it’s a Mexican river, she is out to steal more children.
Mavervorl Media: Rather than deal with La Llorona directly in “Kilometer 31″ [Km31] you incorporated the story into an existing plotline. Please tell us how you first heard about La Llorona, and how she made her way into “Km31.”
Rigoberto Castaneda: The legend transformed me when I was a little kid. I remember being in a small town called Aculco, where my mother’s family is from. My cousins and I were with my Grandmother one night, and she told us about La Llorona. It was something really scary for a 7-year-old. But the scariest part was that she told us she saw her once, in the middle of the river, floating over the water and screaming like a thousand cats. Ok, figure that out. Your grandmother tells you that the crying lady exists! Horror. Life, Death. Everything becomes different, everything. Since then I have been obsessed with this tale. (Talking with my young nephews, they talked about La Llorona as something funny, not remotely the same feeling I had at their age.)
Then, during film school I made my first approach to the script. I was listening to this horror radio show called “The Hairy Hand” (La Mano Peluda) and I heard a story told by a truck driver that was really terrifying. The way he told it, the sound of his trembling voice – It was a magic moment. I ran to the computer and wrote the first 10 pages of “Km31.” I didn’t knew where I was going from there, but I knew it was the beginning of my first film. And those 10 pages never changed, and those first 10 minutes in the film are the same.
MM: Yet “Km31″ is its own horror movie, with La Llorona mostly in the background…
RC: I made the decision not to say it was this legend from the beginning, because in México we had a very bad reputation with horror movies (Always B movies that were so bad they should be called Z movies), and La Llorona is a character that has been mocked in so many different ways in TV, theater, printed images, and all the media in general. Gaining public confidence was going to be too difficult because of this. We needed the story to work for new generations, so if it was “La Leyenda de la Llorona” they were going to run from it.
MM: Weaving in La Llorona in such a significant way gave the movie a real richness. In some movies we don’t know why the ghost is there…
RC: We decided from the teaser trailer it should pass as a normal horror film. A lot of people thought it was an American film when it was released (In the first trailers there were no scenes with dialogue). And since the monster wasn’t revealed until the last moment, the audience discovered along with the characters on screen that the woman was The Crying Lady. I think this was a big portion of the film’s success. The word of mouth was amazing and people discovered an old legend as something completely new.
MM: Are there any other Mexican folk tales you’ll be dealing with in the future?
RC: Indeed. There is one about these little creatures in Yucatan that come at night and…I can’t tell you, it’s a surprise for the audience too!
MM: What are the movies that scared you most, and can you describe the satisfaction an audience gets from a scary movie?
RC: “The Shining” is a film that still intrigues me, I wanted to reproduce that feeling. I stay alone in my house at night and watch the film and it still scares me, still makes me jump. Of course there are a lot of them that I remember as scary and that made some kind of mark in my soul: “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Omen,” “Bad Taste,” “An American Werewolf in London,” “In The Company of Wolves,” “Evil Dead,” and “Night of the Living Dead” are just a few.
To me, selecting a “scary movie” in the theater is like being at the fair choosing between the Tunnel of Love, a merry-go-round, or the roller coaster. I choose the most intriguing and cathartic option of the three. Film is about emotions, and Horror is the most provocative and emotional genre.
Castaneda’s next movie was 2007′s “Blackout,” a claustrophobic and violent thriller set in a stalled elevator.
MM: You mentioned in the “Blackout” interview that a friend had encouraged you to go to film school. What had you considered as a career before this, and what made you finally decide “I want to make movies”?
RC: Destiny I suppose. I was studying Industrial Design for a few months. I have always been good with a pencil, drawing, not really gifted at it, but I can explain my ideas by this medium. I was a film buff before, but never considered it as a “real” career. Your father never tells you about this option, it’s not a career that comes in the vocational orientation brochure during high school. That was it; the option came to me as if sent from the sky.
MM: Where did you go to school? Do you still work with some of your classmates?
RC: I went to Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, known as C.C.C., one of the finest film schools in all the world, and what a surprise! It’s in Mexico!
Yes, I still work with some of my classmates. Assistant director Alvaro Curiel has been working with me since my first short films. He was three or four years behind me in school. Now he is working on his first film as a director / writer. The second unit director, Pierre Tatarka, was one grade ahead of me, and he works a lot in TV commercials. The sound designer, Mario Martinez, worked with me since the first short film. Now he has won three Mexican Academy Awards.
MM: Compare the budgets of “Km31″ and “Blackout.” Are you still paying for any of them? Have you made the money back?
RC: Nope, both did only O.K. at the box office. They had similar budgets of $3.2 and $4 million dollars, respectively, but actually my working budget was bigger with “Km31.” Because we shot in Europe and the US with “Blackout,” that one was a lot more expensive.
MM: As you work with bigger and bigger budgets, are there rules you are keeping in mind to make sure your films maintain their attention to the primacy of the storyline?
RC: Of course, the script is the most important thing, then the shot pace, and the rhythm in the edit bay. These make it all work (Or not).
MM: “Km31″ was ultimately a tragedy, and “Blackout” – though brutal – ended on an up note. What do these two movies say about Fate?
RC: Both have an obvious relation with fate; in “Km31″ Catalina is paying for all her past sins, at least the ones she thinks she’s guilty of. She has a very strong “karmic” feeling about all these things deep inside her psychology, and at the same time she becomes responsible for the sins generated centuries ago (by La Llorona). She is the catalyst, the driving force that brings all this purgatory to our realm, and leads it to an end… or to a new beginning (the sequel to “Km31″ is in production). You can say fate deals her cards, but she plays them according to her own will in order to stop this doom and pay the consequences of her own guilt…
“Blackout” is all about fate; it’s like a big quilt with threads created by the Norns (Fate-determining goddesses in Norse mythology). Actually, there is a big painting of the Norns at the foot of Yggdrasil -the tree of the world- just at the entrance of the building (You can fully appreciate it when Karl walks into the lift), which is called Bifrost Bridge. In Norse mythology this bridge is in front of those Norns, and it leads from the world of the mortals to the realm of the gods. I try to do this all the time in this film, to have small foreshadowing images here and there; look at the paintings inside the elevator, in one there are two angels and one demon, in another a monster destroying souls. Karl’s mantra “There is no fate, there is no hope, there is no destiny; There is only what you take from the world and what the world takes from you.” At the end, Claudia is begging for a reason, an answer to this destiny’s elaborate trap. And the answer… well, I suppose nobody knows.
In a more personal rationalization, I would say Destiny, Fate, the Gods among us; all those many names we give to our own limitations, to our lack of will. The opposite is strength and free will.
MM: In “Blackout” you shot in L.A. and Barcelona but your producer said you wanted the film to look like an east coast city in America. Why did you want to keep it indistinct?
RC: It was a strategy in order to give that “it could happen to me” feeling. I think that if you can tell it is Boston and you live in Austin you would feel distant.
MM: I always wondered what would happen if my elevator suddenly dropped nine floors. Did you have an elevator consultant?
RC: Hahaha!!! More like a physician, but I have always thought reality is merely a reference.
MM: You mention in the Special Features section of “Blackout” that the Mexico City casting process is different from the L.A./NYC model. Describe the Mexico City film community and how it nurtured you. It seems that a lot of Mexican filmmakers actively support each others’ work.
RC: We are a tight community I think, you get to know personally all the producers, directors, distributors and even exhibitors. That I think is for the best; it makes everything more honest. There is a whole new generation too; every year the screenwriters, directors and producers are younger and younger. Or maybe I’m getting old? Well, what I mean is the community is growing, and that too is for the best.
MM: What things are important to you in creating a movie?
RC: First the script. I believe both my films have imperfect scripts and the stories could have been improved in so many ways. Sometimes you know it before shooting and there is nothing to do to fix it. There are financial compromises, but mostly time. Sometimes it’s better to just do it and hope for the best. My point is, that from now on, I’m trying to be more rigorous in my scripts.
Then comes the actors, working with them has been something more and more enriched in my soul. I wanted to be an actor when I was a teen, I even studied for a while, so maybe that’s the reason why I respect their work and try to give them all the tools they need to make a great performance.
Then the camera work, the design of every scene, helping to enhance the story with a fluid and dramatic resource behind and in front of the camera, making every shot more mysterious, more dramatic, more sensitive.
And of course all the movie magic, Special FX, Visual FX, Makeup FX, I’m always thinking about things that I would also enjoy as a spectator.
MM: What is your next project and – this might be a tough question – what is your ultimate project?
RC: I have three in the oven right now. “Alegorias” [now in preproduction] is a romantic/tragic musical comedy in a fantasy 1940′s Mexico. It is a very ambitious project that is probably going to take more time than expected, but at the same time is the film that -if I could do it- I would be shooting tomorrow. Then there is the “Km31″ sequel. I’m writing the script and hope to finish very soon. And the third one is “Lazarus,” a script by Ed Dougherty (“Blackout”) that we are going to adapt for the Mexican audience.
My last project I suppose should be Science Fiction, full of concepts and strong philosophies, which enrich the soul and give hope. Or maybe not. Maybe the final film should be my darkest.
MM: Depending on?