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Making a ‘Nombre’
Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga on gangland grammar
The dude seated to my right wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated, but neither did he come as a total shock. Of course, he could’ve been a candy-powered android with four ding-dongs and still not have thrown me all that much. Now, that last bit’s probably not all that accurate, but I employ it to hyperbolically [and inefficiently!] suggest the following point: I didn’t know what to expect as I sat down, with a pocketful of other press folk, to interview Cary Fukunaga about his debut feature, Sin Nombre.
I mean, pretend you’re me. You consider the wrenching, just-short-of-merciless Spanish-language film you’ve come to discuss — a bloody, harrowing, authentic-feeling plunge into the desperate and dangerous lives of would-be immigrants and MS-13 gang members from Mexico and Central America. Then you think about some of the information you’ve gathered about its director: the Japanese surname, the fact that he’s from Oakland, the fact that he’s still technically a college student, far as you know. (MFA candidate, really, but still.) The fact that he speaks three languages. That his first feature has already won two significant awards, and that it may, according to some, be headed for more. And then, maybe, you glance over at the young man next to you, the unassuming-but-sharp-seeming fella spinning a small black cell phone on the table in front of him as we wait for the interview to begin — the guy who kinda looks like the philosophy T.A. your girlfriend might have a teensy secret crush on — and you attempt to reconcile and process all three data sets.
“If you had [told] me six years ago, you know, that I’d be starting my film career off with … an immigration film, I would’ve thought you were lying,” Fukunaga says. He speaks quickly, like his mouth has to hustle ever-so-slightly to keep up with his churning brain. He seems just slightly nervous, perhaps, but comfortable with it.
His film, which he says is technically his NYU thesis, follows two young characters: Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a teenaged Honduran girl who hops atop a boxcar with her uncle and estranged father, joining crowds of others headed hopeward, and Willy (Edgar Flores), known as “Casper” by the brutal gang he now wishes to leave behind, and which threatens to corrupt and envelop 12-year-old “Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer), whom Willy recently brought to the fold. When gang leader Lil Mago targets the train carrying Sayra and her family for a robbery, life changes drastically for all parties.
Fukunaga says Sin Nombre grew out of an opportunity presented by the success of his award-winning short film “Victoria para chino,” which centered on the May 2003 Victoria (Texas) Tragedy, in which 19 immigrants died while trapped in a refrigerated trailer intended to smuggle them into the United States. (The same events formed the plot of San Antonio filmmaker Pablo Veliz’s La Tragedia de Macario.)
“When I was doing the research for [“Victoria”], I learned about the Central American part of the journey, the train, all that stuff,” Fukunaga says. “... It was one of those things where, you know ... it’s already sort of inherently cinematic, that world.”
Not to say that bringing the story to the screen didn’t require effort.
“I did about six or seven research trips down there,” he says. “... I wrote the script right after the first one. But I … continued to go back ... just to sort of fill in the gaps in some of my research. [The trips] entailed mainly interviewing immigrants, and either shelters or groups that work with immigrants, as well as the police, and then going to prisons and interviewing gang members to ... ascertain what role they played in this world. ’Cause the newspapers would always say they were involved in immigration, but I couldn’t really figure out how. ... It took me a long time to really get to the truth ... because it’s really hard to get them to talk about how they make their money.”
Persistence, he says, paid off.
“By the end, I’d spent about two years with a small group of them, as I was able to sort of whittle down the group to the select few I felt were the most honest.”
At this point, another reporter suggests, likely half-joking, that those “most honest” members are now probably dead.
“Uh, a couple of them died, yeah,” Fukunaga says.
“As a re … ,” I start, then quickly stop myself. Almost as quickly, he answers.
“Not because of me.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” I say. “That’s a terrible question. I apologize for that.” I feel very grateful, even as I type this, that the answer is “No.”
“There [were] three I was speaking to in prison right outside Tapatchula,” he continues, “and then one of them basically got shanked in prison.”
Certain gang members’ contributions, Fukunaga says, proved invaluable, particularly when it came to authenticity.
“You could grow up in Mexico your whole life and not know how to speak that Spanish,” he says. “The contacts I had within the gang were extremely helpful, being copy editors as well. We’d bring them the Spanish version … of these gang scenes, and they’d be like, ‘Agh. That’s not how you say it.’ And then they would fix everything for us. ... There was a lot of attention paid to the grammar, as well, because ... there’s nothing more annoying to me than watching a film that’s, like, supposed to be El Salvador and everyone’s speaking with Mexican accents. … And then, also because I’m not, you know, a native Spanish speaker, I want that to be as authentic as possible, so for the Spanish-speaking audience they’d be impressed by that. Basically just trying to impress Spanish speakers. ... We spent a lot of time in Honduran Spanish ... and even within the gang, because we were using Mexican actors, they kept messing up as well, and because within the gang, you’re supposed to use ‘usted’ as a form of honor, and ... sometimes they’d use the ‘tú’ form, as well, so we’d have to go back and ADR and make sure it was ‘usted’ in those parts. ’Cause I would be focusing on something else, I’d miss that they used the ‘tú’ form. And we’d go back and do it again.”
Fukunaga, perhaps unsurprisingly, admits to being a perfectionist — though he says, in response to another interviewer’s question, that he finds it easier now to watch his films than he did in the past.
“I’ve definitely progressed from my days in high school, when I’d make videos for classes, and then I would hide under my desk when they were playing,” he says. “I literally would. Or leave the room. Or something. Now I can at least stay in the audience.” •