An Interview with Gerardo Naranjo, Director of Miss Bala

By Jennifer Wilson for Film Independent

Gerardo Naranjo’s third feature film, Miss Bala, dares to take on a very weighty subject—the pervasive violence perpetrated on ordinary citizens all over Mexico by drug cartels.  Set in Tijuana, newcomer Stephanie Sigman stars as Laura, a young woman trying to escape an impoverished existence by participating in a beauty pageant.  But Laura’s life takes a very different path when she unwittingly attracts the attention of gang-leader, Lino and becomes an unwilling participant in a war from which there is no escape.

On a sunny afternoon in January I got the chance to sit down at the Canana offices with director Gerardo Naranjo, lead actress Stephanie Sigman, and executive producer Diego Luna.
Jennifer Wilson:  Did you know early on that you would cast Stephanie in this role?
Gerardo Naranjo:  She was the first actress that I met with for the part, but I told her that I wanted to meet with other Mexican actresses just to be sure she was the one.  And she wasn’t very happy about it (looks at Stephanie and laughs) but six months later, I told her I was sure that she was the one.
It’s a dangerous world portrayed in this film, how dangerous was it for you, as artists to approach this subject matter?
Stephanie Sigman:  I don’t know.  I want to think it’s safe because it’s art, it’s a movie.  Also, the movie doesn’t really point the finger at anyone specifically; it’s to show what we are feeling as a society.
GN:  I think it’s wishful thinking that we’re not in danger because we didn’t attack anybody specifically.  It was important that we did this movie from the point of view of a regular person.  If it was from the point of a view of a criminal then we would have had to show much more.  But I don’t think even the criminals come off in such a bad light.  They come off as people working for a living like everyone else.  I truly believe if they had an alternative to that life then they wouldn’t be doing that.  The first thing the movie is trying to point out is that a life of crime is not glamorous, it’s not fun, it’s not cool.  It’s not gold chains, girls, and parties—that’s imaginary.  These guys are living a pathetic life.
(to Stephanie) This was your first feature film and you’re in almost every shot.  Was it overwhelming at times?
SS:  It was a big challenge but I love challenges.  But everyone was so supportive and Gerardo is a great director.  The psychological and emotional part was difficult, and it was physically challenging –at times I got a bit hurt.  There were times I felt totally lost, but I always trusted the process and trusted Gerardo.

Why does it seem like Laura never fights back?
SS:  I don’t think she could.  I think she knows if she fights back at all, she’s dead.  She has no time to put a strategy together to get away.
GN:  Certainly, we wanted her non-action to reflect Mexican society.  I feel Mexican society is frozen, and is not acting against the fear they feel.  The character Laura doesn’t react, and I know it’s frustrating for the audience, but it’s also logical for this character—she doesn’t have any military expertise, she doesn’t know how to use any weapons.
It seems like the current situation in Mexico is hopeless, it’s too overwhelming.
GN:  I believe so.  I don’t believe that this generation of Mexicans will be able to fix it.  It’s pretty hopeless.  The biggest challenge for Mexico is to recognize the problems.  There are still people in Mexico saying that this doesn’t exist—that we’re creating this, that we’re traitors.
Can you talk about how this movie ended up as the Mexican entry for the Oscars this year?
GN:  I was surprised by it.  But I think the Mexican Academy had a strong feeling about the movie and wanted to endorse what the movie is saying.  I think the movie has been popular in Mexico because it’s been attacked, because some authorities are saying it’s not true.
There’s not a sense in this movie of having ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’.
GN:  In the beginning the script had a speech by the drug dealers about why they do what they do, and a speech by the politicians about why they do what they do.  But every other movie is already doing that, giving conclusions right away without leaving questions for us so I thought let’s just take it out and leave it as an open question.   I thought if I just focused on this very intimate story and what happens to Laura and cover all the angles, it will leave the audience with a much better interpretation of what’s happening rather than seeing the drama of the police and the drama of the criminals.
Your past films are influenced by the French New Wave, did you have any influences for this project?
GN:  We purposely wanted to avoid influences from other films on this.  We really tried to stick to the phenomenon we were trying to research.  Our biggest guideline was to ask ourselves, how would this feel?  What would Laura do in this moment?  Those earlier projects were very biographical and afterward I felt something had changed in me and I wasn’t interested in doing that anymore so I wanted this project to be completely different.  I was researching violence is Mexico and this project was initially about a DEA agent that goes from America to Mexico.
None of the characters in the film ever specifically talks about drugs and you never actually see any drugs either, why is that?
GN:  In the beginning, we thought let’s show everything.  Let’s show the people who had been decapitated, let’s show all the drugs, let’s show all the bad stuff.  But then we decided what we should do is precisely the opposite—we decided to show the experience of the innocent person and her ignorance towards what’s going on all around her.  We didn’t show the criminals with the drugs because we can infer that’s what it’s about because it’s the most powerful force in Mexico right now.  At one point we had no drugs and no killings in the script and decided to add in the gun battles because it was becoming a little too abstract.
Why did you set the film in Tijuana?
GN:  I really wanted to talk about the relationship that the U.S. has with this problem.  I really wanted to connect the fact that America has a lot to do with this.
When you were making the film, how were you able to keep it enough under the radar without word getting out to the drug cartels?
GN:  We were lucky.  We got advice from people who had more experience with this issue.  We called the film “Beautiful Maria” and said it was a romantic comedy.  We didn’t get permits so it was a secret where we were going to be shooting.  But I think they probably really knew who we were and what we were doing, but they didn’t feel threatened by us.

(To Diego Luna)  Were you surprised that the Mexican Academy chose this film for Oscar consideration?
Diego Luna:  The Academy is a community of filmmakers that are making these choices and not politicians trying to sell the country.  I think the film achieves one thing that rarely happens—the connection with reality is so intense that there’s no way you can say there’s a better film this year that represents what’s going on in Mexico.  It’s a feeling we’re all sharing now.  No matter where you are in Mexico you cannot hide from what’s happening.  Before, you could say oh that only happens in the North or only if you buy drugs, but today it’s really happening everywhere.  Everyone has a friend that has some kind of connection with this violence.  I believe this film is part of something bigger that is happening in Mexico.  I think that what Gerardo gave us with this film is a shout that had been trapped there inside for a long time and had to get out.
Miss Bala opens in New York and Los Angeles January 20, 2012