Tue 9.23.2014

Attention Filmmakers Going Into Production: Apply Now for a Canon Filmmaker Award

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Film Independent is now accepting submissions for our quarterly Canon Filmmaker Award. Four times a year, we select one filmmaker to receive a Canon Cinema EOS package loaned to the recipient. Only Film Independent Fellows, Los Angeles Film Festival alumni and Spirit Awards nominees and winners are eligible. Click here for complete eligibility details and to apply.

Last quarter’s winner was Rodrigo Reyes, who recently wrapped production on his feature Lupe Under the Sun—a project that began as a documentary but evolved into a narrative using a neorealist-inspired approach. We caught up with Reyes to ask him about his experience making this highly personal film.

Tell us about Lupe Under the Sun and why you wanted to tell this story.
Lupe Under the Sun is a story about an old Mexican man who has spent his entire life working in the California fields, separated from his family back home. One morning he realizes that his life has rolled past him, and that sets him off on a journey of self-discovery. Using a cast of non-actors and set in California’s Central Valley, the film follows Lupe’s existential struggles as he tries to come to terms with his choices and reconnect with what he left behind. The story seized me completely. It has a voice and world of its own, combining a classic immigrant story with the universal experience of growing old.

It’s interesting that you originally conceived this film as a documentary about three Mexican migrant workers in California’s Central Valley and ended up making a neorealist inspired film focused on a single protagonist. Can you talk about that evolution?
Lupe evolved as I was preparing to shoot a documentary about the lives of peach pickers. During development, I met with several veteran fieldworkers in their sixties and seventies and slowly, I started to become immersed in the world of a single story that kept standing out above the rest: an old man who has stayed far too long in the US, to the point that he has lost his connection to his family back home. I immediately connected with the poetry of the story, its deep loneliness and melancholy.

As I dug further, I discovered that my own grandfather at one point disappeared for several years while in the States. My grandma and the rest of my family were left behind in Michoacán, Mexico, and they did not know what happened to him. Did he die? Was he in jail? He returned, but he never answered these questions. The raw materials for the story were falling into place when I met a friend of my father, Daniel Muratalla. He was just perfect for the part. He was not going through the same struggle as Lupe, but he understood it. He knew what it was like to be away from home and feel lost, and although he is normally a happy, smiling guy, when he is serious he projects great tension and sadness.

Once the pieces came together, I knew it had to be done in a neorealist style, absolutely—non-actors and real locations. It is a story that springs from the poetry of the real world, and I tried hard to reflect this onscreen. So I quickly wrote what the team jokingly referred to as a “scriptment,” and started laying out the story.

Where did you shoot the film and what was your production like? Were there particular challenges you faced?
Lupe was shot in Merced, California, a place that is essentially my American hometown. It’s right in the heart of the Central Valley, surrounded by huge amount of large-scale agriculture. Production is never easy. In this case we had a documentary budget in hand and were trying to make it work for a narrative feature. My approach was to keep as close to the documentary mindset as possible, shooting in real locations, using all non-actors, lighting as little and as simply as possible.

A great example of this was the shoot in the peach orchard itself. During development, I had connected with Atwal Brothers, a local, family-owned farm, in order to capture their harvest. When the story later developed into a hybrid, they were kind enough to allow us to bring our protagonist into their operation. The results are amazing images full of energy. We worked against the clock, getting up at 4:00 am to hustle with the picking crews and cover the action. The result was that Lupe became immersed in the summer heat, tough workdays and general rhythms of that unique world.

Who is your DP and how did you two come to work together?
I met Justin Chin during pre-production for my last film, Purgatorio. I had run through several candidates who chose to back out of the job due to fear of the violence on the border. It happened four or five times until one of them recommended Justin. I met him at a coffee shop and my first question was: are you afraid of dying on the border? Because that’s okay, I just don’t want to waste your time. He told me he was Buddhist. I hired him and we made the film and now we are on our second production.

Justin and I work through a process of constantly arguing. On the surface it looks like we are at each other’s throats, but really, it’s a constructive dialogue at heart. I’ve come to rely on his pushback to help balance the shoot. Justin has an incredible sense for composition and will fight for the best shot possible in every scene. He is also great at working with the tools at hand and is very independent, which brings a lot of flexibility to the set.

You shot on the Red Epic and used the Canon Cinema lenses for this production. Can you and your DP discuss the look and feel of your film and how you utilized the lenses to achieve your vision?
Rodrigo: Justin and I worked out the style by first finding inspiration in other artists. In the case of Lupe we connected with Dorothea Lange, Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Fat City by John Huston. We then set up visual rules to follow on the shoot, in terms of what techniques we would use to build tone and pacing and in what parts of the story. Those rules are not set in stone; they end up changing and evolving.

Justin: Yes, you plan so that you can change. For instance, for Lupe we decided against all tracking and dolly shots. But on the very first day of the shoot, we turned around and did some dolly shots. This doesn’t mean the planning was not useful, it simply helped us to adapt better.

Rodrigo: This is where the lenses really helped the workflow, because we could change shots and explore each scene and fine-tune it as much as possible. We were under the pressure of working with non-actors and in real locations, and yet we had agreed not to chase the action.

Justin: In this sense, the Canon Zooms allowed us to quietly tweak framing while the action unfolded before our eyes, and also gave us the flexibility to create intimate compositions that go beyond the usual run-and-gun look. But beyond the speed, the real benefit of the Canon lenses came down to the character of the images they produce. They added to the realism that we wanted to bring to the screen. Their color rendition was amazing, and it held up under stress, from working inside with industrial fluorescent lighting to the brutal heat in the orchards. So as we found and framed our shots, we were confident that the lenses could bring that image to screen in a beautiful way, without masking the realism, and yet enhancing it in subtle ways that supported the core of the story.

What awareness do you hope that Lupe Under the Sun brings to light that perhaps is not being discussed in the national immigration debate?
The great irony of the immigration debate is that it tends to remain trapped within the black and white logic of borders. We seem unable, as a nation, to have a rational and humane discussion about it. Everybody has to pick a side. And yet by looking into the world of Lupe, making him the centerpiece of the action and presenting the poetry of his life on the screen, the film pushes back against the tide. I’m asking you to forget about immigration politics and step into the wounded heart of this man. Walk with him for a little while. His struggle is shared by thousands of people living all across the margins of America, alone and without anything to fall back on after a lifetime of work.

Jennifer Kushner / Artist Development Director