After his 2004 short film “Victoria para Chino,” the true story of the nation’s deadliest human smuggling attempt, which left 19 illegal immigrants dead inside a tractor-trailer in Victoria, Texas, director/writer Cary Fukunaga felt there was a lot more to say about immigration.
In his first feature film, “Sin Nombre” – produced by actors Gael García Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) and Diego Luna (“Milk”) – fukunaga follows a young girl from Honduras named Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) as she travels with her estranged father atop a train through Central America and México to get to the U.S. During her journey, she meets Willy (Edgar Flores), a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, who must escape México after he kills one of his own.
During an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Fukunaga, 31, who is half Japanese and half Swedish, talked about his interest in the topic of immigration and what it was like riding the trains alone when he was researching for the project.
I heard you are fluent in Spanish. Where did you learn the language?
Growing up in the Bay area and México. Partially through making this film, I forced myself to make my Spanish as on-point as possible, technically especially. We did everything in Spanish on the film.
What kept you interested in immigration after you made “Victoria para Chino?”
They’re kind of the same project. Even though they’re two different stories, they’re inseparable films. The short film led to the feature film because researching for the short film, I learned about this part of the journey – the part that is less talked about.
Usually when you get a Latino-themed film, it’s by a Latino director. Did you worry that people might overlook “Sin Nombre” when they saw your last name?
I think there are some Fukunagas in México, too. (Laughs). I didn’t really even think about it. I come from a pretty multicultural background and family. In my mind, national and cultural borders don’t represent real obstacles in telling stories. I don’t think twice about that part of it. If it’s a story that interests me, I’m going to see what I can do.
What kind of research did you do particularly on the Mara Salvatrucha gang?
There was a lot of visual research. Both the makeup and production design departments had walls and walls of reference material to go by.
Did any of the real gang members you worked with on the film voice any concerns about how they were being portrayed?
No. Like Edward James Olmos after “American Me?” [Olmos was sent death threats by members of the Mexican mafia after the film debuted in 1992]. Well, I am traveling around under an alias. (Laughs). Maybe I can finally get a pistol in New York City. I actually went to the shooting range a few days ago. I’m pretty good with a .40 caliber.
Where do your characters come from? Are they composites from your research?
Everyone is a definitely composite and everyone is sort of a facet of me as well. I didn’t know I had a little homie inside me – an inner homie.
Did that attitude come out anytime during production?
Yes, when I had to lay down the law. (Laughs) Nah, I’m pretty laid back on set. I’m energetic, but I never throw tantrums or anything.
Was it your intention to make the train becomes its own character?
Especially at the beginning, I really wanted the train to feel larger than life. The night I decided to ride the train, I had to ride it by myself. My friends didn’t want to go with me after they found out how dangerous the trip was. I wanted to exaggerate and accentuate the audio and visual experience because this train is like this headless sort of creature. You don’t know who is running it. It’s like this conveyer belt in the jungle.
How many times did you ride the train? How long did it take?
Traveling across Chiapas took two nights and a day. From the Oaxaca border to Veracruz it took a whole evening and night. I rode the train three times. Each time I learned a little something. During these long boring hours, I got to hang out with immigrants and see how they passed the time and bonded with people. I was living the vagabond life. I definitely could not have written the film if I didn’t ride the train.
What does a trip like that do to you physically?
It’s definitely taxing. This film has definitely taken a couple of years [of my life] and part of my hairline. I think it really drains you more emotionally than physically. The first time I rode the train, an immigrant got killed. Being a part of that and then having to leave them was difficult. I have the luxury of continuing on with my life. They have fewer options.