In the independent film “The Girl,” filmmaker David Riker (“La Ciudad”) tells the story of Ashley (Abbie Cornish), a Texas woman whose first attempt at smuggling Mexican immigrants across the border ends with her becoming the caretaker of a young girl (Maritza Santiago Hernandez) who is separated from her mother during their journey to the U.S. During my interview with Riker, we talked about the dedication of Cornish to learn the Spanish language and what he was looking for when he cast a non-professional actor like Hernandez.
Abbie Cornish’s character Ashley is not a likeable one for a large portion of the film. What kind of conversations did you have with Abbie about what you wanted to convey about her character on screen so moviegoers would not be turned away by her immediately?
You touched the heart of the dramatic challenge for Abbie, which was this: How do you play a character that’s not likeable in a way that doesn’t just push viewers away? How do you make them feel some kind of connection to her? What the challenge really came down to was showing that Ashley is behaving the way she does because she has been dealt a bad hand. If we feel that soon enough, we can see her actions in some kind of context. [Abbie and I] both felt Ashley’s father was the dark cloud Ashley was living under. The film becomes the story of a father and daughter and whether or not the young woman will choose to break from following in her father’s behavior. Those are the kinds of conversations we were having. We were both very aware of the risks of having an unlikeable character, but we felt if the world where she comes from is established soon enough, it would make people want to know more about what Ashley is struggling with.
Talk about the dedication Abbie gave for this role. I read that she not only wanted to learn her lines in Spanish, she wanted to learn the language as fluently as possible.
I’m still shocked that she truly wanted to learn the language. She spent a great deal of time preparing for it. I think she would’ve loved even spending more time learning it. I met with a number of actors to play the role. They were all equally enthusiastic about it. All of them assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem to learn the lines in Spanish. But Abbie said she wanted to study the entire language and speak it well enough so she could step out of the scene and continue talking with young Maritza [Santiago Hernandez] and the people on the set and with the communities where we were filming. She is a very serious and very committed actor.
It must have been very beneficial for Abbie to be able to continue conversing with Maritza after the cameras stopped rolling. I could see Maritza having a lot of confidence because there wasn’t a language barrier between her and the person with whom she has all her scenes.
I knew that was the ideal scenario, but I didn’t know how we were going to get there. Maritza speaks no English nor does anyone in her family. It was so interesting because when Abbie came down for the first time, we spent several days together not working on the script. We gave Abbie and Maritza enough time together to bond. Maritza took her to the village [in Oaxaca]. They ate meals together. They went to the market together. It was wonderful to see them bond way before we even started shooting. As you know in the film, Ashley is really vicious to Maritza. It was really important to Abbie that Maritza knew that underneath that there was a different reality. There was affection and respect.
Was Maritza’s life in Mexico similar to the one portrayed in the film?
Maritza’s life is very similar to that of [her character] Rosa’s except for the fact that Maritza has not grown up in a village in the mountains of Oaxaca. She lives in one of the colonias or new neighborhoods that surround the City of Oaxaca. Historically, the City of Oaxaca was a city of about 100,000 people, but today’s it’s one million. The reason it has grown is that a huge number of people have left the mountains and the smaller villages to move into Oaxaca. You essentially have these transplanted communities that are in the central valleys. But the conditions of her life are very similar to that of Rosa. They have no running water. They have no electricity. They had no floor in their home. Although they live close to the City of Oaxaca their life is not urbanized.
When it comes to casting children who are considered non-professional actors, I’ve always wondered if directors take into consideration what happens to these young boys and girls after the film has wrapped. It’s like what happened to the kids who starred in “Slumdog Millionaire.” Studios cast these young girls and boys and bring them into this very new and exciting situation and when the movie is completed, they send them back to their regular lives. Were you conscious of that when you cast for the role of Rosa?
When you work with “non-professional actors,” you have a greater responsibility as a filmmaker. There is a risk that you can upend someone’s life and at the end of it they land hard. It can be very destructive. I know this from studying the history of cinema and some of the classic films like “Bicycle Thieves.” That film destroyed the life of the man who was cast in the main role. My starting point when I cast is thinking, “I’m not just casting for the child. I’m casting for the whole family.” I want to see that the family is solid. If I sense the mother is very excited, I’m very reluctant to cast the child. I see the mother trying to fulfill her own dreams. I’m much more interested in finding families that are rooted. Then I want to make sure they experience doesn’t turn the child’s life upside down.
How did you do that with Maritza?
Great effort went in to find a really superb tutor who was with us every day during pre-production and production. I had a strong, close relationship with Maritza’s teacher and the director of her school. We didn’t want her to miss anything in school and wanted her to excel and get even more attention. Maritza was well grounded. The risks were less that she was going to be thrown for a loop. What’s interesting is that when the film premiered in Mexico at the Morelia Film Festival, Maritza’s performance won immense praise by the Mexican press. No less than 26 outlets interviewed her over the course of two days. All of them asked the same questions: “What do you want to do now? Do you want to make more movies?” I watched over and over as Maritza said, “Right now, I want to finish my studies and then I want to be a teacher.” It felt so good to see that in many ways she came out of this film an even stronger version of herself. Any child, when given a lot of attention, can blossom. I think she did just that.
I don’t think many filmmakers think about the consequences of taking someone like Maritza out of their environment and throwing them into a different arena only to throw them back again when the film is over. I could only imagine that it would be shocking for some of them. Some probably wonder, “Where did all the attention go?”
I think filmmakers, historically, have not taken enough responsibility for what they leave behind – on an individual level with the casting; on a community level and the relationships they make during production; on a social level. Filmmakers can create a lot of damage. I’ve only made two films and I’ve been working at this for a long time. Part of the reason is because I am hyper-sensitive to trying not to destroy anything except myths.
You’ve done a lot of research on the immigrant’s story. We see that in “The Girl” and in your first film “La Ciudad” (“The City”). Do you think the immigrant’s story is a universal one for all of them, or is there something exclusive to the Mexican immigrant’s story?
I surely don’t think Mexican immigrants have a unique experience, but I do think immigrants today are experiencing what it means to be uprooted in a different way than in previous waves of immigration. We say we’re a nation of immigrants, but the truth is immigrants today face a much more hostile and dangerous journey than the great migrations of the last century. The historical achievement of the border has been to divide families. To be an immigrant today means to be uprooted alone – like a castaway in a storm. That’s what this film is trying to do. It’s trying to broaden this discussion about immigration.