Interview: Jorge Michel Grau Talks 'We Are What We Are'

The New York Film Festival generally isn’t known for featuring horror films, but they made an exception in 2010 with Jorge Michel Grau‘s “We Are What We Are.” Though the film was billed as “the Mexican cannibal movie,” first-time feature director Grau goes far beyond genre conventions to craft a story that paints a haunting — and quite unflattering — picture of his home country. When the patriarch of a cannibalistic family dies, his son is forced to take up his father’s murderous mantel, revealing fractures in both family dynamics and in the Mexican social structure. During the festival, we sat down with Grau to discuss his film, which we raved about back in October. “We Are What We Are” opens in select theaters tomorrow and is available On Demand on February 23.

The Playlist: How does your film reflect contemporary Mexico?
Jorge Michel Grau: What the aspect of the film reflects of the city as being most accurate is that sense of everybody is on their own, you know, you’ve got to save yourself, sink-or-swim kind of situation. What the film wanted to reflect through the creation of these sort of tribal family structures is the sense that in Mexico unless you belong to a tribe, whether you call that tribe a family or your part of a group of prostitutes or you belong to a group of street children, or you’re part of a police force, unless you belong to one of these tribes, you’re really on your own. And so these tribal structures almost allow people to sort of survive, but at the same time, they survive by preying on other tribes, so this is I guess the gist of what the story wanted to convey is the sense that in a country where there’s about forty to fifty murders on a daily basis that unless you belong to one of these tribal structures that will protect you, it’d be a very dangerous situation. But also then, this process of survival by preying, each tribe preying on the other ones.

Is it very specific to Mexico City?
Violence is pretty spread out throughout the country. You notice it throughout the country, but it’s violent in Mexico City as well. What we have in Mexico City is something like a kidnapping industry where the kidnappers, we found out, tend to be police officers, so there’s a sense among the general population of lack of protection, and this sort of sense of violence that permeates the city is something that the film…and so the disintegration of the family structure that’s depicted in the film is in a certain way a metaphor for the larger disintegration of the social fabric where people don’t really know each other any more.

Due to the subject matter, it’s very easy to throw the “horror” label onto it, but there’s much more there. It’s more like a drama in some ways. How did you first come up with the idea? Did it start off as a cannibal movie or…?
If I could label it myself, I would rather think of it as a drama, but surely I was working within the framework of a horror genre, and in a way, I used this framework of a horror genre, so the story wouldn’t just sort of spill over, spill out, get lost. I’ve always been interested in horror, and in certain ways, this is a horror film.

What horror directors do you like?
Guillermo del Toro. There’s actually an entire sequence in the film that pays homage to del Toro’s first film, “Cronos.” I don’t know if Takashi Miike is thought of as a horror director, but I like his work very much. I like this kind of horror where you never see the monsters, a kind of invisible type of horrors, like the kind you see in “The Blair Witch Project.” And “[REC],” a Spanish film. I’m also very drawn to this sort of direct, straightforward, violent filmmaking along the lines of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, or the kind of violence you see in Michael Haneke’s films. [Mathieu] Kassovitz’s “La Haine.”

Your film is not very bloody, at least not with how bloody it could have been. Was that an intentional choice to kind of rein it in?
I felt that the audience really had to be involved with the film, engaged with the film, in order for us to convey the sense of reality. That maybe that the audience would find this story of cannibalism too far out and they wouldn’t connect with the film. And so what I decided to do when it came to filming those scenes of violence is to initiate the violence on screen, but finish it off screen so that through the use of sound, I would leave it up to the audiences to imagine what had happened, so to whatever extent they wanted to pursue in their own mind whatever happened, they were free to do so. In that sense I guess the two most important scenes in the film: the death of the police officer that happens literally behind a wall, and the other one is the death of one of the principal characters in the film that happens completely off screen, and that sort of leaves it up to the viewer to imagine what happened.

Can you talk about working with your director of photography [Santiago Sanchez]? It’s a really well-shot film.
It’s also that person’s first film. The program that financed the film — which is a program that gives money to first-time directors…clauses indicate that both the director, the cameraman, and the producer, it has to be their first time making a movie, for all three of them. In my approach, discussion with Santiago, the cameraman, director of photography, we talked about two ideas: one, that I wanted to create a climate of claustrophobia so that the characters would feel trapped. The viewer would get a sense that the characters were trapped, not only trapped in the space, but even trapped inside of themselves. They couldn’t really escape who they were. And also that I really wanted low levels of lighting. Not necessarily that the film be dark, but that the lighting would be low enough that the audience would have to make an effort to see what was going on. So I sat down with him, and we did sort of a mock-up of how the shooting would go, and he had a lot of participation in it. In fact he was the one who decided that the film would be shot in widescreen, in the 2:35 ratio. It originally would pose a problem because it meant that we were going to have to spend more money, that it was going to be costlier for us to shoot it that way. But we were able to obtain sponsorship from a company in Mexico that sells Panavision equipment and they actually gave us a discount of up to 85% on the equipment, so Santiago was able to get all the equipment that he wanted or needed, and the whole film was shot with just four lights on the set. Personally, I think he did a phenomenal job. I gave him complete freedom to do whatever he wanted to do with the lighting. I feel that he wanted to sort of develop the nature of the characters through lighting, and in that sense, I feel that he did a very good job, and I would just arrive and he would have everything set up and we would just follow through with basically whatever he had decided.

What did you learn from making your first feature film?
I love making movies. I don’t see myself doing anything else. There are things that I still feel I need to fix. Now when I see the film, I always spot problems. Maybe I should’ve moved the camera a little bit further back, or further over here. What I really loved was working with the actors, developing their performances. We actually got together, the four principal actors and myself, and we sort of lived together in a room about this size for a long time as we were sort of trying to develop the atmosphere of the film and when we emerged from this situation on the first day of shooting. So this was perhaps was I learned the most and loved the most was this working with the actors.

How did you find the actors?
The first problem that I found was that many actors rejected the script. One of the actresses had a manager who constantly told her to turn down the film. I just wanted to add that before when we were talking about the job he did with the actors, he said he took them to the morgues and he took them to see autopsies, things like that, to get them prepared for the experience of doing the work. One of the actresses, her manager told her to turn the part. My only rule was to find actors that looked the age. Francisco Barreiro, who’s the main actor, who plays Alfredo, and his sister Paulina [Gaitán], and Paulina introduced me to the other actor, who sadly just passed away, Allen Chavez. And then I worked with those three actors at first, and then I passed the screenplay on to Carmen Beato, who is a very well-known actress in Mexico. And she accepted to do the film as long as it wasn’t very bloody. When it actually came to shooting the scenes she was in, she actually would ask me to put more blood on her. I think the secret was that they fell in love with the project and I think you can actually see that on the screen, the feeling that they have for it.

What are you working on now…and next?
I have two projects: one that is already fairly advanced and it is one that is quite similar to “We Are What We Are.” The other project is an adaptation of a novel I’ve been given the rights to the novel by its author, a young novelist called Roguelio Guedea. It’s a novel about a serial killer, the only serial killer in the state of Colima in Mexico. And, of course, a major issue is obtaining finance for the film. In Cannes, I was approached by a couple of producers, investors who interested in the next project after seeing the film. I had contact with a couple of American producers, but we’ll see.