1. About the origins of the project: PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN is your first fiction feature film. Was this a long-standing project? Have you been planning for the transition from documentary to fiction for a long time?
I think that with my last two films, which were both documentaries, there’s been a permanent search for storytelling mechanisms which are very close to those used in fiction. The staging usually includes several points in the character’s lives, situations I come across during my research which touch me on some level.
I also tend to emotionally “provoke” the characters. I think that the aim of an interview is, among other things, to provoke and ensnare human feelings.
Dramatic structure was always something I worked diligently on before I began filming my previous movies, that as well as constructing the imagery and the narrative. With respect to that, I have always seen documentary film as the chance to take a powerful, emotional and sensorial journey.
When I got the opportunity to write and direct Prayers for the Stolen, my first fiction feature, I didn’t have to think twice. It was the chance to take the search and experimentation I had already begun in my first films to the next level. I was really keen to get my teeth into a project which was both ambitious and complex in terms of its production. It had always been imagined as a feature-length film.
2. What brought you to an adaptation of Jennifer Clement's original novel? Do you remember your reactions upon reading it for the first time?
Nicolás Celis and Jim Stark called me one day and asked me to read this book, the tile of which had been translated as Ladydi in Spanish. It was Jennifer Clement’s novel. At the time, I was researching a new documentary which was based in the world of childhood/adolescence, I was delving into what it means to grow up.
I can remember devouring Clement’s book in three days. I quickly fell in love with the protagonist and how she realizes what it means to be a woman in the context of violence. I was also enraptured by the setting where the story takes place, the mountains of Guerrero. The novel has very strong journalistic research into the poppy planting world in Mexico, I also remember how valuable that seemed to me.
When I told Nicolás what I thought, he said: “I want you to write a screenplay for this book and I also want you to direct the film… What do you need to find the peace to write this? I’ll support you.” I was really excited at the thought of taking on a new challenge and I accepted his proposal.
I remember asking for just one thing: total creative freedom. I knew that I could only approach the story through introspection, by emotionally submerging myself in this childhood world from the perspective of my own personal experience. I have a 9-year-old daughter who I see grow each day, her world, her magic, it makes me look back at my own childhood, what my world was like at that point in my life. It was essential for me to be able to speak from my own perspective on the context of violence the story is shrouded in, my own view of Mexico.
Nicolás agreed that I should make the novel my own and that I should take it where it needed to be taken. It has been more than ten years since Nico and I last worked together, we know and respect one another deeply. The book was an amazing starting point and an incredible inspiration to be able to reinterpret and adapt the story.
3. On the one hand, this is a coming-of-age story, on the other hand there is a violent crime drama aspect. All this is told through a female perspective. This is something not often explored in mainstream western cinema. What are the insights and the emotions that this specific perspective can add? Was this an extra point of interest that brought you into this project?
I didn’t conceive this story under the banner of feminism. The challenge was in constructing complex and human characters to walk hand-in-hand with and feel close to. I decided not to judge the characters, not to pigeonhole them or fully define them so as not to impoverish them.
Of course, the female characters are exposed to brutality through their violent and criminal surroundings, but I wasn’t interested in making them into victims. It would make for a profoundly film and that’s not the way life is.
It was important to me to construct authentic and nuanced female characters. These are girls who question their mothers, who question the world they live in and who somehow acquire critical thinking at school with the rural teachers who find their way to the town. They’re seed girls. That’s how I liked to imagine them when I was writing, women who could impact their own reality beyond the ever-looming tragedy of the story.
4. There’s also the social aspect. To what extent does the Mexico you depict in your movie reflect the real Mexico of today?
I think the real Mexico of today is tougher than the one I’ve depicted. For years now, our country has been marked by ravage, violence and impunity. Ex-president Felipe Calderón´s speech “the War on Drugs” seemed to be one of the main reasons to justify thousands of deaths and disappearances throughout the length and breadth of the country. That ridiculous war, which lasted almost 15 years, is just the tip of the iceberg and has exposed collusion between the authorities and organized crime, among other things.
And in the context of impunity, where anything goes, where there is no accountability to the justice system, women are very exposed. Every day, we hear stories of little girls and young women disappearing and, in many cases, this will be connected to the million-dollar business of human trafficking.
In this movie, the theme of violence is represented in the situations the protagonists find themselves in. I’ve been working on these themes for a long time and haven’t managed to move away from them. The mark this type of violence leaves on a person’s psyche, and how their lives and the lives of their families are irreversibly disrupted when immersed in the situations those from many towns and cities in Mexico live in, really had an effect on me.
I believe the root of this violence is the incredible financial disparity that we have. The real tragedy is how we’ve normalized the violence and even become used to it. I think stories help us to feel a connection with those who live with the anguish of having a loved one disappear, they help us to look inside ourselves and to not forget what has been happening for many years now in Mexico.
5. Let's talk about the look of the characters. For sure, finding the right faces for every role was a great achievement. These kids and their teenage selves look so much alike that it got me thinking that, somehow, you had paused the shooting, waiting for them to grow up, and picked it up again! How did you find your actors? Was it a matter of pure luck or did it come as an extra challenge? I also wonder whether you had the actors for both the kids and the teenagers meet in order to study each other and become more similar.
It wasn’t easy finding the girls who would star in the movie given the fact it is told from two different age perspectives: childhood and adolescence. I had to find three 9-year-old actors and then their teenage twins, which made the casting incredibly difficult. It was, without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges of the project.
On the other hand, I sensed that working with child actors would detract from the credibility of the characters. It was important to me that the girls shared elements with the characters in the script, for example, they should be country folk who live in rural surroundings, among other things. The story takes place in the mountains and the girls would walk most places barefoot, they had to throw themselves in the icy river, they had to have a relationship with the land, the livestock, etc.
The casting took a year and we auditioned around 800 girls from different rural areas of the country. The casting consisted of knowing who the person was, what their day-to-day life was like, what their responsibilities were at home, and what was behind their family relationships. Although the cast is made up of professional and amateur actors, not one of the six girls we finally cast had acted before this movie. They all had to go through rigorous training to be able to take part in this project.
In that respect, I had the honor of working with Fátima Toledo, an incredible acting coach who helped me physically and psychologically prepare the six girls and Margarito. A workshop which took place over three months was implemented, where mechanisms which helped them explore the different situations presented in the script through play rather than rehearsing was developed.
We also worked hard on developing the bond between them. They lived together for several weeks, each pair of girls worked long hours alone, they became like sisters.
Another fundamental part of achieving the physical similarity between the girls and the teenagers was some serious makeup. For example, their eye color was matched and there was literally a map of our main character, Ana’s moles and freckles. It was a latex mask which was used to trace the moles onto one girl and then the other.
6. The character of Ana goes through a lot and has many powerful scenes. Can you describe the process you had with your actors? I'm thinking, for example, about the scene with Ana crying at the beginning, during the haircut scene, and further on in the movie when teenage Ana is smoking and shooting marks with her friend. How challenging was it to prompt these kinds of emotions with very young actors?
I decided to work with a series of motivations which weren’t necessarily connected to the real ones behind each scene, especially when it came to the children. These were emotional motivations that came from their own lives, their fears, their day-to-day, their losses.
In the scene where Ana is having her hair cut, the girl we had playing Ana knew that it would actually happen during filming. That was made clear during the casting process. When they were in the training workshop, we only did one exercise for that scene so as not to emotionally exhaust her. We did “the farewell”, an exercise which involves saying goodbye to someone or something you truly love. She did that in front of the mirror and displayed raw emotion.
The haircut scene was a great moment gifted to us by Ana, who, in my opinion, is a natural-born actor. We’d been filming for several weeks and when it was time she said, “Tatiana, tell me exactly when I should cry.” She said it coldly and with the clarity of knowing intuitively what I needed for the scene. I remember replying, “I’ll tell you when you when you should start saying goodbye to your hair during the take.”
The work she’d already done with “the farewell” had stayed in her emotional memory and the haircut scene was a long shot with no cuts, so the farewell had time to take place.
Moreover, it’s important to point out that there was no read-through of the script, either with the girls or the professional actors. They didn’t have access to the script. I gave general explanations about the story in the workshop and clarified, to a certain point, what motivates each character, but this was always on an individual basis.
I didn’t want to the actors to understand the meaning of each scene, nor did I want them to know everything about their characters. Having worked in documentaries with real people for years, I felt that giving them that information would limit their perception of who they were and the idea was for them to base it on themselves, on their own identities. That’s why our choice of cast was fundamental.
On the other hand, the girls living together was key. They had become friends before filming began, they became emotionally connected and came to know each other through the work on a much deeper level.
7. About the professional actors… What can you tell us about your approach to working with professional actors?
It was really important to the storytelling that the cast also contained professional actors. They all came onboard the project with a huge willingness and adapted to the process we were implementing for the girls. Their support in that was crucial.
Memo Villegas, for example, who plays their schoolteacher when they’re teenagers, really made that classroom in the town where we were filming his own and the kids saw him and treated him like a real teacher, he never told them he was an actor. Memo had to react to that interaction in a logical and natural way. I wanted the actors’ behavior to come from a place of instinct, their immediate reflections, far from any preconceived notions.
Mayra Batalla who played Ana’s mother, made a big effort to bond with both the Anas. She took part in the workshop in its final week and agreed to work from a personal, visceral and sensorial place, rather than intellectual one, the same way the girls would be. She also accepted the job not having seen the script.
However, when we got to the town a week before we started filming, Mayra Batalla told me she felt uncomfortable and that she needed to read the script and study it to understand her lines and the character on a deeper level, that that’s what she was used to. I told her that this would be different and that she should focus on her research. I suggested that she should make friends with her neighbors, investigate their lives, see how they lived, cook with them, study how they talked, how they sat down, how they ate, how they spoke to family members who’d emigrated to the United States, etc.
She did an amazing job with absolute commitment and began living with the townspeople, with her neighbors, she became part of the community. It was undoubtedly a crucial part of constructing the character of Rita.
8. Having worked in documentary, how did you keep that documentary approach while shooting this story? How much of your approach to film did you keep and how much did you have to abandon as you jumped into a different kind of storytelling?
I think documentary makers are shrewd observers of people. We try to discover and understand what the characters we select for our films are made of. We become accomplices and witnesses, and that brings us much closer to them. It was from that gaze and with that intention that I created the characters in Prayers for the Stolen.
That instinct I have developed working with real-life situations in my documentaries became my only compass. The challenge was in attempting to capture the reality of their daily lives and to find some truth in the characters’ behavior.
The staging moved in that direction. The camera had to adapt to the characters and not the other way around. I decided to use a handheld camera, bringing the same life to the film that our girls would.
I asked our cinematographer Dariela Ludlow not to use camera markers, but to bring a first-class focus puller to the team, and she really did. I also asked her to try and light the full 360 degrees of the shots, to move the lighting as little as possible so as not to slow the dramatic progression of the scenes, especially for the girls who aren’t professional actors. Dariela told me that would be a very difficult task, but she pulled it off. She lit the scenes from doors, windows, the ceiling and the floor-level lighting was easily movable. She did an incredible job. In fact, the blood, sweat and tears of the whole creative and technical team I had behind me went into this film.
The difference between the worlds of fiction and documentary is that in documentaries, all of the elements you will be working with already exist, the characters, the experiences they are having, their circumstances and the spaces they inhabit or where you want them to live are all already there. In fiction, however, you have to create almost everything from scratch a lot of the time. In this film, we created the wind, the rain, the fires. Each space was built, the poppy field, the rodeo, Ana’s house, etc. Every object was carefully selected, as was the color and texture of each and every wall. You then have to give all of that some serious consistency so that it works and is believable.
9. Did you fall in love with this kind of moviemaking? Should we expect more fiction features by Tatiana Huezo?
I feel very uplifted by my experience of making this film. I learned a lot and I now feel free to move between fiction and documentary. Both genres are essentially faced with the same challenges, which is to recreate the human experience. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
And, yes, I fell in love with it. I’m really excited at the prospect of directing more fiction features and of taking on new challenges.
9. It's been five years since Tempestad. Why did it take you so long to go from that wonderful film to the realization of this new project?
Well, there were four years between one film and the other, with a pandemic in the middle of it. It’s not easy to film constantly in Mexico, it takes a long time to get funding. I should also say that filming Tempestad was a long and emotionally-taxing process for me and when it was finished, I had to travel for a year promoting it. I needed some emotional respite and to allow that story to leave me before connecting with my next project.
That was when the opportunity to write and direct Prayers for the Stolen came along and I took the necessary time to research, write and travel with the casting director to look for the girls, among other things. The making of these films is an intense process for me and it takes time. I’m not in any hurry to bulk out my filmography, all that matters to me is to connect with projects which touch my heart and to give them my all so that I can bring them to fruition.
11. How long did it take to shoot PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN? Where exactly did you shoot it and what was the hardest challenge during the making of the film?
Filming went on for nine months and the training for the girls started three months before that. I have to say, it was very intense. We were filming in a town in Querétaro´s Sierra Gorda called Neblinas which I found through very extensive research. In actual fact, I couldn’t finish the script until I’d found that incredible place.
However, it was a small town in the middle of nowhere and during filming, there was no cellphone coverage or access to the Internet. The production challenges were huge, not only because of what each of the scenes involved, but because the closest hotel to Neblinas was miles away. Our production team had to adapt at least 15 houses which belonged to people who’d gone to live in the United States. The houses were abandoned and we had to renovate them so the crew could live there.
There were about 100 of us and it wasn’t easy, but despite that, being so isolated meant we were totally immersed in the world of the film.
We came up against a lot of challenges and I’m not sure which of those was the most difficult to solve. The crews for my documentaries are always made up of a maximum of eight people and I had to adapt to the huge machine that is fiction. I was presented with a bunch of departments I’d never had to work with before, Wardrobe, Makeup, SFX, the Art department which was extraordinary, a lot of the sets were made from scratch, and others were completely reconstructed, such as Ana’s house, the school, the beauty salon, etc. Creating the sets along with our art director, Oscar Tello, was one of my favourite parts.
Nevertheless, the biggest challenge and point of focus for me was in the work of our actors, in their performances. I focused on keeping my feelings and heart alert in order to recognize the emotions I had imagined for the film. I endeavored to put the emotions of a human in the skin of a character.