It was a horrific image in the modern immigration saga - May 15, 2003, 19 immigrants left locked in a truck trailer in Victoria, Texas, died.
“That got my attention,” says filmmaker Cary Fukunaga. Although he had never made a feature film, Fukunaga had a subject worthy of one - crime and violence on the immigration trail. But it took him six years of rewrites and changes to the story “because I didn’t want to make a film like all the other illegal immigration films, you know everything these people go through to get here.”
“Sin Nombre,” now in theaters, is what resulted, a movie notable for what it leaves out of that immigrant narrative. Set almost entirely south of the border, it is a “lacerating” (says the Portland Oregonian) thriller about gang rituals and violence in Mexico grafted to the story of a Honduran teen trying to get to her only family, in New Jersey, making for a tale of “murder and mercy, retaliation and redemption,” raves The New Republic.
Fukunaga, now 31, wasn’t going for controversy or sentimentality. “I wanted a ground-up view of the people making that journey,” with the trek itself merely a backdrop. A young Mexican gangster kills the fellow gang member who killed his girlfriend and thus saves a Honduran girl from assault. He and she become reluctant traveling companions as he is hunted by gang members and she tries to figure out why he saved her as he did.
Fukunaga had little trouble casting or finding locations for his film - his leading man (Edgar Flores) he found in Honduras, his teen girl (Paulina Gaitan) in Mexico. What promised to be the hardest and most expensive element of the tale wasn’t the shootouts. It was the rolling stock. The movie follows these two as they travel by train, sitting on top of boxcars crowded with other migrants winding their way through the Mexican countryside.
“We had to maximize those few days we could actually shoot on a train to make it all real,” Fukunaga says. “We ended up building a prop train on flatbed trailers, pulling them on country roads around Mexico. You use extras on the set to block the horizon line. If they’re in the way, you can’t see how far the train goes off into the distance. Definitely something they don’t teach you in film school.”
As he talks up his celebrated new film, Fukunaga can begin to think about what he’ll do next - “maybe a story set in Africa, maybe something in the mountains.” But he’ll do it wiser for the six years it took him to get “Sin Nombre” into theaters.
“You don’t think about that when you’re writing it, but when the production finally rolls around, you realize you’re spending your next two years in train yards, train stations or in the middle of nowhere,” Fukunaga says, laughing. “Maybe I should write something on the Riviera.”