[20 March 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Patricia Riggen, who directed “Under the Same Moon,” came to the United States for the very reason many Mexican citizens do: opportunity.
Here she found a culture that allowed her to become a filmmaker.
“I couldn’t see myself in the director’s shoes for a long time,” says Riggen, 37, who grew up in Guadalajara and now lives in Los Angeles.
“Crossing the border for me was very helpful, very positive. Here, I think, it’s more democratic for women. Men believe in you, then you can believe in yourself. That’s not the case in Mexico.”
“Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)” - in Spanish with English subtitles - is the story of another young woman (Mexican telenovela star Kate Del Castillo) who crosses the border, but illegally.
Single mom Rosario loves her son, Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), so much that she leaves him with her elderly mother in Mexico to work two jobs cleaning rich people’s houses in Los Angeles. She sends money home so her son will have blinky-light sneakers and other luxuries she couldn’t give him otherwise.
For four years, their only contact has been brief Sunday morning conversations on pay phones.
When the grandmother dies unexpectedly, 9-year-old Carlitos packs his little backpack and heads to the United States to look for his mother.
“The thing that struck me when I read the first draft of the screenplay (by Ligiah Villalobos) was that this is a love story between a woman and her child,” says Riggen, on the phone from a San Francisco hotel. “In my mind, it was always a love story. In fact, when I first started working on this movie, immigration was not the hot topic it is now. It was the opposite. People were saying, `Why are you doing a movie on immigration? Nobody wants to see a movie on immigration.’
“Despite the fact that it was about immigration, I thought, `I’m going to do it anyway, because to me it’s not really about that. It’s about family separation. I wanted to make a moving love story and show the human side of this problem.”
Riggen filled the movie with popular Mexican actors. Alonso, now 13 in real life, appeared in numerous TV commercials and played the son of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “The Legend of Zorro.” Eugenio Derbez is Mexico’s most beloved comedian (though in the movie, he plays an illegal farmworker and reluctant hero). Carmen Salinas has been making movie, stage and television appearances in Mexico for more than 40 years.
American TV audiences will recognize the baby smuggler in “Under the Same Moon.” She’s America Ferrera, Golden Globe and Emmy winner for her turn as the title character in “Ugly Betty.”
“She’s a big star. I think she’s very smart, talented and brave,” Riggen says. “I don’t think there are small roles. They’re all important, and I think she saw something in this character that is deeply human. America embodies the second generation of Latinos. Her parents are from Honduras. She was born and raised here, so she’s perfect for the part in that sense.”
For Riggen, Ferrera was willing to take on a character who seems less than heroic.
“I know, I know,” Riggen says. “She (the character Martha) is doing something bad, but then you discover it’s for a good reason. I tried for all my characters, even if they only had one scene, to make them very complex and complete and human, very realistic. This is the way people are.”
“Under the Same Moon,” made independently for $2 million, played the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Co. bought it for $5 million. It was the highest price ever paid at Sundance for a Spanish-language film.
Villalobos’ script had sat unmade for six years when Riggen read it and fell in love with the mother-son story. The reality is, Riggen says, that some 4 million Latin American women have left at least one child behind to work illegally in the United States.
Undocumented workers live in fear being caught and sent back.
“I feel like we have to accept reality and fix the problem,” Riggen says. “I think the governments need to work very hard to solve poverty and inequality, both in Mexico and South America.
“I don’t think people want to emigrate. They don’t want to leave their families. People don’t want to risk their lives and live like criminals. They want to work, and they want to provide for their families. They’re not given that opportunity in their own countries. The only way somebody would do that is if they’re hopeless.”
Riggen was a newspaper reporter in Mexico early in her career. Then she moved to New York City, where she earned a master’s degree in directing and screenwriting from Columbia University. As a student, she wrote and directed the short films “The Cornfield,” which has played on HBO, and “Family Portrait,” a documentary about poverty in Harlem.
“Under the Same Moon” is her first feature-length film.
She’s at work on two “big Hollywood movies,” she says. One is a period drama, the other a romantic comedy. She’s also in talks with a well-known San Francisco novelist about turning one of her books into a movie, but nothing is firm yet.
“I would always try to make movies that change people a little bit and just try to make life better,” says Riggen. “It’s something I care about. I like to make meaningful films.”