Patricia Riggen: Love and Politics Under the Same Moon

By James van Maanen

What with Venice in full swing and Toronto firing up, a little thing like the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Latinbeat might pale for film buffs. But there are gems here, some of which are not likely to be seen in other venues. That will most definitely not be the case with La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon) [official site] the new film from Patricia Riggen, whom I had the chance to interview by phone, briefly, just minutes after her arrival in NYC. Riggens is here for only two days and then flies to Toronto on Saturday for the film's premier there - all with her 6-week-old baby in tow.


Are you American or Mexican?

I was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. I moved to New York City ten years ago, where I got an MFA at Columbia University, in Film Studies. Then I moved to Los Angeles around three years ago.

According to the IMDB, you have made only two short films previously.

Yes, the first was a narrative short subject, 27 minutes long called La Milpa (The Cornfield) It went to 40 festivals, and won over 20 awards. Then I made another 28-minute documentary called Family Portrait about a little boy who was photographed by Gordon Parks for Life magazine in 1968. It deals with poverty in Harlem. This one also went to many festivals and won the jury prize at Sundance. The shorts and their success allowed me to raise money to finance my first feature-length film.

La Misma Luna

How did you get involved in La Misma Luna?

The writer of the film, Ligiah Villalobos, saw Family Portrait and started sending me screenplays, and eventually she sent this one. I liked it very much because it is about the strongest of relationships - the story of a mother and son who are separated. I like to do things that move people. So I started working with Ligiah on the screenplay, and we worked on it for one whole year. We did many, many drafts. By the time the script was ready, so was the financing.

How was the movie financed?

Independently, with funds from both Mexico and the USA. The budget was under $2 million. I got the Mexican money from the Mexican government fund, through which directors like [Alfonso] Cuarón, [Alejandro González] Iñárritu and [Guillermo] del Toro got the money to make their first films. And then I also raised private money from the US. As hard as it was to work on a tight budget - and having to shoot in two countries - I still had complete creative freedom. So I can honestly say that every single final decision in the movie was made by me as director and producer.

Then what happened? Sundance?

Yes. La Misma Luna was a tiny movie, but it ended up as the second largest sale at Sundance this year. We had so many studios bidding for it, but finally it was bought jointly by Fox Searchlight, which has the distribution rights in North America and Latin America, and by The Weinstein Company, with the rights to the rest of the world.

How did you arrive at that wonderful, subtle ending that, besides working on a realistic level, is also symbolic of moving forward with immigration? [Spoiler alert: the ending does not show us the expected moment we've been waiting for but instead cuts to something else.]

I don't know exactly how I arrived at this, but from the first moment of thinking about how to film it, the ending came up like this in my mind. It had to be like this because there is no way that we could shoot that moment any better than the audience could already imagine it. So we had to give them something else. There have been a lot of discussions - and some arguments, really - about this. Some people really wanted that typical ending. But I was so convinced not to do this that I did not even shoot it as an alternate possibility!

Where was that lovely-looking Mexican village you used for Carlitos' home?

It's located fairly close to Mexico City. I shot the movie both in Mexico and the US, but most of it was shot in Mexico, except the Los Angeles exteriors. You just can't fake those! All interiors that were supposedly located in the US were shot in Mexico, too. I did this mostly because I was working with a child actor, and the Mexican equivalent of the SAG rules are a little easier for the director who has a really limited budget. You can use the child actor much more and for longer hours than in the US. If the child needs to or wants to do something - anything - you can just do it. There are not so many rules; like, you don't have to have a teacher always on the set.

Your young actor Adrian Alonso is just splendid.

Yes, and he's a very experienced actor, too. He's actually done five features already. I had only done one! He has the purity of a child actor and the professionalism of an adult. He never missed a line. He never fooled around, and was always concentrated. So he gave me the best of both worlds.

La Misma Luna

What a performance! The cast in general is extra special. How did you cast people like America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Jesse Garcia (Quinceañera), probably the most famous to our eyes?

I sent America the script, and she liked it and agreed to do it. Actually, in Mexico, Eugenio Derbez, who plays Enrique, and Kate del Castillo, who plays the mother, are really the most famous actors.

They both are wonderful, but for me, it was Señor Derbez who finally makes made the movie work as well as it does. It's his character that gives the film its greatest weight.

He is the most famous comedian in all Mexico and maybe in all of Latin America. In a way, Mexico provides much of the TV for the rest of the Central and South America, so he is an enormously well-known figure. But although he is so famous as a comedian, this is his first dramatic role. He has been trying to get into dramatic films, but nobody gave him the opportunity. When I cast him, everybody told me I was crazy to do it. "You will fail," they insisted! It seemed like a huge risk. He was not a trained dramatic actor, yet he is so charismatic and so talented. We worked a lot - really a lot - before the shoot, and during it too. But Derbez did it. And his character is so vital to the film.

Because immigration is now such as hot-button issue, what do you think the response to the film will be?

I am very curious to see how people will respond. This is, first of all, love story between the mom and her son. That's what's most important here. So I hope that whatever their feelings are about immigration, that people will respond first to this. I had no idea that we would get that standing ovation at Sundance. So now I am very curious how the audience at the Latinbeat series and at the Toronto Festival, where we will show it on Saturday, will respond.

Do you know why the release has been postponed from this September to March 2008?

I think Fox Searchlight did this because they realize the big potential the film has for very different audiences. They need more time to get it ready, and I think this was a good choice because now they will have more time to ready the release in the right way to reach as many people as possible: the Hispanic market, the art houses, and - maybe, we hope - even the mainstream audience.

One last question: Will the boy's best friend in Mexico ever get a nice pair of sneakers?

[Laughs] That image of those shoes is very present in my mind, too! It is such a complex problem, immigration. And I wanted to show that. The young boy says to Carlitos, "You're so lucky!" But Carlitos does not think so. He is not really happy because he just wants his mother, rather than the money or presents she is sending him. Immigration is very sad situation. It is not just about people coming to invade your country. These are human beings who only love their families and are trying to provide for them. In making the film, I came to realize that all these people have one thing in common: They are acting out of love. There is no other reason why they would put their life at risk they way they do.

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