When one thinks of fictional accounts of drug wars, it’s more than likely that examples such as Traffic and The Wire come to mind. What those films share in common, other than their shared thematic material, is the ensemble approach to storytelling, how each depicts the dangers and intrigue behind illegal activities from as many vantage points as possible, including, though not limited to, the actual pushers, the DEA, and the innocents hooked on narcotics. If handled with care, exploring this subject matter through multiple perspectives can be dynamic and enlightening; if bungled, however, there’s a frustrating sense of detachment. How can we be expected to understand the truth when it’s thrown at us from every which way but personal?

In the haunting new thriller Miss Bala, writer-director Gerardo Naranjo gives Mexico’s criminal underbelly a refreshingly intimate slant. Opening in limited theatrical release this weekend, Miss Bala follows Laura (the marvelous Stephanie Sigman), a beauty pageant hopeful who, through a series of random and tragic events, gets embedded within a charismatic drug lord’s (Noe Hernandez) operation. And from there, her life goes from bad to irrevocably worse.

For Mexico native Naranjo, who’s on his fourth feature film, Miss Bala is an exercise in explosive, breathless filmmaking. Inspired by the true story of Laura Zúñiga, a beauty queen arrested alongside gangsters in 2008, Naranjo’s film sticks to Laura’s own experience, never leaving her side as she endures shootouts, double-crosses, cold-blooded homicides, and sexual mistreatment. The all-eyes-on-Laura method pays off tremendously, showing a familiar topic in a uniquely startling manner.

Complex recently chatted with Naranjo about the strange appeal of watching beautiful women suffer, the helplessness his country feels due to its drug trade, caring more about the victim than the villain, and shooting anti-Transformers action.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Miss Bala is loosely based on the real-life case of Laura Zúñiga, 2008’s Miss Sinaloa. How closely did you stick to that story?
Well, I used the picture I saw from that. Once I researched the real story, I wasn’t that interested in it, but the picture gave me precisely what I wanted: The idea of a victim who’s been involved with this lifestyle without knowing anything. So, yeah, once I saw the news that this beauty queen was arrested with these guys, that’s all I needed to create the screenplay.

There were many things I was trying to explain with the film. One, obviously, is the role of the victims and the experience that a normal person has when she finds herself involved with criminals, and another was the involvement of the DEA into the Mexican war, and another was all of the weapons coming in from the U.S. into Mexico. So there were many things that I wanted to talk about, and I guess the story of the beauty queen is what allowed me to go in and talk about all of them from a certain perspective.

Did you have a chance to speak with Laura Zúñiga before writing the screenplay?
Yeah, I met the girl and I met some of the criminals, and I also talked to many other criminals who didn’t have anything to do with that story. We did extensive and long research. We got to know these guys, but I really didn’t want to go into their psyches. I guess the film has a very strong point-of-view, and we refuse to get into the minds of these guys, because I think that’s what every other movie does. It’s a way to justify why normal guys become criminals, because they are poor, or they’re having a very rough time, but that’s not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to live the experience from the point-of-view of an innocent person. I didn’t want to justify the criminals.

We went to the police, and after that we went to a jail, and then connected with some criminals on the outside. I’ve always had my suspicions about this topic. These criminals are not hiding themselves; you can always see them in the streets, you know? You know who they are. You see them at night when you go to parties and they’re there. But you don’t get to talk to them, and I wanted to approach the story from that point-of-view, of someone who doesn’t know anything about these people and their world but gets put into it.

What was it about the beauty queen angle that appealed to you as an entry point into the criminals’ world?
I think it’s that general feeling in the collective subconscious, that everyone wants to see these girls from the pageants suffer. The movie really profits from that, this feeling people have—they really enjoy when a model or a beauty queen falls down on the catwalk. So I felt that, at the beginning, people would enjoy that the movie is about a beauty queen who suffers, but then you get to know her and then the audience feels sympathetic toward her. But certainly it was a dangerous main character to have, because the qualities and looks of a beauty queen aren’t precisely the ones of a normal human, no?

How difficult was it cast the role of Laura? Even though it’s only her first movie, Stephanie Sigman is excellent in the role, but I’d imagine that it wasn’t easy finding her.
Well, I looked at many different people, and I found Stephanie in the casting of a shampoo commercial. I was looking for certain strengths in the person; I was looking for the character of Laura to have a lot of dignity and not to do the usual Mexican trick of, you know, being melodramatic, and just crying all the time and sobbing nonstop. Or asking God why he wouldn’t send a policeman to help her—I wanted her to be responsible for her actions, and conscious and aware of what’s now her reality and then embracing that reality.

I didn’t want her to be a cry baby, and when I met Stephanie I felt that she could do it. It was also important for me that she hadn’t had any previous experience in film. I didn’t want to have an experienced actress giving me what she thinks it’d be like for someone to be scared—I wanted somebody who’d really be scared. With Stephanie, I never felt like she was “acting.”

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