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)
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.”
What’s interesting about the character of Laura is how she doesn’t fight back. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about how women are kicking tons of ass in movies, from Rooney Mara in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to Gina Carano in Haywire; in Miss Bala, though, Stephanie is strong, but she’s also shell-shocked and even gives up the chance to escape and voluntarily walks right back into the criminal’s arms. For you, why was it important that she remains grounded in the horror of her situation and not become a kick-ass warrior-like character?
Well, I think that comes from the fact that we are talking about real problems that come from our society, and we really wanted to comment on that. So the idea that she’s frozen and that she doesn’t know how to react to violence, I think it’s grounded, or it’s directly related to the fact that Mexican society is frozen against this crime wave, and we don’t know how to react. So that was very important to us. We were making a social and political commentary with the movie. If Laura takes the gun away from the criminals and kills them, that would have said certain things that we didn’t want the film to say, that we are able to defend ourselves violently, which is something I don’t believe.
I don’t think we can compete with the criminals and the violence—our weapon is precisely to become a society and be strong as a group of individuals. Something we don’t have in our country but that exists in other countries… Like, in America, your justice system makes a lot of problems, but somehow you give your power to attack to the state and, as a result, the state will protect you. And I think that very simple social contract is something that doesn’t exist in Mexico.
That’s why we’ve had to be very strong about the tone of the film; I know it'd be a greater spectacle or a much more entertaining film if we showed her kicking the bad guys' asses, but we're talking about something that’s more serious than just entertainment.
And I’d actually argue that it’s way more interesting the way you did it, with her not becoming this ruthless fighting machine. It feels more honest than most other movies of this type.
The other day I was talking to a friend who makes movies also, and we were talking about how it would be interesting if maybe she’s been educated by the movies from America, so she thinks she can kick their asses, but she discovers that violence is not something that you can learn from movies or TV—it’s something that you have to exercise.
It’s funny how, if put in a situation where you have to defend yourself physically, someone might remember scenes from their favorite Sylvester Stallone movie and think they know how to fight, but then, as they’re getting their ass kicked, they realize that they’re not Sylvester Stallone.
One could argue that Miss Bala does have that spectacle element of the best action movies, though you shoot the big action sequences with such an in-your-face, stripped down urgency. The two that really stick out are the gunfight on the street and the hotel room raid near the end of the film—both are extremely visceral and effective. What was your approach for making those scenes as immersive as possible?
Everything comes out of the movies I was raised on. I was raised on the great American movies from the ’70s, ones that had a grittiness and approach to reality that I really enjoyed, and that educated me somehow. And I guess we all are very conscious of the new action films now, with Transformers and all these things, and they are not based on reality that much. When we were thinking about making action sequences, we said, “OK, we’re not going to show everything.” We knew that we were running a big risk, and we tried to commit to reality.
The question was: What’s the property of Hollywood action sequences that we believe is not good? So we tried to keep everything based in reality, and researched how everything was really done. Also, there was another thing we tried to accomplish, and that was to make the violence feel uneasy and uncomfortable for the viewer. That was a big guideline for us—it had to be uncomfortable. It’s not about seeing the gun shooting, it’s more about seeing the reactions from Laura, and the results of the violence. We weren’t trying to focus on the destruction in a glorious way.
We tried hard to not have the audience “enjoy” the action sequences. Even so, there are people who’ve said, “I loved the action scenes!” Well, I think, in a way, we didn’t achieve what we tried to accomplish, then, because we tried to make the audience have a very uneasy time.
I’d imagine that most people say that from the perspective of loving how you shot the scenes, more so than how they loved seeing Laura go through hell.
That’s a nice way to look at it. [Laughs.] I hope you’re right.
It’s a really clever way to approach the action, sticking to one person’s point-of-view rather than going the typical Hollywood/Michael Bay route, where you see the action from various viewpoints. In Miss Bala, we’re constantly looking at Laura as all hell breaks loose around her, and that keeps the audience more in tune with what it’d feel like to be in that situation. And a lot of that has to do with your use of longer, one-take, cut-free scenes.
Yeah, exactly. And another thing about that, which you’ve smartly pointed out, is the time we invest in a scene. Every time we’re watching a Hollywood film, it cuts so much during the action that it makes you feel like there’s an escape, you know? There are so many different points-of-view that you don’t feel the pressure, but I think in Miss Bala we tried to make you feel pressed, and that there’s no way out. Like, if you stick your head up, you’ll get killed.
I think the film, in many ways, makes you imagine more than it shows. That’s the power of the film: You don’t see the guys who are shooting, but you can imagine that they are only 20 feet away because the violence is happening within the frame.
Well, I hope Miss Bala gets seen by the right people in Hollywood and they hire you to make some more legitimately realistic action movies.
[Laughs.] I hope so, too. It’ll be interesting. America always finds way to incorporate new stuff into what they do, and I think this is a somewhat new way to do it, so, yeah, maybe.
When I first heard about Miss Bala, prior to seeing it, I immediately drew comparisons to films like Traffic, movies that cover similar ground from multiple character perspectives. But Miss Bala’s intimacy really caught me off guard, in a good way.
Oh, fantastic! And I do believe that the power of the film is that we committed to the ignorance of the protagonist. This movie gives you very little information, and it keeps you frustrated because you want to know more. In a normal thriller, you’d know the intentions of the bad guy, and you’d even know the bad guy’s plan—you’d know where he’s placed the bomb. Here, you just come from the point-of-view of a character who doesn’t know anything, she’s just a puppet.
How do you think that translates to audiences outside of Mexico? More often than not, they’re going to sit down and watch Miss Bala with very little knowledge about what’s really happening in Mexico.
Well, certainly, I do believe that it will reproduce a little bit of Laura’s own uninformed experience. I wanted to also transfer this sense of frustration, where I don’t understand what’s happening in my country. Obviously, I know that people won’t just sit back and enjoy the film—they have to participate, or they won’t get anything from it. I’m happy with it, and I hope that the experience of confusion and not understanding will be the drive of the film.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)