Often what defines a thriller are its narrative twist and turns. Catherine Hardwicke’s latest, written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, has plenty of them. Twists at times both exhilarating and unnerving. As a story about Gloria (Gina Rodriguez), a make-up artist who gets caught up with the cartel while trying to find her friend in Mexico, the film is a true edge of your seat type of story.
What sometimes goes unrecognized in a thriller, however, is the often seamless yet powerful visual work that drives the surprise within those moments, in addition to the writing. Miss Bala, in particular, thrives in its ability to balance visual action and emotion throughout, keeping us close to Gloria’s perspective, while also guiding us unexpectedly toward the next big revelation.
With the release of the film this past week we chatted with Hardwicke about Miss Bala and the journey of creating some of the film’s largest and most challenging sequences.
Warning: This interview goes into spoilers for Miss Bala.
I attended your Q&A at Austin Film Society and I heard you mention that for Miss Bala, the studio had wanted a sort of James Bond look to the film, but you had 38 days to shoot and a certain budget allotted. Taking all of that into consideration, what was your storyboarding and pre-production process like?
Well, it was kind of radical because from the day Gina signed on, it wasn’t really a movie until she said yes. Then they greenlit it and then because of her Jane the Virgin schedule we had to start shooting 8 weeks later. So it was kind of like a Death Race 2000. We didn’t really have time to storyboard. We had about 4 days with the storyboard artist to do a few keyframes for like the bull ring sequence, just to get everybody excited about it. You know the big shoot out there. And then after that it was pretty much I would go to the location and then I would just get people to stand in and sort of do like photo boards. Shayda who works with me, she’s an associate producer on the movie, she was playing Miss Bala and she would run across the scene, and then to the driver of the car, I’d say “ok you’re going to get out and be one of the gang guys.” The rental car driver literally got out some windshield wiper blades that were in the trunk and used them like a gun. And I was like wow, so creative. So it would just be like at any moment I would try to pre-visualize what the scene would look like. Re-enact it. It was almost just like being creative on the go. We had a great second-unit director Jamie Marshall, he was there last night [at the Q&A], also our stunt coordinators were gung-ho and “let’s try this, run across here, do this.” So it was really fun.
What do you find to be the most visually exciting and challenging aspects of directing a thriller versus a film in another genre?
Probably because we have four major action sequences and each of those I knew was going to be real adrenaline-pumping situations. Like the first shoot-out in the nightclub. So we were really trying to find some interesting lighting and the whole way to light it. And think about how you could create more visual drama. Like when he shoots out the light to make it dark so he could do his thing. Then you could create all these cool sparks flying. And then the production designer Marco Niro, he made these big back-lit panels of that kind of neat abstract designs that we put in there, and then those could get shot out to create some more drama. So each time thinking ok what would be an interesting look? That was kind of a night interior scene, then you have a day car-chase and then you have a day shoot-out in that old bull-ring parking lot, and then for the finale, we wanted something different. So now you have a night shoot-out in an exterior. So we found a location that the condos with the swimming pools out in the back so you had the water reflecting. Then I thought let’s add one more element: a fire pit. So you have the glowing fire pit… the lantern, the ocean. And then to create even more drama we did a drone shot that would fly out over the ocean so you could see. It’s right on the waves and right on the beach. You could get excitement from the whole thing. So each one we tried to create a different look and a different vibe and a different dynamic for each sequence.
One of those sequences in particular that blew me away was the one in the lot when Gloria had come back from picking up the weapons to find herself surrounded. Realizing no one is going to save her, she ends up saving herself and saves Lino’s life too. Could you talk a little further about creating that sequence and the decisions that brought that together?
Yeah, that was our most challenging sequence. I call it the bull-ring sequence because in the background there’s this old bull-ring there. That was actually shot in the parking lot by the bull-ring. That’s a super dramatic location. So we kind of set it up with the drone, and it’s literally right next to the border wall, so you see the steel wall, with slats going into the ocean, and the helicopter shots and everything leading up to that. And so it’s right on the Mexican border, it’s right on the ocean. It’s a sad parking lot. I thought it was kind of like a western with the old, dusty, gravel parking lot and then it had all these buildings around it. So I thought oh this is really neat. I could put snipers in different positions in this amazing looking abandoned building, half-destroyed, that’s where the DEA was. And then the other sniper for the cartel on the top of the bull-ring. So you have this triangulated design and these big arches where the cop cars came in. So I got little matchbox miniature cars and made a map of the location and drove the cars around and thought “oh this will be cool if these cars come in from this direction and that direction.” So that was really fun to plan out on a physical level. Then on an emotional level, it was how do you physically trap this girl Gloria into thinking how did she think that if she could get to the yellow gates there would be a swat team there waiting for her? She had to run across gunfire to get there. So that was a huge act of courage to get over there but she thought she would be safe and then as soon as she gets there, there’s nothing there. Now she realizes she’s abandoned, no one is coming for her. What is her best option? For me, I had to really figure out how to triangulate it, how to put people in every position so that it created this sense of peril that she really had no option. Then she realizes the only person in this whole scenario who gives a damn about her is Lino. Literally the only one she can think I might have a chance to escape. His guys certainly didn’t like her, and obviously, the police and the DEA had abandoned her at this point.
You also mentioned [at the Q&A] that you used a widescreen anamorphic lens which you said gave the film a sort of “epic intimacy” vibe. Is there a particular scene in mind that you think best utilized that?
Actually, I think it was the scene we were just talking about.
You see the shoot out scene, you see Gloria…of course I kind of love the shot where she turns around and makes that decision, you know, to go back for him. She looks to see, the thought passing over her face, what should I do? The complex mathematics. And you see Gloria very strong in that scene, but you also see the background and the circumstance that she’s in. So by having that widescreen you could actually have a close up on one side, on the left side of the camera you have her face and then you can really feel what she’s feeling, but you also on the right side see all of this, we’re in a battle, we’re in a shoot out, guys are going down. There’s a sniper back there This is not good! But you feel the impact in one frame, of everything she’s going through and how it’s affecting her.
And I think it was so effective at accomplishing that. The way it was shot kind of reminded me of that scene in Wonder Woman, where Diana rises from the pits to go fight by herself.
Oh yes! That’s a great point. Yeah, that was a great scene. That was awesome.
It’s such a great scene. Going back a little bit though, what was the experience like of orchestrating the car chases?
Yeah, that was pretty interesting. Our second unit director Jamie was very helpful on that because he was able to go out and look through the streets and try to find where are the most interesting streets that would allow us to close it down and do a car chase. So you see you have like one hill and that hill actually leaps up to the border wall. And that neighborhood is actually known for having multiple tunnels under the houses. So it was kind of a wild neighborhood to be shooting in. Quite interesting and there’s lots of guard dogs placed in there and everything. We were able to get them to close down a few blocks and we had this one really cool filming tool. It’s called a Russian Arm. Baby Driver used it extensively. On top of a car is mounted this big crane, kind of like a camera crane in a way, and the camera could move so that this car could follow or lead your action car. And then the camera could fly around and move and create this really dynamic movement so the camera does not have to be mounted like in the old hostess tray mounted on the side. It’s not locked to the car, it gets to move around the car, so you can create a lot of cool stuff. It’s a pretty expensive tool, and we found out our transportation coordinator from Mexico City had made one himself. So it’s kind of a Mexican arm instead of a Russian arm, or maybe a Mexican Russian Arm. And he had made it and mounted it on top of a Mercedes. And he said he was loving the film and really putting his heart into it, and at a super discounted rate, he brought the Mexican Russian arm up, and then we got to do some very fun shots with it, which made the car chase really fun. We used it in the bull ring too.
There were also later shots that made call-backs, or connections, to earlier ones to complete a narrative point. The friendship bracelet Gloria is given at the beginning, she’s kind of using it as her motivation throughout. And then when Lino is giving her a gun lesson and she points it at him, and then at the end, she points it at him for real.
Yes, she doesn’t back down that time.
Yes. How important was it to you to connect those visuals narratively throughout the film?
I think it was really important. You know the bracelet was kind of a big deal. You do not have the friend there. She can’t call the friend, she’s not gonna pull out a photograph of her. Her phone has been taken from her. I think she kind of needed one of those touchstones that we all kind of have. That as soon as you touch that object or look at that object it really brings back a strong sense memory for you. And that’s what that bracelet did. Even her friend says, friendship bracelets like when we were kids, it probably even goes deeper than that one bracelet, but it goes to back in the day we used to do this all the time and put bracelets on each other’s hands. It just took you all the way back to childhood with that friend and your deep connection with that friend and you just cannot let her down. You cannot give up or let this end if you didn’t try everything you could to find her and save her. And then the gun, I thought that was a beautiful thing in the writing that Gareth came up with that idea. She’s not able to shoot him the first time she has a chance. But by the end of the film, as her character strengthens, she realizes I have no choice now. It’s not gonna end well. It’s either me and my friend or him. And she’s able to do it.
Often times, action-thriller films tend to be very dark or kind of dusty-looking, but this film does an interesting job at showcasing different types of scenery and lighting. Could you talk a little bit about the decision for that?
Yes I mean for one thing, we already have two amazing Sicario movies and they go to a really dark place and they’re really great, but we were kind of doing something different here and showing some of the contrasting beautiful and striking and vibrant elements of Mexico and Baja, California that I was struck with. The landscape is stunning, obviously the ocean. Of course, I’ve surfed down there before so I love that part of it. But I hadn’t seen the Valle de Guadalupe, you know, that beautiful desert in wine country area, and all this super-fun cutting-edge modern architecture. We just wanted to show that there is way more to Mexico that is really metropolitan and fun, that’s cutting-edge, and a whole array of people there…Cool families living their lives, great restaurants, everything. And yes there is the criminal element like we have everywhere, and it is a bit encouraged by the United States, obviously…the fact that our government agencies have been documented multiple times supplying guns to the cartel…so yeah.
Miss Bala is in theaters nationwide.