Returning to the more intimate and minimal storytelling that got him to the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 with his first film La Tragedia de Macario, San Antonio-based filmmaker Pablo Veliz has found a new approach to the immigrant narrative in his latest film Book of Ruth. In the film, Ruth (Casandra Canales) begins to question her faith during a solo walk through the desert without any supplies. When she meets another traveler, she embarks on a new journey where love and companionship become the most important things in her life.
During our interview with Veliz, we discussed how his first film and most recent film are similar, why he prefers working on a smaller productions, and the challenges his crew faced shooting during the summer in West Texas.
Would you consider making The Book of Ruth a similar experience as making your first film La Tragedia de Macario since both are minimal in their delivery?
Yes, this film resonates some of the same impressions that we used to make La Tragedia de Macario. Some of the similarities are that we used a very small crew, a remote location, minimal cast and script, and it is also a story of a journey against incredible odds. But in Book of Ruth, we now have two females instead of two males. It’s also a story not just about migration, but the search for something a little more sophisticated – something I like to call a quality in love. It’s something that is subtle in the story. It is a journey for love more so than the conventional storylines that are associated with migrating.
“The first day we were there, it was cool in the morning and then it got to 114 degrees in the afternoon.”
As a filmmaker, do you prefer working on a small scale like this?
I prefer a small crew. For this film, we had five people taking care of everything. A larger crew is an engine designed to make a commercial piece. A smaller crew is a group of individuals dedicated to making an art piece. Even though the goals of both are to make a movie, how we get to those goals is very different. It’s the difference between a mass-production aspect of making a film and the handcrafted aspect of making a film. You get a different result. With Book of Ruth, you can see all our fingerprints on every frame of the film. We were able to develop the story in a more organic way, so it feels more like a painting than it does a production.
Talk about working in West Texas and the challenges you faced shooting a film in such harsh conditions? I’m assuming it got pretty hot during production.
When I began location scouting I was looking for what the script called a very “desolate” place. It had to be a place that didn’t hold the conventions of easy traverse, with roads or pavements or walkways. It had to be a place that was big and open and when you looked at it you would think twice about engaging in such a journey. I wanted the characters to feel like every step they took would be marked as a new step. I wanted them to create a new path. We started shooting in the summer. The first day we were there, it was cool in the morning and then it got to 114 degrees in the afternoon. It was very challenging, especially if you consider that we weren’t near a road. It was three hours into this massive range of mountains and hills. It was difficult, but we took lots of water, gasoline, food and determination with us.
Did your lead actress Casandra Canales know what she was getting herself into?
She had a general idea. I was very clear that this place was vast and there wasn’t anything near and she was excited about it; the way you would get excited about going to the moon. But she took it like a champ. We kept all our actors hydrated on the set, but nonetheless, it was torturing hot. She used all her feelings of exhausting in her performance. When you see her exhausted, she is not acting. She is exhausted! You couldn’t have acted that out.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Wild, but Reese Witherspoon doesn’t have anything on Casandra, that’s for sure.
“Immigrant stories fascinate me. The concept of journeying from one place to another and turning death into a fighting chance to live…”
Yeah, that movie takes a different approach. Also, Reese Witherspoon had a backpack with lots of supplies. Casandra loses her backpack, which is part of the story. She is truly alone and without anything.
Did writing for a female character come natural to you?
Ruth is female, but other than the physical attributes she has as a woman, it’s difficult to attribute her to just a female. Something I wanted to get across in the film as universal is the way she wanted to love and wanted to be loved in return. To me, it didn’t matter if she was female or male. There is a different dynamic and visual lyricism to Book of Ruth than my other films. If you’re asking why I chose a female character, it was really to stretch my writing muscles. I think one of the most challenging parts of the script was writing the dialogue she has with God.
Thematically speaking, how do you feel Book of Ruth separates itself from other immigrant stories?
I admit the canvas I used is a narrative I understand. Immigrant stories fascinate me. The concept of journeying from one place to another and turning death into a fighting chance to live is what fascinates me. What I hope people find that distinguishes this from just another immigrant film is Ruth’s internal conflict. I think this is a story about the balance of our faith and our science and which one we should trust to lead us.
Book of Ruth is playing at CineFestival in San Antonio, Texas on February 24, 2015.