Amat Escalante on ‘La Región Salvaje’ & the Email to Carlos Reygadas That Launched His Career

'La región salvaje' Courtesy of Los Cabos Film Festival

The stand out movie at this year’s Los Cabos International Film Festival was easily Amat Escalante’s La región salvaje. In fact, it may be one of the best films I’ve seen all year. A moody piece that cleverly borrows from the horror, thriller, and sci-fi genres, La región salvaje will captivate and surprise you. This is Escalante’s fourth feature, and though he’s long been considered one of Mexico’s great talents, his vision is growing in scope, creativity, and reach.

The film opens on a close-up of a woman indulging in absolute pleasure. She’s naked, sweaty, and her eyes lost to the horizon as if she had just had the biggest hit of the most exquisite drug. Her hands, flimsy and uncertain, meander across her body. As the frame widens, we are clued in to the source of her pleasure, one that may or may not be human. In a single shot Escalante holds you in the palm of his hand as a myriad of questions swirl about: Who is she? Why is she here? Why is she bleeding? And I’ll stop there. La región salvaje is best experienced with little prior knowledge so you too can indulge in the unexpected twists and turns.

Though eerie and suspenseful, it is not a horror film. Whereas horror movies tend to shock and unnerve, Escalante seems more intent in tantalizing. Though there are supernatural elements, Escalante doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the world of the film. Instead, he allows the viewer to conjure up answers confident in the audience’s familiarity with genre movies. The film touches on themes of shame, sexual freedom, and the dangers of repressed desires. These are issues that for Escalante are of special concern as he resides in Guanajuato, one of the more conservative and religious cities in Mexico.

Shot along and within the mountains that surround Guanajuato, the cinematography is cool, detached, and rich in contrast. It was photographed by Chilean DP Manuel Alberto Claro, who has also lensed Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac I & II. The film also counts on the excellent sonic contribution of Norwegian musician Guro Skumsnes Moe. Moe is primarily an upright bass player, and her music is experimental throwing toward punk, rock and straight up noise. The low and heavy compositions she put together for La región salvaje are sure to rattle your small intestine.

Largely self-taught, Escalante lists experimental filmmaker James Benning as one of his core influences. After his parents divorced, Escalante spent part of his youth living in Austin, Texas with his father, where he became a regular visitor of the Austin Film Society. There, he was exposed to some of the most imaginative voices in cinema, and was inspired to make his first short film. This short would lead him to meet Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, who took him under his wing and well, check out my interview with Amat Escalante below to find out the rest.

Read the rest of our coverage of the Los Cabos International Film Festival here.

What’s Guanajuato like?

Guanajuato is geographically in the center of the country, right in the middle of Mexico, in a region called El Bajío. In fact, there’s a huge Christ the King that sits on top of a hill. Ex-president Fox was the governor of Guanajuato. Diego Rivera grew up in this city; that’s where he lived as a child and intermittently throughout his life. Herzog filmed the beginning of Nosferatu there — the mummies. The mummies are a popular tourist attraction, the Mummies of Guanajuato. It’s a colonial city, very conservative, religious. It’s the most religious state in the country, I think.

Can you introduce yourself to people who maybe don’t know you or your work?

“I started to work in video stores, and fast food restaurants in order to raise money so that I could make a short film.”

I’m a Mexican filmmaker. I started working toward becoming a filmmaker when I was 15 years old, when I dropped out of high school. I decided to leave school after I saw that Werner Herzog had left school when he was 15 years old, which was an inspiration for me. My father at that time was living in Austin, Texas. I had seen a movie called Slacker by Richard Linklater. I thought Austin was quiet and pleasant so I lived there for two years, from the time I was fifteen to seventeen years old. And in the city there was something called the Austin Film Society, which Richard Linklater had helped set up. And every Tuesday they would show interesting movies there. I had already decided I wanted to make film by that time, but there I discovered filmmakers that became very important for me later on. James Benning is one of them, who is an experimental filmmaker. Chantal Akerman. I was introduced to them because of this place. I also saw Zulawski, Fassbinder, Herzog. All of those. I started to work in video stores, and fast food restaurants in order to raise money so that I could make a short film. I saved money for about three years. I had about four thousand dollars. I bought a film camera, a digital recorder, and I went and shot this short that I had written. But it took me a while to finish it. I shot it in 1998 and in 2002 I finished it.

‘La región salvaje’
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What is your connection to Carlos Reygadas? How did you meet him?

“I was looking for a camera to buy for my new film, and he told me he had a friend who was selling his camera, and it turns out it was Carlos Reygadas.”

I saw Japón and I liked it a lot. It was a Mexican movie unlike anything I had seen; that was so much like what interested me. Back then there was Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Cronos, which were good movies that made you admire what could be made in Mexico. But they felt far from me. When I saw Japón, I understood… I connected with that film. It was exactly the kind of movie that was exciting to me, and that I was motivated to make. And I saw that in the credits it said Rotterdam Film Festival. So I sent my short and it got into that festival. And because of that I got in touch with Carlos Reygadas. I started to work with him after he saw my short, and helped me make my first feature film, Sangre.

So wait, you just sent him an email?

An email but a long one. It was a fan email. But there was there an indirect relationship there because of a friend we had in common Pedro Aguilera, who is a Spanish filmmaker. I was looking for a camera to buy for my new film, and he told me he had a friend who was selling his camera, and it turns out it was Carlos Reygadas. It was a coincidence. Through my friend I asked how much the camera was that he was selling, and it was too much money for me so I didn’t approach him for that. When I wrote him, I mentioned our mutual friend at the end of the email, and that I wanted to buy his camera but it was too expensive. So he then kindly responded and offered to help me, to lend me his camera, and things like that.

When you first started out, did you have any insecurities? Did you ever doubt yourself?

Yes, and more than anything I remember other people making me doubt myself. Because I was fifteen years old and betting on a film career without having anything to fall back on. But my father is also a bit like me in that sense, and I was so passionate and obsessed, and I somehow knew that if I failed there would always be something else to do.

You never wanted to be a vet or something?

No. Well, before that, before wanting to make films, I wanted to do other things but I didn’t pursue them. And my first short, which is called Amarrados, I sent it to the film festival in my city, Guanajuato, which was then called Expression en Corto en Guanajuato. It was rejected. They didn’t even accept it in the “Guanajuatences” section of the festival. So that was the first interaction I had with a festival, and from there I felt pretty bad, disappointed. I don’t recall if I thought I wouldn’t go into filmmaking, but it did hit me very hard. And by chance I sent the film to Rotterdam, and it was accepted so that motivated me to keep going.

In what order should people who just became acquainted with you and your work see your films?

Well, probably from the most recent to the first, because you are learning so it’s better to see where it goes than with me figuring it out. It’s less painful. And the work starts to explain itself.

‘La región salvaje’
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Have you noticed that film tastes in Mexico are changing? Is the aesthetic changing as well?

Well, yes I think it’s a much bigger moment for Mexican cinema. During the time of Amores Perros and Y tu mamá también there were few Mexican movies. I think the year I made Sangre, 2005, there were twenty or thirty movies. Now there are 150 movies. So it’s another world in many ways. There are many more people in Mexico now, and the internet and all the information that there is, is causing the borders to blur. For example, when I started to make films, I’m grateful to have been in Austin and to have had that exposure to those movies and filmmakers. But if I had been in Mexico it would have been very difficult for me to have access to those films then. Now, it’s not like that. If someone wants to know who James Benning is you can do a Google search, and you get an idea of what his work is like even though it’s not the same as seeing it in the big screen. People can see what they want. You have access to everything. Because of this, I think film that is considered to be a Mexican film, an interesting Mexican film, stops being Mexican at the same time. And that’s a good thing. Interesting films, for example Carlos Reygadas: though his films tend to be very Mexican, filmed in Mexico with Mexican themes, his style transcends that. And that’s what starts to happen with interesting, innovative films.