Rubén Imaz On How Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ Inspired His Film About a Mexican Fisherman

Mexican filmmaker Rubén Imaz was struck with sadness as he looked down at the tombstone of Mexican fisherman Rudesindo Cantarell Jiménez while visiting the small cemetery in Campeche, Mexico, where he was buried. Imaz had gone to do research on Jiménez, who, in 1961, discovered what ultimately became the largest oilfield in Mexico and one of the largest in the world today.

Imaz left the gravesite knowing he wanted to make a film on how Jiménez’s discovery affected his life and livelihood as a fisherman, but also hoped to inject a sense of mystery, dark drama, and fantasy elements into the pages of the script. To do this, he decided to blend Jimenez’s character with that of Prospero, the sorcerer in William Shakespeare’s early 17th century play The Tempest.

What resulted from the merging of characters was Romero Kantún (José Carlos Ruiz), the main protagonist in Imaz’s feature film Tormentero. The film, which made its U.S. premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, follows Romero as he is forced to confront the ghosts of his past and his disconnection with reality.

During an interview with Remezcla in Austin, Imaz, whose past films include 2006’s Familia tortuga and 2010’s Cephalopod, talked about which filmmakers inspired him going into this project, and why making movies considered too obscure by mainstream audiences doesn’t worry him.

On the parallels between Jiménez and Prospero

Prospero, like Jiménez, is also a man who has been exiled. The people from his own society threw him away and sent him to an island. But then he discovered magic there and became a great sorcerer. He used his magic to end his life in a more proper way than it was going to happen. These two character became my characters.

On casting 80-year-old Mexican actor José Carlos Ruiz as the main character

I like to work with nonprofessional actors sometimes. I did a couple of casting calls on the island looking for fisherman. I found great faces and great possibilities. But I kept thinking we needed somebody who really understands the language of cinema because we were going to use camera movements to create this specific space and time—like if the character is trapped by his own dream. José has been in front of a camera for 60 years. So, in a way he is also trapped by the camera. I think he’s the best Mexican actor of his generation.

On the dark and beautiful style and look and mysterious tone of his film

As a student of film, I am always borrowing ideas. I always trusted in [John] Cassavetes’ method. He went out into the New York streets with his small crew and tiny camera and start getting people to act. With Tormentero, I thought a lot about the ideas of [filmmaker] Andrei Tarkovsky. I love the way he thinks about cinema. He says cinema is more of a dream than a narrative story. In cinema, as in dreams, you may start losing the plot points as you try to remember them, but you’ll never forget all those emotions and those characters. Those films will stick in your mind as a subjective memory or like a past life.

On shooting Tormentero as a dream rather than a film

Tarkovsky said that when he edited his film The Mirror (1975), he didn’t find the film until the last cut he made in the editing process. I told my crew that I wanted that to happen to me, too. They believed in me, so they allowed me to do it. As we shot the film, I would always capture a new time and space and feeling. During editing, we always had a chance to reorder the scenes. I asked the wardrobe girl to dress [the actors] in the same thing every day so we didn’t have to edit for continuity. If you compare the script with the final [film] line by line, it’s completely different—and exactly the same. That’s what we were looking for.

On making movies that might be too obscure for mainstream audiences

Cinema is a way to communicate important feelings. I like films that have layers. My intention is to share an important experience through art, but I’m also looking to expand myself. I’m not going to say, “OK, this is the film we’re doing. If you don’t like it, go watch Spider-man.” Hopefully, my films aren’t ones that will push people away. Maybe they’ve never seen something like it before. I always like to ask people, “Did the film make you feel uncomfortable? Did you want to see what would happen?” Those are the magic questions.

On the state of filmmaking in Mexico

I never think about Mexican cinema or international cinema. It’s just filmmaking to me. By the way, [Alfonso] Cuarón is shooting in Mexico right now, finally, in Spanish. That’s important to the country because he is a rock star internationally. Mexico is a country for cinema. We’ve been making films since the beginning. Our films might not be as successful or well-known worldwide, but we’ve never stopped. We have talented people. But we have audiences that are very used to Hollywood-style films, so we’re still trying to work on that and expand our films.