Amat Escalante, Director of 'Heli' on How Living on Both Sides of the Border Informs His Filmmaking

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A decade ago, few could have predicted that Mexican filmmakers would take home Cannes’ prestigious Best Director award two years in a row, but that’s exactly what happened. Following on the heels of his close friend Carlos Reygadas, who took home the award in 2012, Amat Escalante’s third feature Heli shot him into to the upper ranks of international filmmaking and solidified his reputation as one of Mexican cinema’s foremost voices. While some critics have been turned off by the film’s unflinching portrayal of narco-violence, Heli is in its essence a tender family drama about perseverance in the face of hardship, with a little blood spilled along the way.

Ahead of its New York theatrical premiere, we caught up with Escalante to talk about staying optimistic in a country where there’s no easy answers, growing up in a bicultural household, and how watching A Clockwork Orange made him want to be filmmaker.

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When did you realize you wanted to pursue film as a career? What filmmakers have most inspired you?

I guess I was 15. I saw A Clockwork Orange and that was basically the one that said to me that I wanted to make movies. And then I saw the movies by Werner Herzog – Aguirre, Wrath of God and other films like that. And then Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang. These are the ones from the beginning, when I decided that I wanted to make movies.

Compared to your earlier work, Heli is much more classically constructed. Was it your intention to reach a broader audience with this film?

In a way, I wanted to make a movie where there weren’t so many questions at the end. I made these two other movies, Sangre and Los Bastardos, and at the end of the movies there were a lot of questions about certain things that people didn’t understand. So I made more of an effort with Heli to make a movie that everyone would understand. I wanted to get to the audience in another way so that they wouldn’t have to worry so much about the story. I wanted it to seem more seamless and wrap around people’s emotions with the characters and the journey that they would take in the film.

I noticed a lot of the criticism has focused on how bleak and depressing the film is, were you surprised by those reactions?

Yeah, I was at first. I was actually making an effort to be a bit more optimistic, but it’s difficult to be too positive or too optimistic when you don’t see an answer for a situation like there is in Mexico. It’s difficult, but I did try and yeah, the movie is about these characters trying to stay together and persevere under the situation that they’re in. A lot of things are not under their control. If I try to be positive and resolve things in a way that would please the audience, it would not be truthful with the situation. So, I think that’s why, in part, it has to be like that. In the real world, I think half the characters would be dead before the end of the movie. So, I was already being very positive in that way [laughs].

What do you feel you learned from making Heli?

I think one of the most difficult parts about learning to make movies is the encounter with the audience, the way that your movie is going to work with the audience, and I think as one gets more experienced one can predict that more. I think that’s the main thing I’ve learned – not that I’ve learned it yet, but I think I’m getting closer to understanding how the way I say something is transmitted to the audience. I think that’s something that one learns with each movie, if you’re attentive. I want that. I want to blend in with the audience in way, so that I can go into their soul easier with what I want to say, instead of confusing them. I do want to confuse them, but not with certain basic things.

You lived for a few years in LA, right?

Yeah, seven years and then two years in Texas, in Austin.

How did living on the other side of the Rio Bravo shape your perspective regarding Mexico?

With my mother being from the United States, my father being Mexican, I’ve had those two countries all my life. I feel I have the point of view of both of them. It was nice to be away from Mexico because you get to feel it and see it from a distance and you get inspired by it more than when you’re there. When you’re away, you miss it and you start feeling more for it and you get more inspired in that way. I get inspired when I’m away from things. When I was living [in the States] I was always dreaming of doing stuff in Mexico, and all those dreams would pay off when I came back [to make Heli].

How do you think Heli will go over in the United States?

With the United States it’s always very difficult to tell. I know there’s a lot of Mexicans and Latinos there, and they’ve heard that the movie’s been playing in Mexico and other places in Latin America, so I think there’s some curiosity. But I think that sometimes the United States has a difficult relationship with Mexico and the way that they perceive the things that are happening here. I think people will like the film because it tells the story of a family, but I also think some people will reject it because of the way it’s told, and also because they get annoyed by hearing what’s happening to their next-door neighbors — which is partly the fault of the United States. So I think deep down there might also be a rejection because of that involvement that one might want to pretend doesn’t exist. What’s happening in Mexico has to do with the United States in many ways.

Heli opens in New York on June 13th at the Cinema Village.