Interview with “Desierto” director Jonás Cuarón

An action thriller starring Gael García Bernal


Mexico’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year, “Desierto” portrays the journey of Mexican and Central American migrant workers seeking a better life by crossing the U.S. desert. They find themselves in a fight for survival when a merciless, rifle-toting vigilante and his dog chase them through the unforgiving desert.

While it would be a polemic story no matter the release date, the film premieres in movie theaters in the Washington-area and elsewhere around the country Oct. 14,  just a few weeks before one of the most unusual—and unusually divisive—presidential elections in U.S. history.


“Desierto” was written, produced and directed by Jonás Cuarón, the son of Academy Award-winner Alfonso Cuarón. This is the first film he has directed but he collaborated with his famous father on the highly acclaimed 2013 film “Gravity”.

Hola Cultura spoke with Jonás Cuarón about his interest in the immigration theme; how he started his career in the movie industry; and his creative process.

How did you start your career in the film industry? Were you influenced by being surrounded by filmmakers?

I never really thought I was going to go into cinema. I went to university to study literature. Then I started doing shorts and I realized I liked it. I made my first picture in college and showed it to my father and my uncle. They were both very surprised that I was making cinema. All they did was talk about cinema; all their friends talked about cinema. They left me no option. Also, my girlfriend was very obsessed with cinema. So I started doing small movies, then I got hooked.

When and why did you decide to do a movie with an immigration theme?; and why did you decide on an action thriller genre for this film?

This is my first film that discusses this subject matter in this form. My first film “Año Uña” also explored about the relationship between Mexico and the United States but in a very different way. I guess it’s a subject matter that has always interested me. I moved to the United States more than twenty years ago. So I lived my whole life between the United States and Mexico. The relationship between both cultures is very important to me.

Ten years ago I traveled to Arizona with my brother. Back then there were already anti-immigration laws (on the books) that were startling. There started to be a really strong rhetoric of hatred towards immigrants. I became interested in doing a project about this subject but wanted to do it in a new way. I didn’t want it to be a cliché film. That’s what started to talk about these issues through the [genre of] a horror movie or an action movie. Not only because it was a new way to do it, but also because I wanted to create a connection with the audience, but not an intellectual connection. I was more interested in connecting with the audience in a visual way.

Gael Garc’a Bernal stars in DESIERTO

Gael García Bernal in “Desierto”. Photos courtesy of STX Entertainment

Gael García Bernal has made several documentaries on immigration and seems to have done extensive research on the subject. How did that background knowledge affect the way you two worked together?

I chose Gael not only because he is an actor that I really admire, but also because when I was doing research for the film I kept seeing those documentaries that you mentioned. Some of them were directed by him, others he produced. He even acted in one of them. He took the whole journey that migrants take from Central America to Mexico on the train. So I knew for Gael, the subject matter was very close to him and that was very helpful. Also, I knew that research-wise he was a great partner. He really knew a lot about the subject matter.

Was there an instance where he changed your perspective an issue or a particular scene because of this knowledge and experience?

On the set, he would constantly tell all the other actors these stories that he had either seen first-hand, or learned about through the research [for the documentaries] he had done. In that sense he kept constantly informing everyone in the team. For me, lots of things about those documentaries ended being important for this film. His documentary “Who is Dayani Cristal?” really inspired a particularly strong and tragic moment in “Desierto.”

Even though “Desierto” started production a number of years ago, it is releasing in the US just a few weeks before the U.S. presidential election. The film clearly deals with one of the most crucial themes of this year’s presidential campaign. How do you hope your movie will affect the immigration debate?

As you said, this movie started about ten years ago. Back then I couldn’t imagine what was going to be happening now. But already this subject matter and rhetoric of hatred towards “the other” and towards the migrant was already present. The sad thing is that over the ten years it took me to do the movie, the theme is more relevant. A lot of the sentiments in the movie are going to be more relevant after these elections. Obviously, it worries me what will happen in this election. But more than the specificity of the elections, what’s really sad is that this rhetoric of hatred is not only present in this election and not only in the U.S. We see it all over the world. That’s what I find worrisome.

What was your creative process in determining how you were going to represent the immigrant and the vigilante?

The tricky part with a movie like “Desierto” was that ten minutes into the movie the action starts and it becomes nonstop. There’s little time to have dialogue and explain the human side of the characters, so that’s something that I’m really grateful to Gael and Jeffrey for. [Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”) plays the vigilante.] With the very little dialogue and signs that they give us—whether it is through action, through the wardrobe, or just even expressions—we learn a lot about their characters.

Jeffrey’s character is very intriguing, what does his character represent to you?

To me, Jeffrey has always represented the cautionary tale of vulnerable parts of society; what they end up doing when they keep being bombarded with this rhetoric of hatred. I think with the little signs and hints that Jeffery gives us, it’s pretty clear to us that his character is in a very vulnerable situation. To me, if people in vulnerable situations keep being bombarded with this rhetoric of hatred, sooner or later someone is going to pull the trigger like Jeffrey does in the movie.

Academy Award-winner Alfonso Cuaron with his son, "Desierto" director Jonas Cuaron at the film's Los Angeles premiere. Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment/AP Images)

Academy Award-winner Alfonso Cuaron with his son, “Desierto” director Jonas Cuaron at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment/AP Images

How did you choose the location to shoot the movie?

We shot the movie in Baja California. I spent four years travelling all across the US, and Mexico looking for the desert, for the best location. I found this location in Baja California. The problem was the location was in the middle of nowhere. There was no infrastructure. There were snakes everywhere. It made the shoot very difficult.

Was there a particular scene that was hard to film or that didn’t go as planned?

Everything. Every day was a new challenge. Filming Gael jumping from one stone to another or filming the dog attacking people or snakes. In that sense everyday was a little nightmarish. Probably the hardest scene to film was when the girl is surrounded by snakes. Snakes were very difficult to work with. We didn’t have a budget to do visual effects, so we literally had to surround the girl with snakes. That day was very scary and uncomfortable.

Do you and your father provide each other with feedback? How do you work together?

Whenever I do a project I always go to my dad and my uncle (Carlos Cuarón) for feedback. They are two people I really admire and have been my mentors throughout this whole process. So in that sense that’s how we tend to collaborate. Obviously, there are times when our collaboration became even closer, as in the case of “Gravity,” which we ended up writing together. But even when it’s not like “Gravity,” we’re always working together since we tend to constantly ask each other for feedback.

Are you interested in doing more movies with the immigration themes or are you looking into other projects?

Right now I don’t know with clarity what my next project is. Obviously this subject matter interests me. But I feel like right now, with “Desierto”, I’ve managed to do a take on it.

Read our review in Spanish.

—Estefani Flores

Desierto es una película que nos describe una de las muchas realidades fronterizas. El asesinato
If you want to learn about the sequence of events behind one of the darkest

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