A Conversation with Michelle Garza Cervera & Natalia Solián (HUESERA)
Michelle Garza Cervera is a Mexican writer and director. For her debut feature she teamed up with fellow mexican Actor Natalia Solián. The film, titled Huesera, is a horror film that follows a woman through her pregnancy. Michelle graduated from the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica in Mexico City. Her short films have appeared in over 100 international film festivals and Huesera debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film won the best director award for a narrative feature. Natalia, an up and coming star, has had a big year starring not only in Huesera but also, Zapatos Rojos which debuted at the Venice Film Festival. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Hammer To Nail: Michelle, What gave you the idea for this script, and Natalia what was so intriguing about this script and character for you?
Michelle Garza Cervera: I knew I wanted to do a feature because I had done many short films before and I just knew I was going to do it someday. I started writing around 2017 and back in that time I was really touched by and reflecting on motherhood because I had lost my mom. I was approaching my 30s and domestic life in some ways. I started questioning the figure of one woman in my family which was a similar process to the main character of the film. I was already sure that I wanted to do a horror film. I thought it was a perfect theme and subject matter to tell the story I wanted to tell. That is where it came from.
Natalia Solián: For me, it was really special to have a script that was taboo in our culture and related to motherhood. I am a mother too and I was excited to work with all the complex things that come with motherhood. It was a script that gave me the opportunity to be honest. I was excited about tackling the concept of trying to be a woman and a mother at the same time.
HTN: Very cool, Michelle, I am wondering what your screenwriting process is like? Is it more sporadic or do you have a routine? Do you treat it like a 9-5?
MGC: I have a co-writer and we always had deadlines. We would always say, “we have a month.” So we knew we had to do it. The good thing about having a co-writer is that you cannot escape them. You have an agreement with someone. When we have to write we will focus on it for many hours a day. When I wake up, the first thing I do is write. I am also the kind of writer where sometimes I get ideas at 2 am and I have to sit down at that moment and write them down because sometimes the best ideas arrive at those weird moments. I cannot sleep anymore if I do not sit down and write. I really try to listen to my heart every time and just follow it but I am also a very strict screenwriter and I do believe deeply in the rewrite process. The real writing is in the rewrite. My perfect match is my co writer for that and we write and rewrite obsessively.
HTN: Natalia, you are following in the footsteps of many actresses who have played pregnant mothers in a horror film. Did you watch any films prior to the shoot in preparation?
NS: There were a lot of references for the movie. The most important reference for me was the movie The Hours. I love the performance of Toni Collette in that film. She nails the tone that works for horror. She is contained and also expressive all of the time. The other reference for me was Swallow. That was another reference for me because the lead actor in that film is again very contained in the situations of horror. Toni Collette was really the most important inspiration.
HTN: The film is shot digitally. I think that visuals are one of the strongest aspects of the picture. If you could have shot this on film would you have? If not, what is it about digital cinematography that you think suits this film so well?
MGC: I started with film because that is how film school is in Mexico. You do your first short in 16MM and then you do your second short in 35MM. It gave me the very necessary lessons on how to shoot a film. I work a lot on my shot lists. I have everything defined before going to set. Film gave that to me because I only had so much of it. I could only do two takes or two camera placements for certain scenes because I did not have any more material. That gave me the rigidity of really knowing where the camera goes. That is why I will always be thankful for film. The romantic thing of filming with film is not something I have. I know it looks good but it is very expensive. If you have a good cinematographer and a good camera I do not mind at all doing it digitally. I film in a way that comes from the film world. I do not shoot my films like they are television. You really need to know where the camera goes, and if not, you are giving the real directing process to the editor.
HTN: Natalia, I thought your chemistry with Alfonso (Dosal) was amazing. I really bought that you guys were a couple. I just want you to talk about the process of getting so comfortable with each other and making this relationship believable. I can’t imagine it is easy.
NS: We had a relationship before the film. It was a big surprise. I think that our friendship was the most important secret to developing this relationship. It was very therapeutic. We were friends, and we had some family history before the movie. Alfonso is a great partner because he was always listening. He plays with this rule that the other always has the reason. He was always open to listening to any proposals. He is generous and very smart. He created a great playground to develop this fiction. It worked a lot.
HTN: It definitely comes through in the film. The film has a pretty grave tone. Is that the tone on the set or are you guys having fun while you make the film?
MGC: I do think that there was tension because we only had a few weeks to shoot. It was very complicated and there were a lot of effects. We were also touching on a lot of difficult subjects. There were many moments on set that felt literal. There was a lot of respect for her work and for the set itself. For example, the ritual scene or the scene where Huesera takes control of her body. That was a moment where everyone was very focused and very respectful. You could feel the tone of the film on the set. We were having fun but we also had very tense situations. We had a very great team that was very respectful and involved.
HTN: Speaking of those effects, I feel like a lot of the fear factor in the film hinges on those excellent effects. Were the majority of the effects practical or special? I am mostly thinking about the bones popping out of people’s legs.
MGC: It was mostly sound really. We did not really have the budget to make the popping bones because that is super expensive. It really is the magic of cutting and sound design. It’s really a fast cut, then she has the bone popping out and then, there’s an amazing sound there. I feel like it really worked out. Most of it is practical. The fire is real. We had very few VFX. People think that the statue in the beginning is digitally done. I’ve been asked that question many times. It is actually a real place in Mexico. It is just not very well known.
HTN: That sound design process clearly plays a crucial role in the film. Even from the start Natalia cracking her knuckles is very emphasized. Talk about that sound design process.
MGC: Natalia does it for real. She really cracks her knuckles. I love sound. When we were writing we really cared about the sound. I think that sound pushes the story. I like when silence is deliberately used for narrative. I love horror films that have drones and otherworldly sound effects, however, I am not that kind of filmmaker. I really like to build from the reality that is surrounding my characters. In this case, it was domestic life, which is very horrific in many ways haha. It was perfect just to use those sounds of an apartment in Mexico City and try to transform those sounds to make them Cinematic and horrific. For the fractured bones. I was trying to have something that could be like a symbol for the film. Something that made it easily identifiable. It gives the audience a physical reaction like a knife in the eye. A bone fracture works that way and I love that we found a way to make that symbolic.
HTN: The sound design was amazing. It definitely freaked me out. For both of you, I would love to hear about your experience working on that scene towards the end in the club. As a director how do you make sure that the chaos becomes organized and as an actor how do you stand out as well as you do amidst all of the noise?
NS: A lot of the scenes we made had this condition. Big chaos but somehow in order. I just try to be in my own world and understand the big feelings that Valeria must be experiencing at this moment. It was a very significant moment because she is about to go into labor. Michelle was like the director of the orchestra at that moment. Michelle was very careful with my intimate process. I was trying to be a part of the team but also have my moment.
HTN: It’s a great scene. I really love that moment. The film feels very natural at times. So natural that I wonder if some lines were improvised. As a writer director are you someone that sticks to the script very strictly or is their room for adjustment on set?
MGC: I am the kind of director that involves their actors a lot, however, it happens previously, off of the set. I let them work on their backstories, and any ideas they have, I am very open. We read the text and I let them propose whatever. Many of the proposals from the actors altered the script. There is gold there because you have all these amazing, intelligent and super talented people willing to write backstories and bring amazing ideas. The idea of Valeria being very tough and the way she moves her body was all Natalia’s idea. There were many dialogues that came from the rehearsals. I try not to improvise on set but I do let the magic happen. I think when you have everything very prepared and talked about there are moments where magic happens on set. You are able to see them because you are relaxed and have a plan.
NS: I think that Michelle was trying to be a safety net so that we could arrive on the set and play. I think that for me it gave me ease because I have all of the elements of the character and all of the information that gives me the safety to be free.
MGC: Everything is set up so that they can play. Natalia does something that is very hard as an actor. You believe that she is seeing a monster and feeling these bone fractures. It is really not easy to do. I still do not comprehend the capacity that she has. I think that for actors like that you have to build a safe space so they can reach their full potential.
NS: She really does do that.
– Jack Schenker (@YUNGOCUPOTIS)
Michelle Garza Cervera & Natalia Solián; Huesera movie review