I wanted the audience to experience what it was like to be an immigrant. So rather than getting one character they can identify with, and just as a ride. The initial idea was no visual and just to do it with sound and make the entire cinema itself the container.
So it’s implicitly political?
I think anything’s going to be political when you’re showing tragedy like that. There’s got to be a message in there. For the audiences of the short film -basically the American bourgeois – it’s easy to watch a documentary and from a distance talk about these things that are politicised, but nothing to experience it.
Your films take a neorealist approach. Is this the most powerful kind of cinema?
I think it’s always action/reaction. My generation of filmmakers is reacting to cinema, especially the more popular cinema, which forces emotions. Oftentimes the best poetry is so exciting because you can fill in the blanks: it’s the same with cinema. If you do something in a way that allows people to fall into the story and never be aware they’re falling into it, you can have a much more successful emotional experience. It’s a seamlessness that’s very difficult to achieve.
Do you write in other ways?
I wrote in high school because I was trying to tell some stories and would have emotions surrounding them, but I wasn’t aware of prose until I started reading classic books and studied French.
What’s different in that language?
In French culture people would say “that’s an ugly sentence”, and try and find a better version of it. There’s a real weight on the aesthetic of the sentence itself. I always think of my Japanese heritage, how understated that family is and the way things are communicated. There’s “understood”, and in French there’s sous-entendu: “under-understood”.
Sin Nombre and the short were made during the Bush years. How has the US-Mexico border changed under Obama?
It hasn’t, really. If anything, the border’s much tougher, especially now with the drug wars. Calderon is the person who made it incredibly violent, and he’s basically [Vicente] Fox’s successor, who was Bush’s best friend.
Bush told Americans strengthening the border would make them safer.
I think a lot of it is about selling it to the constituents. Xenophobia is not a new thing. It has existed since the beginning of America. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts having the policy that they can just pull over anyone and ask for papers and deport them – is saying, “Look, we’re protecting you”.Increasing patrol and building the walls doesn’t stop the flow of immigration. The economy does. No amount of frontier patrol is going to stop that. It just becomes more deadly.
Slumdog Millionaire was criticised for its use of child actors. Sin Nombre used several amateurs. Does the director have a financial responsibility to their actors?
I don’t think so. Edgar [Flores], who plays the lead role, got more money than he ever thought he could have in his life. Because he was over 18 we set up a fund and got him acting grants. But then, no matter how much I said “save your money”, Edgar ended up wasting it. He spent it all. It wasn’t that much, but he couldn’t take advantage of his acting career because he got a girl pregnant, and was stuck in Honduras. In that case, I’m not responsible for them for their whole lives.
How does your Jane Eyre differ from Charlotte Bronte’s novel?
I downplayed the religious side and the racism. [The Rivers-as-cousins element] used coincidence too lightly. I think it’s a trope of that kind of literature, and it’s not a strong piece of writing. To include that is to weaken the film. What ends up becoming the emotional core is Jane’s relationship with Rochester. [Bronte] spends the last third of the book on St. John Rivers, and you think, “why am I wasting my time with this?”… I skipped that part of the novel.
You received a lot of grants at film school. You can’t miss all the paperwork that entailed.
The hustle is still there. I work for Focus Features – these ain’t the old days! I’ve been sleeping on couches all summer. That’s the funny thing about being a director: you can be flown business class, be driven around by a private driver, and you go back to your normal life where you ride the tube and you sleep on friends’ couches because you don’t have a place to stay in this town. I have student loans, lots of them.
Do you vote?
Yeah. I waver between cynicism and idealism.
Is there anything you’d like to forget?
Maybe the feeling of first experiences – so that every time it’s experience, experienced again for the first time.
Are we all doomed?
No, I believe in a resilience within the most damaged populations.
1977 Born in California to a Japanese father and Swedish mother
1999 Graduates from University of California, Santa Cruz with a B.A. in History
2004 Writes and directs short film Victoria Para Chino for a student competition whilst attending NYU Graduate Film programme, winning a Student Academy Award. Makes a commercial for Levi’s
2009 Spanish-language debut film about the Mexican Mara Salvatrucha gang, Sin Nombre, premiers, gaining a Sundance award for directing
2011 Re-make of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre released globally. Signs up to direct sci-fi film, Spaceless