Interview: Amat Escalante and the brutality of ‘Heli’

Director Amat Escalante’s third feature, Heli (2013), has been the subject of much discussion since it received its world premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Featuring more than one scene of brutal violence, it’s been described variously as a portrait of modern Mexico, a tender love story and a blatant attempt to shock squeamish audiences. Particularly unsettling is the way in which violence seems so unexceptional to the characters, many of whom are young children. With the film arriving on DVD and Blu-ray this week courtesy of Network Releasing, just over a year after its bow on the Cannes Croisette, CineVue’s Ben Nicholson had the opportunity to sit down with the Mexican director and exchange thoughts on how his film has been received to date and also how Heli came to fruition.

Ben Nicholson: Where did the idea for Heli come from?

Amat Escalante: The name came before anything. I was reading an article in the newspaper about this young boy and the gang using him. He was maybe 13 years old and would ride around on the back of the motorcycle of some guy called ‘The Gorilla’ and they nicknamed the boy ‘Heli’ for some reason. He would shoot people from the back of the motorcycle – he was a hired killer, you know. The name I liked and it was somewhat of an inspiration and then later came the first initial image of a young man looking for his father in the countryside. I wanted to see what happens when a family who are solid and love each other is disintegrated and tries to come back together again.

BN: Was Heli always intended as a personal story rather than the state of the nation address that it’s now being described as since Cannes?

AE: That’s how it started. I have a theory that the more inwards you look, the more you see of the big picture. You show something between people, and they somehow represent the whole context because their problems are not just their problems, they are the problems of society. I was trying to do a small, intimate, story about young love and family and what happens when injustice occurs and people are abandoned by society – young people, children – and all these things. At the end, the consequences are very individual and are seen in a young boy or girl.

BN: That sense of abandonment seems to colour the way you present violence both in this and Los Bastardos. Is that something that you consciously cultivated?

AE: It might come from the way that violence is consumed and sold in Mexico. I haven’t seen anywhere else where the covers of magazines show such gruesome images. There’s this morbid curiosity towards those images that has an effect on the way that people react to violence in my movies. I guess it has more to do with Mexicans; maybe that’s why that American kid was screaming – I hadn’t thought of that but it makes sense now that you’ve said it.

BN: The violence in this film has of course dominated discussion of Heli since Cannes. How have you found that?

AE: When it was first shown in Cannes it was on the first day and the press were the first to see it. I was surprised. A movie is one thing, but once hundreds of people see it then it becomes something else. It was a shock for me that it became something else so quickly. I was pleasantly surprised later when it showed in Mexico. It was a success there for us, and many people went to see it and critics really saw through the violence more. It’s a movie in Mexico that they understand as more than violence – so there at least they could see past it. Maybe it was because they had heard from the international press that it was very violent, and were expecting something even more violent? But in Mexico it was well understood and people liked it much more that first initial press reaction at Cannes.

BN: The reputation certainly preceded it and with all the hype people may well have been anticipating something even more viscerally shocking than it actually was.

AE: Yeah, and it’s underplayed. Those scenes aren’t overly dramatic, you just see the facts of what’s happening and who’s doing it. Not only kids are doing that [in real life], of course, but kids are doing it, and that’s what is more alarming for me, which is why I put it in there. I’m more worried about the young kids that do it so I put that in my movie instead of the typical one that you always see – the fat guy with a moustache, and hat, and everything. I wanted to explore that part that is not so obviously cinematic and those scenes are shot in a less cinematically, in a way.

BN: It’s very realistic and understated – was that always the intention?

AE: I didn’t think of it exactly like that, but when you make a movie there’s a world you have to inhabit that has it’s own rules otherwise things don’t fit. With those scenes, looking at them now, you don’t have all the elements of a normal suspense or a normal horror where you know what to grab onto. Here, you have nothing – you just see the act. It’s not a genre, it’s not a horror movie, but it’s like you’re looking at a horror movie. It’s very unsettling for people; you’re confronted with this and that’s partly why people reacted the way they did, I think. It’s not shown in the way that they expect it.

BN: Is the use of non-professional actors part of a similar aspiration to give audiences something less obvious?

AE: It’s not the only reason but it’s one of them, I think. People are used to a certain type of acting in Mexico, they are used to seeing soap operas. It’s really amazing how bad the acting is, but people never complain that it’s bad. Then people sometimes go to my movies and say that the acting is unbelievable because they are so used to seeing that certain type of acting that I find unbelievable. In that way, it’s difficult to use people that are not actors, but for me there’s an excitement; it’s very unpredictable and they will do things that are accidental but interesting. There are more non-actors in the world than actors, you know? So I use more of those and I find the people that look right in front of the camera. Some people would never go into acting just because of how they look. Somebody’s told them they can’t act, or they look strange; those are the people I like.

BN: Just to close, you briefly mentioned horror a moments ago and seems like a genre that would suit the atmosphere and tension you are capable of creating. Have you thought of shooting a straight-up genre piece?

AE: I have an idea. I don’t think I’ll do it next, though, because it’s too much work. Horror is very difficult – just those few scenes I’ve had which are like a horror movie would be, were very difficult. I can’t imagine a whole movie full of those. When I have more time and budget, I have some ideas for some horror movies. Usually it would be horror set in reality – serial killers or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – I like that kind of stuff. I actually got a script for a horror movie, but I didn’t really like that. If someone sends me a good one, I’ll see.

Amat Escalante’s Heli is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. To read our review of the film, simply follow this link.

Ben Nicholson

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