But Innocent Voices was another beast entirely, returning Mandoki to his homeland of Mexico for the first time in almost two decades to produce a film starring a majority of unknowns who were first-time child actors – including Carlos Padilla, who portrays the lead character, an 11-year-old named Chava struggling to survive amidst the vicious civil war tearing his tiny El Salvadoran village apart. Every day is precious for Chava and his family, especially since at the age of 12 all boys were forcibly conscripted into the national army. This war, which lasted from 1980-1992, resulted in 75,000 deaths.
Bolstered by veteran talents including Bad Education’s Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Mexican cinema legend Ofelia Medina, and Leonor Varela (of TV’s Arrested Development and the Cleopatra miniseries), Mandoki tackled principle photography between November 2003 and February 2004. In a way, working with so many beginners provided a trade-off: the children’s naïvete lends a gripping authenticity to the film as a whole, not to mention the rest of the cast, making Innocent Voices a triumph transcending its tragic subject matter.
Oh the phone from his home in Mexico City, Mandoki – who is currently directing and producing a documentary on the convoluted Mexican presidential race – recalls what he and the rest of the talents behind the film endured to bring the film to fruition.
I’m very interested in the fact that this film came about at this point in your career after having done much more Hollywood-type films. Do you think you could have done Innocent Voices earlier in your career, or think you weren’t ready to do something like this before?
Well, I think I would’ve been ready. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to finance it at the time because it was not an easy film to get financed. And at the same time through the enormous experience that you acquire through making all those movies, I think the final results probably would’ve been different because what the experience gave me was the ability to make such a big movie with so little money.
What was the budget?
It was five million. But with all the kids and the special effects and the war scenes –
Yeah, that’s not a lot of money for all of that.
No. And so it was the most difficult movie of my career and it was certainly a movie that all the experience gave me the possibility to do, in spite of all the hurdles and difficult challenges I was faced with.
And you hadn’t worked with kids to such an extent in a film before, had you?
I worked with the girls in When a Man Loves a Woman – they were supporting characters. Tina Majorino, who was the oldest girl, was amazing. And I worked with Dakota Fanning in Trapped. But when I started this I said to my producers, “Working with kids in a way is easier than working with adults,” because I had that experience of working with those girls – they were so talented; they were like 40-year-olds in the bodies of these girls.
But when I came to this one, it was completely a different thing because these kids had no acting experience, no discipline, no knowledge of learning lines, of not looking at cameras, stepping on marks, et cetera. So it was much more difficult; these were true kids that were not easy to work with. I had to go to things I’d never done before, like I had to talk to them while we were shooting every take. I was telling them not only what they needed to do but also as they were in front of the camera I would tell them their inner monologue, their inner feeling so they could react, or I would say things that would make them react in the right way. In a way it was like taking by the hand to create all those moments, feelings and thoughts.
It’s really interesting when you talk about how much they were manipulated, because they are so genuine on the screen. I guess because children at that age are not fake, they can’t really act; they can only react, if that makes sense.
Yes, and it was hard for them because it was a reality very foreign for them, the war. Like when we were doing the scene when they were hiding under the bed and I would say, “Imagine the bullets coming through the walls,” they couldn’t! That’s when I had to put loud speakers on the set and reproduce sound effects of battles and bullets so they could react to them. And then they would get used to that and I would actually have the scenes going outside the house, the bombings going so they could really react, which was wasting a lot of special effects money but the cost of getting a good scene.
And those scenes are what really counts, how this violence affects these totally innocent people caught in the middle.
So it’s a worthwhile investment. Due to those expenditures, did you have a lot of flexibility in terms of how much you could shoot, or when it came down to editing was it like, “This is the only take we have of this scene”, because it was so hard to get them done?
No, I used a lot of footage and I obviously I would never get one perfect take – I would have to stitch it between this moment of this take and another one. But I would never leave a set until I knew I had all the little pieces. The kids grew through the shooting but the first few weeks were a complete nightmare. But then it got easier as they learned. It was like a very intense school for them.
That’s true – and for you, too, it sounds!
How long was the shoot?
How much prep time did you have beforehand with the kids and to set everything up?
Very little, because it was very hard finding these kids, and even though we started casting six months before we started shooting, we didn’t find the main little boy until two weeks before we actually started shooting. So we didn’t have a lot of prep time in that sense.
And I read he really had no acting experience nor never been on a set.
He had never acted before. He had done like a little cameo in a soap opera – that’s it. Hardly anything.
Remarkable, considering what an incredible performance he turned out! Then how long did post-production take – how long before you had a final cut?
You know, everything that could go wrong in a movie happened. We were trying to make the Toronto Film Festival, which was in September. I had a first-time editor who was supposed to start in March. She had done you videos and stuff; she had never actually done features but she was very talented. But she didn’t have the experience and she got really behind; when you’re supposed to have an assembly a week or two after you finish shooting, when we finished shooting she came to me and said, “I’m halfway through – I need a second editor.”
So we decided to put a second editor and copy all the material to a second Avid, and when we did that somehow they lost all the sound. So that, instead of helping us with the time, set us three weeks behind because they took three weeks to put the sound back into the Avid and sync it and all that. And so at the end of the day when I was supposed to have ten weeks to cut the film to make Toronto, I was left with four weeks.
I told the producers that the only way to do that was to have four editors, which they agreed to do. But I was nervous that maybe even with that that I wouldn’t make it and that I would make them spend that much more money. I was editing 18, 20 hours a day, going from room to room giving the notes, and at the end we got it! So, you know, the whole process was very special and amazing. [Laughs]
Good way of putting it! [Laughs] Because of all these things coupled with the subject matter, was it the hardest film you’ve ever made?
Yes. I mean, even with the music! We hired Zbigniew Preisner, who was the composer of the Kieslowski films and who I had worked with on When a Man Loves a Woman. When I went to Poland to hear his themes, he was a different person from the one I had worked with ten years before, because he showed me his themes and I said, “This doesn’t work but let’s start from scratch,” and he said, “No, this is it – you either like it or you don’t!” So I had to fire him. [Laughs]
I had to get somebody else who had to do the music in two weeks. We found this Brazilian who came to Mexico and he was with me in the cutting room doing the music while I was editing. I mean, it was insane! But the movie had it’s own energy and every time we thought it was impossible to make it, we did make it. In a way, it was like the nature of the story took on the nature of the making. [Chuckles] It was a war all the way.
I think that just made it all the better; you guys were all the more determined to see it through, and it all shows in the film.
Despite the time it took to get distribution in this country I’m hoping that it has a good enough reaction and that audiences do turn out for it because it is incredibly relevant, not just with the history of our country’s participation in El Salvador but obviously with the war that we’re in right now. But the other thing theme that I think people can connect to is a rationale behind immigration, which is another big issue in this country all the time. I’m Mexican-American; I grew up on the border and in my hometown it’s just a constant battle between the immigrants trying to get in for work and the people trying to keep them out. On a bigger scale it’s about how people perceive immigrants to be this burden when in fact it’s just people looking for a better life, and to hear what happened to Oscar and his character Chava, it puts it into a different light.
Yes! I totally agree with you, because immigration – the way we Americans see it – is in numbers. But there’s always a personal story behind every one of those. And a lot of them are very special people who we don’t see.
Right, and a lot of them have come from such horrors but they just assimilate into society – you would never know.
It seems that that was something you had to deal with in Oscar’s case when you were writing, having to help him extract those memories and feelings so that the story could be true.
Oh, yes – absolutely!
What was that process like? How long did it take from the time that he pitched it to you to the time that you guys were ready to take it around as a solid script for producers and financiers?
I met Oscar in December of 2002 and in January we started working. By April, May of 2003 we started taking it around even though the work on the script continued all the way through to the shooting. But the process was very intense. I first told Oscar, “I wanna make this movie, but about you, not about the song,” which was what the original script was more based on. [During the civil war, the El Salvadoran group Los Guaraguao composed a freedom ballad which was banned by the government but secretly listened to and sung by the people as a source of strength.] His reaction was, “But who am I to talk about myself?” We talked about it and he agreed to do it, but there was a lot of resistance many times.
For example, the scene at the end when [Chava] doesn’t shoot the other soldier. We had kind of gotten to a draft and that scene didn’t exist. I felt that the script wasn’t focused on what the movie was about, and I didn’t know what it was about because I didn’t know what else happened in Oscar’s life. So I asked Oscar, “Tell me if you ever pulled the trigger.” He just froze and said, “That’s not important for this movie.” And I said, “Well, I think it is.”
And he said, “Well, I held weapons with the American soldiers when school was over,” and I said, “I don’t mean that – I meant, did you ever pull a trigger,” and he said, “We’re not going to talk about that.” We started arguing, we got into a fight, I ended up grabbing a chair and lashing it against the wall…I left the room and said, “Stay with your stupid script- I’m walking away!” I came back half an hour later and he was crying. I said, “So what’s going on?” and so he told me the story of that scene.
I was very confused because I was very moved by the scene; I thought, I can’t believe that that’s exactly what the script needed because that’s what makes you understand what this movie’s about. But I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to talk about it because for me, it was a very heroic scene. So in talking about it he said, “I don’t think we should put this in this movie because I feel really bad that I almost killed not only another human being but another child.” And I said, “Okay, I get that, but at the same time you didn’t. It was a very natural and instinctive for you to think about doing it, and what’s amazing is not to do it.” And he said, “But I also feel very guilty that I didn’t do it!”
At that moment I realized that it’s impossible for us that haven’t actually lived and suffered a war to understand how that permeates the child’s mind, or any kind of mind. And so that was the kind of process that we went through.
For another example, the scenes of soldiers recruiting children were not in the original script.
Wow, it seems like that would’ve been totally necessary to the story!
Yes, but for [Oscar], he didn’t think it was important; for him it was like everyday life. So he couldn’t see how big that was, which is what turns this movie into something so contemporary. But for him it was, “Oh, yes, they recruit children as well.” It was a “by the way” thing. I didn’t even know that that happened until I made this movie and he told me about it.
Right – I can’t imagine many people would know unless they were there. Talking about portraying a child’s point of view and about the ways in which you were working with the children, were you worried about any mental or spiritual scarring on their part, putting them through this?
No, I wasn’t. The parents were, and they asked me about it when we cast them. But my feeling was children these days see so much gratuitous violence. In fact, they live with it through the Nintendo games and through movies and TV – even Batman is more violent than this film. But I feel like this movie, because of the nature of it, would make them become more human rather than hurt them.
In fact, it did for the youngest boy [in the film]. When we premiered the movie in Mexico, I asked him, “So, what did this movie leave you with?” And his answer was very simple – he said, “It makes me hope every government in the world thinks about us, the children, before they make any decisions.” Which is something he would have never said before we made the movie. And boy who played Chava, when in press conference they asked him, “How did this movie change you?” he said, “Before I was just thinking about myself, and now because I can think of Oscar it makes me sad what he went through; it also makes me think about other boys in other countries.” So, they did change, but they changed in a way that they became more human and appreciate their own life.
And as the future of the world it’s probably more important that this [movie] affects the younger generations than the people in power now.
Oh, yes! When we released the film in Mexico, to my surprise a lot of the audience was children. Children heard about the film and they would come and see it and then they would come again and bring their parents as opposed to the reverse. I asked a lot of children why they liked the movie so much, because they would come not once but many of them would say six, nine, some twelve times, and it was hard for them to articulate why – they just liked the film. A couple of kids said that they liked the movie because it made them appreciate their life, and another one said, “You know, up to now, my heroes were Superman and Batman and all those guys, and now I have a hero that is like me.”
That’s a really powerful endorsement for the film. Was it always the intention for you to shoot in Mexico?
The original idea was to shoot it in El Salvador, but it was impossible because of political reasons. And they had no film infrastructure, so we would have to bring everything and we didn’t have the money.
And you had always intended for it to be in Spanish?
No – in fact, Oscar wrote the original script in English because that was his language now; it was funny because we talked about it and Oscar felt comfortable writing it in English because that’s the language he grew up with. Lawrence Bender and I were the ones that said, “We’ve got to do this in Spanish because we have to be authentic with the story,” and when we said that Oscar of course said, “You’re absolutely right.” And so we translated the script into Spanish.
I was expecting you to say that Oscar was going to oppose the idea for whatever reasons. [Laughs] But it just makes it obviously more authentic and more of an international story as well.
Yes, and at the same time it made it much harder to get it financed and of course to get it distributed in the U.S.
Right, but you succeeded. I’m very happy that [producer] Lawrence Bender pushed through and the U.S. distribution is in place.
Yes, yes – Lawrence was relentless with this! When it was impossible, he never gave up.
So was Lawrence the first producer on board or was it Alejandro Soberon [producer of Amores Perros and Nicotina] in Mexico?
producer Lawrence Bender with Luis Mandoki on the set of Innocent Voices
No, it was me with Oscar, then I brought Lawrence into it, and then Altavista Films and Alejandro Soberon and Monica Lozano, who worked for Altavista. She made this movie happen – she was the one that helped us put the financing together; she was a key element to this story.
Did the financing mostly come from Mexico or how did it all happen?
Yeah, most of the financing then became Altavista Films’ money from Mexico. They brought in a partner, which was Santo Domingo Films, and another partner from Puerto Rico, which was Movie Films.
I know when you’re thinking about material like this you’re not supposed to be thinking about the money that it could make, but everybody who’s an investor hopes that it will recoup their investment. So, were people thinking, “Yes, this will make its money back!” or “This is just something we have to do because it’s what’s right”?
I think they knew that it was a risky business and they believed in this movie and of course they hoped that it would make it’s money back – and they’re still hoping. [Laughs] But they were very courageous and went with us.
How has the festival circuit been with the film? What have your experiences been around the world?
It’s been amazing – every country, every festival we go to, it’s huge. We have big, emotional reactions, and we’ve been in so many, from Berlin where we won the section we were in, to…God, there’s been like 15 festivals we’ve won. Seattle was the last one; in Italy at Giffoni; in Washington, D.C., in San Diego, et cetera, et cetera.
Were there any reactions that have surprised you, either angry or positive?
Well, the first time we showed the movie was in Toronto and I was completely surprised by the huge reaction because we had never shown the film before and there was a big standing ovation for about ten minutes. In Italy at the Giffoni I wasn’t there but Oscar was, and he said there were 600 children from all over the world in the audience. There were kids from Palestine and Libya, and they were talking about how they were moved to tears, saying, “We want to go back home and tell our friends that we can’t abide violence.” So it’s always been very transforming for people.
And how has it transformed you in terms of your career? Do you think that you want to do any more Hollywood films or that you want to stick with projects like this?
transformed me in
When I started making movies, my dream was to make movies in Mexico, not to go to Hollywood. But it was impossible to do that given the financial situation in Mexico. And then I did Gaby which was eight years of work to get there, and suddenly agents were chasing me and they were offering me work when Mexico had no work. Hollywood has the amazing quality of absorbing talent no matter where it comes from, and it also has the downside, which is they pigeonhole you – if you do a good, successful love story, they want you to do a love story, and your range shrinks incredibly. I was frustrated with that and that’s when this script came along. Suddenly I think people see me from a different point of view.