It would take a pretty remarkable lack of media awareness to not to have noticed the upcoming Presidential Election and, most notably, its two primary candidates. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a time where broadcast and online media in general has been more obsessed with Presidential candidates and their various exploits. However, for her first short as director and writer, filmmaker Sarah Clift has used sound bites from Donald Trump’s egregious campaign to backdrop the story of a Mexican mother trying to realise her son’s birthday dream.
Shot in Mexico with famous female Mexican actresses Monical del Carmen and Mary Paz Mata, ‘La Madre Buena (The Good Mother)’ ties together breathtaking (and already pretty iconic) visuals with a very human story of a mother having to choose between her son’s wishes and her political beliefs. Despite her experience in the industry (Clift is a veteran of commercial media for over 17 years, both in London and Paris), the film nonetheless incorporates many elements that can be considered incredibly ambitious in a debut short - filming in Spanish, directing children and handling a large crew.
After seeing it pick up five prestigious awards at the 2016 Kinsale Shark Awards (Best International New Director, Best International Short (under 5 minutes), Best Writing / Idea, Best Director and Best Casting), we immediately knew we had to sit down with Sarah to quiz her on her ambitions for the film, the process involved in shooting it and how she needed to tell the timely story of a small boy who wanted to thump Trump.
Where did you first get the concept for the project? Tell us the visual of a Trump piñata riding on the back of a scooter was a dream you had or something ;-)
The concept actually presented itself to me whilst I was on horse back in the middle of Mexico. It was the beginning of April and I was spending a few days at a horse ranch an hour outside of the City. I was in the middle of the cactus filled countryside chatting to a wonderful lady from Washington DC who was trying to locate a Trump piñata...
I didn’t realize they existed at this point and thought the idea was hilarious – they have such an inevitable ending! So when I got back to the city and excitedly told my fiancé and biggest supporter, director Jorge Aguilera, about the idea he suggested I write and film something on a topic that had so engaged me.
I started pitching the kind of visuals I’d like to see in the film together in my head and then wrote the story over the course of a week. During that time I would talk to my future sister-in-law Flor, who writes teens literature, about childhood in Mexico and how family really works there. This is how the idea of using a lime in the child’s hair came about, it’s what some Mexican people use instead of hair gel.
There was one idea above all else however that I was very clear about – I had to have a Donald Trump piñata on the back of a motorcycle! It was a great opportunity to take Trump through the heart of Mexico, and I wanted to see the wind whistling through his paper hair. Donald Trump piñata meets Easy Rider. Amazing.
Did you always envisage the story being told in Mexico? Had you worked in the region a lot in the past?
There was no other place in my mind for this story to be told other than in Mexico. I have spent quite a bit of time there over recent years and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the picture recent politics were beginning to paint. It’s a country that I have many happy experiences with, and now have family and friends living there too.
My first visit to the country was a trip organized a few years ago by a good friend of mine. We went to ride and camp with some cowboys over their land for a week. I spent 3 weeks in Mexico in total, both in the countryside and Mexico City - the country’s hospitality, colour and texture blew me away completely. All I could think about when we were leaving was ‘how would I next get back here?’
Time went on and a couple of years later I was about to move to Paris to take on a new advertising position, as an International Creative Director; the first job was to shoot an international commercial with a Mexican version featuring a local celebrity. I jumped at the chance to shoot in Mexico and we selected Jorge and the team at Madrefoca to do the job.
We were incredibly impressed with the level of production we received in Mexico: we had local cast and crew from LA, reams of great equipment, and the art direction was very adventurous. We continued the post-production there for a few days, and my French producer and I had the chance to explore the city and it’s incredible food.
Soon my life began in Paris, however with a newly acquired Mexican boyfriend on facetime! After a number of successful projects in the role, I felt ready and inspired to make the break from full-time advertising. I left the job and went back to Mexico and Jorge invited me to co-direct a spot for Buchanan’s Whisky featuring Chris Hemsworth in LA and Mexico.
The piece has a nice political message without being too overt (if you don’t count a Trump avatar being beaten to destruction by a Mexican overt!). Was it important to have less said through dialogue and more through action when putting together the script?
I have always written in a very visual way. My background began at Art College and then onto graphics and advertising at university. However it was in my first advertising job at Leagas Delaney when we were told we would all learn to write, that I actually discovered I could do this and developed my own style. This came from many hours studying the One Show annuals from the sixties up to around the nineties. This love of writing I began to develop also took me on to writing and performing stand-up material on the London pub circuit during my twenties.
But although I loved comedy I still kept coming back to writing visual comedy. And my time at Leagas taught me that every word of dialogue I use really has to have purpose. Years later I remember watching the Nicolas Winding Refn film Drive, and thinking ‘Wow, I think you could get that entire scripted dialogue on a side of A4 paper. I want to write like that!’
That film also is a great reference to the fact that I love writing using other elements, including music to tell a story. Film gives you such an amazing array of mediums at your disposal.
This understanding of the different elements to tell a story gave me the confidence to be able to tell a tale somewhat comfortably in Spanish, even though I am nowhere near fluent. It also allowed me to paint a different visual interpretation of Mexico you are perhaps not used to seeing.
The cast is great, particularly the little lad whose birthday the film deals with. How did you assemble it? What were you looking for?
The casting was a huge combined effort from both the casting agent and crew-members alike. Our casting agent and Ariel winning actress, Ursula Pruneda, introduced me to some really wonderful people throughout the process - including the characters of the mother and father Ariel winner Monica del Carmen and Fermín Martínez.
Monica suggested a young boy she had previously worked with, Abraham Espíndola, who I met at a later session. Abraham was just 8 years old at the time and had recently lost his front teeth, which he was a little nervous about. I thought this was simply charming and as we ran through the casting session I loved what I was seeing.
The 1st and 2nd ADs brought two other great cast members to the table: the grandmother Mary Paz Mata and the mystic man Ángel Garnica. Mary is a very famous Mexican actress and it was arranged that I’d first meet her one afternoon in the Zócalo (it’s the city’s main square that was recently used for the opening sequence in the James Bond film Spectre). Mary said she was happy to come and work with us and to help the next generation of filmmakers on with their careers.
Ángel had worked with our 2nd AD before on a content film shot in Mexico, starring Harvey Keitel and David Beckham. We talked a great deal about spiritual rituals in Mexico and the scene he performs in the cave is called Limpia, it’s a cleaning process of bad spirits and energy.
It was a very varied casting process outside of the usual confines I have attended, and I think this adds to the spirit of the film. Even more importantly I had no caveats when making my choices, I was as free as a bird to choose nothing but wonderful human beings. When I sat and looked at everyone we had I was incredibly happy with my choices.
The final casting came at a later stage with the voice impersonation of Donald Trump. Rupert Degas, who does this brilliantly, is an old friend of mine I had worked with over the years on commercials. He is an incredibly talented and experienced voice artist, and so when I gave him a call to see if he’d been working on a Trump impersonation he jumped at the chance to let him out the box.
The film incorporates some incredible locations (shot beautifully, by the way). Was it important for you to bring the landscape and more urban settings into the film? We only ask as some filmmakers shy away from outdoor shoots in shorts because, logistically, it can be problematic.
If I was going to have Trump piñata on the back of a motorbike through the heart of Mexico, then I was going to need the landscape for him to travel though. Owing to this fact I never stopped to really think this was something we wouldn’t attempt.
Through the horse riding I have done in Mexico I was aware of the range of locations I had access to within a couple of hours of the city. The scenery also really excites me and it was a chance to share some of the spaces I love with others on screen. It felt good after being in the confines of the home to take the mother out into the wide-open landscape. I loved filming the running shots, which we created in two different ways. Yes, they presented their own logistical issues, but the results far outweigh anything that came up on the shoot.
How long was the shoot? Any issues arise?
The shoot in total spanned over the course of five days. We originally scheduled for four, however we experienced a weather issue on the latter part of day four which forced us to stop filming.
It was actually quite a crazy moment. Day four was scheduled as our main mother and piñata road trip day and we were located in an area near to the sun and moon pyramids, the heart of old Aztec Mexico. We completed a number of running shots in the morning, however by 4pm we experienced an electrical storm like no other. The flash of lightening you see in camera by the film title as mum is on the motorbike was the storm moving towards us from the pyramids. We joked about the gods being unsettled having Donald Trump passing through their heart land and doing whatever they could to try to get him out of there...
With this day ending shorter than expected, we took a few days to gather together, I reviewed the footage, and then we planned a final day to shoot a number of new scenes. This included extra variations on outdoor scenes and we switched to the cave for the final mystic man scene. A decision I am still so happy about.
What were your influences for the film?
I think I don’t have specific references I am trying to recreate, but more a bank of random things I’ve loved or that have inspired me that I can draw from and create the kind of story that excites me.
Things that spring to mind on this project include scenes from Easy Rider, for obvious reasons. Comedy snippets of Eddie Murphy in Trading Places from when I was younger. Anything and everything from set design, characters to all round brilliantness of Roy Anderson’s. And some film techniques used by Emir Kusturica.
And as far as comedy genres go, I’m a lover of what I would describe as Great British wit, rather than slapstick or farce.
The runtime is a nice, tight 5+ minutes. Did you have a time in mind when making it or did the edit dictate duration?
I didn’t really want to set myself any particular parameters with this project, the film needed to dictate the time it felt it needed. However it did have a wider purpose – it was always meant to forego the big festival criteria and be available for people to see and share online as quickly as possible. Therefore it’s audience would need to find it easy to consume, and not get bored too quickly, particularly as we had to make sure they made it to the end of the film where they would be able to watch the most important part...
Was there a lot of post-production work needed? How was that process?
Everything we created had to be in-camera as it was important to make the film as real and authentic as possible. It was all about great art direction, attention to detail in the frames and the fact that I’m really particular about getting things right. I always remember going to a talk by Dougal Wilson and him mentioning he likes a week of prep time per day of shooting. I definitely hit that ratio, and I had so many detailed prep documents I don’t think the production team had experienced anything quite like it.
Creating a modern approach to the colour was the majority of our post work. Matías Penachino had done a great job with the cinematography and so it was important to make sure the approach to colour would continue in this vein. Working with Edwin Metternich at Framestore we created a wonderfully contemporary view of Mexico whilst making the most of everything captured in camera.
The film is pretty timely – how hard was it to get ready for release before the election?
I completely committed myself to this project and it has been the main focus of the last six months of my life to be honest. I came up with the idea and wrote it in April. Went into production and shot the film at the end of May. June saw me back in the UK and I then went over to Cannes Ad festival to drum up support for the next phase. This also gave me chance to step away from the material a little and have a new perspective for editing in July. August saw us completing the sound, colour and final film. September was website and social media, which was an important part due to us not relying on festivals to give it the exposure. And now October continues to be a huge month – as we test and learn as many different ways as possible in order to try and gain exposure.
This film is a very personal piece and my time line has and continues to be racing towards the November 8th election deadline. If I can in anyway paint a better overall picture of Mexico in a way that is charming and heartfelt then I’m going to have a go. If people in America can see how the dismayed viewpoint of Trump transcends not just their country, but much of the world, then I’m going to have a go. And if I can get out there and show women in central roles full of attitude, love and determination, then you know what – I’m going to have a go.
The film has already had a great response online and in festivals. What else are you hoping to do with it?
Yes the support has been fantastic and Kinsale Sharks were amazing last week. I had never attended the festival before and their generosity and support really blew me away. Online I have started to receive some really great support, but I know I need to take it to the next level and so am working hard at this right now. Social media and something ‘going viral’ certainly doesn’t just happen, it takes a lot of work. This is currently my full time job, alongside a few wonderful individuals who have been so incredibly helpful and generous with their time. After the deadline what feels good about the film is that I have made a timely piece that marks a moment in all of our lives.
What’s up next for you?
The turnaround on completing the film has been ferociously fast, especially if you remember this is a completely personal project. However what it has ignited in me is a desire to put more and more adventurous ideas on film. Although my ideas have been ambitious for a debut piece of film, I feel like I have thrived in the situation and brought some wonderful people together.
I want to create a great music video idea. I want to create more content film ideas that I have right now in my note pad. I want to write and direct a feature idea. I’m just raring to keep going.
Sarah is the UK partner of Mexican production services company Madrefoca.