By Dayna Wilkinson
Last Days in the Desert, from writer-director Rodrigo García AB ’82, opens in theaters on May 13, 2016. The film stars Ewan MacGregor, Ciaran Hinds and Tye Sheridan. Pictured below: García and McGregor on the set.
Q. How did you conceive of this story of Jesus during his forty days of fasting and meditation in the Judaean desert?
A. I’m surprised the idea came to me at all, I wasn’t looking to make a movie about Jesus. The initial impulse was that Jesus would encounter a father and son with conflict between them, and that he would be compelled, consciously or not, to try to intervene. It’s not a religious movie particularly.
Q. Did the film turn out the way you expected?
A. I wanted the movie to examine whether you create your own your destiny, whether it’s pre-ordained or whether it’s determined by your parents and their wishes. As I wrote scenes, things became clearer—I added the character of the mother, for example. Then I realized I needed someone for Jesus to talk to who knew who he was. In the gospel, the only other being in the desert is Lucifer so I wrote him into the story. Eventually as I wrote, shot and edited the film, I discovered the things about the story that were personal to me.
Q. You’ve directed films that you didn’t write…
A. Yes, but the subject matter of the movie should in some way be personal, even if it’s a superhero movie.
Q. Were you interested in filmmaking at Harvard?
A. I took photography classes at Harvard. Senior year I shot a short film my classmate Peter Rader directed and became more interested in cinematography.
Q. How did you get started in the film industry?
A. I was an intern at a commercial production house in Mexico and became an assistant to the director of photography. Then I went to the cinematography program at AFI and began a career as a camera operator and DP [director of photography]. One of my first camera operator jobs in the U.S. was an episode of the noir series Fallen Angels. Showtime was doing these twenty-five minute episodes with pretty good budgets and known actors, in this case, Laura Dern and Alan Rickman. It was all very heady—it felt like I’d landed in Hollywood. Alfonso Cuaron directed and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki, Oscar-winning cinematographer of Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant] was the DP at a time when it was extremely rare for an American movie to have a director, cinematographer and cameraman from Mexico City. A few years later, Chivo was the DP on my first movie, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking At Her, and he was the DP on Last Days in the Desert.
Q. What made you decide to become a writer-director?
A. As a camera operator, I was always within earshot of the director and actors, and I became interested in stories and in directing scenes and performances. I’d seen cameramen who wanted to direct and were out looking for some “property” to direct, but I always thought that wasn’t a good way to go about it. I decided that if I could write something, then I’d try to direct it.
Q. How did you become a writer?
A. I watched classic and modern movies and read a lot of scripts. I started writing scripts for five minute movies, then graduated to twenty minute scripts and so on. I wrote half hour stories and linked them thematically to create Things You Can Tell Just by Looking At Her.
Q. With all your experience as the creator of independent films, shorts, studio features, TV shows, web series and more, has it gotten easier for you?
A. It’s probably harder because you’re going to the same source, which is your own brain. I’d love to make a genre horror, comedy or western movie, anything where I could indulge my own obsessions and try to change up the form a little bit. Like my realistic psychological films, Last Days in the Desert is about relationships between family members who can’t live with or without each other. But it’s based on a figure of history and religion, takes place in the desert and has supernatural elements—it was fun making something so different.
Q. One last question. How can relative newcomers get decision-makers to take a chance on them?
A. People have to get out of the mode of waiting to be offered work, that’s a very frustrating position to be in. I tell everyone including actors, try to generate your own work. I think the number one commodity continues to be the script—nothing generates work better than a good screenplay that people want to be a part of. There’s always another director or another actor, but if you’re the one with the good script under your arm, you have an edge.
The camera crew along with director Rodrigo García & Ewan McGregor working on the set of their new film, LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT.