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Secuestro Express - Jonathan Jakubowicz interview (Part 2)

Secuestro Express

Interview by Rob Carnevale

IN PART two of our special interview, Secuestro Express director Jonathan Jakubowicz talks about arriving in Hollywood, the directors who inspired him, the brilliance of Mia Maestro and some of the challenges of filming in some of the most dangerous locations in the world…

Q. Given the controversy that Secuestro Express has caused in Venezuela, are you still based in Caracas?
A. I come and go between Caracas and Los Angeles. I’m currently adapting a Robert Ludlum book for Universal – The Sigma Protocol.

Q. So you’ve arrived in Hollywood as a result of Secuestro?
A. [Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. It’s a very interesting thing. It’s a different world – a big project, big budget, a lot of producers, everybody has an opinion. But at the same time it’s also a movie that’s very close to my heart because it has a message of awareness and the more I can keep something close to my heart, the less it matters how big or how small it is. It’s going to be my first big international production and hopefully it’s going to keep up with the big success and critical acclaim that Secuestro has given me. Hopefully it won’t be one of those movies where people say: “Oh, he was soo good when he was an indie filmmaker! What did he do?”
I think Secuestro has been such a crazy success. Not many films in history have accomplished for their own societies what Secuestro did in Venezuela and that’s a big responsibility but success enough for me to be happy for a while even if I fuck it up from now on!

Q. Your directorial style, particularly on Secuestro, has drawn comparisons to City of God, while you are being compared favourably to the likes of Fernando Mereilles and Quentin Tarantino. How do you feel about that?
A. It’s flattering. They’re not comparing me to anyone I don’t admire. They’re comparing me to the best people out there. There was one guy who said: “I think you kidnapped the techniques of the best directors of the world and copied them.” I was like, “cool”! I did and I’m not ever going to give them back. The more techniques they come up with, the more I’m going to kidnap them. That’s what film language is – once it’s out there, it’s out there for everyone to use. You’ve got to come up with new ones yourself too but I think you should embrace what the good directors are doing. So all of those comparisons are flattering and never offensive.

Q. Which directors do inspire you?
A. The early films of Oliver Stone, Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Peter Greenaway, Robert Rodriguez…

Q. He’s a friend, isn’t he – Robert Rodriguez. Has he given you any advice?
A. Yeah. He actually gave me the advice you’d least expect from him when he saw the first cut of Secuestro Express. He said the movie is too fast [laughs]. This is a guy who’s made some of the fastest movies ever seen. When I asked what he meant, he replied that people wouldn’t be able to handle it. I had to slow it down, use a wider shot so that there’s more information for the eye to see. Keep it there and nobody gets bored. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. We did slow it down a little bit – it’s still a really fast movie – but now it’s enjoyable and it might not have been then.

Q. How difficult was it to maintain the balance between tension, violence and not over-stepping boundaries in terms of being too extreme or voyeuristic?
A. I wanted to convey that feeling that I got when I was kidnapped. You perceive the reality as part of fragmented images combining in your brain to give you an idea of who you are with, or where you are. That’s what I tried to do. A lot of people have said that when they watched the movie it made them feel as though they were kidnapped. That’s because they are. They’re watching it through the eyes of a person who has been there and remembers how you perceive it. That’s one of the biggest accomplishments with the film – you really don’t know what to expect at any time.

Q. Mia Maestro is brilliant as one of the kidnap victims? Yet she’s one of only two professional actors you used. How did you get her?
A. She was having dinner with my producer in LA and he got drunk and started talking about this small movie she was going to make in Venezuela. Mia then said she would like to read the script, so we gave it to her and she loved it. She freaked out and said it was incredible and wanted to be a part of it.
She is, of course, Argentine and they have a very different accent from Venezuelans. So it was a process to get her to speak like a Venezuelan but she nailed it 100%. Actually, most Venezuelans wouldn’t buy that she’s Argentine.

Q. How tough was it for her, being the only female on the set as well as being surrounded by unprofessional actors?
A. She was going through real emotions when we shot it. She would have nightmares and call me at 4am crying, saying: “These people really hate me, they’re not acting.” It was a really harsh environment for her – 14 hours a day being kidnapped. We were in dangerous streets, everybody was tense both inside and outside of the set. When you watch the movie, you’re seeing real emotions and that, I think, is one of the biggest rewards the audience gets. They’re not just watching a great performance but real human beings have real emotions. That’s something you rarely find on film.

Q. You mentioned the dangerous locations – how difficult was it to keep everyone safe?
A. It’s not easy. Sometimes, we had a bigger security crew than the production crew. That usually comprised gang members, police and private security. But what was more important was getting the people in the neighbourhoods to understand what we were doing and to share the message. Once you had the people around you with you, nothing was really dangerous. They believe in what you’re doing and they protect you.

Q. Were you ever approached by anyone saying that you shoudln’t be filming it?
A. Yeah, there was one time that my security team came and said: “You realise, this is probably the most dangerous street in Caracas. It’s a street that has a lot of hostels. All the people that live here don’t want to have an address because the cops are looking for them.”
I thought, well, if the security team – which is made out of mostly gang members – said for the first time “we’re scared”, then let’s get out of there. But they said: “Never. We’re here. We’ll get done whatever we have to do and then we’ll leave. But we cannot leave right now because if they see us running away, that’s when they’ll attack.”
That’s what we did and we actually ended up staying there until after the sunset, when it went dark. It became a love-fest. People are not evil – they’re resentful many times, but not evil when you look them in the eyes and tell them you understand and want to explain some of the things that they want to say. We got everything done without a single accident. It was almost a miracle.

Q. How are you perceived whenever you go back to Caracas?
A. I’m a hero for some, a traitor to others. The government hates me and wants to put me in jail or whatever. But for the people that matter, I’m someone who has said some stuff that everybody wanted to say. For the young filmmakers, I’m a person who has opened many doors for them. And that’s just very positive. The fact that the government is against me is a part of the consequence of the fact that we communicated with everybody. But I think if any government is happy with any of the films I’m going to make, then that’s the day I worry. I think you should talk about the problems of the minorities. And so if they want to hate me, they should hate me.

Q. So will you always seek to make hard-hitting films that tackle relevant social issues?
A. As much as possible, yes. I think if you can inspire people to make a difference, you should. I think those movies are just more exciting. Making a film takes so long that I don’t know if I could ever invest that much time into something that doesn’t feel important to me. You’ve got to do something you’re passionate about – not some big thing just because it’s big. Those are the projects I feel attracted to and hope to be working on.

Mia Maestro interview
Read our review of the film