Sundance Features

January 23, 2008

Alex Rivera Sleep Dealer

"This film really ought not exist. It's science fiction spoken in Spanish; the hero is a futuristic migrant worker."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: So what can you tell me about Sleep Dealer?

ALEX RIVERA: Sleep Dealer is science fiction set in Mexico, and it looks at a lot of contentious political realities between the US and Mexico. It does this through the eyes of a young would-be immigrant; it basically uses the genre of science fiction to flash forward five minutes or five years to look at the politics between the United States if they keep going the way they're going today. I guess science fiction is always looking at political and economic realities shot into the future, but this is from a perspective we haven't seen before: The US from the outside. It's two stories: There's what the future world looks like, and there's the young man who lives in it.

R: I'm looking at the synopsis provided by Sundance, and we've got "node workers," "aqua-terrorists" and the like. How did you fuse these kinds of genre standards into the political piece you wanted to build?

AR: It took forever. We've been thinking about it and dabbling with it off and on for 10 years, and both my co-writer [David Riker] and myself have spent a lot of time in Mexico; we've both lived there. I have family from Latin America. We were looking at our understanding of the connections between Latin America and the US, which are very complex. We ended up creating this very textured and very true future where there's just a lot going on; there's a water shortage, and in this future, the border is closed. Instead of physically coming to the United States, workers go to cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico. It's kind of a sick and twisted spin on the American dream.

R: This is an independent film with a very ambitious scope and, like most indies, very limited means. How did you approach the visual and technical with what you had available to you?

AR: I was really interested in what I saw as a gaping hole in science fiction films. They’re almost always driven by a star to get a big budget and do lots of effects, and as such, they always end up looking the same: Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis. I wanted to make a science fiction film with a hero and story we've never seen before. I saw the chance to do something really unique working outside the usual places. If I start in a little village in Mexico, everything about making a science fiction film changes. For one, it gets much more doable; if you imagine the future of a Mexican village, probably not all that much has changed. So we were helped that by doing a third-world science fiction, we weren't visualizing a future that was full of flying cars and skyscrapers. Our future is humble and kind of cobbled together. There are little details that look futuristic and spectacular, and there are others that look old and beat-down like yesterday. That allowed us to do it on a limited budget.

R: Sundance isn't known for its sci-fi trailblazing, of course. How do you think audiences will respond to this kind of genre-stretching?

AR: Look, this film really ought not exist. It's science fiction spoken in Spanish; the hero is a futuristic migrant worker. It has all the odds against it, and it only exists because the Sundance Institute stood up and started fighting for it a long time ago when they invited us to the filmmakers lab. But we've never been to the festival before, so...

R: So what are you looking forward to?

AR: I think all the filmmakers who are rushing toward this are a little cross-eyed and bleary-eyed and can't see straight. I'm hoping the film stands up on its own and tells a great story. And I'm hoping that we rattle people a little bit. I don't think it's a perfect film, but I do think it's something we've never seen before. Maybe it's a little poke in the blind spot of cinema: We've never seen a futuristic film set outside the first world. That's very exciting -- to step into a void and do something that hasn't been done before. I hope it excites people.

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Comments (2)

"Sundance isn't known for its sci-fi trailblazing, of course."

Yet, some of my fondest Sundance screenings are MOEBIUS, PI and PRIMER.

er, "were". The screenings are long over, but the memories live on...

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