Sundance Features

January 21, 2007

Christopher Zalla, Padre Nuestro

"That's what essential New Yorkers are -- they're outsiders who have come here to chase something."

Jesús Ochoa in Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

For the record, can you give me the story background on Padre Nuestro?

The very quick version is: A Mexican boy smuggles himself smuggles himself to New York to meet his long lost father, and along the journey, he has his identity stolen by an imposter who shows up at his father's place in order to steal the man's fortune. That's sort of the very quick synopsis.

How was the story conceived?

It's pretty complicated, but the story really began the week of Sept. 11 -- the week after that. I live downtown, and I woke up actually to the second plane hitting. I ended up running down there and I spent about a day and a half digging through the rubble. I emerged from the experience really wanting to make a movie about my city. I was working on something at the time; I was in film school at Columbia, and I don't even remember what it was. I just said, "This is superfluous." And I think while I was there, it was such a morally ambiguous moment for me, because on some level it was such a terrible, tragic moment, but on another level, it was so incredible to see this outpouring of humanity and, really, a kind of international humanity.

It's one of the things about 9/11 that I found so ironic: Of all the places it could have hit, I realized New York isn't an American city as much as it's an international one. If you were down there, you realized it wasn't about America or Americans. People from all over the world were just there to help in the effort. You just got an X-ray for a moment of what it was this city was all about, and normally it feels like such a separate city; a city where we're all kind of sucked into our own little lives. At a moment like that, you could see it's this city of outsiders who need to be around other people like themselves. That's a mouthful, but there a lot of just kind of ineffable feelings I was having, and I left the experience wanting to explore those emotions. That's really where the story was born. There were a lot of specific inspirations that played into the story itself that I could talk about if you want to hear, but that was the context.

It's an incredible surge of ideas to grapple with. How long did it take you to focus them into this specific story?

Actually, the whole story almost came to me that week. I'd had a character in my mind before this happened; it was a character who was going to be in the background. It was just an interesting character. You keep a log of things you fn d interesting in the world and think that maybe someday you'll use them. I had a friend of mine who, after college, came to new York -- he was Argentine, actually -- after his student visa expired. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He ended up taking a job in a kitchen in Brooklyn and I would go hang out with him after work, and I got to know the guys he worked with. They were predominantly Mexican, and I heard the same story over and over again, which was essentially about these kids who, at the age of 16, 17, 18 years old, were coming here pretty much with the stated goal of working for 20 or 30 years and then going home and retiring relatively wealthy.

I guess I just imagined somebody who was at the end of that period of his life; most of them wire money home via Western Union to family or relatives. I just imagined somebody who didn't have family or who for some reason or another who wasn't sending money home to them. And you know, because he's undocumented, doesn't have the ability to get the typical bank account and is forced to stash their money. There was this image of this money - a lot of these guys who work in restaurants or in construction, a lot of them will take work six or seven days a week -- most of them are required to work at least six -- and a kitchen could be 12 to 14 hours a day. So essentially that pile of money is all one has to show for the last 20 or 30 years of his life; it suddenly takes on a greater weight or greater significance. It was really that image of that pile -- that paper really -- being all someone had to show for his life, because it showed so much hope and so much vulnerablity. It was just a really fertile thing to start with, and I thought, 'Hell, I'll keep that in mind and put it in the background of a movie somewhere someday."

But on Sept. 11, I actually ended up spending a lot of that day translating for a Mexican kid who actually snuck on to a bus of Ironworkers Union guys who went down there. He saw me and snuck on with me and I translated for him. Somehow, these things all sort of came together, but the story immediately galvanized that week. It's more in hindsight that I look back and think, "Gosh, these certain aspects of Sept. 11 were something that created this story." I just left. I wouldn’t have been able to put anything into the terms now then. I left; I was crying, I was heartbroken; I said I wanted to make a movie about my city, and it took on this story about these guys who are essential New Yorkers. That's what essential New Yorkers are -- they're outsiders who have come here to chase something.

This might be kind of a clumsy segue, but what about what you're chasing at Sundance? You're in the competition with this; it's a pretty elite group of filmmakers. Is this your first trip there?

It is my first trip to Sundance.

What are you expecting from the festival and the environment as a whole?

I'm hoping to have fun, but I'm not expecting to have fun. It's funny when you spend so much time -- I mean, this literally will be a little over five years since it began. And it wasn't something I was working on the whole time; I was in film school when it started, and one of the ironies of film school is that you can't do work while you're there; you're so busy doing film school work. I didn't really start it until I got out. Then the process of fundraising -- which inevitably includes the process of money arriving and disappearing and then arriving and disappearing again. I did some writing work during that time to survive; things kind of came and went. But when you go through that process, at least from my perspective, I think you really have a desire to get the movie out there and make money back for your investors. Everybody has a desire to have their movies seen and distributed and that sort of thing, which I certainly do. But the pressure comes from wanting to reward all those people who believed in me, and hopefully just communicating with people. Which is the thing I'm looking forward to the most while I'm there: Sitting up in front of an audience and mediating the discussion, which is what I think I'll be doing. What I've seen so far is that the movie does trigger a lot of discussion and disagreement, even argument with the people who see it. And it's kind of fun to watch and see who people are, almost, given how they respond to the movie.

Advertise on The Reeler

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


TrackBack URL for this entry: