'En el Séptimo Día': Jim McKay on Directing Prestige TV vs. Homegrown Indies
Starring mostly non-actors, Jim McKay's 'En el Séptimo Día' is an intimate portrait of the week in the life of an undocumented immigrant.
A bicycle deliveryman pedals ferociously through the New York City summer heat, multiple plastic bags in tow. He's anonymous in a sea of cars and people, dwarfed by an unforgiving urban landscape. In the distance, Lady Liberty looms—a beacon of the American Dream so far out of reach it is merely an almost imperceptible gleam on the horizon.
In this single shot lives the story of Jim McKay's En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day). The film stars mostly non-actors, whom McKay cast off the streets of Brooklyn, playing versions of themselves and people they know—namely, undocumented immigrants who work as bicycle delivery guys, construction workers, dishwashers, and other minimum-wage jobs. They work six grueling days a week; on Sundays, they pack in a bit of fun with soccer in Sunset Park. José (Fernando Cardona) is the best player on his soccer team. He's in the U.S. illegally, working overtime as a deliveryman in order to eventually bring his pregnant wife across the border. When his boss demands that he work an event at the restaurant on the upcoming Sunday—the same day as his soccer team's championship game—José must make a choice. Should he abandon and disappoint his teammates (who are also his roommates and veritable family in the U.S.) or risk losing his job? For a man with little agency as it stands, this is a paralyzing Catch 22.
13 years after his micro-budget features Girls Town and Our Song, McKay returns to independent filmmaking from a celebrated career in directing television prestige dramas, such as The Wire, Breaking Bad, Big Love, Mr. Robot, and more. No Film School sat down with the director to discuss his experience returning to film from TV, stealing exteriors in the city, the merits of working with non-actors, and more.
No Film School: You’re from New York, and you cast this film by walking around your neighborhood and talking to people. That’s a unique approach. Can you tell me a bit about how it worked, in practice?
Jim McKay: Yes, we cast on the street. I knew that all of the people who played the main characters definitely needed to be Mexican immigrants. And I knew we weren't gonna find them through the usual casting catalog. In the course of auditioning, we did see some people who, for instance, were of Mexican descent, but had been born in the United States. But you can tell—the Spanish is different. The accent is different.
Once we found our main cast, we went through our normal casting process. The film was not a SAG film, so, for the most part, this was a first or second film for even our trained actors. We wanted faces you haven't seen. We wanted it to be authentic, in terms of the performances.
We were out on the streets in Sunset Park [Brooklyn] and we would stop people on the sidewalk who looked interesting in some way. There was something about them that made us go, "Oh, let's talk to that guy." And then we would give them information about an open call and they would come in and do an interview. We'd just hang out and talk. And then we'd give them a scene, and they'd come back a week or two later, and they would read the scene. We would just bring them back [again and again] over the course of a few months.
These [callbacks] actually kind of became our rehearsals, in a weird way. 'Cause once we were ready to shoot the film, we did not do many rehearsals. But the guys had all auditioned so much that they had learned the scenes, and I felt really good about what they were doing.
NFS: That's incredible. Did any of the non-actors' experiences help shape the narrative?
McKay: Not quite. The script itself really didn't change very much. But I think there is definitely collaboration in terms of, you know, "That one line doesn't ring true," or "I think I would say it like this." And there is a lot of slang that I really had no idea about. There were a lot of inside idioms that [the actors] were using that they certainly brought to the project. But for the most part, they learned the lines and they did the lines.
"I love working with non-actors. For me, it's really interesting and fruitful."
NFS: Had you worked with first-time or non-actors before?
McKay: I had. In my first film, Girls Town, there were a lot of first-timers, and there were numerous non-actors. But a good chunk of the cast was also really trained actors, like Bruklin Harris. And then in my second film Our Song, I had written an entire local Brooklyn marching band into the script. We cast tons of kids from the [actual] band in speaking roles.
I love working with non-actors. For me, it's really interesting and fruitful. You know, my first two films were very, very tiny. Kind of the same scale as this. Then, I made a couple films with HBO that were somewhat bigger. And I worked in TV for 10 or 11 years. I worked with some of the best actors around, from show to show.
And now, I went back to the original thing of working with first-timers or complete non-actors. That was definitely interesting. I wasn't sure to what degree I was going to be able to access the memory of that relationship and how it works. But it was also kind of like riding a bike!
NFS: I definitely want to get back to talking about your TV career. But first: What are some of the most integral elements of the process in terms of working with non-actors?
McKay: You know, some levels, it's the exact same as an experienced actor. Your role as the director is kind the same no matter what: listen, be patent, be nurturing, and guide the actor. And then, most importantly, be able to talk them through the scenes as they relate to the story itself. So much of directing is really talking through what the story is within a certain scene. It's just communication.
And with these [non-actors], there were technical things that they didn't know about, like blocking. When you are [directing] a TV show, you can say to an actor after the first take, "The camera is kind of not picking you up, so when you come over here and you stop, can you just turn your body 10 degrees more that way? And also, just find the light that's coming from over there."
"The really challenging part of acting is not memorizing lines, but memorizing them and then forgetting them to some degree so you can actually listen in the scene."
McKay: For an incredibly experienced actor, if you have two people talking to each other, one of them might be blocking the light, so they are creating shade in the actor's face. Many actors can feel the fact that the light has gone off their face and they literally just lean in the other direction. That's called "finding the light." TV actors are like well-oiled machines.
But my actors don't have that. Now, we didn't have a lot of light [on set], so that kind of thing wasn't too much of a problem; we had a more organic situation in terms of the camera setup. But what was amazing was how quickly they all got it. They came in prepared. The really challenging part of acting is not memorizing lines, but memorizing them and then forgetting them to some degree so you can actually listen in the scene. That way, it doesn't look like you are just standing there waiting to deliver your line.
My actors did all that. I was shocked. When we first started shooting, I thought the film was going to have a much more raw feeling to it. I thought you were going to feel how the actors were maybe a little nervous, for instance. And maybe you were going to see them looking at the camera sometimes. I mean, think about it—you've never done this before. You get these pieces of paper that someone calls a script. You've never read a script. You have to figure out. And you've got a camera pointed at you. You've got a boom operator who's got a mic that's moving around above you. And you are supposed to be ignoring all this stuff and just acting. But I feel like all the sudden we realized, "No, no these guys are actually really good!"
McKay: So the idea that the film was going to be this raw, documentary-like thing went out the window. And in the end, I feel like we got the best of both worlds. We have [actors] who it's clear are not movie stars, who have literally come out of the experience of the characters they're playing. And yet you forget all that and you are just following the story the way you follow a normal movie. It becomes cinematic.
You know, when you make a film, you're never really sure [how well it went]. Maybe other people finish their film and go, "I just made a perfect film. I'm so happy." But I know that I am always going, "I know this works for me, but is it going to work for other people?"
"It was a very quick shoot—19 days. It was hard to get the scenes we needed. But at the same time, the bureaucracy of the filmmaking was lesser."
NFS: There is a leap of faith.
McKay: Yeah. And now that we've been showing the film, I'm realizing that it is really seeming to work. I think that part of what's working is that people are really enjoying this experience that they're going through with this cast. It's fun and exciting and enlightening and completely unique.
I think a lot of people are used to watching films about characters or subjects like this that are pretty dramatic and dark—centered around the struggle. We managed to put together something that shows the challenges that these characters are going through, but it's also really light.
NFS: Just before, you said you had a more "organic" process production. Can you talk about what that meant, specifically?
McKay: Well, we didn't have hardly any light. And we were completely on locations. We had crews of 12 people or 20 people. By not having a lot of the extra stuff that comes with making a normal movie—whether it is trucks or trailers or catering or whatever it might be—it keeps everything extremely intimate.
It was a very quick shoot—19 days. It was hard to get the scenes we needed. But at the same time, the bureaucracy of the filmmaking was lesser. You were able to say at a certain point, "Okay you know what, this isn't working, let's just slow down. Let's figure out how to fix it." And then somehow we would make up that time later. So we were able to take care of ourselves as filmmakers because the scale itself was manageable. It just felt more like we were out with friends and family making something, rather thinking about how the studio is gonna call any minute and shut us down because we went overtime yesterday.
NFS: Did you do any guerrilla-type filmmaking on the streets of New York? Did you always have permits?
McKay: Aside from the permit that we had to shoot in the park at the soccer field, I don't think we had any permits—ever. We weren't carrying around a ton of equipment, so we never blocked [the streets]. We shot what was there. If someone was riding a bike down the street or walking down the street, we didn't stop them. So everything you see is live. That can be tricky because sometimes you lose your shot when someone wanders right in front of the camera and turns around and stares right into it. But other times, you end up getting something that you would never have lined up on your own.
For example, there's a shot toward the end of the movie where the guys are standing and waiting for Jose to come back to the field. There is a kid standing right there with a big water blaster, shooting water right toward the camera. It was just falling short of the camera. So you get all this stuff that's extra. It builds the film up in a way that you usually can't do if you're setting background yourself.
"I'm not a multi-tasker. I can't like take a break on set of a TV show and work for 15 minutes on a new script. I'm not wired that way."
NFS: You started out making microbudget films. Then, you spent 13 years in television before this film, shooting everything from Breaking Bad to The Wire to The Good Wife. What originally motivated your decision to jump over to TV, and why did you stick around for so long?
McKay: I was motivated to work in TV because I got offered an episode of The Wire and I was like "Yes, sure!" But that's on a literal basis. I think I got into TV because, at the time, there was so much interesting TV being made. It was at a time when certain networks and certain producers were open to having independent directors come and shoot an episode. Homicide and Oz were probably the first couple shows that welcomed smaller independent filmmakers, then The Sopranos had some people on.
I wasn't lucky enough to be in that first group, but you know, I got on The Wire. After that, I worked on Big Love. I got in the whole Law and Order circuit. That was great for me not only because I really like the show, but it was in New York, and I really like shooting in New York.
McKay: And you know, once you start [directing television], then you keep getting asked to do it. And then you do it some more. The first year, I did one show— The Wire. The second, I did three. The third, I probably did four. And then, within four or five years, I was doing six to seven TV shows a year. Working in TV, you get a lot of free time [in between shows], but that doesn't necessarily mean you can take that free time and write a bunch of scripts. For me, whenever a show wraps, I need time, 'cause it's so mentally and physically exhausting. I'm not a multi-tasker. I can't like take a break on set of a TV show and work for 15 minutes on a new script. I'm not wired that way.
So even though I had written En el Séptimo Día in 2004, I didn't have the opportunity really to take it out and make it happen until all these years later when I had A) saved up some money that I could invest in the movie, and B) saved up some more money so that I could take at least six months off and not get paid. I initially thought, "I'll do TV shows for a year or two, and then I'll make a movie." It just didn't happen that way with me.
But I'm not gonna wait another ten years! I'm gonna figure out a way to make it happen a lot more often. My new challenge is to figure out a way to do both somehow. It was so nice to stretch different muscles and work on something that I had written—something that was completely mine. I'm hoping that I come up with another idea [for a movie] very soon and get to work on it.