La Llorona is a familiar folk tale, but in director Jayro Bustamante's version, the weeping woman appears in a political drama based on the real-life atrocities of Guatemala's murderous past.

The story follows a retired dictator, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who is put on trial for the genocide of the Maya-Ixil people by the military in Guatemala in the 1980s. As he and his family shelter in their mansion with two servants, including recent arrival Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), the ghosts of Monteverde's past begin to torment them.

In reality, Guatemala has still not fully faced the demons of this time, so much that Bustamante called the subject "taboo" and revealed he was forced to conduct much of the pre-production in secret and then avoid attempts to shut the film down.

I can't say enough about Bustamante's prowess as a director. He is developing an inclusive film industry in Guatemala and telling important stories never seen before. In La Llorona, he has created a film brimming with quiet, roiling tension and some of the most terribly gorgeous visuals I've seen in recent horror.

There are parts of the film I can't get out of my head. For instance, during Monteverde’s sentencing, reporters with flashing cameras writhe in the distant background as the general sits in the foreground, stoic, perhaps aware of the turmoil behind him but refusing to acknowledge it as a reality. At the general's home, there is constant noise of protest, drums like heartbeats, murmurs of dissent.

Bustamante allows a lot to happen off-screen, and while this is a solid cost-saver on a low-budget production, it's also incredibly effective in developing the film's tension.

In the courthouse, a reporter delivers exposition about the general’s atrocities as his daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) is forced to listen down the hall. A tense ambulance ride to the general's mansion hints at the fury outside but simply focuses on the passengers’ faces as they hear fists pummel the sides of the vehicle. Later, Natalia searches the mansion for her daughter as the mob clashes with police outside, the air full of bullhorns and screams until Alma’s quiet voice cuts through.

The film is Bustamante’s third feature and is the first Guatemalan film to be included on the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature Film and the first-ever film from Central America to be nominated for a Golden Globe.

Bustamante was also named by Bong Joon-ho as one of the 20 Directors Pivotal to the Future of Cinema.

We spoke to Bustamante ahead of the film's theatrical release about what it was like shooting with a low budget and under the threat of a government actively trying to stop their production. We also chat sound design and how they balanced the horror, drama, and political thriller elements of the story.

'La Llorona''La Llorona'Credit: Shudder

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: My first question was regarding the development of the idea. I read that you approached it fairly strategically because you wanted to use horror as a vehicle to explore this issue, because you knew that it would appeal to a broader audience. I'd love to know more about that process. Did you find it restrictive? Or did you learn anything along the way?

Jayro Bustamante: It was a kind of difficult decision because we know that talk about that topic in Guatemala continues being a taboo. So in a way, we started working in a very careful position—almost in secret. And when we were at San Sebastian [Film Festival], in the festival presenting the project, I [did] an interview talking about this subject with Variety. I really never imagined that Variety would have so such impact in my country. And the news became viral. And after that, we started receiving calls, anonymous calls. People saying that it's not a good idea to make a film about that. You have to make a film about the colorful [aspects] of our country, the smile of our country and all the touristy [aspects]. And after [this the] advice became a little bit more rude. And so we decided to make the film very quick.

My co-producer in France told me that he will put in the cash flow to shoot the film very quick. We started working like that, and we ran. And in a year, after San Sebastian—it was in August. In a year we made the film and we finished it. We presented the film in Venice next year.

It was important because before the shooting we were cautioned that shooting the film will be a little bit dangerous. So we decided to ask an international institution to protect us. The French embassy gave us the embassy, the residency of the ambassador in Guatemala to shoot the film. And we were protected by the French state. And the Mexican state gave us the embassy too. And the Jesuit university gave us a location too.

A minister of Guatemala tried to stop the shooting, saying that we were doing something against the president or the government. And the French ambassador really protected us. And this minister even tried to declare a persona non grata. The ambassador said, "Okay, you can do that, but I will not stop the shooting in my house." And thanks to that, we could finish it.

'La Llorona''La Llorona'Credit: Shudder

NFS: Wow. That is wild.

Bustamante: Yeah. It's a very strange place because we are not in [a dictatorship] anymore, but in a way that seems.

NFS: As far as the actual balance of what the movie is, it's got this great mix of dramatic, political, horror elements. And I think that makes the climax that much more powerful and emotional. In your writing process, how did you find that balance of all of those different things going on in the script?

Bustamante: Oh, I think it was the most challenging thing, because I was playing with horror language in movies. And I discovered that it's a very exciting universe, and I felt some danger there because it's so effective, and you get a lot of pleasure using horror in movies, that we had to stop sometimes and say, "No." We cannot permit that horror movies won [over] their horror reality. So, we built a kind of a balance with three baskets. Each time when we put a horror element, we put a real fight, and we put a magical realism element. And like that, we kept that balance that you are talking about. And thank you, because we really were careful about that.

'La Llorona''La Llorona'Credit: Shudder

NFS: That's so interesting. So you actually had a physical thing that you were doing to keep track of how much you were doing for each.

Bustamante: Exactly. In a way it's very strange because for European people or people who are not very close with Latin American culture, magical realism can be horror. But in fact it's not, because we are not living in a linear time, we are living in a circular time. And for us, all these souls and all the ancestors continue living with us. So, in effect it was very easy to match horror and magical realism. And political was the third one, coming to keep the deepest part of the story.

NFS: Sound is another thing that I really noticed in the film. It lets you do a lot of those things off-screen that are still so impactful. Can you talk about the different choices that you made in the sound design?

Bustamante: Well, I think the most important decision that I made was inviting the sound designer from the beginning to the script. Eduardo Cáceres was the sound designer who worked with me in my personal films. I asked him to be a big help because we had a very small budget. I wanted to talk about the whole people, but I couldn't imagine filming the whole people, because we didn't have the money to do that. So, in a way, I decided to put the camera in a house and to keep the camera there. And build the whole outside universe by the sound. And it was so nice because we use a lot of pre-Colombian musical instruments to create all the belief that we had with the people manifesting.

'La Llorona''La Llorona'Credit: Shudder

NFS: I was also going to mention that scene in the ambulance. It's very similar in that it's so tense and so enclosed. And you get everything that you need just from the sound of the people outside and things hitting the vehicle. It works so well. Was that something that you conceptualized from the beginning too? Or was that a budgetary restriction that you had to think of on the fly?

Bustamante: No, it was from the beginning, because we didn't want to shoot on the street. Even if we could have permission, shooting the street could be dangerous. So, we had to build a street inside the ambassador's house.

NFS: Oh, wow.

Bustamante: So, from the beginning, I knew that I will not show the street. And so I decided to keep the camera inside the house.

And in another way, it was more a kind of a test that I wanted to discover with the film. I started thinking about the fact that I know people are victims of that kind of problem. And I can be very empathetic with them. But I really don't know people who made that kind of catastrophe. Who are responsible for that.

And in Latin America, all the dictators continue saying that they are heroes and they saved the country from the communists. And they continue saying that all the people who died, even if that person was a pregnant woman or babies, they deserve to be killed because they were communist. And so, I wanted to give to my character—I mean the general—I wanted to give him a little bit of humanity. And the only way to give him humanity was to give him guilt. And I wanted to be next to him to understand in which moment he will really feel guilt. And it was another important fact to keep the camera in the place that he will be. And in a way, all those kinds of military people are very protective, but they've built around them a prison.

'La Llorona''La Llorona'Credit: Shudder

NFS: That's so interesting. And I did feel like you did develop all the characters so well that you could understand them, even though you didn't necessarily like them all the time. The shooting style I also want to mention because it's such a beautiful film. It looks gorgeous. You shot it in a very restrained way. How did you decide on the film's look?

Bustamante: I have two references. One of the most important references was The Shining because I really love the fact that The Shining is a horror film using a lot of light to scare the audience. There are not only dark scenes in that film. There are a lot of shining scenes. And I wanted to use that too. And in another way, I wanted to be close to the dark universe because La Llorona comes from that. La Llorona normally cries during the night. But I wanted to have, in a way, a very clear night. And when I say clear night, I mean when blacks are really black, but the skin is shining.

And so I went to the Spanish pictures and the paintings from Diego Velázquez and Goya, where we have all that dark universe with characters very lightened. And I used these two references to work the look of the film.

'La Llorona'Credit: Shudder

NFS: My last question is, is there any advice that you would give to up-and-coming directors, maybe working on small budgets or just getting into film?

Bustamante: I'm doing a lot of work to form new talent in Guatemala. I have a foundation, IXCANUL foundation is the name. And we are bringing them tools to become directors or actors because we really don't have a real school for that in Guatemala. And the most important advice that I give them is always choose their own story. Because when we make a film, in a way, we will be married with that film for seven years, at least. So, I think the most important thing is to be able to choose a good story. And that story has to be linked with their own life and their own interest.

NFS: Yes, that's so important. Did you have anything that you wanted to mention I didn't ask?

Bustamante: I want to make an homage for all the people continuing to fight for justice. And all the people fighting to find their missing relatives. And it was very important because we had 2,000—I know that people who work, and I will say as an extra, but I don't like that term because that people were more support actors than extras. And all [those] people came from institutions who continue looking for justice and people who were victims in the genocide or had families disappear. So it was very interesting because they brought to us the reality and the suffering. And together we made a kind of a catharsis with the film.

You can watch La Llorona today at the IFC Center, on VOD, or on Shudder.