February 1, 2019
Sundance 2019

'We Had a Rough Cut Before We Had a Screenplay': Inside the Method of 'The Infiltrators'

The truth is scarier than fiction. 

The Dreamers (undocumented children at risk of being deported for merely living their lives within the United States) have been in the news lately for how they factor into President Trump's demonstrative rhetoric about immigration and wall-building. The fact that they are in the news at all is a positive, and that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy remains a hot-button topic in our current political landscape is a step in the right direction.

The Dreamers weren't always a topic of discussion amongst mainstream America, and it took the work of young Dreamers and activists to protest and stage an infiltration of a Florida deportation center to bring necessary light to the topic.

Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra's The Infiltrators is a hybrid narrative/documentary that features the men and women who voluntarily chose to enter the deportation center so they could form a plan to get innocent men and women out. The film features both real dreamers and actors who play them, and it's to the filmmakers' credit that they're able to pull this juggling act off so well.

A few days removed from the film's world premiere in the NEXT section of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Rivera and Ibarra about casting, editing between documentary and narrative footage, and assembling a rough cut before they had a screenplay, 

Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra's 'The Infiltrators.'

No Film School: How did the idea for this film formulate into the group directorial effort that ultimately made it to the screen? Did one filmmaker's background in narrative and one's background in documentary present this as an ideal artistic partnership? 

Alex Rivera: When we identified the story as the one we wanted to tell, we realized that it had this huge challenge, which is that we couldn't see half of it. At least for me personally, my philosophy is that when you have a big problem for your film, you have a choice to do one of two things: One is walk away, or the other is, solve it in a creative way and, hopefully, make a film that stands out because of that. In a sense, I've always loved finding big problems.

In this case, we had this big problem where we couldn't see half of our story, and that became an exciting challenge for us. We then started talking about it, and we thought about different ways to depict a true story that you can't see. Obviously, there are films like Waltz with Bashir that use animation, so there are different ways to solve that problem. But pretty early on, once we settled on this story and this problem, we settled on the idea of solving it through this hybrid form of documentary and fiction weaving together. It felt really natural because Christina has a bit more of a background in documentary and myself a bit more in fiction. It seemed like something that we could partner on, while also having a little bit  of slightly different focuses.

Cristina Ibarra: Yeah, and it was also really natural in thinking about drama as being the way that we would solve the black gaps in the story, by focusing on the infiltrators' actions and them themselves because they have to play a role in order to get detained. They are also "performers," and so that naturally led to thinking about acting and performance as a technique.

"On the outside, we shot with an SLR, a Panasonic Lumix, a little pancake lens. It was just very minimal, hand-held and obviously no light and no control. On the inside, in the fiction world, we decided to go with an Alexa Mini with Cooke Lenses, which are very, very fine, beautiful lenses."

NFS: The film often cuts back-and-forth between documentary footage of the infiltrators and the activists and the hired actors who play them. What discussions did you have about when to cut between the two? Were there discussions about jarring edits versus seamless transitions? Moments to merge the two?

Ibarra: It was a long process figuring that out. What we did is we used our sit down interviews (they were in depth, like two day-long interviews with each person) to create an assembly of the story. We shaped the spine, and that was a really great way to find out exactly where our black holes were, like where the story had to be covered in a different form, because we just didn't have the footage. It's very simple, right? That was the way to figure it out.

Once we had that, we were able to then refine the assembly and really dramatize each act. There was a very energetic narrative flow forward, and there was another step in the process, which was Alex, who's really good at drawing, creating storyboards, and then we were able to use our own voices to understand what the scene itself would look like, and the pacing of the scene.

Rivera: We recorded dialogues.

Ibarra: Right. Yes, some temporary dialogue and temporary storyboards, so that allowed us to shape the narrative even further, and we felt ready to show it to the infiltrators and to Claudio. At that moment, we were able to engage in a collaborative process where they were able to do some memory workshops and really feel the scenes out with their own bodies this early on. All of this contributed to developing the story.

Rivera: Our main concern was making a story that you could feel inside, and where you could connect to the characters and their journey, and not think too much about form, even though we were going to be doing somersaults with the form. We're doing these very kinds of radical things, mixing different forms of filmmaking together, but we wanted the audience to mostly just go on a ride: an emotional ride, an intellectual ride, a political ride. And so, it was delicate, because we wanted the audience not to think about form; we wanted them to know where they were.

We didn't want to make it confusing. We're not trying to trick people or make them feel like "What's real? What's not?" We don't want to raise those questions. We wanted the audience to know where they were, and so we had a couple of things. We needed to create continuity in those transitions, but also clarity; clarity that you're jumping into a different form. What we decided to do was treat the inside of the detention center, which is the fiction part, primarily, with a very different lens. On the outside, we shot with an SLR, a Panasonic Lumix, a little pancake lens. It was just very minimal, hand-held and obviously no light and no control. On the inside, in the fiction world, we decided to go with an Alexa Mini with Cooke Lenses, which are very, very fine, beautiful lenses.

Working with Lisa Rinzler, our DP, who is a master, really controlled the light and the camera that was also industrial in the way it worked, a Steadicam, a highly coordinated camera, it just had a different feeling. We used other assets like wardrobe, hair and makeup, and casting to create continuity as well. You're following a person whose story is now going into this other format, and so there's continuity that comes from wardrobe, hair and makeup, but a little rupture that comes from the lens and the light. The hope was that the audience would track the story, feel happy following a story, but also know, "Oh, this is not that. There's a little border here, or a membrane between these two worlds." It feels like that worked, which is amazing, because it's opposite purposes, you know? 

NFS: The narrative scenes feel less like cheesy reenactments than parts of a compelling thriller. How did you view the tone of the film being complemented by the choice of making this a hybrid piece?

Rivera: In terms of the camera and the direction overall, it was really doing these long wanders, these orchestrated Steadicam shots (they're a minute long, a minute-and-a-half long takes where the camera does a ballet with the actors)  and we thought "Let's try to do something that has the feeling of an Iñárritu film or a Soderbergh film, something that feels elevated cinematically, that feels really pleasurable, that you're saying, 'I would never expect to see this in a documentary or in a film about a detention center.'"

We felt like we could get away with it, because the documentary side grounds the whole thing in reality, so when we ping-ponged between the two formats, you're always being reminded as a viewer that this is real. Something real happened here, real lives are at stake, but the fiction element of it, we were hoping, could be pleasurable and remind people that this is a story of people fighting back, people with a plan, people trying to do something bold and risky. Our early pitch was that this is the Ocean's Eleven of immigration. Sometimes I think of it now as Mr. Robot meets El Norte. We love that. We love playing with genre and doing something with those forms that we hope has never been done before.

"The casting process was challenging, because we had to cast so many roles. We had to cast about 24 roles in two weeks."

NFS: When it came to the casting process, were you casting based on physical resemblance to the men and women the actors would be playing? 

Ibarra: The casting process was challenging, because we had to cast so many roles. We had to cast about 24 roles in two weeks. We really had to depend a lot on our casting director, who was a champ. It was a really difficult job. She had to think about physical resemblance, and she also had to think about the real person having to understand the character, right? So they were like those two different levels of knowing how to cast this person.

We're able to audition and rehearse with folks by providing this documentary evidence to them of these interviews, some community archive footage, and some government documents; their internal memos that we received through the Freedom of Information Act request. And so together, the actors were able to read and prepare, and then finally actually speak with their real-life counterpart. For the most part, I feel like we got some physical resemblances, but the most important thing was the energy and that they understood the motivation of each real person.

NFS: Did they have an opportunity to meet with their real-life counterparts before getting the screenplay?

Ibarra: Well, this was the first film that I worked on where we had a rough cut before we had a screenplay.

NFS: Wow.

Ibarra: We did have a screenplay eventually, based on some of the editing process that we went through. They did read the script; that's where everything started.

Rivera: Yeah, the process was that we edited the documentary, defined the story, and then wrote the screenplay, and that's how we ended up with both a rough cut and a screenplay. The actors were able to see the documentary materials and that helped them get into character, and then they talked to the real counterparts that also helped them get into character. Again, because Carla Hool brought so many great actors to the table, between them just being solid actors, and then us providing them this packet of information (the documentary assets) they were already there. We have solid, experienced actors and they can see the character in front of them. Right there, the directing that we had to do was actually pretty minimal. They really brought it to set, and we were on a really compressed timeline. We shot, in 15 days, a 65-page script, so we were shooting roughly...I think, what is that? Like five pages a day? We were moving very, very quickly, and so it was really amazingly helpful that the cast was strong, and that they weren't having to invent the character out of thin air. They were interpreting a character who already exists.They were able to think and move quickly, get good performances, and focus on all the other challenges that we had.

NFS: At the Q&A for the film last week, you mentioned having access to certain government b-roll footage that helped structure your scenes inside the deportation center. What is that footage and what role did it play in authenticating your film?

Rivera: The website is dvidshub.net, like "Defense Videos Hub", dvidshub.net. It's a clearinghouse that the government uses to share B-roll of the Defense Department's operations with the media. If you're a reporter and you want to do a piece on an aircraft carrier, you can go there and get free B-roll of an aircraft carrier. But part of that is also immigration enforcement, so there's a ton a B-roll of the border, migrants being detained in the desert, and the detention system itself. When we were trying to just get an understanding of what do these places look like, we went there, and there were lots of images of Broward, Florida there. That website is an incredible resource. I teach in the fall, and my students use that archive to do student films. The images are really incredible, and they're totally free to use.

In terms of trying to understand what the visual world of the detention center would be for this film, we had those images and we had our protagonists, who had spent, in some cases, seven months in there, who participated in memory workshops with us. In the studio, we had them use tape and show us the size of the cell and the floor, where the beds were, mapping out the space with us so we had their testimony. Then we had this drone footage from above that let us see the courtyard and see the space on the inside. It was really wild.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.      

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