Six years ago, whenever Luis Salinas spoke to a Mexican financier to fund the first film he wanted to produce, the conversation would be cut short by an abrupt question: “How old are you?” Salinas was 25. No one wanted to trust “a kid”, in his words, with so much money, especially not for an art house movie. But Salinas kept at it. Today his production house, Machete Productions, which he founded with two friends in 2008, is only three films old. Yet it is already known for its focus on content, filmmakers it has discovered (each of its three films have been directed by first time filmmakers) and subjects it has chosen for its films, which may have appeared commercially unviable, but which have worked for them in unconventional ways.
Machete Productions’ first film, Año Bisiesto (Leap Year), for instance, was on loneliness and sadomasochism. It won its director the Camera d’Or at the Festival de Cannes in 2010—the first Mexican film to have done so—and went on to be distributed in more than 35 countries. Its second film, Nos vemos, papá (See you, dad), released in 2011, revolved around the Electra complex and was screened at film festivals around the world as well. Its third film, La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Cage), about two Mexican teenagers trying to cross the Mexican border in search of a better livelihood, was screened at the Un Certain Regard at the last Festival de Cannes for which its director won the ‘A Certain Talent Prize’.
Salinas, 31, meets us at the Metro theatre, in a small passage that leads on to the building’s staircase. There are no seats around so we talk standing.
Where did your journey as a film producer begin?
All the cofounders of Machete Productions, Edher (Campos), Rodrigo (Bello Noble) and I, went to a film school called CECC (Centro de Estudios en Ciencias de la Comunicación). We all have film degrees and we specialize in film production. Like at any other film school, in our film school as well everyone wanted to be a director, a DoP (Director of Photography) or an editor; nobody wanted to produce. So, we got a good shot at it because we ended up producing 15 short films right after film school with somebody else’s money. That helped a lot in terms of experience. Then, before starting Machete Productions, we worked with a different production house for around four years. So, though Año Bisiesto was our first feature film as producers, before that we were production coordinators, production unit managers, and we had the experience of handling big budgets, actors, syndicates, guilds, and all the little technical issues— with someone else’s movie and someone else’s budget. So, the next step was to just to do that with our story and our budget.
Was there a specific objective with which you and your friends founded Machete Productions?
When my friends and I were working for another producer’s company, El Anado Films, we were earning a lot of money for them. But they were doing some really bad movies, and yet we were helping them get money for those. So, then, we decided that if we could get money for them, we could get money for our own movies too. The kinds of films we really wanted to make were both inexpensive and easy to do. Also, since it’s hard to do a first feature film, we knew that we could find a lot of first time directors as well. So, we took a while till we found the perfect script, which was forAño Bisiesto, and once we got that we said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ It was an art house film. It was strong enough. So the objective was simply to do something that was good enough, easy enough to do, and had the power to transcend.
Machete Productions states in its mission statement that it is looking for stories which are “worth remembering”. Could you elaborate on that?
I can’t specifically say that a particular kind or a genre of story would interest us. We see the project but also see who comes attached with the project— the director, whether the writer is the director, and what kind of a story it is. Personally, we would like to do something strong. There have been thousands of stories out there that have been done several times. So, we are just looking to find something that has a little impact on the audience regardless of the genre. It can be a romantic comedy or based on a social theme or be someone’s personal story, but if it’s strong enough then we would be interested.
Even though Machete Productions is a new production house, it has very quickly garnered international recognition and accolades. What are you doing right?
I think we are careful with what kind of films we choose. Also, we are not just another conventional production house, which finds finance for the film and then forgets about it. We get very involved with every aspect of the film, even though directors hate that. For La Jaula de Oro, for instance, we were location scouting way before we were shooting. We were on the train, with the migrants, investigating the subject with the director and making sure what exactly it is. We like to be there all the way and that does help. A producer is not just someone signing cheques and contracts. The more you get involved in the project, the easier it is.
Besides researching, which you mentioned, which other aspects of filmmaking do you get involved in?
Locations, casting, logistics… Obviously, for budget issues, you want to know as much as you can— to make it as inexpensive as possible. But also just being behind every creative decision, or at least creative decisions that matter. For instance— why a certain actor should be cast and another shouldn’t. And we don’t sign on any huge commercial actors. We would always go for someone who’s best for the part as opposed to someone who sells. Because ultimately that doesn’t really matter.
All three films produced by Machete Productions have been made by first time filmmakers. A conscious decision for new voices?
Yes. It’s a different type of a director who does his first feature as opposed to one who is doing his second and third. But, also, Mexico is a country that does more first features than any other country in the world. So, it’s sort of a normal thing for us in the industry. It is easier because the (first time) directors are more laid back; they try to control less, in a sense, of what they want to do. But also this is a challenge because often the first time directors are nervous. And while some of them will let you help them some of them become aggressive when they are insecure. So, you let them know that you are behind them and you support them in certain decisions. But, on the whole, it is a lot easier to work with someone doing a first time feature because he or she is more malleable. Having said that, perhaps if we get a director who has done something before he would be open to suggestions as well. It’s not a rule of thumb.
All three films backed by Machete Productions revolve around problems that are typically central to youngsters— isolation, a desperation to escape, sexual confusion. Is it because your production house essentially comprises youngsters like yourself?
Definitely. We have always identified with the stories. Even another upcoming movie is a western— but it’s really a love triangle between, again, people who face solitude. I guess it’s a lot easier to explore your own demons when you are a producer because you can still stay away and not make it personal, as a director would have to. So, yes, we do explore all these issues— that are sexuality or perversion or sadness driven. There’s always something new to explore in those films, otherwise we wouldn’t choose those projects in the first place.
Your fourth film, Přijde letos Ježíšek? (Little Baby Jesus), which released recently, is a departure from your first three films thematically. It’s a slice-of-life comedy. Also it’s co-produced by a Czech producer. And it’s a film that endeavours to break into the European market. Is that the way forward for Machete Productions?
Not really. Because we edited our own version as opposed to the Czechs. So there will be a European version and a North American version. We were trying to do something different purposefully. We were trying to get out of the structure of an art house film. It’s a romantic comedy, but there’s a little bit of a Mexican pride, and you see what Mexicans are like interacting with other people in a different country. But at the same time we were consciously trying to get something different out. So we didn’t want to just do a romantic comedy that was based only in Mexico. So, when this project was presented to us, we saw that the director was Czech, and we thought that with this film we could experiment in a more commercial scenario.
Your films have been distributed in a lot of countries the world over. But how well have they been received in Mexico? Also, which foreign market are you most satisfied with?
Año Bisiesto (Leap Year) did 51 weeks in theatres. Obviously we started out with just 10 screens, but in larger cinema houses it was there for several weeks. But, even if you have a film that does really well in foreign markets commercially, that really doesn’t guarantee the film commercial success in Mexico. With respect to exploring international markets, La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Cage) has been the best so far because we had territories sold in Europe even before Cannes. And it’s going to be released in six countries in Europe before the year is over. That’s big for a Mexican movie.
In the early nineties, Mexican cinema underwent a change. The Government began sponsoring films, and there was a steady influx of money. Then directors such as Arturo Ripstein and Alfonso Arau were making films they believed in and they were later joined by filmmakers such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, which resulted in the Nuevo Cine Mexicano (New Mexican Cinema). Where do things stand today?
We definitely have a stronger industry now, which is good. And like any other industry, you can’t say we are the ‘French New Wave’, in that we make only a certain kind of films. We are doing every kind of film. We make a little more than 100 films every year, which I realize, compared to India, is nothing. But those numbers are pretty staggering compared to what we had before. And obviously you get everything. You get really shitty movies, but you also get good art house and commercial films. The good thing is that in terms of the industry itself, there’s enough for everyone. There’s always a Mexican movie in theatres in Mexico—art house or commercial—and I guess being able to put out that range of cinema opens a lot of doors for us to better ourselves.
What are the biggest roadblocks you have encountered as a producer?
Financing is the most difficult. We were 25 when we were raising money for our films. And it was hard because they didn’t want to invest in someone so young, even if you did come from a film school, or even if you were working for someone else before. There’s a Mexican producer called Bertha Navarro, who is (Alfonso) Cuarón’s and (Guillermo) del Toro’s producer, and she has all the experience in the world, and she was telling me that she always has difficulty in financing films. That’s an issue that would be there all the time. But, what was actually harder for me in these five years was producing La Jaula de Oro. The size of the movie was overwhelming for me because there were three countries—Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States—and it involved extensive travelling. We shot on 16 mm, there were thousands of extras, it was a big crew and we were filming in some really hard places; we filmed in really extreme hot and cold climates. So, just going over every little detail and trying to get it right was so exhausting. Although it was very rewarding in the end. I spent two and a half years just getting the film ready before it was shot.
Originally Published at The Big Indian Picture