INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD PARKIN

CONTRA EL MAR

a film by Richard Parkin

When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Early teens. It’s an impressionable time and I was drawn to storytelling. I grew up in Riverside, California, about an hour east of Los Angeles, where there was a lack of challenging films. No art houses, just multiplexes and cable. Much of what I saw at the time reinforced a presumption that film was something made on a completely different planet. Somewhere west on Interstate 10. Despite the proximity to Hollywood, I had no connection to it. Rarely visited as a kid. East LA was familiar because of family who lived there. During that time, films were fun and entertaining but I couldn’t relate to the scale or see myself or people I knew in any of the characters. Things changed in the late 90s when more challenging American films found their way into the local theaters. These films were made in locations and with characters that felt familiar. It’s a thrilling moment, the first time you personally identify with a story on screen. Those films were also uniquely tied to a cinematic legacy with roots in American films from the 60s and 70s and international cinema; all new to me and ready to be explored. And that was it. I fell for film and filmmaking hard.

Were there any early film watching experiences that influenced your work?

Boogie Nights was formative. I can’t think of a film I saw before it that portrayed characters so raw and vulnerable. It was funny, sexy, violent and heart wrenching. Other films of that time? Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Tran Ahn Hung’s Cyclo. Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga. Older discoveries? Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Sidney Lumet’s Network. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land.

What inspired you to tell a Mexican story? Do you have a personal connection to Mexico?

My Mother is originally from Tijuana and was grew up close to where we filmed. As a kid, I would visit Mexico often and I’m grateful to have it as a part of my background but it’s always been a sore spot that I’m not bilingual. In the absence of language, filmmaking provided a different means of exploring Mexico and my own background.

One of the things I loved most about your film is the way you stayed clear of sensationalism to explore the reality of people living close to the border. You stay close to your characters in an emotionally honest way. Did you have any questions or doubts about how to approach this kind of story?

My goal was to make a documentary style film on the lives of these fishermen. I wanted to focus on their families, the nature of their work, as well as the presence of the border and its influence. The story needed to be intimate in order for the audience to understand Hector’s dilemma and how it would effect his family. But I was never certain if it was a story that would resonate with an audience. The time I spent with the actual fishermen affected me deeply and I tried to capture those moments and emotions in the film.

What was it like for you to shoot in another country?

Wonderful and challenging. There’s was a lack of infrastructure, like street names and addresses. Call sheets became meaningless. But that same lack of infrastructure can cultivate a unique creative energy. Working any other way afterwards can feel limiting.

Could you tell us more about working with your actors? How did you cast them? What approach did you take to achieve such natural performances?

The film was concieved as early as the writing stage to be performance based. At the time of production, I was an inexperienced director at best working in a language I was not fluent in. I relied heavily on my assistant director Camilo Salazar Prince who helped translate the script into Spanish and joined me for auditions. The parts of Hector and Oso were written for Adolfo Madera and Pedro Rodman. They were both friends from a previous project Camilo and I worked on in Mexico. For the other roles, I worked with a Tijuana based casting director and found Elba Cortes, Diego Marroquin and Javier Diaz.

Two days before production, I met with the cast to rework the dialogue to sound more idiomatic. The script provided an overall framework and the actors infused it with a color and texture I could not do on my own. It’s one of my fondest memories of the project. We went scene by scene pitching different lines, performing them out loud, making sure it all fit within the world we were trying to recreate. I believe the actors put a lot of themselves into their parts and perhaps that contributes to the naturalistic feel of their performances.

Are you working on anything new?

I’m researching a feature script right now set in the San Francisco Bay Area. It deals with youth and music. I lived in the Bay for several years during college and would love to make a film there. There are a few other projects, both narrative and non-fiction, I’d like to develop. Outside of that, I’m a current Visiting Professor in Film Production at Wesleyan University and adjusting to life on the east coast.

Richard Parkin is an honors graduate from the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of the Roselyn Schneider Eisner Prize; UC Berkeley’s highest recognition in Film/Video arts. He received an MFA in Film Production from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. His work has screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortFest and has earned awards from the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.