"Things are seldom what they seem" could sum up the theme of J.H. Wyman screenplay for "The Mexican." The plot revolves around Jerry, who's been tapped for his last job for a crime boss to whom he was indebted, and his girlfriend, Samantha, who considers Jerry's last job her last straw and leaves him. In telling the story, Wyman sent Jerry and his girlfriend on two separate but interwoven journeys, which are equally unpredictable. "Nothing happens as you would think," Wyman affirms.
The surprising nature of the script was what first drew producer John Baldecchi to the project. "It's really deceptive. On one level, it's kind of a romp, but when you get into it, you find there's a lot more going on," Baldecchi notes, adding, " The story is split. These two characters start the movie together and end the movie together, but it's the influences along their diverging paths that make their individual stories so interesting. It's really like two different races, each with its own obstacles-completely separate, but at the same time, tied together."
Baldecchi gave the script to his producing partner Lawrence Bender, who recalls, "1 read it and thought it was one of those interesting movies that only comes along every once in a while. It has an intricate plot with an ensemble of interesting characters, who are all dealing with some sort of relationship issue. It was just a smart, edgy, contemporary comedy."
The producers set out to find a director with the strong sense of story and character the project required, but who could also bring a distinct visual style to the film. They found the right combination in Gore Verbinski, who had earned praise for his directorial debut film "Mouse Hunt (1997)". "I remembered 'Mouse Hunt (1997)' being just a lot of fun, but with a unique visual style," says Bender. "Gore has a terrific eye and works wonderfully with actors. When we met with him, he understood the different themes of the movie, and conveyed how he too would follow the intertwining threads of the story as they took off in different directions. I just felt really lucky to have him at the helm."
The parallel storylines of "The Mexican" were among the aspects of the screenplay that appealed to Gore Verbinski. The director remarks, "I loved the interlocking storylines of Jerry and Samantha and all the complicated characters that cross their paths. The Mexico and Las Vegas locations really excited me, and I knew I could have fun with the look, the color, and the atmosphere of the film...especially as we flashed back to tell the conflicting legends that explain how the pistol that gives the film its name came to be cursed. At its heart the film is a romantic comedy...but with a little bit of Sam Peckinpah," adds Verbinski, smiling.
Interestingly, the filmmakers first envisioned "The Mexican" as a modest film with relative unknowns in the lead roles. That vision was eclipsed when the script attracted two of the most popular and sought-after stars in the industry today: Brad Pitt stars as Jerry Welbach and Julia Roberts stars opposite him as Samantha Barzel.
The pairing was a happy circumstance for the two actors, who had expressed a mutual desire to work together a number of times over the years. " We'd run into each other many times, and had always flirted with the idea, but it never worked out. This one came together and it just fit," Pitt says. " It was the right chemistry". " I've known Brad for a long time," Roberts adds, "and we had almost worked together a few times, so when this finally happened, we both got so excited. We're really comfortable around each other, so from the first day, we were able to get the most out of the limited amount of time we had together onscreen. We came up with this whole back story about our characters to find interesting ways to convey that these people knew each other incredibly well and have been through a lot together."
Sharing some of his character's back story, Brad Pitt acknowledges, "Jerry is not what you'd call cool; he's just a regular guy who's in way over his head. He struggles to do the right thing in his professional life and his personal life, but the line he walks constantly trips him up. He's really hung up on fairness, and it's his quest for fairness in a very unfair world that I thought was really funny."
"Jerry is kind of a lovable loser, who through a course of events becomes something of an unlikely hero," Verbinski observes. "We've seen Brad be cool in so many movies, and this was really about him being kind of a dork. What was great about Brad taking on the part was that he was so willing to explore that side of the character." "The role of Jerry required a certain comedic timing, which we always knew Brad possessed," Baldecchi adds. "But he also brought a charm to the character, which we needed because you have to like him. You have to want to follow this guy through thick and thin, and Brad has that something that makes you want to follow him".
Perhaps the one person who doesn't want to follow Brad--or rather Jerry--is Samantha. Julia Roberts explains, "For the last five years, Jerry's been this indentured servant to these mob guys that he has to work for. As the movie begins, it's the happiest day of Sam's life because she thinks he's finally finished with this. When she finds out he has one more job to do, it's the last Straw, and she enters the movie with a bang".
"Sam is very aware of what she's after in life...she's just wrong," Verbinski states. "She's the type of character who's always going to tell you what's wrong with your relationship without really understanding what's wrong with her own. Samantha goes through some major emotional changes through the course of the movie, and Julia was just remarkable in the part."
Roberts had equal praise for the director. "At my first meeting with Gore Verbinski, I asked him to tell me what he thought the movie was about. He told me a story that had me in a puddle on the floor---it was incredibly romantic--and every day on the set, he impressed me and delighted me. He's very concise and it's impossible to misunderstand what he wants. That's a great luxury. He also makes it a real group effort. I've never seen people work such long hours so joyfully in my life. It was pretty amazing; when the day was over, we were still congregating together. It occurs to me now that I never slept...I just napped," she laughs.
'Adding to Roberts' enjoyment was her affinity for her character. "I really liked Samantha. I think she's sweet and really amusing, with a great spirit of adventure, though she's a bit of an odd duck with all the psycho-babble terms she lives by. I think she really loves Jerry, and she's really conflicted when she sets out on her solo journey to Las Vegas. It's a huge step for her."
Samantha's journey to Las Vegas doesn't remain solo for long. En route, she is taken hostage by a hit man going by the name of Leroy, who is using her as collateral to ensure that Jerry will return from Mexico with the pistol. James Gandolfini stars as Leroy, and though one might assume that it is typecasting to have the star of "The Sopranos" play a hit man, the character holds some surprises for audiences.
Bender offers, "What was wonderfully different about this part for James is that he's a tough hit man, but he's got all these relationship problems, just like Samantha. Pretty soon, the two of them are sitting there bitching about their pasts." The twists of the character as well as the plot caught Gandolfini's interest. "With a lot of scripts, you pretty much know what's coming by about halfway through, but with this one, I didn't at all. It constantly kept me guessing, and that's what I responded to," the actor says. "I thought Leroy was especially interesting because it took a lot of work to figure him out; he's not a pat character. He's a hit man and he's been around a long time, so he's very lonely and mistrustful. That all changes when he's hired to watch over this girl to make sure her boyfriend returns with the goods. He's forced to be with this person who happens to be a stick of dynamite and eventually draws him out."
The combination of James Gandolfini and Julia Roberts proved to be a combustible one, to the delight of the director. "They complement each other so well. The chemistry was already there in the writing, but their performances reallyelevated it He is so still and she is so bubbly; she hits a thousand notes and he responds with one. It's just a great duet."
Gandolfini expounds, "When I read the script, I saw that Brad and Julia's characters were both pretty emotional. To balance the triangle, I thought there needed to be someone a bit more settled. Otherwise, I think it would have been too much to have everyone on the same emotional level."
Outside the triangle of Jerry, Sam and Leroy are a cast of characters who all have a stake in the priceless gun known as "The Mexican." The person who sends Jerry on the mission to retrieve the pistol is Bernie Nayman, second-in-command to imprisoned crime boss Arnold Margolese. Bob Balaban, who plays Nayman, remarks, "Nayman is an accountant type. He's soft-spoken, but underneath he's dangerous. You might not realize it right away."
Another character playing both ends against the middle is Ted, Jerry's best friend and confidant, played by J.K. Simmons. "I'm a bit of a mentor to Jerry," says Simmons. "Neither of us is much of a hard-core bad guy. Jerry's just a kid who stumbled into this whole business, so I've taken him under my wing and I'm trying to get him through in one piece."
Completing the ensemble are David Krumholtz as Beck, the grandson of Arnold Margolese, who is the first to introduce Jerry to the pistol's legendary curse; Richard Coca as a car thief, who seems to come into the picture by happenstance, but has his own connection to the pistol; Sherman Augustus as the shadowy figure referred to only as the Well Dressed Black Man; and Michael Cerveris as Frank, who has the misfortune to befriend Leroy and Sam, which puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jerry's hunt for the legendary pistol known as "The Mexican" takes him well off the beaten path in the wilds of Mexico. Similarly, filming Jerry's mission to find the pistol took the company to the historical city of Real de Catorce, located in San Luis Potosi in the northern central highlands of Mexico. Nestled in the surrounding mountains at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet, the city is only accessible via a 15.5-mile cobblestone road that culminates with the 1.5 mile-long Ogarrio Tunnel, a narrow, one-lane former mine shaft leading into the city.
"The only way into this town is a mile-and-a-half tunnel carved out by hard labor over a century ago," Brad Pitt describes. "You drive up this mountain range and into this tunnel, and you cannot see the end as it curves and winds. Inside is this chapel carved into the stone, and when you finally come out on the other end, it opens up to this elliptical bowl surrounded by mountains. It's just a magical place where time seems to have stood still."
Steeped in history, Real de Catorce had been a bustling silver mining town in the 19th century until the silver dried up. Many years later, it is home to a small community of 1,200 inhabitants, and remnants of its past are seen in deserted old buildings and haciendas. In the last few years, however, a number of American and European travelers have opened a few hotels and restaurants to cater to the backpacker tourists who come to visit the classic structures, ruins and old mine shafts.
The city also boasts the annual festival of San Francisco that draws thousands of visitors each year. Before the decision was made to film in Real de Catorce, the filmmakers had to weigh the many obstacles of the remote location against the advantages. There was no question that the fragility of the city's natural and urban resources, its geographic location, water limitations, lack of communication, and limited lodging posed serious hurdles. On the other hand, the governmental support, enthusiasm of the people and quaint beauty of the town were incomparable. In the end, beauty and charm won out. The rest would have to be overcome.
For two months prior to filming a team of technicians and contractors set about upgrading the city's infrastructure to allow for the needs of a major production. The plumbing, electrical and telecommunications systems were all upgraded--improvements that will help the town's tourism trade and the local residents for many years to come. A heliport was built in the city, cellular phone service was installed, and all of the city's hotels were renovated to house the cast and crew. Finally, the electrical and lighting work of the famed Ogarrio Tunnel was upgraded, making the only route in or out of the city safer for all concerned.
"We were looking for a place that hadn't been seen in a movie before," John Baldecchi explains. "The location was definitely not easy to get to and it took some work to get it ready, but it was well worth the trouble. There was so much beauty there, it was almost impossible to capture it all on film."
"Filming in Real de Catorce was a profound experience," Verbinski agrees. "We had so much fun, and the people were so nice. I would go back there in a heartbeat to shoot another movie."
Many of those local townspeople suddenly found themselves in the movie business. Some worked behind the scenes on the crew, and a number of others served as extras, or even got small speaking parts. In fact, the role of the Nobleman was played by Humberto Fernandez Tristan, one of Real de Catorce's most respected citizens, who was instrumental in helping the filmmakers navigate the challenges of filming in his city.
The Nobleman is seen in flashbacks that weave in and out of the contemporary story and relate the legend of the pistol that gives the film its name. As a variety of people tell the tale--each putting his own spin on the pistol's curse--we are taken back to the 19th century, when a gunsmith crafted the magnificent weapon as a dowry for his daughter to be taken in marriage by the son of a rich nobleman.
The scenes were filmed in what was dubbed "flashback town" by the production team. The faux 19th-century village was created by production designer Cecilia Montiel, a native of Peru, who had a familiarity with the architecture of the era, having recently served as the production designer on "The Mask of Zorro". "Flashback town" was erected on a leveled-off soccer field on the edge of town, a half-mile from the heart of Real de Catorce. It took more than 120 people about six weeks to build the set, the structures of which were almost entirely facades. They all have the appearance of stone covered in plaster and were modeled after the architecture of Real de Catorce.
Gore Verbinski collaborated with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski to give the flashback sequences a look similar to that of an old silent movie. Utilizing two modified hand-cranked Arriflex film cameras, they manually operated the speed that the film traveled through the camera. Manual cranking produced variable speeds that could be slower or faster than the standard 24-frames-per-second and created a fluctuation in the image. They then used a special process called bleach bypassing, which gave the picture a more stark contrast.
Though the absence of color was called for in the flashback sequences, Cecilia Montiel incorporated shades of turquoise, aqua greens and some light ochre in the interiors of the contemporary sets in Mexico. A decidedly more colorful palette was reserved for filming in Las Vegas and the surrounding locales where Julia Roberts and James Gandolfini are busy with their own set of problems. Montiel notes that the use of color helped to instantly differentiate between Mexico and Las Vegas. "Throughout the movie, we switch back and forth between the two locations," she says. "Mexico was almost monochromatic, while Las Vegas has all of those colorful cafes and restaurants, lounges, the mall, and, of course, the Vegas Strip. Where you are should be instantly apparent from the colors or lack thereof."
Similar color contrasts were employed by costume designer Colleen Atwood. "Mexico has lots of varied natural earth tones, so I used colors reflective of nature combined with the Mexican affinity for color," she offers. Like Montiel, she focused on more saturated colors in Las Vegas to set the two locations apart stylistically.
In creating the wardrobes for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, Atwood applied another kind of design contrast to echo their distinct personalities. For Brad Pitt, she took a minimalist approach, since, as she says, "Jerry is not about clothes. Samantha, on the other hand, wants more out of life, which is indicated in her clothing. She has more variety in her look, and her color scheme is either simple black and white, or bursts of solid color."
One of the most important design elements of the film was that of "The Mexican" itself. "The design of the pistol was critical because it becomes almost a character in the movie," Gore Verbinski states. "I wanted it to be unique, with a chamber in the shape of a heart, which presented some design issues. I envisioned it something like a jewel box, so you almost had the feeling that you could wind it up and it would play a little tune...yet it can kill you."
The pistol was built by Neotek, Inc. based on an original design from the Museum of History in Mexico, as well as sketches and design concepts from Verbinski. In addition to the heart-shaped chamber, the director created the snake coming around eating the apple and, on the hammer, the man coming up the side holding the woman, so it was obvious that this was a lover's gun. Verbinski reflects, "My concept for the pistol is simply that love is worth fighting for." "The flashback scenes where we learn about the pistol are at the core of the movie," Lawrence Bender expounds. "They exemplify the film's themes about sacrificing everything for true love." Baldecchi adds, "At the same time it poses the question, 'If you love somebody, when do you give up?' The answer, of course, is never."