Gael Garcia Bernal - Elvis Valderez
Milo Addica - writer, producer
James Marsh - director, producer
Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal stars in a rare English language
film, The King, released on May 19. He built his reputation in movies
such as Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Bad Education and The Motorcycle
Diaries, in the latter portraying Che Guevara to widespread acclaim.
The King casts him as Elvis Valderez, a young man who moves on from
service in the US navy to find the father he never knew. When he arrives
in the Texan town of Corpus Christi he discovers that his Dad, David
Sandow (William Hurt) is now the pastor of a busy Baptist church. A tale
of faith, love and the ties that bind us, this film is directed by James
Marsh and is based on a script he co-wrote with Monster's Ball author Milo
What research did you undertake for this role, Gael?
Bernal: "I went down to Austin to rehearse for three weeks, when we
started to prepare there. It was not just rehearsing the scenes, but I
also enjoyed just going out and driving. I rarely drive, but you have to
there, so I was getting lost in this neighbourhood where there were more
Mexicans and Texans of Mexican origin. It was about mixing with them,
listening to them and getting into that context."
The film is challenging in places, do you expect it to be controversial?
Bernal: "This film talks about faith and redemption and talks about it in
a bigger sense, it's not about criticising religion. It's something that
agnostics, strong believers and atheists alike can enjoy. It has a mystery
and there are going to be people who enjoy the film because as an
investigation of faith and redemption."
You seem to relish making films with challenging subjects, do you seek them out or do they simply come to you?
Bernal: "They come around and I'm lucky enough to be in the position to choose them. But the choice is really natural, it's very intuitive.
Sometimes with the term 'selective' it might seem like you choose things very carefully but in my case it's not that I've been careful, there have just been overwhelming reasons why I do one thing when I wouldn't consider another."
James, as an Englishman making this film set in a very religious community in a very specific place in Texas, was it difficult tuning into the place, the dialect and the issues?
Marsh: "We actually went down there and wrote the script on location, largely, in Texas. I'd made documentary films that had kind of covered
that part of the world and that mentality of Christian living. So I felt kind of qualified by that work to begin to enquire into it. But Milo and I actually wrote the script, or most of it, in Corpus Christi, and the best
stuff we wrote came, I think, from just looking out the window on location or going to church."
Milo, you met James for the first time on location, didn't you?
Addica: "I took a plane down to Corpus Christi and met him there, and James had a location in mind if I remember correctly, a wasteland. There
was an abandoned chemical factory there, a fence, and we found the remains of a dead animal - it was horrible. We went there at night and the mosquitoes came at us because we left the car doors open and the lights on. We got in and we were all bitten. But he picked that location to centre the piece around and we just developed it from that, it was very inspirational getting there are night."
Marsh: "I guess the general point is that the film was researched in some way and my background as a documentary filmmaker meant that locations are
very important for getting a sense of the world that the film was going to be in. Both Gael and I come from outside the US, and I think that was a factor in the way we went about making the film. The cinematographer was from Denmark, so there was quite an odd clash of different perspectives."
Bernal: "But then Texas is a unique place, I found it contrary to my initial perception, I felt that Texas compared to other places in the United States is not such a hypocritical place. It's very integrated."
Addica: "In the same sense that the south is its own place too. The Confederacy is still very powerful and strong, because we consumed them.
It had to happen, but in Texas they have their own set of rules that they play by, I suppose. But we were in Austin and that's the most diverse part of Texas. We weren't in Dallas or Houston, where it might be a little bit different."
Gael, how did you research your character, he's a complex soul with a dark
side to him isn't he?
Bernal: "I don't have a specific way of tackling a character, like filling in A-Z on a list, it's always done in a case by case situation. And with this character it was about drawing him - because the character's journey and his emotional tragedy is pretty clear, it's pretty specific.
So for me it was easy to grasp it from the outside going in, instead of from the inside going out. I had to trust the complexity that the character already had and it was just about just outlining that."
The film offers a tough examination on the issue of faith, are you
expecting - or have you found - any religious backlash to it so far?
Marsh: "When we were in Cannes there were a couple of reviews that seemed to point the way that it might go in America for some people, there were
some morally noxious, nihilistic terms being bandied around. But that kind of criticism is in the eye of the beholder, I think, it's about what they bring to the film. Which is an interesting sort of dynamic that you have
with an audience anyway. I think we're hoping that the film will be released and find an audience and will provoke people."
Addica: "I would just add that we didn't take into account any reaction to the finished film. I've done a number of films now and certainly when I
had done Monster's Ball that met with a lot of animosity. People compared it to The Birth of A Nation in the States - and I'm not kidding. So we
didn't set out with a moral agenda here, we're not trying to attack anybody, we're simply raising questions by telling a story. If the filmmakers get to the point where they have to anticipate what the
distributor and the studio executives are going to think, then there will be no more vision. Our film, whether you like it or not, does have its own
voice that speaks on its own."
The King is evocative in many ways of Terrence Malick's Badlands isn't it?
Bernal: "It's funny, I've just come from France doing a bit of press for the release and they never reference Badlands they reference Teorema by
Pasolini. If I was to draw a reference it would be that the character's a mix between the two, but in destiny doesn't figure as heavily as in this one. Here there's more of an inevitability to what happens."
Milo, you also take a cameo in the film as Elvis's boss in the pizza restaurant. Did you need much persuading?
Marsh: "I should say that Milo was an actor before he was a writer. And I think that one of the things that happens when you write with someone who's an actor, you really get a dimension to the writing that is really powerful, immediate and direct. So I think it was natural, given that he was an actor, to put him in the film. The role kept growing when he heard he was going to be in it, he kept writing more scenes and it became more substantial."
Addica: "It did, but then it was cut and diminished and became miniscule. But it was a great way for me to get to discipline Gael in the film, to
show him who's boss! It was very exciting. We shot eleven scenes that day if I recall, from nine to midnight, and it was a gruelling day. It was great, obviously, as an actor to work on that level with Gael. It was very exciting. We were having a good time and we were working off of each other, and his concentration is such that he is really in the room, he's
present and that's what great acting is."
How much of your own faith influenced the making of The King?
Marsh: "For me the idea of setting a story amongst a group of people who believe in something very strongly is dramatically very interesting. There
's no judgement at any point made about that faith, whether it's right or whether it's wrong. It's just presented as what they believe. In many respects the characters try very hard to do what is right, but we all fall short of the glory of God. I don't think I had any particular religious objectives, other than in documentary filmmaking and having seen this
world in various manifestations in my work."
Addica: "When we were designing the script, we were working from our own personal experience of family and life and everything, but you want to
always keep yourself in check so that you don't become too self indulgent."
Marsh: "I'm familiar with this mentality through growing up in a religious household. That's fairly intimate knowledge on one level. But then again
that's just writing what you know. I think Milo know those families and those relationships very intimately, and I think that's one of the strengths of his role in the script. It's not just about religion it's about a family too and in the sense of belonging and who belongs where, it's about territory. Those are other themes in the film beyond its religious trappings."
Bernal: "Faith becomes this vehicle to obtain redemption which is what takes so long to understand when you take Mass, that's generally what it's
all about. When I was little I remember going to Mass and just not getting that concept. To obtain redemption you have to be also what you've lost,
you have to accept all the cigarettes you've smoked and they're going to live with you and I think that is something in the film about the mystery of faith that I enjoyed a lot. It was very interesting to get to that
because my character not only wants faith, it's not only being good when you want to be you have to be good every day of your life."