'I'm No Longer Here' Director on Continuing the Mexican Filmmaking Legacy (Exclusive Video)

I'M NO LONGER HERE - Ya no estoy aqui - Publicity still - H 2020

Fernando Frías de la Parra, the writer-director behind Mexico's entry in the best international feature Oscar race, talks casting non-actors and fielding praise from Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón for his feature debut.

Following in the footsteps of acclaimed Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Fernando Frías de la Parra has entered the awards conversation this year with his feature I'm No Longer Here, Mexico's official submission for the best international feature Oscar.

The Netflix film, Ya No Estoy Aqui in Spanish, follows a group of teens in Monterrey, Mexico who spend their days dancing to cumbia music from Colombia as part of the"Kolombia" subculture. The leader of the crew, Ulises, is later threatened by a rival gang and escapes to New York City, stranded far from his way of life. The cast, including star Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño, almost exclusively comprises first-time actors whom Frías found and rehearsed with for three months in Monterrey.

Accompanying an exclusive clip (below) of del Toro and Cuarón endorsing Frías' feature as "one of the most memorable debuts in the last couple of decades," the writer-director spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about finding his stars on the street, prioritizing just the right songs and taking inspiration from Mexican filmmakers.

Why was this a story you wanted to tell?

This is a story I wanted to tell because it connects through the possibilities that fiction brings to us — different points that come from real life, from history, from place and from social issues, and especially from perspective. The story is just the excuse for the film to exist, the film is just like this thread that connects all these points that I was interested in exploring and connecting and showing that connection. It's about the emotions of what our character feels, at least inside, as a consequence of the environment and the things that he is experiencing in terms of dealing with the drug trade and the war against drugs, with the lack of opportunities in Mexico, with the spontaneity of counter-culture and its value, and especially with prejudice and with the way we see each other. I wanted to tell this story because I wanted to question the way in which we assume certain things; like in general, people would think that certain people that live in certain places are such a way. I wanted to offer an angle that looked into some issues that have been addressed by other content and our narrative but with another perspective, with empathy to its characters, and to the people that are represented in the film.

You touch on the casting process a bit in the Netflix video — most of these actors had never acted before, how did you find them?

There's not one response, there is one response to each of the characters. Each one of the actors we worked with have a story behind how we found each other. It's very interesting, there's many different cases. For example, Chaparra [played Bianca Coral Puente Valenzuela], she came to help take care of her friend's kids while her friend Tania [Alvarado] was doing the casting for [her character] Wendy. And when Tania left the audition she introduced me to her kids, and I met Bianca and I told her, "Do you want to also try?" And she said, "Sure, why not?" And she maybe didn't have the the characteristics that we were looking for for a certain character, but we were open to see and hear and listen and talk to people. That was a part of the process that gave us back a lot because it also helped the script. So we didn't even have a scene but we improvised and then we saw Bianca's amazing histrionic skills and we were fascinated by that. That became a very important thing because we even wrote a role more specific for her.

And there are cases like Leo [Zapata], who plays Isai, the kid who in the film ends up dying and there's a funeral. I met him the first time we started looking for kids in different places in Monterrey, in the streets. He came in super straightforward, he told me all of the things that were unaccepted by authorities and society, and he was very open about the things he had done and his decisions in life. He was troubled, his life at that moment was complicated and he was hard to track; he was moving around a lot but I felt like he had so much charm and such an open and honest way to share with us that I wanted to do everything I could to keep him coming back to the callbacks and the casting and the rehearsals. It was difficult, but in the end I'm happy to see it happened and he was very, very proud of it. So behind each of the characters, there are very interesting stories. The more we were becoming like a family, the more each one was helping. We would be rehearsing and we would be like "Hey kids, we are missing this guy who is a character that in the film comes in and yells at you — do you have any ideas, any neighbor, any cousin?" And they would be like, "Let me think, oh yeah, maybe this and that." And we'd say "Can we call them? Can we get them to send a video or something?" "Oh yeah, or next time I'm coming to the rehearsals can he come with me?" So we would be rehearsing and then someone will come and say like, "Hey, I want to try for that role." It was a very, very nice process in which a lot of us got involved.

Are any of the actors’ real lives or experiences reflected in the film as a result? 

Absolutely, there are many stories. As we were rehearsing, for example, we were doing exercises around the scenes that were already written and finding the pace and finding the rhythm. Also making them feel comfortable in the skin of their characters, most of the characters were a version of something similar to what they know. We had written biographies together and made songs about our characters. One of the most helpful things was that each of the kids had a journal for their character, and the character would would write things that made them angry, things that make them happy, things that make them sad or things that make them scared. We were talking about colors and emotions, and we're thinking, "If each color is one emotion, then what happens when you mix the two colors? Can you be happy and sad at the same time?" And then, for example, that's the nostalgia. And then we would have journals in which the kids, as the characters, would write moments of their lives of their fake autobiography. That was very useful. Sometimes they would ask me if they could use things that they have experienced in real life, and I said absolutely.

You said Ulises was the last person you cast — what were you looking for in that role? Why was Juan Daniel right for it?

I think the answer to that is simply by looking at him in the film. What I was looking for was this leader that was stoic and that wouldn't just come across as someone who is super stubborn and closed, but someone with that range of emotions. I knew that he had this love for the music and for the things that define him and being that stubborn, it's something that can sometimes be a virtue but also in another circumstance can be something bad. For me it was very, very important to find someone who could carry the emotional weight of the story and not look too hard. Someone that can create the empathy and can use the silence, because it's a character that since the first draft had very little to say, he wouldn't open his mouth that much. It was inspired in people that I know, a combination of virtues that I see in people that I admire and like and respect a lot.

What kind of training or choreography went into his dancing scenes?

The Ulises role was decided last because there were other candidates who were more familiar with Kolombian movement and they knew since the beginning how to dance very well and stuff. Juan Daniel didn't but he came from behind in that way, and I can say that he passed everyone. At some point I was nervous, and I was thinking "Oh I am not so sure, is he Ulises, is he Ulises?" And a friend of mine told me, "Don't worry about it, it will come to you, you will see it." And so Juan Daniel started watching videos on YouTube and he started doing them on his own. He was not very familiar with warming up and stretching and that was something that we need to provide him with and Bernardo Velasco, the casting director and acting coach, took care of Juan Daniel's training in that regard. In New York, we had some other help with choreography just to find the meaning of the dancing, the emotional meaning. We knew how he danced and his steps and his movement, but one thing was to dance like he danced in Monterrey with his friends. We worked with a choreographer that would help project those emotions into the dance moves that he already had.

There's very specific and unique clothing and hair for your characters — how did you create that look?

They all come from real life, that was how they looked in Colombia. The movement existed like that. We made like tests with our hair and makeup team and our wardrobe and costume people, and we just designed the look and the personality for the personality and the role that each of the characters had in the story. Each one have their own thing. I remember Malena [De la Riva] and Gabriela [Fernandez], the costume designers, talking about how Ulises has only this amount of clothes in his closet and he will combine them this and that way. That was was very nice to see, the process. It was connected to the autobiography that the characters wrote and the girls would also say, like, "Oh, this is not for me." They would come with ideas.

The cinematography is really stunning here, what was your approach?

We have talked about this plenty. [Cinematographer] Damián [García] and I are very, very, very close friends. I really love him and admire him a lot. We didn't even talk in terms of like film references; we were talking about music, about still photography, we were having a manifesto, the things that we didn't want to do. It just came in a very natural way, without words we were agreeing on things. I had an idea already [about] the framing, and he would go "This is very cool, what if we just make this and that," and just with that little thing, he would elevate it so much and his light is really incredible. He has a sensitivity for all the nuances, he understood the importance of detail, importance of the pacing and he made sure that the framing would allow for all of what we needed to happen to basically frame the scene.

Music plays such a big role, how did you choose the exact songs and sound? How did those choices impact other areas of the film as well?

Like 95 percent of the music I already knew from the script. It's funny because since 2017, since before shooting, I told the producers in Mexico, "Make sure you have the rights for the songs because these are the ones that have to be. Have you cleared them?" "No I'm on it." [Later]"Have you cleared?" "I'm on it." They were written in the script so I always knew. One of the things that I have been clear about since the beginning was how the film ends, what's exactly the scene of the ending. That's normally how I approach my work in general, it always starts with the ending and then everything is just finding the way to get to that ending. So that [final] song was there, for example. It's funny because at some point, we didn't have the rights of certain songs but for me, they were incredibly important. There's one song that Ulises dances to when he's fighting with his roommates in New York, and he lip syncs the song that says like "I am Your Majesty and this is my cumbia." So I needed that.

I said, "I am sorry, but I'm going to have to film the scenes with the real music, even if it's it over-imposes dialogue." I know it's not the best idea because if later on we don't find the rights or something, how are we going to get away with it? But for me, my songs were cast like characters, so I went that way. Like 95 percent of the songs remained, we just switched one in Mexico and one in Monterrey. And sometimes the music was like playing against mood, sometimes the music underlines the feeling that Ulises is having at that moment; instead of his connection to his land in Monterrey, other times it actually reminds him how far he is. When he's walking alone in Jackson Heights at night and he sees that everyone has someone but him — some skateboarder kids who are together, some other people jogging, they are together, and he's just alone. And there's a song that plays from his mp3 that it's almost like an ironic cumbia, it's almost as if it were making fun of him.

In this video, Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón are singing this film’s praises. What does that mean to you?

That's incredible. It's been a lot, I wouldn't have imagined something like that. I think I haven't even processed, it's all happening so fast. My everyday life feels the same, of course, but then at some point during the day, I keep finding myself thinking, "This happened?" And I'm like, "Yeah, it happened." And wow, it's like reliving it every day. It's kind of crazy.

Del Toro and Cuaron discuss the legacy of Mexican cinema and your film continuing the tradition. How much were you impacted by past Mexican films?

I was very much impacted by past Mexican films. To be entirely honest, I was so impacted that I knew that I didn't want to go where other Mexican films have gone, I wanted to do things very differently in terms of subject matter and approach to the subject matter. There are films that I absolutely love from Mexico and I'm very happy to have seen. Del Toro and Cuarón I admire immensely, immensely; Cuarón's versatility is out of this world and Del Toro's love and care of detail and the character work that he does is incredible.

What do you want people to take away from this project?

That nothing is written and that there are other ways to see the world, to see people and to see films.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.