'Sleep Dealer' Filmmaker Alex Rivera Joins Eco-Minded Film Festival

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A 2008 Sundance sensation, he's now artist-in-resident at Tales From Planet Earth.

Alex Rivera swept up awards at Sundance in 2008 with his socially-conscious sci-fi film, Sleep Dealer, a dystopian look at the future of Mexican/United States border control. Since then, the filmmaker has taken his time assembling a follow-up. This week, Rivera earns the title of programmer and artist-in-residence for Tales from Planet Earth, a science- and environment-themed festival beginning Nov. 1 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In its seventh year, Tales from the Earth culls films from across the globe, ranging from factual documentary to speculative future fiction.

THR spoke to Rivera on his involvement with Tales from Planet Earth, what Hollywood doesn't quite understand about environmental filmmaking, and the curvy road to mounting his follow-up to Sleep Dealer.

THR: What was the mission behind Tales from Planet Earth? With films new and old, it's decidedly unlike most traditional festivals.

Alex Rivera: Film festivals in the industry have become synonymous with a marketplace. But historically they've been the opposite, places for films that can't find a market and they go to find an audience. It's about showing alternate ways of viewing cinema itself. That's the kind of festival Tales from Planet Earth is. It encourages audiences to look differently at film itself and differently at the environment. We're living in an era of environmental crisis and ecological collapse.

THR: What is the through-line that connects the festival's diverse programming?

Rivera: The environment isn't about parks or spotted owls, it's about everywhere where humans are and it's about our contacts with each other and nature. So let's try and find films that say something about that, something useful. Let's examine how the culture, film in this case, informs the way we see world and therefore the way we imagine politics, the way we debate the future of the world. Lofty, big ideas. Look at the program and they're showing everything from films you would expect like Chasing Ice to several films from [Werner] Herzog that address the relationship of humans and nature to Leviathan to Code 46 to Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury. So some you would expect in an environmental festival, but the others you're surprised by but it makes sense.

THR: As part of the festival, you're working with students at University of Wisconsin-Madison. What are you teaching them and what are you learning?

Rivera: As an artist-in-residence, I'm working on films about the future. I'm teaching a seminar where students are making short science fictions. The students are mostly graduate students, here for their masters or PhD, who are molecular biologists or environmental scientists. They're coming to science fiction from hard science, they're researchers, but they're trying to use the language of film to talk about the future they imagine. I'm a filmmaker who wants to make films about the world. I want to make films that have a resonance in this moment of crisis that we're living in. I don't believe in films as escapism, I believe in films as engagement and reflection on reality. So working in this context of science and making science fiction in the context of science is interesting. It's provocative.

THR: More than ever, Hollywood blockbusters are concerning themselves with the environment. Are they tapping into real issues?

Rivera: Going very far back into its history, there has always been the genre of the disaster film. The apocalypse, the alien invasion, these are themes that go back as early as the first films. So today, in New Orleans or New York with Sandy, we see images that used to be in science fiction happening around of us in reality. We can see an eco-pocalypse unfolding around us. Hollywood has been reflecting that in their disaster films lately. We're seeing more stories about humans and our actions, capitalism, that's what you see in the new disaster films. World War Z it's the biotech industry gone awry or The Day After Tomorrow. The apocalypse doesn't come from magic or space aliens, it comes from us. However, the thing that's been unimaginable is how we change, how we escape, how we get to a different future. Apocalyptic narratives drive on the pleasure of destruction. To me, the unexplored space is, 'What's the way out?'

THR: Your last feature, Sleep Dealer, premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. What has the time been like since then?

Rivera: When I finished Sleep Dealer, I had a lot of doors open in the film industry. I was also very tired and I didn't have a new script in my lap. I had a film. And I'm not the first. If you look at people who go through Sundance, they get shot out of cannon. A vast majority do not make a second feature quickly. For better or worse. I am one person in a whole community of people who are celebrated at Sundance, around the world, and you're left to engage with the film industry. There's no money for development right now. The good scripts are scooped up by directors with five features under their belt. It's not as easy as it sounds.

THR: Did you come close to tackling a new film?

Rivera: I got attached to projects with Salma Hayek, but there was never any money to pay. That was called La Vida Robot, which was based on a true story that was published in Wired magazine. The project fell apart and it's now being done with Lionsgate with another director. Just another Hollywood story. Projects you get attached to that are in motion you can get unattached to [laughs]. If you're a filmmaker who wants to think originally and big, strange ideas, you have to come in as a writer. For me, the inspiration for a big film comes every five or six years. I want to make films that people are going to remember for a couple decades. Sleep Dealer is a small film, but it's being taught all over the country and it's endured on the merit of its ideas.

THR: Do you have projects you hope to develop when you return to Los Angeles from your artist-in-residence?

Rivera: I have two feature films I'm developing. One of them is the true story of the most wanted man in America in 1967, a man named Reyes Lopez Tijarina -- he's kind of a forgotten historical figure. It's a thriller/adventure set in a highly-charged political reality. And then I'm working on a follow-up to Sleep Dealer, another cross-border science-fiction story that involves drones that would let me fulfill a lot of the dreams and ambitions I didn't get to fulfill on that project because of budget and my own learning process.

THR: Are you active as a filmmaker when you're pitching features?

Rivera: I just finished a music video for Aloe Blacc for the number one song in the world right now, "Wake Me Up." It was originally released by Avicii and I just did the version for the acoustic version. It's a political music video that worked with all undocumented folks as cast members, telling a story based on their lives. It's an interesting project because it's a neo-realist music video. It's pretty epic.

Twitter: @misterpatches