By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Filmmaker Gigi Saul Guerrero had a great fall in the horror anthology field this year. Hot on the heels of SATANIC HISPANICS, for which she contributed “Nahuales,” came the Shudder exclusive V/H/S/85, featuring her “God of Death” segment–which is based on a true trauma from her native Mexico’s history. Guerrero explains this inspiration and more in this exclusive RUE MORGUE chat.
Joining David Bruckner, Mike P. Nelson, Natasha Kermani and Scott Derrickson (who discuss V/H/S/85 here and here) in the found-footage omnibus’ directing lineup, Guerrero sets her story during and after the enormously destructive earthquake that hit Mexico City on September 19, ’85. We see a morning TV news broadcast violently disrupted by the quake, then watch through the survivors’ cameras as they try to escape the destroyed building, only to wind up in subterranean tunnels and rooms where ancient Aztec evil dwells.
When you found out that the setting of this anthology was 1985, did the earthquake immediately come to mind as your subject matter?
That’s a good question, because you would think so, that would definitely be the answer. But funnily enough, it’s such a traumatizing thing for Mexicans, especially Mexico City people, we put it away, we try to erase the trauma. I mean, we do earthquake drills every year, same time; we have an alarm that really scares us, and the moment we hear it, we run outside. That’s just how we’re trained and wired. So I really didn’t think of it when they told me it was 1985, until my producer and best friend Raynor Shima was like, “Gigi!” Smack! [Laughs] “The earthquake of ’85!” I was like, “Ohhhhh yes!” So if it wasn’t for him, I never would have dove into that. It was almost like diving into my own traumas; as soon as he said that, it all hit me–the story, the characters, the twist, everything just worked. But I needed someone to smack it into me first [laughs]!
Did anything from your own personal experience find its way into the segment?
I was born in the ’90s, so I didn’t live through that earthquake. However, I have lived through easily 12, 15 earthquakes in my life. Even in school when I was a kid, you’d hear that alarm, which is a citywide sound, you have to know what to do, and we do it every year. And to this day, I’m being followed by earthquakes everywhere; that’s no joke, so I understand it. I based it on real news anchors who unfortunately, may they rest in peace, died on live TV.
I also know family members of ours did not make it, and my dad is an actual true FINAL DESTINATION survivor of [the ’85 quake]. What happened was, my dad worked in a building right in the center of Mexico City, and it was one where everybody basically did not make it out. And that morning, my dad had a headache, a simple headache, and he was like, “Ehhh, I’m going to go to the doctor instead, I’ll just be late for work.” So he went completely to the other side of the city just for the morning, and that’s the only reason he’s alive today. Just that half-hour change in his schedule is truly what made all the difference. And my mom, at the time, couldn’t get ahold of him, cell phones weren’t around, so my mom always tells me–and after she watched my V/H/S segment too–how she remembers that she thought that was it, my dad was gone.
It’s important to be able to face your fears, your traumas, and if you can talk about them, you’re taking a big step forward. And only in genre can you really address any political issue; anything that is risky, touchy, anything that starts conversations, you can actually twist it into entertainment. So I had to do it!
Is there any footage of the actual ’85 earthquake mixed into your segment?
Yeah, it was important for us to put in real footage, and so we did at the very end, as part of the news; that’s all real. And even for my cameo, standing at the end talking about the earthquake, we actually went to a location, and there are many in Mexico City, that hasn’t been cleaned up since. There are a lot of parts of the city that are like that today, so I said, “Let’s go shoot in the actual rubble.” It was very cool to film at these buildings that just never got back up.
Are the demons and other occult elements based on actual folklore?
Of course! Yeah! Mictlan, the demon’s name, means “underworld,” so the idea of going lower and lower came from my interpretation of why we have an earthquake every mid-September in this city. Mexico City is sinking, that is a true fact, so I took that into account and the reason is, we’re actually built on top of another city, the Aztec empire. I wanted to tap into that so badly, and to really take our mythology and culture and folklore seriously. What’s it like being built on top of another city that we took over? So in this case, we go a little too low, and wind up in the underworld!
I imagine you had a pretty small budget, so was it difficult staging the earthquake and its aftermath on the money you had?
As I said, we were lucky enough to shoot on locations that looked like that already. We did make them a little worse; however, we actually pushed production a week, because it was a little risky to film the same day as the earthquake in ’85. We moved it up a week thanks to my producer, and then there was a big earthquake, 4.7, that day. We actually had to e-mail Shudder: “We’re alive, we’re OK.” But our set got a little more screwed up; in scenes where the camera looks up at the ceiling and there are cracks everywhere, those weren’t there when we were putting all our set dec in. The building was getting even more decrepit, and getting the cast and crew back on set was not easy [laughs]! We were able to really put it all on screen on the budget we had, and there was no other way but to go to Mexico City and actually shoot it.
Who did your makeup effects, and was it difficult pulling them off in the midst of this particular setting?
His name is Juma [Juan Mendez], and he’s been doing our makeup in Mexico for the past few projects; he did it as well on SATANIC HISPANICS. What was really hard was that we were filming on locations that had a lot of dust, so adding more dust on our actors, adding blood and all these things, they really felt the griminess of the scene. Even the rest of the crew, we were all covered in, not just dust, but we kept adding cooking flour, which really shows up well on screen. We all smelled like cookies with blood for every day of the filming! It was hard for everyone, because we had to take all the actors to a different location next door to get their makeup and everything done, because of how intense it was where we were shooting.
Out of all that, what was the most difficult part of putting the segment together?
Definitely, building all the connections in our sets. We had to build that tunnel that leads to the underworld, and from there we had to build the actual Mictlan wall. So we kept building connections in between so we could keep the camera rolling, and it would feel like one continuous run through all of them. That was definitely the hardest, but maybe the part I loved filming most was the end of the segment, when the girl gives her entire body to the god. Why? Because that was the one moment when it was only the girls allowed on set. And there was just this female energy happening, because all the boys were outside; for the 2nd AC, that was the first time she ever got to hold the camera. It was just the coolest. One of the women producers became the 1st AD; we all just kind of traded spots, just so it was all girls at the end.
And when our actress, Florencia [Rios], is screaming, “¡Levántate! Rise up!” to the god, she didn’t rehearse it like that. She was a lot more calm, and she even said, “I just felt this energy, this spirit in me bursting out.” So that was definitely my favorite part to shoot, because we came together in such a different way, and for Latinos, just the female body and the female image means a lot to us. We even have a lot of female Aztec gods, so it just felt a little crazy and cool.
I got kind of a [REC] vibe while watching your segment. Was that intentional?
Totally! 100 percent. That’s exactly it, because in [REC], it’s all about the characters’ reactions, and them responding organically to what’s around them and who’s around them, and that’s what I wanted for “God of Death.” So thank you—I feel like that’s my badge of honor! My big reference was [REC]; I watched it so much to prepare.
You’ve done a number of shorts and anthology segments; is it more freeing for you to do those than a full feature?
You know, it all depends on the amount of control. You can do a feature and have as much control as you do on an anthology or short. It all depends, in my opinion, on how many cooks are in the kitchen, and if it’s a big studio project. Definitely in my experience so far, I have had more freedom with these [anthology] films, but I’ve been lucky enough that in the features I did with Blumhouse, I had all the freedom in the world. They really trust their filmmakers over at Blumhouse, which is amazing, so I’ve been very, very lucky so far. But there’s something truly rewarding when something feels yours, and not for a client, let’s say–not for somebody else, and that’s something I appreciate about Shudder, and this project in particular. It feels like I just made something for me, and that is one of the best things you can have as a filmmaker.
And while becoming part of the V/H/S club was already cool, being part of this one in particular… I’m next to some intense heavy hitters in the genre. These guys are no joke, so being alongside them feels like, [sings] “Looks like we made it!” It feels good!
Do you have any features or short projects in the works right now?
Of course! We’ve always got to be developing, trying to think of what’s next. I find that, especially in the genre world, there’s always something new coming around; there’s always that phase of whatever subgenre it is. Right now I’m excited to see that our industry is shaking hands and being able to move forward with better contracts for everybody, and that we can get back to work and do cool stuff. But I’ve been developing on the side, while acting in a lot of Crest commercials at the same time for the U.S. and Mexico; you’ll see me invading your TV real soon!
Right now I’m in postproduction on my first non-horror film, a biopic about a famous Mexican singer named Jenni Rivera, so that is my big project right now. It’s almost done, and I can’t wait for people to see it. Other than that, I’m realizing I need blood on set. I’ve got to jump back onto another horror one really quick here!