By RICKY J. DUARTE
International horror films are amazing. There’s something about the horror genre that allows storytelling to translate successfully beyond language from culture to culture. Ultimately, fear is universal. In the case of the new Mexican horror film HUESERA: THE BONE WOMAN, written by Abia Castillo and director Michelle Garza Cervera, the story of a woman who feels trapped and forced into a life she doesn’t identify with is also a very universal theme. It’s a relatable story and a complex drama that’s elevated by the integration of the occult and body horror. The film is excellent.
RUE MORGUE was fortunate enough to speak with the film’s on-the-rise director of photography, Nur Rubio Sherwell (in her first English language interview) about just how universal the story’s themes are and how they apply specifically to Mexican culture.
I absolutely loved this film. What was it that specifically drew you to this project?
The first time I read the script, I thought it was amazing. As a director of photography, you get to read a lot of scripts, and to be honest, few of them really get to your heart. HUESERA was one that I thought was very well-written. It had a lot of very important themes about womanhood, about femininity, so from the first moment that the producer, Paulina I. Villavicencio, asked me to read it, knew. I hadn’t done any features at that time. I was still in school and I was very excited to see that it was such an amazing script. The lead character [Valeria] is so strong [and] the little details that construct the story, I was amazed by it. It was a very long process from the first time I read it until we filmed it. Maybe two years passed by, and it changed a lot. It grew a lot. I’m a fan of Michelle Gara Cervera and Abia Castillo’s writing.
I am, too. It’s an excellent script. Are you a fan of horror movies in general? Do you enjoy them? And if so, why?
Yeah, I mean I do. I find it hard to find horror movies that I really, really enjoy or that have something else to say because I think horror is a genre that permits you to talk about a lot of very important things. But most of the horror scripts I’ve read are just jump scares and blood, you know? But HUESERA … I think it’s very deep. I like the horror genre because I think it opens the conversation about many things and also, as a photographer, visually it gives you a lot of permission to do a lot more, so I love that. All my still photography, people always told me, “Oh it’s so mysterious.” I have always been drawn to mysterious images.
It’s very apparent that you love mysterious imagery. The opening sequence alone instantly draws you in. I did some research on you; I had no idea you were still in school and new to the scene. I was watching this movie, and I was blown away by what I was seeing.
I was an actress for ten years before becoming a DP. I grew up wanting to be an actress, and I followed that road. But then, I started taking pictures, and I found my voice, and then, I started making little videos I would edit on iMovie. I found a passion that I really didn’t know I had and decided to go to film school at 29 years old. So to have the change of path was … a very good decision because my life changed. In the two years since I first read the script for HUESERA, I made another feature film that gave me a lot of security in myself. I’m glad I did it first because HUESERA was a very ambitious project. We had very little time, very little money, we didn’t have many resources, and in horror that is frightening, you know? I think you can always find a way to do things with less resources and money, but it takes more work. So, when I made HUESERA I felt more prepared. Thank God, I started working a lot before I left film school. I did my first feature in the third year of film school.
That’s really amazing to me. I read that you have ambitions to direct as well. Is that true?
I like directing. I like it a lot. As an actress, I love [to] work with actors, and I understand it very well. I think it’s because I was an actress for so long, and I do really love directing, but it’s not my main goal. I love being a cinematographer. I love being able to change from one story to another in such little time. I have been working on one project after another, and I have done very different things, and I’m thankful for that. So yeah, eventually I would like to direct something. I’ve done some short films [and] a documentary that I’m still editing. I would like it, but it’s not my main goal. I love being a cinematographer.
That’s excellent. I think it’s cool, too, that you have experience in so many aspects of filmmaking because it makes it more fluid. You understand the actors and the director. How closely did you work with the director of HUESERA, Michelle Garza Vercera?
Very closely. We were working on shooting the film and discovering what the HUESERA was. At the beginning, we went [down] a lot of different roads, exploring different things. And I think every project kind of ends up manifesting itself, like what it needs, what it looks like. We had six months of tablework before shooting. I used to go to Michelle’s house. We would talk. I would look at references …We even had a “cinema club” with other crew members where we would watch a movie each week and discuss it, the main references, and it was a very, very strong work between us. We became very close. That was key to being able to do the movie with the resources and the time we had. If not, I think we would have been less calm. It was very interesting thinking about Valeria’s psyche, about how we would represent that – how she feels trapped. So the idea of the spiderweb came … [The spider] is a mother, but it’s also in a jail… the spiderweb that is growing around Valeria as she gets more pregnant. We were thinking about different visual forms of representation of this spiderweb, of this jail. It’s very oppressive.
I got that feeling of oppression and captivity. She lives in a beautiful home, yet it’s shot in a way that feels like she’s trapped – enclosed. I loved using the bars of the crib when she’s looking at her baby, and they’re just completely separated.
Yeah, the crib was like a jail to us, and we tried to explore that in many different ways and also the light was very important. We tried to give different shadows that give you this feeling of being trapped. Of jail. Of a spiderweb.
The climax is so impactful. What was planning that experience like?
We looked for the perfect location for a long time. We had the sensation that it had to be this giant spiderweb, and I think we found the perfect place in Mexico City – the Forest of Chapultepec. It’s a very iconic forest here in the city. Then, we had the idea that this scene was going to be [shot at] night. It was a very complicated location because we didn’t have the correct amount of lights to light a forest in a good way. We did some tests, went with the dancers, had rehearsal, took pictures, and I had the idea that we maybe could do it “day for night.” We created an atmosphere … It took a lot of planning. Also a lot of rehearsal with the dancers. We had a lot of sessions just with the dancers, discovering the movement of the spider and how they’d break her bones. It was a very interesting process and very long. We had a lot of collaboration with all the different parts – the choreographer, the dancers, the main actress.
It really paid off. I sense that the movie compares religion and magic. Valeria’s mom has a ritual at the beginning involving the Virgin Mary, while her aunt utilizes witchcraft and magic. What was that juxtaposition like?
I think that it’s a very common thing in Mexico. At the beginning, the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe was very important because she’s like the big mother of all Mexicans. That was a very important symbol in the movie because we are talking about motherhood. And about the witchcraft or sorcery, I think, in Mexico, they’re very united in a way. If you go to some shaman or white witch in Mexico to clean your aura, they’re always religious figures in those places. They’re very united in Mexican imagery. It was very interesting to investigate the witchcraft and the ritual aspect. Michelle talked with a lot of different curanderas (medicine women). She talked with a santero, more dark magic.
We were looking to see where this story belonged because there are a lot of different branches of witchcraft in Mexico, and they’re very different from one another. We wanted to keep it different. Not La Santa Muerte, a figure that’s a skeleton that people ask for things from, but you must give something to in return. We wanted to be far away from the images that are more frightening or demonic. We wanted to keep it more natural. All the elements our witches have, their branches, their little things that make noise are made of wood. It was also very united with mother nature in a way. We were talking about motherhood. So we wanted to get away from all the negative images that have to do with witches. Because at the end, they’re good women who help her get free. They’re women who decided to live their lives differently. They’re Sabinas. It was very important to have representation, not of a bad witch but a strong woman who decided to live her life in a different way, and that’s why they’re outcasts in a way. But they’re very happy within their life, and that’s also the representation of her aunt, who decided to not have kids, not get married, to live her life differently. She gets bullied because of that, but she feels free and secure because she found her family in these women.
Speaking of women: a female director and writer, a female director of photography, the editor…this incredible team of women leading this film. How do you feel that impacted telling this specific story?
I’m very happy it’s happening. I think there’s a big change in the narrative when all the heads of departments are women. I think this is a story that had to be told by a majority of women in the crew because it’s such a feminine story, and it had so many things that, as women, affect us. We had grown up with this societal weight of having children, of being a wife, of living this life that is supposed to be the “right life” for women. I think there are a lot of subtle things. This story would have been very different if it had been told by a male crew.
It might not have ever been told.
Exactly. Actually, with the script and even with the movie, I think there’s some rejection from some men to the movie. It’s like, “Valeria, she’s a bad woman.” In Mexico it’s so, so common that the man, the father, leaves the house – men having different families and [they do] not dedicate themselves to one family. A lot of children [are] abandoned by their fathers. It’s very normalized. But if a woman does what she wants, she’s “the devil.”
Talking with different men about it, there was a reaction of rejection to Valeria’s character. They would get mad because that’s not how a woman is supposed to be. So I think it’s very important that there are more and more talented directors, DPs and everyone else on the crew having the opportunity to tell the stories and tell them our way. I’m so happy. I think I started being a DP at the perfect moment because before, it was so difficult. HUESERA is premiering at Morelia Film Festival. Of the ten movies featured, I think eight were made by women. That’s the first time it’s happened. That’s really, really, amazing. I’m so happy.
That’s incredible. It sounds like when it comes to those men who aren’t happy about this movie, perhaps the scariest part of this horror movie is that there’s a woman who makes her own choices.
NRS: I think it is! Because I think in HUESERA, the horror is subtle in a way. It has a lot of scary parts, yes, but I think the most important part is a woman making her own choices and a woman deciding not to live the life she was supposed to live according to society. Not just falling into the pressure of society. I think that’s the most important and scary part for some people. I think the story works without the horror as well. It’s a very well-constructed drama that talks about a lot of different things and the horror is a plus, and I think it’s a brilliant way to integrate the genre….
RJD: How do the themes in this movie relate to Mexican culture specifically?
NRS: As you know, Mexico is a very machista, man-lead society. When we were making it we were kind of scared about people’s reaction to the story. We talked a lot about it. The ending changed a lot of times in the script. We weren’t able to film the ending that was in the script. Then, when we saw it, when Michelle saw it edited, she said, “It doesn’t need any more because this is a very strong ending.” In the process, we were very scared, and there were some conversations about making it a softer ending because we live in a very, very harsh society in Mexico. Machismo. We are changing very slowly, but it’s a very strong thing in Mexican society.
Can you tell me more about the folk story of the HUESERA and where it came from?
There’s an old story about an old woman in the desert who collected different parts of animals and people’s skeletons and would bring them together and bring it to life. That’s the origin that actually doesn’t have a lot to do with the movie at the end. But at the beginning, it was an inspiration for the director. She read the story. It’s the seed of the story. It changed a lot. It’s not a very well-known story. I won’t say it’s like La Llorona, which is a very popular legend. I didn’t know about Huesera until Michelle told me about it. If you really go and start investigating, you can find it but it’s not a very well-known story in Mexico.
HUESERA creates life in the story, and Valeria creates life in the movie. Do you have a favorite moment you’re most proud of in the film?
I think the whole ritual with the witches. It was a very difficult day but very magical. At the beginning, we had a lot of different problems. Two of the lights went off. Everything was very difficult, to begin with. But once we began filming the ritual, magic happened. There was even a scary moment when we were all very concentrated, and then a piece of the roof just fell. There was a wind that was so strong it felt almost supernatural. We felt scared but very powerful … So filming it, for me, was almost a hypnotic moment because we filmed the whole ritual three times. I used a handheld camera, and with every shoot, I did something different. I followed another character; I turned around or I didn’t; I changed the lens. Doing it with all the chanting and all the noise in this place that had this tremendous energy… I really enjoyed it. I felt like I was one with the camera and the ritual. And that part, I’m really proud of and really love it. That part and the forest. Those are the two parts I really love. Making them was very magical.
HUESERA: THE BONE WOMAN is now streaming on Shudder.
“I like the horror genre because I think it opens the conversation about many things…“