Sleep Dealer Looks at Problems Facing Rural and Urban Mexico

With Sleep Dealer, director Alex Rivera re-imagines the science fiction film from a distinctly Latin American perspective. Set in Mexico, it conjures up a gritty future in which menial labor is conducted via virtual reality and memories can be sold on-line. Using both Super-16 and HD video, Rivera gives both rural and urban Mexico, as well as a mock reality TV show called Drones!, a distinctive look. Rivera creates an extremely promising debut, which uses science fiction to speak about the dilemmas and possibilities facing the Third World.

Watch the trailer, then read our Q&A.

F&V: Was Sleep Dealer largely shot on Super-16?

Rivera: Yes. We did principal photography entirely on Super-16. We made that choice because my DP [Lisa Rinzler] said that HD, even where it’s at today, doesn’t hold up as well as film in harsh light. We were going to be shooting in the desert in the middle of the day. For that reason, we decided to use film. There are other things that went into that decision. After months of editing, we shot some inserts on HD.

What HD camera did you use?

The Panasonic AG-HVX200.

Did making shorts prepare you for the challenges of making a feature? One of them, “Cybraceros,” sounds like a dry run for Sleep Dealer.

I spent ten years making shorts. Some of them were animation created entirely in aftereffects. Some were made in documentary form with a Sony camcorder that I had. Some were hand-drawn animation. I was working almost alone for ten years. When I made Sleep Dealer, I had a crew of 100 people and a 45-day shoot. Nothing really prepared me for it. It was grueling, and I fainted! I t was really an overwhelming experience. The best preparation was going to the Sundance Lab in 2001. There, I got to work with a crew of 15 people and actors. I really went through the filmmaking experience for a month there.

Was it hard to come up with the right look and tone for Drones!?

I love Paul Verhoeven. Several of his films have this tabloid TV culture represented and exaggerated, That was the inspiration for this reality TV show in which we follow the exploits of predator drone pilots. For what it’s worth, I heard that Fox now has a reality show called Homeland Security that follows border patrol and custom agents. I think that Sleep Dealer makes many predictions about the future. One of them is that there will be a TV program where we follow drone pilots. I think it’s the one most likely to come true. I’m looking for it next season on Fox.

How much CGI did you use?

The entire film contains 1300 shots. Out of that, 450 use visual effects. About a third of the film is digitally retouched, so we used a ton of CGI. We created fighter planes, screen composites and robots. It was a massive undertaking. The jets were done by a studio in Mexico City.

Alex Rivera and Lisa Rinzler
Director Alex Rivera and DP  Lisa Rinzler on location.

When you went back to reshoot in HD, how did you settle on what camera to use?

That was a decision my DP made. We went through a color-correction process with a digital intermediate. The principal photography was all 16mm. Then it was transferred to HDCAM  SR. From there, it went to Beta SP. Then it went to Final Cut Pro, where we did the editing. When it was done, we went back to the HD SR footage and compiled it into a HD master. There we inserted our footage from our second round of production. We added noise and grain to it to make it match Super-16. We went from HD space to 16mm.

For a science-fiction film, the technology in Sleep Dealer is very low-tech and jerry-rigged. What was your inspiration for the production design?

I think of Sleep  Dealer as almost a new genre – Third World cyberpunk. In science fiction, we’ve seen Tom Cruise in Washington, DC, Harrison Ford in Los Angeles and Will Smith in New York. But the truth is, the future belongs to everybody. Djakarta has a future as much as Los Angeles does. Sao Paulo has a future as much as New York does. Sleep Dealer looks at the future from a new point of view, outside the U.S. When you look at the future from a Mexican perspective, things change. I didn’t want flying cars or fancy skyscrapers. I wanted a future that was gritty, humble and hybrid: a mix of low-tech and high-tech. Also, we had a low budget, so my creative ideas were supported by that.

The factory set as seen in the film.

Can you point to any specific things you had to do to save money?

One of the biggest sets in the film is this futuristic factory. I wanted a factory with almost infinite rows of workers. But we could only afford to pay four workers on either side. We had a factory with eight workers, which was not enough. The first thing we did was put a mirror behind those workers, so we duplicated it and had sixteen workers. Behind the mirror we put a green screen, so we duplicated those sixteen workers again inside it, digitally. Now we had a factory of 32 workers, which looks enormous. That was a moment when we used the lowest technology possible – a mirror – to expand our set and save money.

What would you have done differently if you had more money?

The number one thing would be reshoots. I would have taken a bit more time to change little bits of the story. Personally, I like the way the film looks. The production design works for me. I could have made the characters kiss more personally or hit one or two of the jokes harder. We’re at a place with digital technology where you can visualize things that are very spectacular with little money. The challenges are different. Do you have enough time? Do you have enough time to think things through? It’s not about the technology anymore, it’s about time.

So money buys you a certain amount of time and freedom?

Right now, that’s exactly right. I wouldn’t put a larger budget towards fancier and fancier toys. The technology that’s out there now is extraordinary. We shot with an old-fashioned Super-16 camera, which gives just as good as resolution as the Red camera, but it’s completely cheap. Everyone knows how to use it around the world. The point is, your money partially needs to go to technology, but the biggest difference is going to give time to rehearse actors and do reshoots. That’s where you get the biggest payoff.

Your two main locations, Santa Ana and Tijuana, look very distinct. The cinematography for the scenes in Santa Ana is very bleached-out. In Tijuana, it’s a lot more colorful. To what extent were you just representing how these places look, and to what extent was it part of the story?

Both. In the desert, we took our inspiration from the palette of the land there. The bleached-out earth and golden sun were cues. We gave it a bleached-out wash in color correction . Tijuana, like a lot of cities in the developing world, is a riot of color. You’ve got a lot of neon next to fluorescent bulbs put up by street vendors next to incandescent bulbs that a family has put up for a birthday party. We wanted to run with that and exaggerate it. We wanted a future that’s noir and dark but also an uncontrolled chaos of colors.

There are some really unusual color schemes in the film. Was that done with filters and lights or post-production?

Almost all was done on-set with gelled lights. Lisa Rinzler and myself were committed to a saturated, colorful look from the beginning. On set, she added blues, reds and teals. It came from the inspiration of the streets. I had a still camera, and I would take four- or five-second long exposures in Tijuana. Those still photos were our inspiration visually, When I gave them to her as a reference, she knew how to proceed .

Had you traveled much in Mexico before making Sleep Dealer?

Yes. I’d lived there and made several films.

What made you choose science fiction as the means to talk about outsourcing and globalization? A lot of filmmakers would have used documentary or social realism.

To me, we’re living science fiction right now. At the moment we’re in historically, we have predator drone pilots flying around, a network connecting the world and people we talk to on the phone halfway around the world. This is our reality today, but it feels like science fiction. I wanted to make a film like a feedback loop, reflecting on our world. I also thought a science fiction film would reach a wider audience than a documentary.

How hopeful are you about that?

When we release it theatrically, we won’t reach a smaller audience than it’s already got. It’s traveled the world and played festivals. I’m really grateful and happy for that. No one knows what will happen when we release it. It’s my dream that it reaches a lot of people, but who knows? Since it’s something no one has seen before, I can’t say it’s a perfect film, but it’s never been shown from this point of view. I’m hoping that its originality and ideas will attract an audience. But it’s a giant experiment.

Is there any tradition of Latin American science fiction literature that you drew on?

No. I wish. The science fiction writers that I’ve been looking at are Americans who write with a more global perspective, like Neal Stephenson and Joe Haldeman. There’s a lack of that perspective in cinema.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Find your inner freak. If you’re just trying to get the best lighting or camera movement, you’re competing with thousands of other people. There are so many movies that get made that the only way to stand out is be different. Be your own bizarre self.