After directing a pair of critically acclaimed features, Alonso Ruizpalacios continues to be one of Mexican cinema’s most exciting voices. For his latest work A Cop Movie, the Mexico City native once again pushes the boundaries of cinema with a fascinating hybrid of documentary and fiction. The film explores the challenging experiences of two Mexican cops, whose stories are embodied by a pair of actors in a uniquely immersive process. In our in-depth interview with Ruizpalacios, he delved into the background and execution of this unusual filmmaking approach.
Shane Slater: You’re not known particularly as a documentary filmmaker. What made you want to switch it up and do this film in that format?
Alonso Ruizpalacios: I’ve done a little bit of doc work in TV. I’ve done National Geographic stuff and, and Discovery Channel stuff. So I’ve always been drawn to it. But this movie actually started with Elena Fortes and Daniela Alatorre (the producers) approaching me and saying, “You know, we want to try something new. We want to get outside the comfort zone. Let’s do something together.” And I also was looking for that. I’ve always liked mixing a little bit of documentary in the fiction and testing those boundaries. So it was a perfect opportunity to try new things and to put myself in an uncomfortable spot. So that’s what we tried to do.
SS: Was there something in particular that motivated you about this subject?
AR: Yeah, we started with the idea at the end of the Peña Nieto period. He’s the former president of Mexico and it was a disastrous period. Corruption and the levels of impunity were at an all time high. So I wanted to do something to at least have the illusion of feeling useful. I don’t think cinema is useful at all, but at least it gives you the illusion for a moment.
So part of the reason to get together with with Daniela and Elena was to do something that would shine a light on this. Or lead us down some kind of investigative path, to understand better why there was so much corruption in Mexico. So when we started originally, this film wasn’t going to be about the police. It was going to be about the public ministries. And we got a hold of this huge investigation from an NGO. They were very interesting people and they shared it with us. Then at some point, we decided that this is fascinating but it’s a very boring movie. And what we kept being drawn towards in the investigation of the corruption in public ministries was the figure of the policeman, who’s kind of the lowest part of the chain of corruption. He’s like the window between the citizens and the law.
We all have stories and we all have a very strong opinion about cops all over the world. But in Mexico, it’s a very clear picture that we have. Whenever you say Mexican cop, people always have very strong opinions, and they’re not favorable at all. So it was a journey of trying to go behind this and look at the people behind the uniform. They have really interesting stories. They are people who live very exciting lives. I’m a storyteller, so I respond to good stories. So that kind of what drew me to that subject matter.
SS: For these two cops that you’re investigating and telling their stories, how did they get involved in this project? And what was the process of getting all this information out of them?
AR: We arrived at them through one of our advisors, once we decided that the movie was going to focus on policemen. Also, I always like that challenge of doing an unpopular subject. I think it’s a very unpopular thing to make a movie that seeks to be empathetic towards the most reviled group all over the world, you know? So that alone interested me.
So one of our advisors suggested that we meet Teresa. We interviewed many cops. There were two particular other police men that we really liked for characters. But when we met Teresa, through one of our key advisors, it was love at first sight. The fact that, in the middle of all of this, there was a love story with Montoya, that kind of was like the no-brainer part. And also, the sense of humor that she has. She’s very smart and aware of her position. She’s very funny and self deprecating, and I always respond to humor as well. So that’s why we chose her.
It was a long period of getting to know each other, and also knowing how much they wanted to tell their story. I think that’s the thing with documentary. You can’t do it if the other person is not dying to tell their story as well, in some form. So it was a period of getting to trust each other and they knew that we were going to deal with the difficult aspects of their work as well. But I was also interested in more than that. I was interested in learning about their lives and their motivations. When we shot this movie, they were like, 32 and 34, I think. And they’ve lived like five lives, you know? They lived very difficult and at times, exciting lives. And they were keen to tell it. So that’s what the film is.
SS: The other side to this is casting the actors to play these parts. How was the casting for this film?
AR: I’d worked with Raúl (the actor) before. We have a theatre company together. And he’s one of the bravest actors I know. He’s always been very interested in immersive processes. And he’s a very disciplined actor, and very brave. So I knew it was him from from the start, from when the decision came about to use actors to play these characters and be sort of the avatars of the audience to enter the police world. He suggested Mónica, who I had never worked with, because they both did a theater process in Mexico where they also immersed themselves in a very tough neighborhood in Mexico City. And they made a play there and went to live there for two or three months. And it was a very interesting project.
So I knew that they were the right people for this. We needed extraordinarily brave actors, but also really good actors because not all brave actors are good. They’re very skilled and they’re very disciplined. I know that this lip sync thing has been done a few times, even in stuff like Drunk History and all that stuff. But I think what makes this different is how Raúl and Mónica really embody those policemen. They really are those characters, because they really spent all that time training to be policemen and understanding what they’re up against. They’re doing this lip sync thing, but with an emotional depth. So that’s what I am really just in awe of.
SS: I was curious about the logistics of having actors trying to go undercover. How did you pull that off?
AR: Luckily, they’ve done movies but they’re not very well known. I mean, this might be unfair to say to them but I mean, they’re not like huge stars or anything. They’ve done independent movies and they’re great actors, but they’re not known so popularly. So obviously, we needed that. We couldn’t have done this with a popular actor who probably wouldn’t be interested in this sort of disciplined, immersive process anyway. So that helped.
Actually, Raúl had just done a Netflix show that was kind of big in Mexico. So when he shaved, some people did start recognizing him. But it was once they were inside the academy, so it was weird. But I think they kind of just blended in. And they’re very skilled at sort of effacing themselves when when they need to, and just blending in. It was fascinating to see them recording their diaries every day. Doing a video recap of their day.
That was the hardest part of the film for me to edit, because it was really long. And a lot of it was fascinating. And another big part was boring and dull, because we had hours and hours and hours of that material. But it was fascinating for me to see and to speak to them about how they were doing. And it was really interesting to see an immersive process like that, how they were being transformed.
But yeah, logistically, we had to get the High Command to know that we had these two actors. We didn’t tell them what type of movie we were doing. It was just, “So these guys are going to play cops in a movie, and we just want your help to train them.” And we got all these permits, which was a huge deal. We had to wait a long time to crack those permits. For example, in the first academy in Mexico City, they wouldn’t let us record anything at all. So that’s why there’s no footage from the first academy. They tell it all in “talking heads” in their phones.
In the second academy, they allowed us to shoot just a couple of days, and we pretended to be not related to them. That we were just like a film crew going to do a documentary about the training and all that. But eventually people caught on that.
It was fun. It was interesting and fun and exciting. There’s a third academy that they actually they went to, which is not in the movie. They went to three academies and the third one was in Culiacán , which is up north. And there, it was like a boarding school. They had to sleep there for like three weeks or four weeks. So that was really tough because they couldn’t go home for all that time. And we also recorded that, but then that made the movie too long. It was really interesting for them to be completely immersed as cops in training for that time.
SS: As you mentioned earlier, people have such strong opinions about the police and I’m sure you had your own views as well. Throughout this process, was there anything surprising that you learned about the police force?
AR: I mean, everything. Everything was surprising. You know, even when some things were confirmations of stuff that we knew, of how deep the corruption goes. But it’s very surprising to see these people and to speak to them. It’s just something that I never spent time thinking about before. Like, who are these people? We take them for granted. Every time we see a person in a uniform, we assume a lot of things. And we don’t wonder, have they eaten? And how long have they been standing there? How much do they make? What’s their family life like? And once we started getting curious about all that, everything was fascinating.
But above all, I think it’s very sad, the state of neglect that we have our police in Mexico. There’s a big neglect, it’s very dysfunctional. And Mónica says that at one point, it’s the most vulnerable people pretending to be the strongest people. It was quite moving.
SS: How have audiences responded?
AR: Overall, it’s thankfully, and happily, been really warm and loving. When we played in San Sebastián, Teresa and Montoya were there. So when the audience realized that they were there in the audience watching the movie, they stood up and they gave them a huge applause. And I think it wasn’t a condescending applause, you know? It felt like a genuine thank you for sharing this and for putting yourself on the line like this and talking about uncomfortable things as well. So it’s been interesting.
Also, it’s been interesting to talk to people about the different problems with the police. I think the only thing that there is in common is that there is a huge gap between the police force and the citizens they’re meant to protect. There’s a huge gap of mistrust. That’s what I think is almost universal. But there’s different manifestations of it and the reasons are different. Like, I know that here in the US there’s a whole racial component and there’s all this police brutality. In Mexico, the main thing is is the the state of it (the police) is very precarious. They’re paid poorly and they have no security, so that brings about a lot of problems.
So there are different problems for sure. I wouldn’t claim to know where the problems in the US police lie, but it’s evident as an outsider that there’s a huge mistrust. And there must be institutional reasons for all this police brutality and racism. But the underlying fact is that there is this mistrust that needs to be bridged and addressed somehow. So it’s been interesting getting to know about different police from different parts of the world. In Germany, where we opened the film in Berlin, they have a very different attitude towards the police than we have in Mexico. But again, there’s also a gap, a huge mistrust. So it’s been a very interesting learning process as well through screening the movie.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
A Cop Movie is now streaming on Netflix.