The movie stars Abbie Cornish (Sucker Punch), Will Patton (The Punisher), and newcomer Maritza Santiago Hernandez, and debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the film, Cornish plays a single mother named Ashley who helps illegal immigrants cross the boarder from Mexico to Texas when a young Mexican girl named Rosa (Hernandez) comes into her life, changing it forever.
I recently had a chance to speak with writer and director David Riker about his work on The Girl. The filmmaker discussed his new movie, what inspired him to write the screenplay, the immigration issue in America, Ashley’s relationship to Rosa, casting Abbie Cornish in the film, the difficult production, and what he hopes American audiences take away from the film.
Here is what he had to say:
IAR: To begin with, can you talk a little bit about what inspired the idea for the script?
David Riker: What inspired it were two things. One, a film I made in New York City, my first film, which was called La Ciudad or The City, and it introduced me to the world of newly uprooted immigrants. I stayed about seven years making that film. I grew very close to the families and started to wrestle with a personal question, which is what does it really mean to be an American? What does it mean for me? What distinguishes or separates those of us who consider ourselves Americans from new immigrants. What is it that we share? What is it that separates us, and divides us? That was the first thing. I traveled to the border and tried to research it because I knew that that moment in the immigrant’s journey was a critical one, and a transformative one. While I was on the borderlands researching, I came to realize that I really wanted to put an American character at the dramatic center of the film and not simply tell the story of an immigrant's journey to cross the border. The reason that I decided to put an American in the center is that the Anglo character, the American character, is always absent from these immigration stories. If you think about all the films that have come out over the last decade dealing with the border and immigration, the American or the Anglo character is basically a symbol, and it's not present and it seemed like a blind spot. We know for example that there are a large number of people who have died trying to cross the border. But the question of who's responsible for those deaths is never really asked and it’s a complicated question. But what we do know is that the migrants are coming to the U.S. to work and we know they’re coming to work for us, whether it’s to care for our children or for our parents or whether it’s to build our homes and cut our grass. So we are somehow complicit and connected, and I wanted to try and broaden the question about this whole immigration story by putting the American at the center of things, especially an American woman who never takes responsibility for her actions, and sort of see things through her into the cross hairs of this discussion.
So you really wanted an opportunity to shine a light on the American aspect of this issue, correct?
Riker: Yes, to shine a light and also hopefully to step back from the very narrow and highly politicized discussion that’s going on, which I really feel misses the point and is not constructive in any sense, and it’s also it’s completely inadequate. The whole idea of the American dream is such a cliché now that we don’t even think about what it means. But I was fascinated by the fact that the migrants crossing the desert, risking their lives crossing the Rio Grand, have more belief in the American dream than many of us who live here. That interests me. It felt like an interesting subject to explore in the film. I would love that the film invites Americans to really think about their connection to this new immigration story because it involve us in a very, very direct way.
Can you talk about the relationship between Ashley and Rosa and how that affects Ashley in a personal way?
Riker: The relationship between those two characters, first and foremost it’s a human relationship, and it starts as a very antagonistic one, extremely antagonistic. But part of the essential storyline is the discovery that these two characters, despite the fact that they come from very different worlds, do share something profoundly uncommon. It’s interesting when this film last screened in Mexico, I heard audiences respond to it in the most simplistic terms, but it’s actually interesting. They simply say, “Ashley represents America and Rosa represents Mexico.” Ashley is ignorant about what is happening, is selfish, and is irresponsible. The story is about how this little girl, or Mexico, slowly awakens the conscious of Ashley, or the U.S. That’s how the film is viewed south of the border.
Why did you decide to cast Abbie Cornish as Ashley and what did she bring to the role?
Riker: Casting Abbie Cornish is like getting Michael Jordan on your team. You just throw the ball to her and step out of the way. She’s a brilliant actress, she’s I think one of the finest young actresses working today. She is serious and brings a commitment that is remarkable. She spoke not a word in Spanish, she never learned a second language, and she said right from the outset that she wasn’t interested in just learning her dialogue. She wanted to learn the language and she threw herself into it. She moved to Mexico. I imagined her mom was wondering what her daughter was doing going down to Mexico when nobody was going to Mexico but she really had a tremendous time with us. She described it herself as a life-changing journey.
I understand that it was a difficult production; can you talk a little bit about shooting on location and the challenging process of making an independent film?
Riker: It nearly killed me. It was a very challenging shoot. I think that probably the hardest thing for us was that we were striving for a very authentic language and an official language for the film. During the time that we were preparing for production, the violence on the border had grown so widespread and so extreme that we were told we could not film in the borderlands at all. So we had to relocate the production to the south, which meant recreating thankfully all the details of what the border implies; architecture, design, clothing, and casting. It was a tremendous challenge to us. From the standpoint of many independent films we had a tremendous schedule. We had forty shooting days, but the ambition of the film, and the fact that it takes place as a road movie across two countries, from the parking lots of south Texas to this village in the mountains of southern Mexico, meant that we were constantly running. We had over sixty-five locations, which meant that rarely was there a day that we were returning to the same location and so you simply couldn’t go back and pick anything up. You had to just keep moving.
Finally, now that the movie is getting released here in the states, what do you hope that American audiences will take away from the film?
Riker: First of all I think it’s a hopeful film. I really feel like we live in a cynical time and The Girl, it’s a film that invites us to look at each other and look at ourselves in a very optimistic way. That’s truly how I feel about it. I know one of the things that appealed most to Abbie Cornish was that she described it as a journey from the darkness into the light. Her character starts in this very dark place and emerges slowly to a place where she has a new level of awareness and understanding. I know it’s only a movie and we can’t ask too much of it, but that would be my hope, that it invites people to think about some of the questions that the film raises in a new way that broadens our conversation about who we are, where we come from and what it all means. You and I, we’re both Americans, but what does it really mean? Why is it that we are in such a different place than the man that’s just arrived from a village in Peru? How is that possible? We actually share so much in common, we grew up rooted in our place of origin. We’re all arriving here or our parents did, hoping for a better life. It’s kind of like musical chairs. You remember that game? Is it just that all the chairs were already taken, the music stopped and the new wave of immigrants was too late? Is that really true? If it is, why do we allow them the labor in our most intimate spaces, taking care of our babies, our grandparents and doing all this work if there’s no room for them at the table? It seems like a contradiction. I’d like to shine some light on it, but not in a way that sharpens the divide, really in a way that begins a discussion. That’s my hope. I guess I do have a lot of hope for the film now that I articulate it.