PARIS — A theater of Parisians gathered to watch a film littered with border slang and iconography at the world premiere of “Amalia,” a new horror film by At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta guitarist, Omar Rodríguez López.
In it, the border city of El Paso, Texas, plays as much a character as the story lead, Amalia, a woman experiencing homelessness, drug addiction, and an obsession with her late husband’s mistress that spirals out of control.
Rodríguez López and his long-time producer and editor, Adam Thomson, put the cast and crew together within eight days, moved everyone in to Rodríguez López’s house and filmed in the dead of night over the course of three chaotic weeks. “Amalia” premiered at L’Etrange Festival in Paris on September 8, and showed again on September 13.
This is not the first film Rodríguez López has made, but it’s the first since his indie flick “Los Chidos” premiered in 2012.
“I didn’t make anything for five years,” he said. “It wasn’t a decision on my part, I wanted to make something, but that just wasn’t the case.”
After his mother died in 2012, Rodríguez López said he struggled with his creativity. But he said things changed after a chance encounter with a spiritual man in Mexico City in late 2016.
“That was the beginning of a process where something inside of me just let go,” he said. “I felt like I was a ripe fruit and someone had just taken a bite out of me.”
And so Rodríguez López began writing “Amalia” in what he describes as a two-week writing fury. Then he called Thomson, who is based in New York City, and he immediately wanted in on the project. Rodríguez López and Thomson called friends throughout El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and Mexico City, and within eight days they had a crew, a cast, a small budget and a plan to begin filming in January 2017.
“This was my fifth project with Omar. By the fifth project you understand the method to the madness,” Thomson said. “Like, we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re okay with that. There’s a lot you’re able to pull out of a crew when you’re thrown into a chaotic shoot.”
Actress Denise Dorado quit her job in Los Angeles as a show host to take on the role of Amalia in El Paso, where she’s from.
“[Rodríguez López] asked me if I would be available to do this. I immediately called my manager and she wasn’t very impressed with the project,” Dorado said. “To me there was no question, I would lose money to work on something like this. I called back and told him I was in.”
The entire cast and crew moved into Rodríguez López’s house during the weeks of shooting, which is a normal thing for the director, who said he works on every project this way.
“It’s a positive way to form a symbiotic relationship,” he said. “We need each other in order to succeed at what we do.”
Most scenes in the film were shot at night, and many were outdoors. Some locations became unavailable at the last minute, so plans would change to shoot a different scene. But the overall chaos of the shoot was embraced by the cast and crew. For Dorado, the chaos helped her stay in character.
“I had to keep myself in a state of perpetual hopelessness and rage,” she said. “At the end of the day when you’re working with a director that has a vision and you want to tell a story and you’re just thrust into the situation in my case, it’s like whatever means necessary. Whatever I have to do to get myself there.”
Rodríguez López admitted there are things in the film that are niche El Paso. The use of Spanglish, subtle references to Chicos Tacos, “Chuco” culture, and El Paso slang were translated with French subtitles for the film’s premiere.
“That post part is so much up to chance,” Rodríguez López said. “For example, in every outdoor shot, Juárez is in the background. Simple things like that, charged with meaning, will be lost on someone in Hamburg.”
Still, Thomson, Dorado, and several of the crew who were able to attend said the premiere in Paris was a success.
“It means a lot to us,” Thomson said. “[L’Etrange] is a filmmaker’s festival. Some other fests can get lost in the glamor, but this fest was super focused on the approach to filmmaking.”
Rodríguez López and Thomson said there are plans to show the film at other festivals and theaters around the world, including in El Paso.
“I wasn’t looking to make another film,” Rodríguez López said. “But when you have an impulse like that, you know you have to follow through. It’s like tunnel vision, you just start to make it happen.”
Jasmine Aguilera is a freelance reporter from El Paso, Texas. She’s currently based in France after living and working in New York City for two years. Her work appears in The New York Times, NowThis, The Dallas Morning News, Public Radio International, and others. Twitter: @Jas_Aguilera.