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Director Jim McKay's timely 'En el Séptimo Día' humanizes immigration and labor struggles in the Trump era

Director Jim McKay's timely 'En el Séptimo Día' humanizes immigration and labor struggles in the Trump era
Filmmaker Jim McKay, right, directs first-time actor Fernando Cardona on the set of "En el Séptimo Día" (On the Seventh Day). The film, McKay's first in 12 years, tells the story of a Mexican delivery man's struggle balancing work and life obligations. (Cinema Guild)

In the early 2000s, Jim McKay was making a name as a writer-director with small, well-observed independent movies, including the Independent Spirit award-nominated “Our Song.”

Then, like many indie filmmakers, he started working in television, directing on a wide range of prestige dramas, including an episode each of “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” and 11 installments of “The Good Wife.”

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Now, after 12 years, he is back on the big screen. "En el Séptimo Día" (On the Seventh Day), which opens in Los Angeles on Friday after a well-reviewed debut in New York last week, is a small, quietly joyful film about a Mexican delivery man that features a nonprofessional cast.

But McKay, 55, did not return to filmmaking to make a statement about movies versus television, or our political times. He wrote the original story more than a decade ago and began working on it again in 2015; its hot-button topicality is accidental.

"I just needed to go back to what I started out doing," he said by phone from his apartment in New York. "And make something that was really mine, that I wrote and could bring to fruition."

"It's a walk-in-someone-else's-shoes story in a certain way. My characters are not angelic, they're not noble, they're just people. But they happen to have different challenges than some other people."

Shot in just 20 days on a microbudget, the film takes place in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, a stone's throw from where McKay lives with his wife, Hannah.

"[New York] is where I live, so it's where my stories come from, it's where my inspiration comes from," McKay said. "Most of what I write comes from things I see out on the street. It certainly helps to be home, where you can call on favors and lean on the community in a way that you might not be able to somewhere else."

He cites Robert Smith's book "Mexican New York," about the migration patterns of immigrants between the Mexican state of Puebla and Sunset Park, as well as a couple of documentaries he and his wife did about migrant farmworkers as sources of inspiration. "I think I was definitely inspired and influenced by their story and the work that I had done there," he said of the latter.

After spending a year on casting, the film was shot in summer 2016, right before the presidential election.

"And now two years later, it's coming out," McKay said. "So it's kind of fitting into a moment politically, but it certainly wasn't written specific to that."

The Times caught up with McKay to talk immigration, Donald Trump and transitioning back to film after more than a decade in television.

Fernando Cardona in a scene from "En el Séptimo Día" (On the Seventh Day), the latest film from director Jim McKay.
Fernando Cardona in a scene from "En el Séptimo Día" (On the Seventh Day), the latest film from director Jim McKay. (Cinema Guild)

Why did you take such a long hiatus from filmmaking?

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I started making TV shows and I was really fortunate that I was getting work on very good ones like "The Wire" and "Big Love" and "Breaking Bad." I loved the work, and the more I did, the more I was offered, so I just got into this cycle. At the time, I also had small-ish kids, so it was really tough for me to break out of that, especially to do a small movie. When you're doing something small that you're not getting paid to work on, you have to figure out how you're going to do that financially.

What was the transition like getting back to film after working in TV for so long?

It was a little scary for a minute. It had been a really long time and I had certainly gotten spoiled in terms of working on TV shows. But when you direct a TV show, you are working for the writers and producers and you're making something for them that's theirs. They've established the template, the visual tone of that show, and your job is to come in and bring what you have to it as much as you can, but within their boundaries.

This was my film, and no one was going to change my edit in the end. So I wanted to make sure I was bold enough and really had the creative gumption so that I made what I really wanted to.

The film currently stands at 100% "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. Why do you think it has resonated with critics?

I think that somehow all the little pieces fell into place in this movie. It's a small, independent realist film, and it's about a segment of the population that isn't often portrayed in films. But it's also not a bummer, it's not a torturous drama, it's a fun movie. I think it's also really refreshing for people to see these people who never acted before put in such strong performances in a film.

Why was it important for you and for the story to cast nonprofessionals?

Well, in the story, all the characters are pretty specific. They're undocumented immigrants, not just from Mexico but from a certain region in Mexico: Puebla. It was essential to cast not just Mexicans but Mexican immigrants. I think we did audition a couple people who were American-born and it's just different. The accent is different, the idioms are different.

I think in a lot of our entertainment when it comes to casting, you have Puerto Ricans playing Spaniards and Dominicans playing Colombians and Brazilians playing Mexicans. And I think the Latino community and other international communities are kind of used to that and they go with it, but I don't think they're really happy about it. I think they appreciate seeing the real thing.

What are your thoughts on the Trump administration's approach to immigration?

I think that when the administration first got in, it was obvious to many that they had white supremacist ideas and tendencies. Maybe some people thought that because a couple people who wore it on their sleeves a little bit more obviously ended up leaving that [white supremacy] wasn't still the agenda. But I think it's very hard to see a single day go by right now and not recognize that that is the No. 1 primary motivation for not just Trump but the GOP that is enabling him.

Their policies on immigration, in particular, have literally been deadly. And every single day it's getting worse. They're brutal, they're hateful and they're motivated out of a great, deep fear for the loss of standing that was never really earned in the first place for white people in this country. So that's how I feel. [Laughs]

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

No movie is going to change the world. But movies do change people individually, they really do. This is why Trump's hate comes out so often. He has a meeting with all these world leaders and he leaves and then he says what he thinks. Because he's too afraid to actually say it to their faces in the room. And I think the only way to make America really great again is to have us experience all of our differences in a way where we can get beyond this demonization that really only comes from fear at a distance.

My hope is that by going through this 92 minutes with this community of people, people have some kind of enlightenment or different perspective on the people that they brush shoulders with every day.

What message about America's class dynamic were you trying to express?

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I think that the seed of this idea comes out of a place of what our worth is as human beings and how we spend our time on this planet. In the United States, we're working more for less on this chart that continues to go up. And so you might not be like a delivery person who's scraping by, you might be working as a junior executive in a law firm and you're staying late every day and going home and getting emails from your boss that they expect that you should answer right away at 11:30 at night.

I'm sure you get asked a lot about being a white man telling stories about people of color. How do you navigate that, especially nowadays, when people are quick to label things appropriation?

This is a really tough question to answer without starting to get super defensive and give my resume of what I've done and how I've done it. So the short answer is, I think it's important when you're telling someone else's story to a) recognize what that means, b) be a really good collaborator, c) do your homework and respect people's experiences.

I definitely understand arguments about cultural appropriation and I'm sensitive to the topic. This is the kind of work I've done since I started doing work, and so one of the things that I think when the question is asked is, let's speak about the film: Is there something in the film that's off to you that feels wrong, that feels like I didn't do my homework? And if there is, then let's talk about those things. My motivations are to just tell a story that is unique in some way or another.

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