SOME emerging filmmakers might freak out if they had to share a shooting locale with Steven Spielberg. But Eva Aridjis always has been drawn to offbeat situations. Offbeat people too.
“I think the one common theme that I always have in mind is kind of the misfit,” says Aridjis, referring to her small but impressive, and growing, body of film work. “The characters are always in kind of their own world, people living on the edge of society, kind of outcasts or misfits.”
Born in Europe, raised in Mexico City and now living in New York, Aridjis (pronounced ah-REE-jees) knows a thing or two about feeling like a resident alien, and her ability to fathom the humanity in outsiders and eccentrics stamps all her films.
One of her first cinematic efforts was a short documentary about taxidermists and their bizarre art. Her 2002 Spanish-language feature “Ninos de la Calle” (Children of the Street) was a disturbing, sensitively made documentary about the desperate drug-addicted children who prowl Mexico City’s crime-infested sidewalks and sleep in its subways.
Since that film was released three years ago, earning a strong response from Mexican critics, Aridjis has maintained her personal relationship with three of the film’s adolescent protagonists.
But even “Ninos de la Calle” didn’t anticipate the striking emotional precision and storytelling power of “The Favor,” Aridjis’ first English-language feature film, which she wrote, directed and co-produced on a $500,000 budget. Her achievement is all the more impressive given the paucity of female filmmakers to come out of Mexico, whose sex-segregated movie culture makes Hollywood look positively progressive.
Though beautifully acted by a cast that includes Tony Award winner Frank Wood, “The Favor” is most notable for its screenplay. Aridjis’ voice as a writer is humane, smart, worldly and armed with a dead-on sense of humor that never strains to be edgier-than-thou.
“Sometimes what I see as a film producer is, you get the script where it’s very quirky without having a lot of heart,” says Howard Gertler, executive producer of “The Favor,” “and what I love about Eva is despite, sometimes, like the coolness of the setting ... or the quirkiness of the events, there’s a real sincerity of the emotional connection there.”
Wood, who performed in the recently closed South Coast Repertory production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in Costa Mesa, describes Aridjis as “one of those extremely intelligent but-not-dependent-on-irony people.”
“I don’t think she thinks of [her characters] as particularly quirky,” Wood says. “She’s not an anthropologist looking at contemporary mores. I think she’s looking at people that capture her interest immediately.”
Befitting Aridjis’ own bicultural perspective, “The Favor” takes an unusual insider-outsider view of its idiosyncratic characters and their thoroughly Middle American milieu: It manages to delve deeply into their heads and hearts, yet still regard them with a certain objective distance and tender humor. Like another recent breakout film by a young female writer-director wise beyond her years, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” “The Favor” focuses on a type of relationship seldom depicted on screen, in this case between a troubled teenage boy and his unlikely foster “father.”
Lawrence (Wood) is a fortysomething New Jersey photographer who takes mug shots of criminals and pets for a living. Decent and hardworking, he has been living a low-key, humdrum life for years. That changes abruptly when he hooks up with Johnny, the rebellious son of Lawrence’s high school flame. Johnny is played by Ryan Donowho, an up-and-coming heartthrob who appears in the Jim Jarmusch film “Broken Flowers” with Bill Murray.
The movie’s title refers to Frank’s act of sublime (but also rather strange) generosity in deciding to become Johnny’s foster parent when his mother is killed in a freak accident. “The Favor” is in post-production, and Aridjis intends to shop it around the international film festival circuit this winter.
There’s a curious behind-the-scenes twist to this story: The bulk of “The Favor” was shot over a six-week period last year primarily in Bayonne, N.J., where Spielberg happened to be filming the sci-fi epic “War of the Worlds,” starring Tom Cruise. Many times, en route to her own movie set, Aridjis says, she would pass street signs directing the “War of the Worlds” cast and crew to that day’s shoot. Coincidentally, Spielberg shot another part of “War of the Worlds” on the block where Aridjis lives, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope district.
Strange but true -- which is the way Aridjis tends to size up the world, both as a person and as an artist.
THE daughter of an American mother and a Greek Mexican father (the poet and environmental activist Homero Aridjis), Aridjis has spent most of her life shuttling between different languages, cultures, creative viewpoints. Born in the Netherlands while her father was serving there as Mexico’s ambassador, she later attended the elite American School Foundation in Mexico City and spent a lot of time immersed in books and make-believe worlds.
“I was very shy as a little girl, and I was never terribly popular,” she says. “I would always gravitate toward the kids that others picked on. I started wearing black and wearing my hair black and painting my nails black. I was very close to my sister, and she was kind of introverted too. A lot of times our friends were kind of the characters in the novels we were reading.”
Aridjis says her creative bent was influenced by her parents, who were constantly dragging her and her sister (now a novelist in Berlin) to art galleries, music recitals and poetry festivals. She also was affected by the heady climate in the family household, where artists and intellectuals were often around.
She remembers once as a child getting angry when she found Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film auteur, smoking with her parents in their living room. What angered her most, she says, is that her parents normally didn’t smoke. “I got really mad, like, ‘Who’s this man sitting and making you smoke cigarettes?!’ I came home and threw a tantrum. I was, like, swearing and slamming doors. Ten years later, I was smoking and watching his films.”
Moviemaking, for Aridjis, became a way to translate the images in her mind into tangible form. Two early short films hint at her oddly lyrical sensibility. In “Billy Twist,” a 10-minute short that plays like one of Maurice Sendak’s Freudian children’s fables, a willful boy stages a minor coup against his domineering mother before a piano recital. “Taxidermy: The Art of Imitating Life,” a 7 1/2 -minute black-and-white film that Aridjis made as a New York University student, evinces a creepy deadpan humor as a man painstakingly reconstructs a dead deer’s head. (Both films can be downloaded from www.atomfilms.com.)
But as a Mexican American film student, Aridjis sometimes felt herself being typecast. For her NYU thesis, she wanted to make a ghost story about a used car’s female owner falling in love with the specter of its previous owner. Instead, she says, one of her professors told her: You’re Mexican. You should be doing a film about a Mexican immigrant family in New York. Aridjis stuck to her own idea. “For me, as a writer, it’s just more interesting to explore the Other. It’s more mysterious.”
A painful exploration
NEVER, perhaps, has Aridjis put that conviction more to the test than when she made “Children of the Street.” Her interest in the Mexican capital’s homeless children developed casually enough. “I just noticed all these kids on the street, and I wondered what their daily lives were like.” Over time, though, her interest turned into something much more personal, and painful.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, many of Mexico City’s street children have fled impoverished and/or abusive homes. Many also are drug addicted. They start out sniffing glue, activo (a mixture of turpentine, gasoline and paint thinner) or some other source of cheap highs, then graduate to marijuana or piedra (crack cocaine), which makes them more aggressive and paranoid, Aridjis says.
Since making her movie between September and December 2001, on a $70,000 budget, Aridjis has stayed in contact with the protagonists and tries to see them whenever she visits her family here, every six months or so. During a visit last January, she found all three children from the film still living on the street, where they are shunned as pariahs by passersby and harassed by police and security guards. “I don’t like situations where some people have a lot of power and other people don’t have any, whether it’s in a playground or a social-political situation,” Aridjis says.
Her experience with the children has reinforced Aridjis’ sense that Mexico City has become a harder, more dangerous place since she left Mexico 13 years ago to attend Princeton University (she moved to New York nine years ago). “There seems to be kind of an innocence that was lost. Almost everyone I know has been mugged. I don’t remember hearing a single story like this when I was growing up.”
For now, she says, she’s still happy and creatively fulfilled in New York, where she lives with her British boyfriend, Danny Hole, a musician and photographer. As for upcoming projects, she’s wary of discussing them publicly because of what she calls the Hollywood “idea vampires.” But she does mention a science fiction script about mutant humans and a documentary about a group of Ukrainian circus dwarfs who escaped and fled into Mexico some years ago. “A lot of science fiction is about normal people in unusual situations. I’m more interested in unusual people in normal situations,” she says.
So if she films the next “War of the Worlds” remake, a reporter suggests, it will probably be from the aliens’ point of view? Aridjis laughs and nods. “Like with the street kids,” she says. “It’s like you hear something or you see something, it’s interesting to you -- you know nothing about it.”