Screenwriter Jose Rivera on the Sex-Slave "Trade"
(from brinkzine.com 9/27/07)
- Jose Rivera
It’s too late or too expensive to purchase tickets for the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center?
Opening this weekend is “Trade,” directed by 28-year-old German. Marco Kreuzpaintner and written by Jose Rivera, who wrote the impressive screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” In “Trade,” low-level Texas cop, Ray (a subdued Kevin Kline), who has been searching for his missing daughter for ten years, hooks up with a 17-year-old Mexican, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), whose 13-year-old sister Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), has been kidnapped by sex traffickers. The follow her trail all the way to New Jersey. While the scenes with Ray and Jorge on the road are weak—as Rivera candidly admits-- when the film focuses on what is happening to Adriana; Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a kidnapped Polish women who tries to protect her; and other abducted sex slaves, the film is quite powerful and well worth our attention. Four other reporters and I spoke to Rivera in New York and this is that interview. I call attention to my questions.
Danny Peary: How did you get involved with “Trade?”
Jose Rivera: The movie came to me through Roland Emmerich. In 2003, Roland read Peter Landesman’s cover story, “The Girls Next Door” in The New York Times Magazine about sex trafficking from Mexico into the United States. He optioned it, and then he and Peter worked together on a story. But Peter didn’t have time to write a screenplay, so they looked for a writer. “The Motorcycle Diaries” had come out and they thought I was someone with the right sensibility. I met Roland and wanted to do it immediately when I heard the topic.
Q: What was your main attraction to the topic?
JR: I have a soft spot for underdogs and I thought these kidnapped girls and young women who are forced into prostitution must be the least empowered people on earth. So I was drawn to them.
Q: The production notes say that the Emmerich-Landesman movie story was about a low-level Texas cop who has been looking for his missing daughter for years. Did you add in the boy searching for his kidnapped younger sister and the young Polish woman, Vernonica, who is tricked into being a sex slave?
JR: No, they had pretty much worked out all the characters in the story they had come up with. (Veronica was originally going to be played by Millo Jovovich, although I think she’s too old for the part. Alicja Bachleda, who is Polish, played her instead.) When Roland told me the story with all those characters and I thought, wow, they’d worked it out in a very interesting way. I thought I could handle it.
DP: What do you mean when you say you thought they’d “worked it out in an interesting way?”
JR: They’d found the trick to taking a brutal subject and making it into at least semi-entertainment for an audience. They did this by making it an adventure-rescue movie. I also agreed with how Roland wanted to deal with the sex. When you’re doing a film about the sex trade it’s going to have to have sex in it, but you don’t want to make a sexual movie; you don’t want to make a piece of erotica that the pedophiles will enjoy. So I thought we’d be walking a fine line by having a sexually explicit film that wasn’t also sexually titillating. I thought we could do that with the story I was presented.
Q: None of the sex in the film is titillating.
JR: We wanted to make sure that whatever sex we included was harsh. Veronica’s brutal rape is the most explicit scene but usually we went with the idea that less is more. In the scene in which Adriana is taken by a pedophile through the reeds, where all the other kids have been taken for sex, you don’t see any sex at all. You see a roll of toilet paper, you see a young girl in a communion dress. To me that’s a lot more powerful than showing any sex.
Q: Did Landesman mention such a place in his article?
JR: Yes, a similar outdoor place where pedophiles purchase sex with kids was mentioned in the article. After talking to Peter, who filled me in with more details, I decided it would be one of the set pieces of the film.
Q: Is the Internet auction of kids real?
JR: We created some of the details, but it’s real.
DP: One of the interesting aspects of the film is that Jorge is far from being an angel. In fact, he’s a petty criminal at the beginning. Are you implying that once he grows up he could himself be involved in sex trafficking?
JR: When we meet Jorge he is at a crossroads in his life. He could go either way. I don’t know if he could go into sex trafficking, per se, but at thirteen he already is using sex brochures to lure tourists who want to meet prostitutes into secluded areas so his gang can steal their wallets and cameras. He is skirting some really bad behavior, but the events in the film push him to another place completely. But as he grows older and wants to make money, who knows what direction he’ll take.
DP: At the end of the movie he kills someone, so we see to what extremes he’s capable of.
JR: Yeah, he takes revenge the guy responsible for his sister being taken across the border. The way that scene plays out is different from how I wrote it. I wrote it so that he comes up behind the guy, grabs him, and slashes his throat, saying his sister’s name as he’s dying. It’s an incredibly intimate, quasisexual moment, actually. The dead man’s small son doesn’t appear in my version. I shouldn’t be saying this, but it wasn’t my idea. I’m not sure if it was Roland’s idea or Marco Kreuzpaintner’s, but I never liked it. thought it was tremendously emotionally manipulative.
DP: I actually do like the kid turning up. The reason is that it shows that the men who are involved in sex trafficking have families and commit their crimes so casually that it’s no different for them than having a regular job.
JR: Well, I can see that, but I still think it is tremendously emotionally manipulative.
DP: You had an obvious choice as a screenwriter: Have Jorge kill him after he and his sister return to Mexico; or have them fly into the airport safely and walk past this guy as he’s greeting a new group of innocent foreign women he will kidnap and traffic sexually.
JR: I personally think Jorge needed closure. This man brutalized his sister and in a culture of revenge, Jorge gets his revenge. The man gets what he deserves.
SPOILER ALERT OFF.
DP: After seeing how easily Adriana is snatched, I have to ask if kids can go outside safely in Mexico?
JR: Yes. The chance of being picked up is there, but it’s one in a million.
Q: What did you learn from writing “The Motorcycle Diaries” that was applicable to your script for Trade?
JR: I think the craft of screenwriting is like playing a violin. The more you do it, the better you get. Before “The Motorcycle Diaries,” I’d been writing screenplays for about ten years but none of them were made. So when I worked with Walter Salles on “The Motorcycle Diaries,” I was getting a screenplay made for the first time and I wrote differently. When you write for an actual production, for actual actors, and for an actual budget, you can’t go crazy and have five hundred scenes or locations. I learned the practical aspects of screenwriting. So when I wrote “Trade,” I had one eye on production and I think I was able to write an economical, fairly-tight screenplay that someone could shoot in forty days.
DP: Both films are about two male characters on a road trip.
Q: They are similar in that way, but I have to say it’s coincidental. With “The Motorcycle Diaries,” that’s the movie. In this case, Roland pitched me the original story with the road movie thing in mind. If you look at Roland’s films you’ll see it’s a very common device of having two characters who don’t really belong together going on a journey. In “Independence Day,” for instance, they go on a spaceship together. It’s a very Roland kind of thing.
Q: As a screenwriter how do you feel when what you wrote isn’t on the screen?
JR: I have to confess that under the best circumstances you’re going to feel some disappointment because it’s not going to be exactly as you wrote it. In the case of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” it was painful only because I know how much more Walter shot that didn’t end up in the film, including some wonderful scenes. One of the film’s flaws, I think, is that Che’s character is too good. In the film that I wrote there were all these little scenes where Che was stealing food—in a “road movie” people have to eat—and other things and doing things he shouldn’t be doing, in a comical way. But those scenes were cut. “Trade” isn’t the same film I would have directed. In “Trade,” there are certain things that I didn’t write and, quite frankly, I’m not crazy about. In particular, a lot of the stuff that goes on between Ray and Jorge on their journey is not what I wrote. I protested many times, but that’s how it is.
Q: What exactly did you want to change?
JR: I said to the producer, “If my sister gets kidnapped, I’m not going to stop for dinner and have a casual meal and conversation. I’m going to stay on the road!” It’s get to be too much of a “buddy movie” for me. At its best, the tone shift provides the necessary comic relief that gets you through the story. At its worst, it shifts to such a degree that it almost seems like a different film. I don’t know how the audience will respond.
Q: The most difficult scene to believe is when Veronica and Adriana escape and run into a small town, where there’s a parade taking place and everyone is on the streets watching. But instead of running up to the police or anyone else at the parade, Veronica runs to a deserted pay phone and calls Poland—and they’re caught!
JR: I wrote it slightly differently. There was no parade and no American flags. It feels too messagy. In my screenplay, they were more isolated and drugged up a lot more, so they wouldn’t have the capacity to run away.
Q: Was it your idea to have the female at the house in New Jersey in charge of the auction?
JR: It was my idea. I did it for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to put a woman in a powerful position in that world. Is it real? I’d say it’s ironic and interesting. Also, I wanted to bring in the possibility that Laura is Ray’s missing daughter grown up. We flirted with that idea. Ray keeps asking her questions about her background—“Where are you from?”--and she thinks he’s nosy and might be a cop. But the reason he’s asking question is he thinks she might be his daughter. And the way she was cast, with Kate Del Castillo, she is the right age and could be a mixture of American and Mexican. That’s why she has blue eyes. In the screenplay it’s more explicit—she has one brown eye and one blue eye. I wanted to bring Ray closer to his goal, but the irony is that is she is his daughter, she has changed and it’s too late.
Q: Did you see other sex trafficking movies, like the documentary “Lilia Forever?”
PR: I saw that and think it’s a fantastic film with a great performance. When I saw it I said, “Oh, shit. This subject really has been done well.” This had to be different.
Q: What other research did you do??
Q: Peter was very generous and gave me all that he had, including people to call, articles, sources on the Internet. The best research I did was when I went to Mexico. Through Peter’s contacts, I met a bunch of prostitutes and spent a lot of time at a women’s shelter in Mexico City. At the shelter there were girls who had fled prostitution and in some cases were sex slaves. The shelter was near La Merced, a barrio in Mexico City where much of the film takes place. It’s run by a former prostitute who is a big, tough woman and scares the shit out of everybody, including me.
Q: How did the girls escape?
A: With some it was just dumb luck. One girl just screamed and screamed until someone came and saved her. She’d been tied to a bed. The thing about sex slavery that is so horrible is that the girls are literally bound to beds and forced to see countless men every night. I have to say that the stories the girls told me are far worse than what’s in the movie. They are horrendous stories of degradation. Some weren’t just pinned down but also gagged and blindfolded. Peter showed me pictures that he got from a friend in the FBI and they’re very upsetting. The basic thrust of my research was about survival, so I asked the girls, “How did you get through it? What did you think about? What was on your mind?” That was helpful when writing the screenplay.
Q: What did they say?
JR: Many had a strong faith in God. A lot of what got them through it was the girls bonding. In the film, they bond over the Virgin Mary. Some had strong families they wanted to go back to. There’s a lot of shame involved and some got through it because their families made them feel accepted when they came home.
Q: What happened with girls who grew up as sex slaves?
JR: Some would die. Some would become drug abusers and obliterate themselves. Some would escape. Some stayed and rose through the ranks—they were no longer slaves but were controlling the other girls, like Laura in the movie. One of the things that works in the situation is that they get the younger, feistier girls to trust the older girls, who would calm them down and tell them everything would be fine. That was an insidious way to control them. Some of the young girls would graduate into that position.
DP: How does this film fit in with the illegal immigration issue?
JR: The way they get in is illegal. The irony is that the girls are treated like criminals if they’re caught in America, rather than victims. They’re put in jail. One woman I met through Peter ended up in jail for nine months. I’m not an expert, but I can tell you that the border guards aren’t looking out for sex slaves. They’re just sweeping up people.
Q: Do you think this film could have an impact on bringing about changes?
JR: Well, we are screening it at the United Nations, which is a good sign. Movies reach millions and millions of people, so it has potential.
Q: How has writing “Trade” this affected your play writing ?
JR: My work on “The Motorcycle Diaries” inspired me to write a play about Che’s last few days, called “School of the Americas.” I don’t know the answer right now about “Trade.” In the couple of years since I was with those girls in Mexico, I didn’t forget them.
Q: You mentioned not wanting this to be a “buddy movie,” but your next film is the ultimate “buddy movie”--On the Road.”
JR: Yeah, I know. “On the Road” is a classic and the screenplay is very faithful to Kerouac. But I’d say it is to a degree more homoerotic. There’s a scene where Neal Cassady gets a blow job from Alan Ginsberg one night on Christopher Street—which happened. To be honest, some of the producers aren’t so happy with that. But it’s in there, though I don’t know how Walter will shoot it. When Walter and I talked about the film we decided not to be timid about the sexuality, the bi-sexuality, whatever was going on. I’ll give you another example. In the book, there’s a scene where the Kerouac character, the Cassady character and the LuAnne Henderson character are driving through Texas. The car doesn’t have air-conditioning so Neal says, “Let’s just take off all our clothes.” They do and it’s a very funny scene. When I read Luanne Henderson’s interviews I found that when they were driving, she was jerking off both men. So that’s in the screenplay
Q: Have you started filming it yet?
JR: I’m not supposed to say but the plan is to begin filming it in February.
Q: Then you’re directing your own project?
JR: Yes, it’s a “magical-realism” love story. I’m working with the producer of “El Cantante,” trying to raise money to make a $2M-budget film. The money they wasted on that movie, I could make several movies. But I didn’t say that.
Q: Is this a good time for Latino writers?
JR: I’ve been writing for thirty years and the atmosphere for Latino storytelling is better than it has ever been. However, it’s still not great...