The Perils Of Filming In Mexico: Cartel Rumors & Missed Paydays Fuel Latest Production Shutdown
There were three days left of filming Dead Trigger down in Mexico in May when panic swept through the set of the indie zombie movie. A heated argument had broken out among the local drivers – some of whom hadn’t been paid – and rumors began swirling that a cartel had been called in to settle the dispute. Several members of the American crew say they heard one of the drivers say, “You’ll see how it is in Mexico if you don’t think it’s dangerous here” – or words to that effect.
Nobody actually heard any of the drivers say the word “cartel” – which sounds the same in both English and Spanish – but like a Spanish-language version of the telephone game, where words and phrases change the more they’re passed along, word spread quickly that the cartel was coming and that the Americans should get out of town. And fast.
Before long, members of the cast and crew literally took off running from the set. It was a chaotic scene, fueled by rumor and an overheard threat, that illustrates the perils, either real or perceived, of filming in Mexico — and not paying your drivers.
Rodney Williamson, a key set costumer on the low-budget film starring Dolph Lundgren, was lugging an armful of costumes from the base camp to the set half a mile away when several cast members came racing toward him.
“We gotta get out of here!” one yelled as he ran by, Williamson recalled.
“What’s going on?” Williamson called after him.
“There’s a cartel involved,” the guy said over his shoulder as he kept running.
When Williamson finally made it to set, the labor dispute had intensified. The production’s Mexican drivers, angry about not having been paid, had launched a wildcat strike. New drivers in passenger vans had shown up to take their place – and to take the actors back to base camp – but the striking drivers blocked their path and wouldn’t let them out.
“Usted no puede tomar neustros trabajos! Nos deben dinero!”– or words to that effect — a striker told one of the interlopers. “You can’t take our jobs! They owe us money!”
As the drivers continued to argue, the rest of the cast and crew abandoned the location, leaving cameras and other equipment behind.
“The vans were blocked in,” production officials said in a report to Mexican authorities, which later would be used as part of an insurance claim. “The equipment vans were locked, not allowing us access to camera gear and other equipment. The safety concern was tremendous enough that we closed down the whole film. We were unable to continue even if we wanted to. Our inability to access our equipment along with the safety concerns prevented us from continuing.”
Marina Bespalov, one of the film’s producers, told Deadline: “It was like a movie within a movie. They were threatening us that more people were coming and that we’re not going to be safe here. So we put the cast in cars and got out. We put them in taxis, cars passing by, anything we could get, and booked the flights out right away.”
Bespalov and co-producer Charbel Youssef stuck around long enough to file a report (read it here) the next day with the state attorney general’s office in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, telling a representative from the U.S. consulate what had happened.
“The lead actor was the first to rush from the set upon hearing the threats,” their report states. “It was overheard from many cast and crew that ‘People are coming. … If you don’t think that it’s dangerous here, you will see how it is in Mexico.’ This statement spread among the crew, witnessed by producers, actors and crew. Everyone quickly jumped into taxis and abandoned the set and shut down the final three days of production.”
“To us, these threats were not demands for unpaid salaries, but rather, these were real extortion claims with imminent threat to the lives of everyone on set,” Sergei Bespalov, Marina’s husband and one of the film’s producers, told Deadline.
It was the last day of shooting on the film, which has yet to be completed, but there had been trouble on the very first day of production in the idyllic seaside resort town of Carmen del Playa, just south of Cancún. Some of the costumes had been held up in customs, and a rumor began circulating that the American producers, in rooftop meetings at the luxurious Thompson Hotel, were planning to replace the director, Mike Cuff. It had been his idea for the film; he’d secured the rights to the video game it was based on, and had written a script.
That rumor turned out to be true: Cuff was fired two days into the shoot. “The dispute with Mike Cuff had been settled via confidential agreement between both parties,” said Sergei Bespalov. “We won’t comment on it.” Cuff declined to be interviewed.
Production was shut down for a few days as the new director, Scott Windhauser, who’d been shadowing Cuff on the set, began rewriting the script.
There were other rumors swirling as well. The producers had just wrapped another film in Mexico for the same companies – Aldamisa Entertainment and Badhouse Studios – and word was going around the set that some of its Mexican drivers hadn’t been paid. It was just a rumor, but it was cause for worry that there might be money problems on Dead Trigger as well.
Some of the locations also raised concerns. They’d been filming in some pretty rough neighborhoods, which are abundant even in this picturesque paradise. One location, an abandoned strip club, was said to be controlled by a dangerous drug cartel. Another, outside a fortified compound surrounded by razor wire, was said to be a cartel hideaway. They were just rumors; no one knew for sure. But it was enough to keep everyone on edge.
Today, months after fleeing Mexico, not everyone agrees that there was ever a threat to harm anyone on the production, or that a cartel wanted the company to leave town. “There was no cartel at all,” laughed R. Ellis Frazier, the head of Badhouse Studios, the production services company that scouted the locations, hired the crew and arranged for the equipment. “There were no threats. All that was said was that if you don’t pay the drivers, you’ll have to take a taxi home. It was no big deal, but everybody went into this panic.”
Said Toby Bronson, the film’s costume designer: “There were conflicting reports. Somebody said they overheard someone say, ‘This is Mexico — you shouldn’t mess with us down here.’ But I heard from the Mexican crew later that there were no threats at all. Our transportation guys were the nicest guys in the world.”
Whether the threat was real or not, when someone yells “Shark!” at the beach, swimmers tend to make a mad dash for safety — whether there’s a shark or not. “It’s easy to say that Mexico is dangerous,” Frazier said.
It’s an image many Americans have of our southern neighbor. And for filmmakers, those concerns are not unfounded: There have been threats — and worse — against Americans making movies there. In 2009, reports surfaced that a movie called Queen of the South had been abandoned after the filmmakers said they received death threats. And just last month, the crew of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma was assaulted and robbed while filming in downtown Mexico City.
And there had been problems on another movie that Aldamisa had just wrapped in the Yucatan. That film, called Treasure Hunter: Legend of the White Witch, had employed many of the same Mexican crew and drivers who a few weeks later would go on to work on Dead Trigger, and some of those drivers had trouble getting paid too. And there were more than just rumors on that film about the hazards of working in Mexico.
“There were the same cartel rumors,” Treasure Hunter director Ken Barbet, told Deadline. “We were shooting in the jungle, and a rumor started circulating that this was cartel property. At 3 AM, one of the crew came up to me and said there were threats from locals, that the location hadn’t been paid for. By the time I got back to the village area, there were men with machine guns. Nobody was speaking English, but if you go by rumors, they were cartel guys. After a few minutes, the Federales showed up, and I just got everybody out of there. It was a little hairy.”
There were cash-flow problems on that film as well. “There were walkouts,” Barbet said. “I would show up on set and was told the crew hadn’t been paid this week.” And when the drivers weren’t paid, he said, “They stopped showing up.”
Frazier’s Badhouse Studios was the production services company for both films, but unlike Dead Trigger, everybody eventually got paid on Treasure Hunter. “I’ll see to it that none of you will be stranded,” Barbet told the drivers. Then, turning to Frazier, he told him: “Go get these people their money, or we’re done for the day!”
“Everybody was paid,” Barbet said, and the film was completed and has a February 6 delivery date. “At the end of the day, our film came out great.”
Of course, incidents like these are not the norm. Many of those who have filmed in Mexico tell Deadline that the country takes great pride in its film industry and treats visiting casts and crews with respect and warm hospitality. And Mexican film crews are famous for their hard work, technical ability and getting the job done. But like everyone else, they like to get paid, and incidents like these give American filmmakers a bad reputation south of the border.
But even Aldamisa plans to shoot another film there next year. “We like working in Mexico,” Aldamisa co-owner Sergei Bespalov told Deadline. “We recommend everyone consider Mexico for their filming needs; however, we recommend being careful choosing partners. Next year we are planning to film at least one feature in Mexico. Currently it is scheduled to go into production in June. This time we will use a different production company.”
Dead Trigger, meanwhile, still hasn’t been completed, and many of the extras, vendors and crew — Mexicans and Americans — say they still haven’t been paid. Sergei Bespalov says that all the actors have been paid, but SAG-AFTRA, which holds a $123,000 bond posted by Aldamisa to cover the actors’ wages, is looking into it.
Two crew members have filed complaints with California Labor Commissioner’s office to recover what they claim are unpaid wages. The labor board confirmed it held a conference last week on a complaint filed by Williamson, the set costumer, and that a wage complaint was filed by another crew member on December 15. The key question the labor board will determine in both cases is who, if anyone, owes them the money – Aldamisa or Badhouse. Each is blaming the other for the mess.
“I have not been paid $4,800 in wages,” Williamson told Deadline. Many other members of the American crew say they haven’t been paid their full wages either.
“This is written in response to numerous requests for payments to Dead Trigger producers by various parties,” Marina Bespalov, Aldamisa’s co-chair, told Williamson’s wife in an email dated May 22. “Please be advised, it is producers’ strong belief and a firm legal position that Badhouse production is solely responsible for these payments; hence, please address such requests for payments to them.”
Frazier, in his own email to the crew, blamed Aldamisa for under-funding the project, saying that “all the funds that were allocated for the film went directly into the film. This is without exception.”
“We harbor no hard feelings for anyone that assumed that we had been part of the problem,” Frazier wrote. “Maybe in some way, we could have done something differently that could have made a difference. We are not perfect and we make mistakes like everyone else. But one thing is certain: we have been honest, fair and transparent — and we worked hard to protect the interests of the production, even when it turned against us.”
“According to the contract signed with Frazier’s company,” Sergei Bespalov told Deadline, “we had to pay all above-the-line costs — actors, director, SAG, etc. — and he was responsible for all below-the-line, including security on the set. We have paid everything that we had to under the contract and a lot more to the people that Frazier did not pay with the money we sent him.”
Frazier responded: “We’re a pass-through company. We’re hired to facilitate payments. If they don’t pay us, we can’t pay them. We have all the paperwork with all the wires, including full cost reports, and where every dollar went. It’s the blame game. It’s the wealthiest folks blaming the poorest folks.”
Aldamisa still hopes to complete the film. And numerous members of the crew, both Americans and Mexicans, say they still hope to be paid.
“I had an amazing experience with a great cast and dedicated crew,” said Winhauser, the film’s director. “While I was not privy to the day-to-day production spending, I hope the responsible party ensures everyone on this project gets paid.”
Sergei Bespalov told Deadline that “everybody will be paid,” that “SAG is happy” and that he expects the labor board to rule in his favor. Dead Trigger, he said, will finish its last three days of shooting next month in Nevada.
“There’s your happy ending,” he said.