The polarizing politics of immigration and the controversies that straddle the border between the U.S. and Mexico are starting to percolate more and more in the genre film sector with compelling projects such as the supernatural horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid, the magic-informed thriller Witch Hunt or the upcoming as-yet-untitled Showtime drama from Gael García Bernal. Joining the list on Independence Day with a release on Hulu is the new thriller Culture Shock, a Blumhouse Television production that marks the directorial debut of Gigi Saul Guerrero.
Culture Shock will premiere on Independence Day under Hulu’s Into the Dark banner, a year-long series of 12 feature-length horror productions that are released one-per-month and were “inspired by a holiday.” Culture Shock was directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero – her feature length debut – working off a script she wrote with Efren Hernandez & James Benson, story by Hernandez & Benson. The film stars Martha Higareda (Altered Carbon) as Marisol and also features Richard Cabral (Mayans MC), Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), and Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator).
Deadline caught up with Guerrero recently to talk about the roiling immigration crisis, socially conscious horror projects, the influence of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and the curiously charismatic demon doll that was liberated in fateful fashion from a Blockbuster Video shelf in Mexico.
DEADLINE: This is such an interesting time in horror with Jordan Peele’s message movies, the James Wan franchises, the It films, the return of Halloween, and so many other efforts that keep raising the bar for the genre. The sector seems absolutely packed with new talent and with “message” projects…
GUERRERO: Yes, I think it’s a really special time. I think also just the viewership has so many more opportunities with so many more platforms, you know, films are growing and filmmakers are challenging today’s audience today to seeing horror films in a different light. As filmmakers we’re challenging each other to make more mature films, you know? You look at horror films like Hereditary or Get Out!, they’re not just genre films, they have something to say. They have a story within the layers and that story is a good one with high ambitions.
DEADLINE: Visual effects can be a key to horror storytelling and for you, as a first-time filmmaker, have you found that visual effects are a challenging area or one that you already feel an affinity toward?
GUERRERO: I think visual effects are more accessible than ever to young filmmakers and people that are starting out. You’d be surprised how much you can do with Premiere nowadays or Avid. Things are just so much easier to learn from. Visual effects now are more affordable, too, I’ve found. I hope that sometimes we can go back to practical effects more often but as technology changes the decisions change with them. What is easier and faster? What’s the easiest to learn and to master? The new options aren’t limited to just digital editing and visual effects software, there’s the accessibility to cameras and portability. People now can do amazing things with their phones, right? These days you can easily upload any kind of content online and easily spread the word about your talents. That’s how I started doing things on my own with viral videos. People know what you can do and with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, with any social media now, it’s a great time for diversity and fresh ideas that can take hold quickly.
DEADLINE: The film is split pretty evenly between Spanish and English, which makes it authentic to the everyday experience of millions of Americans but a real rarity in Hollywood productions. Did you have a specific percentage in mind as far as the split or was that more of a moving target decided on the fly?
GUERRERO: It totally was not planned. It just felt so organic. I would have to really thank the actors. And I appreciate the opportunity that came from casting job at Blumhouse. We looked and considered very carefully the authenticity of every single person cast for this film. It’s really exciting that everybody was Latino and, for a lot of the characters, Mexican. So it just was so organic for all of us. People just immediately felt the connection, and the actors as well I think even for them expressing back in Spanish with me they were able to really tap into more of a personal atmosphere. You can really see it in the film, that authenticity of the language and mannerisms.
DEADLINE: Border politics are the hot-button issue of the day. This is such a polarized moment in time, too, so I’m wondering how a first-time filmmaker gets their arms around all that? There’s a lot of responsibility and risk, I imagine, when a newcomer steps into these kind of arenas…
GUERRERO: One hundred percent. Picking the story to tell is a risk. Is this too soon to talk about this? But when we have the horror of the realities of today it’s important to talk about it. For a film like this to be given the opportunity to talk about something like this, it’s continuing the conversation and the call for America to be better and for the world to be better. We’re witnessing a push for change and wanting it to be change for the better. I think that’s the responsibility in telling a story like that. That’s your outcome that you want. When filmmakers make something that really touches on such a topical subject, it’s because there’s a need of social awareness. There’s a need of compassion and understanding, and in this case, a wider understanding of immigrant life and what they go through. For me it was difficult to take it all in. The difficult question wasn’t “should or shouldn’t I make this” it was more like, “Okay, how do I make this?” And: “How do I feel personally?” It was something I was asking myself all the time. To really portray the impact that the border crisis has on humanity today, it was really important to show what these innocent people are going through just to get a fair chance of life.
DEADLINE: As a youngster, when do you think you were locked in on this path to becoming a filmmaker? Locked in either by a major inspiration or through happenstance, perhaps…?
GUERRERO: It’s a combination of a few moments. I do blame my mom. It was your fault, Mom. I grew up in a very Catholic Mexican household. You walk in our house and you see the Virgin Mary and Jesus everywhere. You know right away that Mexican Catholics are living in this house. I was not allowed to watch anything with horror, anything with violence, none of that. My mom, being very spiritual and superstitious, she made a major thing out of keeping me away from all of that. And she did keep me away from it right up until I borrowed my first film from Blockbuster. I say borrow because I don’t want to say steal. Mexicans don’t steal, we borrow for a long time. So I took Child’s Play 2 and I was like, okay, I need to see this. I must have been 8. I think I only saw 20 minutes of it, but that first experience of seeing a horror film had a huge impact. I had never seen anything scary so I couldn’t even understand the impact or these feelings of being scared. I didn’t understand it because I had gone my entire childhood up to that point not experiencing that feeling.
DEADLINE: Can you describe your reaction to those 20 minutes of Chucky?
GUERRERO: Well instead of being, you know, traumatized or anything, I was excited. I was excited because I felt that Chucky was in the room with me and I didn’t understand why I was feeling that. I couldn’t understand how a movie could follow you home in a sense. So after that, growing up from there, I wanted to see more films. I wanted to understand why movies follow you and make such an impact. My maturity grew immediately, too. Then the film that made me want to go to film school was Children of Men. I saw that when I was 16 and I’ll never forget how I walked out of that theater. It just had this rawness, this feel of humanity and what we’re capable of doing to our world. I don’t know if you’ve seen Children of Men…
DEADLINE: I have seen it and I consider it one of the best sci-fi films in recent decades. I remember being profoundly invested in the characters in the film.
GUERRERO: No movie has ever impacted me like that one. I felt tired after coming out of the movie. I’m so proud that it was made by a Mexican filmmaker and I was inspired to go to school to learn how to tell stories that will walk out of the theater with people and stick with them forever. That’s what happened with me and Children of Men. That’s truly a moment that I’ll never forget. I walked out with my jaw all the way to the floor.
DEADLINE: I hope your mother feels better about your career pursuits now than she did in your younger days?
GUERRERO: I have a very, very supportive and beautiful family, and you know for us, coming from Mexico and immigrating to Canada – because that’s where I live now, I live in Vancouver, Canada – we’ve really kept together as a family and kept our culture and our traditions. I’m very lucky that even though we were living in Canada that my parents really made it clear that when you come home, you speak Spanish. Even though I’ve lived in Canada for over 10 years, I still feel I’m Mexican. My family continued that with me every single day to this day still. A film like Culture Shock is really going to showcase that. I will always, always remember where I come from. Everything I make from now on is an opportunity to put a bit of me in there and a bit of my experiences. I can portray where I’m from and keep it authentic and keep it real. And scary!
Guerrero is repped by Valor Entertainment, Verve, and MiloknayWeiner.