Mexican film producer Mónica Cortina Mariscal has focused a shining a light on stories that desperately need to be told in today’s world. She was trained as a graphic designer, leading to her involvement as an art director, and eventually worked for OCESA (one of the largest producers of entertainment events in Mexico, Latin America, and the world.) Unafraid to reinvent herself, Cortina’s most recent work has been behind films that touch on topics like immigration, humanism, and morality, paving the way for a new chapter in her life. She has produced critically-acclaimed films such as No One Left Behind, written and directed by Mexican screenwriter/director Guillermo Arriaga, which premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
As the global pandemic has brought film productions to a pause, FRONTRUNNER had the pleasure of speaking with Cortina, looking back on her career and discussing the many complexities that go behind producing a film, appreciating art, and following one’s passion within the entertainment industry.
I want to start by asking you: how did you begin to produce? How did you start this journey in the world of cinema?
I have many years in production itself, the production of events, especially the production of concerts. I spent many years working at Ocesa, which is one of the largest companies worldwide for events. But since early on, I already had a history of working as an art director in videos and films, but never as a producer. I was always behind the scenes and learning the business.
I never proposed to myself to become a producer. Yet, when the latest US [administration] started, I began some projects in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Relations to help inform Mexican migrants, particularly the undocumented, of the rights they have. There was too much fear in that community. They were protecting themselves. They were not leaving at all for fear that the policies of the new administration were very aggressive regarding deportation. So it was a time of considerable uncertainty, of great fear and a growing hatred as well. It was all misunderstood nationalism, and racism was growing exponentially, all generated by that same system. So, it was important for me to share some of the thousands of stories that were happening at that time and that we were knowing about by being in touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of the projects I proposed to reach the most significant number of Mexican migrants in the US was to make a short film. It’s tough to start a campaign because you have too many states, too many people. I mean, it’s very complicated, it’s costly. We began to invent projects that through social networks, the consulates, the same chambers of commerce, and all possible allies, would support us in getting this information to the world. People do not leave their place of origin just because they want to, nor for pleasure. They leave because they want to give their family moderately favorable conditions.
It’s challenging in itself that a migrant leaves their country against all odds. It is admirable that someone makes that decision. To leave everything for a better life, in order to bring food to the table, a roof, or clean clothes. You know, they leave their homes, leaving family behind to have the fundamental rights of a human being. They leave out of necessity.
These are the type of stories that inspired a sense of responsibility in you. You wanted to raise awareness and, in some way, challenge the stereotype of the migrant and how they are perceived in the United States.
Yes. And, of course, there are all types of people everywhere. I don’t mean that they are good or are bad, but they simply are. I was fortunate to meet thousands and thousands of people who were in those conditions. The only thing they do once they crossed that line and manage to establish themselves in the United States; the only thing they are is grateful and [to] give out their 110 percent. They are people who fight, who work, and they are the hardest workers and the most dedicated. Americans themselves can tell you. They are people who are very dedicated to working, determined to get ahead, because that’s their goal. The “bad hombres” was a political speech that stuck with the base of the Trump government. To the vast majority of Mexican migrants, their biggest interest is to improve themselves, to work, to respond and say, “Thank you.” We had the opportunity to see current cases, such as that of Alfredo Quiñones Hinojosa. He is the famous Doctor Q, who arrived to the US to work in the field of tomato harvesting, and is now the head of Neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic. He has now saved thousands upon thousands of American lives. That is what the migrant also represents—being able to excel and be able to return something to the American society.
I contacted Guillermo Arriaga, someone who is extremely sensitive to the subject, and has also lived these stories closely on the border. He spends a lot of time in that area, and he knows people, he knows stories. I was also very familiar and susceptible to the subject. After a series of talks, the story based on Manuel’s real events emerged.
Manuel is a representative character in No One Left Behind, a story that often happens among immigrant boys. It has happened especially in the US Army. This story around Manuel is the preamble. Manuel is an immigrant boy in a small, marginalized town in Coahuila and comes to the United States. They offer him joining the Army in exchange for his papers, and immediately send him to war in Iraq. He’s there for seven years, and upon his return, he is deported. He can’t cope with depression and shortly after commits suicide. This is the story prior to what you see in the short. What Guillermo does wisely is to tell the story of the moment where Manuel’s companions and his commander decide to look for his family. They offer to return the body and bury it with honors, as they do [for] American heroes. During the process, the family begins to interact with them and to question them. “If he was a hero and had fought for them, why did they leave him? Why did they abandon him?” This is a recurring question within the concept of an American soldier. They say, “I can’t leave my partner behind.” So why did you abandon him? Why did you leave your partner behind? It is a broad concept, but one that makes you think for sure. For two days, the soldiers live with Manuel’s family and begin to realize all these people ever wanted was to have a better life. Manuel only wanted that. So this story represents what the Mexican migrant is in the United States in real life.
Generally, being a “producer” is for many people a confusing term in terms of the position’s role and its responsibilities. I know you were an executive producer on this project. Could you describe what your responsibilities were in it?
Shaping the different elements and making sure that everything ends up working like clockwork, that’s the producer’s job. That is, connecting the pieces. We see the economical components, the artistic parts, and all the drawers that must be filled. The producer sees what’s the best option to get the money. “Where do I get the money from?” It’s as if we were to build a business and to glimpse which are the best elements for the product that we want to create. I managed to raise money through sponsorship, which was enough for a short film, not a feature film. The pieces were arranged so that a higher quality product emerged from the money I counted with. We were lucky to have another producer associated with me, Santiago García, who knows Danny Huston very well. He showed him the script, and Danny loved the idea of participating. He is one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. He charges $10 million for his participation. We did not have that money, but it was thanks to Guillermo’s script, thanks to the theme that we proposed, that certain mechanical parts of this watch began to be assembled. We were very lucky.
At the same time, we were also able to count other leading Mexican actors such as Jorge Jiménez. He currently works on the series Narcos and acted in From Dusk Till Dawn with Isabela Hedlund, a young actress with a lot of work right now who is very talented. They are actors who could not get paid what they deserved. But when they saw that there was a quality script and a director who came in because he wanted to tell this story of the border, these parts of the clock began to come together, which makes me feel privileged and honored. I didn’t imagine we would get to this. I am very happy with the results.
It sounds like it was a great experience and that those who worked on the project did it for love to tell this story and act upon a sense of responsibility to give more voice to certain people who may not have it.
Yes. We filmed for two days at 40 degrees Celsius in a town half an hour from Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Harsh conditions that are hard to imagine. In other words, the shadow was a hotbed, a sauna steam. All the actors, including Danny Houston, were dressed as soldiers. They deserved a standing ovation because they worked like true professionals. The desire to participate in this project was so great that there was not a single complaint. They all worked with incredible passion. It was a project with magic.
Is there a film, artist, filmmaker, director who has inspired you or with whom you would like to work in the future?
Guillermo del Toro would definitely be an ideal for me because I know he would tell a story in his own way, regardless of wether it is about migrants or else. I think Guillermo del Toro contributes something exceptional to stories. He has lived in the United States, he is an immigrant, and knows what it is to earn a living there. He also knows what it’s like to leave since he was a boy.
Do you see your work evolving at some point towards other topics that interest you? If yes, what are those issues other than immigration?
When the short was done, Guillermo sent it to the director of the Venice Film Festival, Alberto Barbera. He loved it and invited us to do the premiere there. Why was this? Because in the end, the film’s subject goes beyond the border line between the United States and Mexico. That is, the situation that has been taking place in the world regarding migration, the issue of not valuing the contribution that migrants bring to your community, the lack of awareness of how these people are leaving their hometowns because many have no option. This is a global issue, it is not limited to Mexico and the United States. I think it fit very well within the festival, because Italy has also experienced a strong migration scene, like many European countries. The intention, I think, was to tell people to take care of migrants, to have more compassion, not to leave people behind. An invitation to see what their stories are, because it’s a scary topic, too. When we live in a place and people from the outside come to you, you say, “These people might invade me, they might take away my job.” So it’s a complex topic. Regardless of wether you are Mexican or American, it’s a subject that questions you all around the world.
The title No One Left Behind is strong, common phrase among the military. Meaning, “You cannot leave your companions behind for whom you are fighting.” The last phrase Danny says in the film is, “Forgive us, Manuel, because we left you behind. Who are we fighting for, who are we in this war for?” The phrase is very significant and I think that as a human being, Danny’s character questions it. I think that today’s situation that we have with the pandemic has made us see what we want as human beings. I think that the film fits very well the themes of being empathetic, of greed, which are leading us to build our world. So, I would be interested in continuing to touch on issues of humanism, of questioning people and saying what do you want? Where are you going? Why do you work? What are your intentions? Is it individualism that drives you, are you planning to go on as far as your life goes and afterwards that’s the end of it, or do you want to leave a better future for upcoming generations, whether you have children or not?
It is our world, our planet. I don’t want to sound like an existentialist, but I think that right now the interesting topics are to question oneself as a human being, where we are going, and what do we want. I think that I would like to focus on these questions as a theme and have the opportunity to be able to do another work, through cinema or else.
There is a collective consciousness in the world, issues everyone thinks about floating in the air. Right now with the pandemic, all are living something worldwide together. I cannot imagine the amount of stories that will come out of this global event all around the world. How did the people of Venice, an international film festival, react to a story that is both local and universal?
There’s a screening that is first for the press, and a session of Q&A, afterwards. The press are the first ones to see the work. Another film was presented before No One Left Behind, a very good short about the father of an Argentinian girl. The short finished and we thought it was fabulous. However, the critics, the two journalists who were there, only took notes once the film had ended. When our short was screened, we received a big round of applause from the press, something very uncommon. So wow! From the start, that was a medal for us, because the press did not have to applaud, they are not ordinary guests. That part was precious to us. The moment was very special. The next day was the premiere with guests and with another Q&A session. We received a similar reaction, and some people even thanked us because we were telling the story of something that people are experiencing in many places. That was precious, too, because it was not a banal applause. It was an applause that said, “This is a story that I am living.”
Was there ever a time in which art or a story played an important role in how you dealt with a situation, or even inspired you? What is the role of art in this world from your perspective?
When I was young, I was struck by the fact that at school they would take us to an art exhibition and they would say to you, “This is such and such artist.” So people would go, “Wow, how important, how interesting!” I remember from childhood that I would say to myself whether I liked a work of art or not, and some teacher said to me, “That’s the important thing. Art is wether you like it or you don’t like it.” There is a historical context and other parameters through which artists are measured, but ultimately, art is art. The point of art is wether you like or you don’t like what you see, wether you feel or you don’t feel because of it, wether it transmits you or it doesn’t transmit you something.
I went looking for certain exhibitions and artists where I could stand in front of works and, even though I didn’t know who the artist was, the painting was telling me something. So, I would think beyond who did it or what time was it made in. As a spectator who stands in front of a work that is pictorial, cinematic, or sculptural, any type of work, even nature itself sometimes puts the work in front of you and I say, “Wow, this is a beauty. This is giving me an emotion. This is bringing out the best in me.” I found it very interesting to discover more about myself than what my art or history teachers taught me. I studied graphic design, so I had the opportunity to study art several times, art history in particular. I was more fascinated to face the topic of art by questioning myself. “This artist does not say anything to me.” He will be so-and-so and his paintings will be auctioned at Sotheby’s for thousands and millions, but the truth is that I can’t see anything in it. Yet, other artists who didn’t have that big of a name could amaze me with their work.
That is what I believe art is today. There is art for everyone. It is the process through which you discover what excites you. For me, art is what moves you, what tells you something, what ignites a feeling, what leads you to an emotion, that makes you grow.
FRONTRUNNER reaches people just beginning their careers or emerging artists who are delving into the worlds of film, literature, photography, or more. What advice would you give to people just starting their careers, or to those who are already have? What has worked for you during this journey?
There is a phrase that says that when you do what you are passionate about, you end up not working. It’s easy to say, but the bills have to be paid, the gas has to be paid, and the water has to be paid. You have to question yourself during this process. Yes, in my life I had jobs where I had to work precisely for a check, to be able to get ahead. But I think the most important thing is that even though you need to pay bills and you need the economic part that finances you and that helps you be independent, I think you can guide it wherever you like.
Always question yourself. What are you passionate about? That is the first question you should ask, because many times we go through life and end up studying because it happens to be what has been designed to come next. Where am I going to find a job? When it comes to artistic careers, my advice is to follow your passion. “Where do I want to be? What do I like?” If you like photography, look for that type of opportunity. In other words, there is a huge world where you can work, and most times you don’t start as a director or producer. You start by working on sets and pulling cables. But if you are in a world that offers you what you want, and confirms that you are following your passion, you are not going to feel work as a job and instead, you are going to grow.