Writer/director David Riker - whose film credits include “La Ciudad” and “Sleep Dealer” - recently spoke with Phoenix Movie Examiner about his new drama “The Girl.”
In “The Girl,” which opens Friday, March 22 exclusively at AMC Arizona Center 24, Abbie Cornish plays a single mother who, struggling with the loss of her child to Social Services, crosses paths with that of a young girl from Mexico and begins a journey that will change her life - discovering that she is the architect of her own fate and learning what it is that truly defines home.
Question: What was your starting point as a filmmaker?
Answer: As a filmmaker, I am trying to answer a question that never seems complete for me, which is, “What does it mean to be an American?” I was born in Boston and my family is mostly New Englanders but I am always wrestling with what it means to be a child of immigrants that have stories of families that came here many generations ago as well as grandparents who came here in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The new immigrants coming to New York in the last 20 years whose lives my own world is connected to find themselves in a very very different place than the stories of my own grandparents. I am trying to make films that change the way we talk about immigration and immigrants and step around all of the polemic and politicized discussion. For example, when someone realizes that the man who is cutting their lawn or the woman who is taking care of their children is a father or a mother who has had to leave their own children behind in order to come here and work, suddenly the meaning of it what it means to be an immigrant changes and the possibility to talk about commonality presents itself. “The Girl” is now the third film that I have made that is trying to find a language that allows us to talk about this subject in a new way.
Q: So what was that starting point with this particular project? What were some of the specific questions that you were trying to answer?
A: The starting point of this film is a question that I had as a writer - “What does it mean to live in the epicenter of the American dream and feel not hope but sort of shutout or trapped?” This is the question that our main character - played by Abbie Cornish - faces as an Anglo woman living in South Texas working at Walmart. She is living in the very place that all of the immigrants want to get to. So why doesn't she feel filled with hope and that sense of new future and possibilities in her life? That question led me to question the very myth of the border, which is that hope is just to the north. How is it possible that the South is without hope? How is it possible that the North is filled with hope when many of us don't feel it? And now I realize that hope is not in the North or the South. Hope is in the person crossing. Hope is something that is carried inside. The film turns the border upside down sends this Anglo woman across the border, south against the current of the migrant stream. Abbie Cornish, without ever really thinking it through, ends up making the migrant journey in reverse - from a big box store in Texas to a small village in southern Mexico. And along the way she has a profound awakening as a human being.
Q: What is your hope, as a filmmaker, when it comes to how people perceive this project?
A: My hope as a filmmaker is a modest one. I know how complex life is and that a movie or a book can only do so much. But I do hope that people who see the film come away from it thinking a little bit differently about a subject that has become so filled with keywords that we don't even think anymore. You know how that happens? A word like terrorist or communist prevents us from thinking in the same way that the whole discussion about immigration is becoming that way. And I am hoping that this film will, in a way, press a reset button. What happens in the film is completely unexpected. This American woman has the attitude of a victim. She acts like everyone is against her and that nobody is there to help her - which is, in fact, not true. Then she comes into a relationship with a young girl from Mexico who forces an awakening in her that has to do with the values in her life. My hope is that people come out of the film talking about it and maybe looking at the neighborhood or the state that they live in in a slightly different way. What I think is the beating heart of the film is that if you cross a border - whatever that border is, be it a border of language or a border of one neighborhood to another or a border of misunderstanding or a geographical border - something is possible that wasn't possible before. And that is what this film encourages us to think about.
Q: Finally, tell me more about Abbie Cornish. How did you know that she was right for this role?
A: As a director, you tend to keep an eye on actors wherever you can and you follow any actor that registers on your radar. When I first saw Abbie, I saw an actress with a rare ability to not only disappear into a role - to fully inhabit a role - but also an actress who has remarkable physical and emotional strength. I needed an actress who would really be believable in the working-class life of her character, which is not a life of elegance and finery. It is really a very hard-knock life. I knew Abbie had those qualities. But the real test was whether she was prepared to learn Spanish because most of her dialogue during the second half of the film is in Spanish. I met with several actresses for the role, all of whom assured me that they were committed to learning the dialogue in Spanish. But Abbie said, “David, I don't want to learn my dialogue. I want to learn the language. When we are in Mexico, I want to be able to speak to people off the set and speak with this little girl off the set.” She took 6 months out of her professional life to work on a independent film with a director that nobody has ever heard of. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility and gratitude for her trust. Abbie really wants to stretch herself and put herself in a place that is risky and challenging. She is now cast as the lead in the new $120 million “RoboCop.” It is very unusual to have an actress with this range who is truly interested in digging deep and creating a character and, at the same time, enjoy the “Sucker Punchs” and the “RoboCops” of the world.