One of the unique aspects of film is its ability to depict reality and fiction simultaneously. This is done in fictionalized narratives that share characteristics with events and attitudes that actually occur. Writer, director and producer David Whelan has capitalized on the anti-immigrant sentiment with his faux documentary “Savageland,” which presents a reality that seems all too possible.
David co-wrote “Savageland” with his two UCLA colleagues Phil Guidry and Simon Herbert. “All three of us were writers, but with the cost of entry and cost of filmmaking, maybe there is something we can do instead of going the spec script route and hoping that the studio would take something on. We said ‘Why don’t we do something?’” This prompted David, Phil and Simon to work independently outside of a film studio.
David explained the initial conception of the film, “We started talking about thrillers that we liked and ‘Paradise Lost,’ a straight documentary that was classified as a thriller, was something that came up. And we were just sort of kicking around ideas, Phil had sort of talked about the idea of doing a found footage but with still photography instead of regular, grainy video, which we felt like had been done a little bit. And then we tied it into the local landscape and immigration angle and that’s how it all started.”
“Savageland” follows the massacre of a fictional town, Sangre de Cristo, Arizona, which rests a short distance away from the Mexican-American border. The massacre of the town finds 57 people brutally murdered, many of whom are mangled beyond recognition. The only survivor is an illegal Mexican immigrant, Francisco Salazar. Salazar is found covered in blood near Sangre de Cristo, is arrested and tried for murder. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
Throughout the entire film, we see how polarizing the evidence against Salazar is. There is nothing concrete enough to prove he committed the murders, nor is there enough prove him innocent. One interesting aspect of the case is that Salazar is an amaeteur photographer, and actually on the night of the massacre photographed what appears to be evidence that the massacre was committed by a group of people, rather than one man. This evidence is later ruled ineligible in court.
The main narrative of the film is carried through a series of interviews with people involved with the case. Ranging from the town sheriff, Salazar’s attorney, an investigative journalist and a border patrol agent, the film really centers in on how divided public perception of immigrants can be. Most people of the nearby town think that Salazar is a monster and representative of Mexican culture. This is paralleled by a pyschotherapist and the border patrol agent, who remain sceptical as to how one man could butcher an entire town.
The real crux of the film is just how real and vibrantly honest it feels. If you weren’t told beforehand that it was a work of fiction, you’d probably end up Googling away everything that happened. “That was our biggest thing,” as David put it. “When the three of us sat down, there were a couple of things that were almost like ground rules, either we achieve this or we can’t make the movie, and one of which was it has to feel real. It has to feel bigger than the world we actually have. Sometimes you see a lower budget, or micro-budget indie film, and you get the feeling that if you pull the camera back a little bit, you’d see the outset of the set and see that it’s all a construct. We wanted it to be as real as possible.”
David continued to talk about how little choices within the film added to the this perceived view of reality, “Well we can’t shoot in a courtroom, but we know a guy who can do courtroom sketches. That would feel real. Phil knew an architect, and we had him do an architectural rendering of the town. We started pulling from all these different places to put as many layers on top of each other, to keep that feeling of ‘Yeah there’s something here!’. Because if it doesn’t feel real the whole thing falls apart really fast.”
In terms of subject matter, they chose to focus on the immigration perspective because of the immediacy of the topic. “We didn’t want to just have bodies falling out of closets, I like that as much as the next person, but we wanted to do something that might be a little big bigger. Sort of have a social-thriller feel to it, and that was in issue that was right on our door step,” David explained. “It’s an issue that an elicits an emotional reaction from a lot of people, and there’s a fear of the unknown and there’s a fear, in a classic horror construct, of violence. If we build a wall we’ll be safe then, and we were interested in the origins of that fear and how that’s a very real fear. Probably more so than somebody running into your house with a knife.”
Part of working on a smaller film involves budget and equipment restrictions. David shared one especially difficult day of shooting. “So we shot a lot out in the desert, and there was one particular day where it was triple digits, 105, and it kept climbing. Turner Jumonville, our Director of Photography would borrow a camera, so on a given day we didn’t know what camera we were gonna get,” David added. “That’s why we went with the documentary feel because we know we weren’t going to be shooting on the same camera the whole time. So we wanted to use the different cameras to our advantage, rather than have it weaken the story.”
The scene they were shooting involves a single actor walking through the town, and takes about 20 takes to shoot. “Its an absolute inferno, and we’re starting to get concerned. We can’t have him pass out, none of us can pass out, but at the same time we’ve got to get all of this stuff done before the sun goes and we have to take the camera back.” David sounded almost exhausted just talking about it.
“When you have those constraints it forces you to work creative and to work pretty quickly,” David said. “Everybody who was in involved from the actors, to the Director of Photography to people who had come to help with makeup all had a great spirit about them. It was fun. The conditions weren’t exactly great, they were brutal, but it was fun. There were absolutely no ego’s on the set. In an independent film there’s not a lot of money and there’s not room for much ego.”
Providing apt social commentary on immigration and new attitudes becoming present in our culture, “Savageland” is a smart, powerful and compelling narrative that examines our relationship to fear and violence. Available for purchase on Youtube, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Video, “Savageland” offers unique and thrilling experience.