Exclusive Interview and Photos: Lex Ortega Talks Brutal New Mexican Horror Flick ATROZ

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SHOCK’s Roberto D’Onofrio talks to director Lex Ortega about his extreme and shocking new film ATROZ.

Without any doubt director and producer Lex Ortega can be considered, together with Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Michel Grau, among the filmmakers who advocated the renaissance of Mexican Horror Cinema. Although his young age he has worked as Sound Designer in a crazy cult movie as FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY, directed a bunch of short movies and gathered together some of the most promising young directors coming from the country which gave birth to Pancho Villa, to produce MEXICO BARBARO, an anthology film telling tales of the most brutally shocking Mexican traditions and legends, for which he also directed the episode: “Lo que importa es lo de adentro” (What Matters is What’s Inside). Now, after several failed attempts to get economical support with different institutions, and thanks to a successful crowd funding campaign, Ortega completed his first full feature film: ATROZ (ATROCIOUS), which premiered at the eighth edition of “Morbido Film Fest” in Mexico, the past October 31st, where it took the “Audience Award”.

Already labeled as the most brutal Mexican film ever made, and screened during the morning in a special section, where you were warned that the movie contained strong, raw and extremely realistic violent scenes, ATROZ begins with an unorthodox police detective arriving on the scene of a car crash, the two men who caused it are arrested and checking out their car for himself he makes a gruesome discovery on a camcorder, the tapes contain brutal murders and relentless tortures. By interrogating their perpetrators, more videotapes exposing even more sexually deviant torture and murder are discovered, showing human wickedness and the paraphilia background, inner demons and psyche of these murderers. Mixing the “found footage” and “POW” techniques, Ortega delivers a movie that is surely not suitable for all audiences (Julian Richards, who took  the movie  for release in  England  with  his “Jinga Films”, is  advertising it with the following words: “In 2010 Jinga shocked the world with A SERBIAN FILM, in 2011 we did it again with THE BUNNY GAME. Now, in 2016 we are taking it to the next level with Lex Ortega’s ATROZ…”) and leaves you with a sense of discomfort, introducing the viewers to a perverse world, unraveling what lies in the underground of our cities. What dark thoughts are in the minds of their inhabitants? And what nightmares are housed in their homes? The extreme realism of the picture, enhanced by a statement at the beginning film, about the number of people killed each year in Mexico that are unpunished, instils in your heart the fear of encountering, just around the corner, a psychopathic serial murderer more terrifying than any monsters seen in any horror film. So it is no wonder that the legendary Ruggero Deodato decided to become executive producer after watching the movie.  

SHOCK: This is your first full length movie, as in MEXICO BARBARO you directed just one episode, how was that experience?

ORTEGA: Definitely is more difficult to handle a feature film than a segment from an anthology like I did in MEXICO BARBARO, or a short film, but in a certain way I can say that it is the same but multiplied several times, more shooting days, more cast & crew, more responsibilities and, obviously, more problems to solve. What I mean is that, as a filmmaker, there are stuff that you should know before shooting your first feature film, at least some of the steps that involve making a film, so when it is your turn to make your first feature, you have at least some weapons to do it, you can question yourself and answer other’s people questions. Filmmaking is like any other job, you have to practice to improve yourself and by practicing you might start pushing yourself a bit further, trying to make more difficult shots, camera placements and so on. Having worked also in post production and sound design for domestic and international film projects, surely it helped me a lot.

SHOCK: I know this was a very difficult production which was in limbo for a long time and took you almost three years to get made…

ORTEGA: Yes, it was pretty difficult. Back in 2012, I wanted to shoot a torture sequence, I didn’t have a script, a story or something, I just wanted to practice. I wanted to make a fake “snuff video” and send it to the News and social media with no credits, just pretending it was a real murder caught on tape. When I started saving some money to pay for the practical FX to do it and getting some crew, I realized that a lot of people and a lot of effort was getting involved in the project, so I decided to put a cinematographic structure behind that idea and have some more exposure, in order to show the world all the cast & crew’s talent. That is how ATROZ (the short film) was born. As it was appreciated by audiences at many festivals where it was screened, I decided to make a feature film out of it. For more than two and a half years I tried several attempts to get economical support with different institutions, which failed. I tried to pitch the script in several horror fests, but we had no luck. Some of them told us that it was too violent. All these comments made me feel bad and I was even more determined to go ahead, hold on to this project and shoot this movie. We filmed the first half of the film with our own resources, then in early 2015 we completed the shooting thanks to a successful crowd funding campaign.

SHOCK: How people did respond to your crowd funding campaign?

ORTEGA: The response from the crowd funding campaign was unbelievable, at the beginning we were afraid that we didn’t reach the goal, Abigail Bonilla (my producer) and I did it only in social networks, and it was a very difficult activity, not just for the ones doing the campaign, it is also annoying for people that is reading the same thing every two  days for the last three months.

We found out that crowd funding actually has a method, first you have to convince your closest friends and relatives to support you, then you have to reach the second circle, which could be people you “know”, maybe your friends from elementary school for example, and at the end you have to involve friends of friends that would be the third circle. But you have to let people know who is supporting you, because by seeing that they start trusting you and trust the project.

SHOCK: Do you think that crowd funding can be the future for funding independent movies? I know that many young directors and also important names as Dario Argento, didn’t have much luck with it…

ORTEGA: I don’t know if crowd funding could be the future for funding independent films, it can be used as a tool, but I really don`t know how effective could be for larger amount of money. Other that ATROZ I know other films that have been made by crowd funding, or at least part of them, like Rob Zombie`s 31 and HARDCORE HENRY, just to mention some of them, and lots of short films.

SHOCK: Did you have any help from other production companies, private investors or Studios?

ORTEGA: Luckily to complete the production of ATROZ we counted on a few co-producers that believed in the project: the company “Grotesque” (one of this company partner is Diego Cohen, who is also a horror filmmaker) supported us with the camera, optics, crew, colour correction and the DCP, another co-production company was “Zebra Studio”, they supported us with the editing, visual FX, and credit design, “Giant Films” helped us out with the poster, and my company, “LSD Audio”, co-produced with the sound design and 5.1 mix.

SHOCK: How did you come out with the title ATROZ?

ORTEGA: I basically wanted a single world, strong and disgusting enough, that could describe the film.

SHOCK: As in MEXICO BARBARO you seem to prefer real horror than supernatural horror. We had a killer pedophile there, and a couple of crazy sexually perverted guys here, Why? You seem to suggest that reality is worse than movies and that real monsters are hiding in our society….

ORTEGA: Violence is part of human nature, violence is part of Mexican culture, I think monsters are among us, I think we all have the possibility to become evil, we just might need an unfortunate event in our lives to detonate. That is the kind of horror that I like and the topics that I like to tell in my stories, the kind of evil that can be living next door, it can be one of our relatives or it can be ourselves, I call it “Terror Terrenal” which is something like “Earthly Terror”.

SHOCK: At the beginning of ATROZ there is a statement about the number of people killed each year in Mexico that are unpunished, was it that fact which inspired the story?

ORTEGA: I don’t think I came out with that idea because of that fact. It is more in terms to put the audience in front of a statement and let them know what they are about to see, showing a reality that sadly exists in Mexico. I remember Guillermo del Toro saying that Cinema is a way of protest, ATROZ is my way to say “Stop killing us!”.

SHOCK: Why did you decide to also star in the film? Was it difficult to be both in front and behind the camera?

ORTEGA: Now that I look back, I don’t like to be in front of the camera. As in most of my movies, I have worked with no actors because of lack of economic resources, just friends that gave me physical profile for the character. I can say I had to do it because when I first shot the ATROZ short film I asked three actors to play the serial killer role, after reading the script they didn’t accept it, shooting time  approached and I didn’t  have an  actor so I  decided to  do it myself. After all I knew the exact behavior I wanted in my characters, I didn’t want them to look like they were “professional murderers”, I wanted them to look totally amateur, just a couple of friends discovering a sick and dark part of themselves. Regarding doing both things, acting and directing, I found out it is pretty difficult, because you can’t focus on both things, a lot of trust, communication and coordination was needed with the cinematographer to call the action.

SHOCK: Ruggero Deodato is cited in the end titles and in the posters as executive producer, what was his role in ATROZ?

ORTEGA: As you might know, some parts of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST were shot in the Colombian amazon, the producer of ATROZ, Abigail Bonilla, and I, met Ruggero in 2014 at the “Zinema Zombie Fest” in Bogota, Colombia. We were presenting MEXICO BARBARO at that time, Ruggero was also an international guest, and the festival made a retrospective of his work, celebrating the anniversary of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. At that time we had just started a crowd funding campaign for ATROZ, so every time we had the opportunity and a microphone in our hands we promoted it, when Deodato found out about it, he kindly gave us a contribution. Once we had finished ATROZ we sent a screener link to Ruggero and we asked him if we could make him an associate producer and mention his name presenting the film, so he watched it and he told us he loved it and there was no problem by using his name in the poster and publicity. That just blew my mind, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is one of my favorite films ever, actually a long ago, even before all this, I wrote ATROZ’s script giving tribute to his film, that’s why the structure of ATROZ is part found footage and part traditional cinema.

SHOCK: You’ve been using a mix of “found footage”, “point of view shots” and “close circuit cameras” to shoot the movie, can you tell us more about these techniques and why did you decide to use them?

ORTEGA: One of the reasons is the one I mentioned above, the other ones are that I wanted to make the torture and murder scenes look as real as possible, and found footage is a very effective way to do so. Another reason is that both “found footage” and “P.O.V.” shots make the audience feel like they are part of the scene. It makes you feel complicity in something you don’t want to be part of. That is my way of making the audience feels uncomfortable and begin transmitting emotions. I think those resources makes you feel guilty after seeing such scenes narrated that way.

SHOCK: In ATROZ there is a very realistic use of violence, raping and sex scenes. Did you have any trouble with censorship?

ORTEGA: Luckily in this case, as we didn’t have any big Studios or main production company behind us, we didn’t have any censorship and we could tell the story just the way we wanted. But once again some actors rejected the project once they read the script.

SHOCK: Many things have been written about “Snuff Movies”, do you think they really exist and people buy them just to see people killed for real?

ORTEGA: “Snuff Films” have been taboo for years, while some they say they don’t exist, others say they do exist… the actual description of a snuff film is basically that someone pays to get a recording, most of the time it starts with sexual abuse, then torture and completing the act with a murder caught on camera, which is different from recording a real murder, execution or an accident. The ¨paying¨ fact is what makes it a snuff film. There have been several videos uploaded on the net for real  murders, actually in Mexico there is a blog specifically that has murders caught on tape of executions from Mexican cartels. I wouldn’t call that a Snuff Film, like I said before, evil is among us and the sad part is that I think there might be someone in the world that would pay to get real snuff films.

SHOCK: In the final scenes the police detective suggests that he used the killers to get rid of the rejects of the society, did you intend to refer to the infamous “Death Squads” that operated in Brazil and in other Latin America countries?  

ORTEGA: Absolutely, that’s a very important part of the story. I remember that during the last world cup in Brazil, people was saying that homeless, including children, were making disappear by paramilitaries to remove “the bad image” of major cities. That also happens in Mexico, the current government is based on those filthy ways to instill panic and submit the society.

In that same trip to Colombia I was talking to a guy in a bar and I told him I was planning to make a film that was touching issues of para-militarism, he told me that, as a child, he lived in a neighborhood of Bogota where at night bursts of machine-gun were heard in places where homeless people gathered, the next morning elements of the army were clearing the sidewalks with water to remove the blood. He also told me that nowadays homeless people gather outside the Bogota’s main journal building called “El Tiempo”, they do so because is the only building with a wide close circuit surveillance that can document if the paramilitary try to make them disappear.

In terms of the script, I made a research and I found a thesis from a Colombian girl whom she based her investigation in “Los Mano Negra” (The black hand), one of the most infamous paramilitary groups in Colombia.

SHOCK: I know that you are also a member of a metal band, can you tell me more about it?

ORTEGA: Music has always been very important in my life. It was the way I started working with Sound Design, listening to Metal music was my first approach to it, when I started my Grindcore band called ¨The Massacre Must Begin¨ back in 2007 I started writing songs, then a few years later I turned into writing scripts, now my way of living is revolving around those three things: sound design, Horror films and Metal Music. I also sing in another grind/death metal band called “Belibette”.

SHOCK: You told me you are already at work on MEXICO BARBARO 2 can you anticipate us something about it?

ORTEGA: It is pretty much the same as the first one, eight segments, eight new directors plus me (one segment is co-directed), one of the rules was not to tell the same Mexican stories as the first MEXICO BARBARO, once again we don’t have censorship so you can expect lots of gore, nudity and violence. This time, among the subject “Mexican traditions and legends”, we are trying to link every segment with different elements, which may or may not be perceptible by the audience. This doesn’t change the story or something, it’s just that we think that if you get it, it will be fun trying to find out which elements play in other segment. We want to expand MEXICO BARBARO like a franchise, to give opportunities to more male and female genre directors from all over Mexico.

SHOCK: Who are the directors that have been chosen to direct?

ORTEGA: All the directors have already been selected, as each director is financing his own segment, pretty much anything can happen and make the roster change, so I’d rather not telling anything until all the segments are done, all I can say is that we have four out of eight!