Adrian Grunberg has worked as the first assistant director under such luminary directors as Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Peter Weir, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Julie Taymor, and Oliver Stone. He is the unseen talent behind many of the more prestigious films of the last decade. He recently took to directors’ chair himself to make Get the Gringo, an underseen but rather good scuzzy crime movie starring Mel Gibson, set in a horrible village-like Mexican prison, which he co-wrote with the star. Get the Gringo is on home video today.
CraveOnline recently interviewed Mr. Grunberg to find out about his writing process, the actual reality of the Mexican prison on display, and why Gibson’s character doesn’t have a name in the movie.
CraveOnline: I saw Get the Gringo at L.A. Live a few months back, and I wrote a rather glowing review of it.
Adrian Grunberg: Great! Thank you very much for that review.
I just hope I encouraged some people to see it.
I hope you do. I hope you do. ‘Cause not many people did.
You’ve worked on movies like Traffic and Men with Guns and Jarhead. I was wondering, when you were putting together Get the Gringo, if your work on those movies had influenced the tone of your own movie.
I’m sure it did. I can’t say that they were specifically on my mind, but I’m sure they did. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing directors, and I learned stuff from all of them. And obviously the fact that we were co-writing the script, Mel and I, sort of helps to find the tone that we both knew we wanted for the movie.
You have indeed worked with many famous directors. Were there any you felt you were emulating when making this movie?
Not openly. Not openly, no. Like I said, I’m positive I have influences from all of them. Hopefully they’re good influences. But I wouldn’t say, y’know, I was openly emulating any of them.
It’s just that, while I was watching it, I was reminded of films like Traffic and Men with Guns, and I was surprised to find that you had worked on both! Those questions were just me stating how proud I was that I nailed it.
Wow. You’re probably more right than I am in that sense. I’m sure I have influences from many of the directors I’ve worked with, as well as many directors I haven’t worked with, but that I admire. But, hey, you found it. So good on you.
When you were putting together the script, what came to you first? ‘Cause that opening car chase was a corker. Was that the germ of the story?
Well, yeah. It was definitely that opening sequence. It was there very early on in the script process. Because we needed to have our hero be captured on the other side of the border. It sort of, that scene, came naturally, a pretty cool way to introduce our character and have him cross the border illegally. Usually it’s the other way around, so it was actually pretty funny to me to bring him across the border the other way [into Mexico] illegally.
We never learn a lot about Mel Gibson’s character; we never learn his real name, really. Was he ever named? Was there an earlier version of the script that gave us more of the character’s background?
Not at all. It’s not that we decided to make him enigmatic. We never found the need to explain who he was, or who he stole the money from, how he did it, what his past life was. There was never a reason for us to do it. Same with the name. The guy doesn’t have a name not because we decided not to give him a name, but because it just never came up!
I guess you’re right. Often, when you watch movies, you forget the characters’ names immediately anyway.
I agree. And, y’know, if there’s a theme where he needed to introduce himself to somebody – well, without giving a false name – we would have put his name. If it moved the story. It just never happened when we were writing the script. And we didn’t even realize until later that the fact that he was named “Driver,” was because – when we were writing the script – we thought “we’ll figure out his name later, and for now we’ll call him Driver” because in the opening scene he’s driving. We had to refer to him as somebody. We wrote “The driver of the car did this, and the driver did that” and it just stuck. And we said eventually we’ll give him a name, but then we never had a need to.
He winds up in a horrible Mexican prison-cum-village called El Pueblito. Is that based on a real place?
It’s most certainly based on a real place. And the fact of the matter is what’s in the movie is actually a lighter version of the real El Pueblito. When we stumbled across El Pueblito, when Spacey was my partner [Kevin Spacey was the original choice to play Driver], he co-wrote the script as well. When we were doing research of prisons, prisons all over the world, we stumbled across El Pueblito because there’s not a lot of information out there on it. It was the black sheep of the Mexican penitentiary system. So, when we came across it, and started interviewing people who are inmates or officials who work there, the more we learned about this place, it was impressive. And that whole background of the prison is definitely real, based on the truth.
Based on a very particular prison, or more generally the system?
El Pueblito was the state penitentiary at La Mesa in Tijuana. And they called it El Pueblito – the little town – because of the way it has grown, the way in which the inmates had been allowed to build their houses inside the prison, and the corruptness of it. It’s all based on that one place, yes.
When you were writing this movie about a Mexican prison, were you trying to make a statement about the Mexican prison system? Or was it just a cool and dirty place to set a crime movie?
No. The truth is that the intention of this particular movie was not to give a social message. Y’know, we just wanted to make a cool movie. And this is the coolest way we found to make this, to show this place. And it’s a reality of the country I live in. We deal with this kind of life in Mexico on a daily basis. So it’s just a representation of the reality that I’m exposed to.
You didn’t have to butt heads with any kind of authorities while making the film, did you?
No. Not at all. I mean, there was a controversy at the beginning. We actually ended up shooting in what was an active prison. Which was active right until a little before we started shooting in it. It was offered to us by the governor of Veracruz. Because they were in to process of removing all the inmates, and sending them to other prisons because this prison had been declared uninhabitable by human rights groups. So at the time a lot of people, or some people, here in Mexico had said the government had emptied the prison for us. But there’s nothing farther from the truth. I wish I had that power.
Last question: Since you worked on it, maybe you can tell me. What the hell was The Limits of Control about?
[laugh] Uhh… It’s about an unknown character… who works, uh, outside of the law… and he’s… going through a mission. That’s the sort of the simple version. As with all Jarmusch movies, everything else is up to you. [laugh] You have to fill in the gaps.
I have had some discussion with fellow critics trying to figure out The Limits of Control.
I think it’s useless to argue about Jarmusch. You just have to sit back and enjoy it, hopefully, for what it is. Y’know, create your own world in your head, and live with that. And definitely don’t try to convince anybody else what it’s about. Just enjoy it for what it is, ‘cause the guy’s a master.
That’s a good plan.