Striving to honor their ancestry, while also finding ways to survive in an ever-evolving contemporary society, can be a challenge for anyone, but particularly more so for young adults who most easily recognize the allure of modern culture. That’s certainly the case for actor Juan Daniel García Treviño’s protagonist of Aapo, a young Maya man living in Mexico, in the new fantasy adventure movie, ‘Wetiko.’ He struggles to balance honoring his family’s heritage with being lured into an seemingly lucrative situation that appeals to the contemporary climate, until he’s put into a potentially life-threatening circumstance that makes him realize what’s truly important to him.
The drama, which hails from Mexico and is in Spanish, Maya and English with English subtitles, was written and directed by Kerry Mondragón. The feature had its World Premiere earlier this month during the New Orleans Film Festival, where it screened both virtually and on Sunday, November 6 to a sold-out crowd at the city’s Broad Theater.
‘Wetiko,’ which, according to Native American culture, is an evil spirit of selfishness that invades human minds, follows Aapo as he’s hired to deliver hallucinogenic toads to a shamanic ritual in the jungle. He initially believes it’s a lucrative deal, until he arrives at the ritual site. Once there, he finds himself in the middle of a mutiny between the native Mayas and the euro-western spiritual seekers, who are led by a vampiric white shaman, Zake Zezo (Neil Sandilands).
Mondragón generously took the time during this month’s New Orleans Film Festival to talk about penning and helming ‘Wetiko’ during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he was in part inspired to scribe and direct the project as he witnessed the lifestyle of the indigenous people in Mexico while he was searching for his own identity through his ancestry and heritage in the country. He also mentioned that he thinks New Orleans was the perfect American city to premiere the feature during its film festival, as he institutionally feels that its culture closely represents the Maya culture that’s featured in the story.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new fantasy adventure movie, ‘Wetiko.’ What was your inspiration in penning the drama, and what was the scribing process like on the screenplay?
Kerry Mondragón (KM): The film was shot in Mexico, and I went out there after I finished my first film (the 2019 romantic Western, ‘Tyger Tyger’). I wasn’t intending on making another film right away.
But after a couple of months of being there, I started seeing things from an identity sort of way. In retrospect, I was looking for my own identity, being half Mexican and living on the border, and my grandparents living on the other side of the border. So I was always crossing different worlds and searching for a piece of myself.
So (the idea for the film) started with me getting invited to these moon rituals and this influencer culture that was out there in a specific part of Tulum. I saw a lot of things that felt like they were being made to look more beautiful in a plastic, veneer way with plant medicine. A lot of people go there for spiritual healing, but I saw that a profit was being made off of it.
So that’s what initially started the idea that that scared me. So I wondered what it would be like for a Maya young man, who’s indigenous to that area, to be forced to go and deliver medicine to one of these rituals, and then gets stuck there.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the film’s story was inspired by your time in Mexico, the story is also set there, and the project was shot there. How did you approach shooting the drama on location?
KM: I shot my last film, as well as this one, there. I think locations and people dictate my scripts. It was a time period where I actually lived with a Maya family, and lived in very close proximity to them. So I was with them daily over the course of two or three months. They’re actually in the film.
It was a clash of cultures, so as I was writing, it was like I was searching in myself. I thought, what a beautiful family this is, and I’ve never seen a family that didn’t have competition or fighting with each other. Seeing that was very healing for me at that time.
You then drive about 15 miles in the other direction and it’s just resorts, spiritualism and fake shamans. So I was writing the film as I was experiencing all of this, and wrote about what I was seeing and experiencing.
Then when I got in contact with the producer, he said, “Maybe I can come out and get some money to make it.” We then decided to make the film, and shoot on 16mm film, which was hard to do in the jungles of Mexico. That had its own logistical challenges.
SY: Besides writing the script, you also directed ‘Wetiko.’ How did penning the script influence your helming duties on the set? How did you approach your overall directorial duties throughout the production?
KM: That’s a really good question because I’m still in the process of doing it. I think of this film being extremely delicate. The delicacy of us shooting with people who have been indigenous to that land for thousands of years, who are so connected to the Earth and the jungle there, guided us.
So we were trying to minimize our footprint. We were aware of not bringing in technology that would really affect the lives of the indigenous people who live there.
We also decided to hire all of the crew from Mexico, particularly Mexico City. But we also hired locally in the Yucatán, as well.
SY: Speaking of working with locals while you shot the movie in Mexico, did you also cast the actors locally for the project? How did you decide which actors to feature in the film?
KM: That was also an interesting process because I knew I was going to shoot with the family.
While I was out there, there was also a movie that came out, (2019’s) ‘Ya no estoy aquí.’ It was released under the name ‘I’m No Longer Here’ in America. It’s a Netflix film with Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño and he just blew me away. So I thought, we have to find him because he is Aapo.
Before that, I also reached out to Dalia Xiuhcoatl, and she was being repped by this modeling agency. I did an interview with this magazine for my last film and I was going through it, and I saw her on stage, singing with this punk Azteca band. I thought she would be perfect for the Luz role. So they were the first two cast.
After that, we got Neil Sandilands from South Africa to play the character of the white faux shaman. From there, we got Bárbara de Regil, who’s famous in Mexico for starring in telenovelas and some other films. Jordan Barrett is a famous supermodel and the perfect influencer type, so he was perfect for the role (of Franky Whiteout).
SY: Once the actors signed on to star in ‘Wetiko,’ what was the process like of working with them to build their characters’ arcs?
KM: We were bringing two completely different worlds together, so at times, it didn’t even feel like I was directing them; it was more like being a chemist bringing different energy together to create an explosion.
Neil Sandilands brought in his own roots and heritage from South Africa. We also had the Mayas and Jordan Barrett from Australia, as well as everyone from Mexico City.
So I think it required a different way of working, as working with both professionals and non-professionals has its own methods. But this film is more delicate, just based on everyone’s level of experience, especially with the Maya family. The direction to them had to be done through a few different translations because they only speak Maya…So it was a very intense process.
We also shot in caves, where there a lot of beliefs about the underworld. So there were different rules that we had to abide by going into those caves; we had to bring offerings, and if you don’t, there are problems that happen. We experienced some of those problems.
There was also a hurricane that swept through our location while we were filming. We also had to break twice for COVID. So there were things outside of our control, that were almost on a spiritual level.
SY: You mentioned earlier that you shot the drama on 16mm film. What was your experience like of collaborating with the movie’s cinematographer, Carlos Gerardo García, to determine how you would visually shoot the project?
KM: I always wanted the film to feel like it was hand-crafted and made, or that was found in the jungle. So every shot shows the beauty and ugliness of the locations through the grain of the 16mm. There were various camera malfunctions that happened.
There was also the logistical challenges. Normally, you fly back every few days to watch the dailies. But on this film, we didn’t have the budget to fly someone out every few days, so I would go about two weeks without seeing dailies. So a lot of trust was put into Carlos.
But I always said, “We always need to be open to pulling the plug on the entire project at any moment if we feel like we’re doing something that’s turning us into that Wetiko.”
What that means to me is forcing ourselves onto something and needing something from the locals. It’s not that those things didn’t come up, but it was something that we had to talk about daily.
In the script, I also wrote: Helicopters, not drones. The camera department was able to get that, which is really cool. That’s what I think about when it comes to shooting films on 16mm.
SY: ‘Wetiko’ had its World premiere at this month’s New Orleans Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the drama premiered at the festival?
KM: It was incredible. Out of all cities in America, I like the culture out here. I had never been here before attending the festival, but I had an instinctual feeling that New Orleans was the perfect city to premiere this film.
There are a lot of similarities between the New Orleans, Haitian and Maya cultures. So I thought the film would connect better with audiences in New Orleans than out in Sweden, where I’m living now. A lot more people in New Orleans know about the plant medicines the characters talk about in the film than (in Sweden), for example.
So it has been a great experience bringing the film to New Orleans. It’s was also a learning experience for me, as I’ve never been to a film festival, so I felt the energy here. It feels very interactive and experimental here. It also felt like people had to decompress after the film, which was really cool.