Rivera crossing: 'Sleep Dealer' filmmaker Alex Rivera reflects on budget sci-fi and world issues during the San Francisco International. (Photo by Pat Mazzera)

Q&A: Alex Rivera, 'Sleep Dealer'

Michael Guillen May 14, 2008

Alex Rivera’s debut feature Sleep Dealer was developed at the 2000 and 2001 Sundance Institute Feature Film Program labs and won the 2002 Sundance/NHK award and a 2004 Annenberg Feature Film Fellowship. It then moved on to win two major awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Rivera and David Riker won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for outstanding achievement for their screenplay and Sleep Dealer was also the recipient of this year’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize. The Prize, which carries a $20,000 cash award to the filmmaker provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is presented to an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character. Sleep Dealer was selected "for its visionary and humane tale of a young man grappling with a technological future in which neural implants, telerobotics and ubiquitous computing serve a global economy rife with fundamental challenges and opportunities, and for its powerful and original storytelling and direction."

While screening as part of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, the U.S. distribution rights for Sleep Dealer were picked up by Maya Releasing, which intends a theatrical distribution in February 2009. This decision was being reached even as the charmingly kinetic Alex Rivera and I sat down to discuss his film.

SF360.org: First and foremost, congratulations on your double win at Sundance.

Alex Rivera: Thank you.

SF360.org: You’ve been affiliated with Sundance—via the Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab—close to 10 years, have you not?

Rivera: For me it’s been about 10 years, but with Sundance it’s actually been pretty short: only an eight-year relationship. [Laughs.] Only a tiny sliver of the process was shared with them; it’s only been eight years.

SF360.org: Can you talk about that Sundance process? How you developed the script with them? What differentiates the Directors Lab from the Screenwriters Lab?

Rivera: I guess the first thing to say is that I never studied film. I studied political theory and documentary in college. When I got out of college and started making short films, they existed really in the art world. They played at MOMA, in galleries, on experimental showcases, on PBS….

SF360.org: And here locally at the Pacific Film Archives, I understand?

Rivera: At PFA, exactly. It was meeting Sundance the institution that really leveraged my project out of the grant-driven art world into this world of Independent film with the capital "I." Through Sundance I met my producer. Ultimately that led me to an investor. Sundance was the pivotal step on my path from working in microcinema in an art type of way into working with a real budget on a path that would eventually take the film to the real theatrical release it will have in the winter.

SF360.org: And real critical scrutiny.

Rivera: Yeah! Real critical scrutiny, of course! So that’s the first thing to say. In terms of my project’s development, Sundance played this role of spinning me from one world into another. The writers lab, and then the directors lab, were both crucial film-school-on-speed experiences for me. Since I hadn’t worked with actors, since I hadn’t ever written a script before, the Sundance labs were all I had. For me they were transformational on both a creative level and as a learning process, as well as on a strategic level in terms of connecting to producers and financing.

SF360.org: Did it surprise you to win your two prizes?

Rivera: Absolutely! Every time this project jumps over a little hurdle and gets to another level, I’m always shocked because it’s a film that—by all normal standards—really shouldn’t have ever gotten made. It’s a weird concept. It’s not a star-driven film. It’s from a first-time director. It’s in Spanish. The main character is a would-be immigrant but in a science fiction genre that would never consider that character to exist. There are so many things about the film that make it challenging and hard to imagine becoming a reality. To get it financed was a shock. To make it to Sundance was a shock. And then to win the awards was the last in a series of really wonderful shocks.

SF360.org: In conversation with Steve Seid at PFA, he indicated
Sleep Dealer continued the thematic preoccupations of your earlier films Papapapá and Why Cybraceros? Can you speak about that through line?

Rivera: When you’re setting out to make films, you don’t know the through line in advance. In my case, I’ve made 15 short films over the last 15 years and I can look back and see commonalities and through lines. What unites all of the work is a fascination or concern with the way the world is becoming connected and shrunk down. It’s happening in several ways. One is through technology, which we all know is connecting the planet both through trade and information that gets zapped around the planet, but also through migration. People—often using technology as transportation and communication—are able to move a lot faster around this world. So you have these two phenomena: the world getting connected through technology and another of masses of people moving around the world and migrating, most often to work. All of my films are looking at that intersection.

All of the work also has been part of a search for a way to use film language to talk about immigration and assimilation, border issues, globalization; to talk about all these big and abstract concepts through visual language. In almost all of the films I use visual metaphors. In Papapapá I compared my dad’s journey from Peru to America with the journey of the potato through the conquest to America. In Spanish the potato is papa; and father is papá. My dad and this tuber, both of them of Inca descent, both of them ending up in America where my dad becomes a Peruvian couch potato and the two stories merge. But the film was about immigration to America and how America transforms the people who arrive. I told the story through this visual metaphor comparing him to a potato. In all my work you see this flailing attempt to visually talk about giant historical and economic forces that are shaping millions and millions of lives around the planet but that are very hard to get in front of the camera.

SF360.org: Language is keen in
Sleep Dealer, not only the visual language but much of the film’s humor lies in its puns—_coyotek_ and drinking teki; cybraceros and (my favorite!) ‘live node girls‘—these reminded me of the lexical delinquency and ‘border spectacle’ of Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Is he one of your influences?

Rivera: Absolutely! I’ve watched Guillermo’s Naftazteca and the Mexterminator and read both his writing and Coco Fusco’s writing and am familiar with the work of Lalo Alcaraz, who does "La Cucaracha":http://www.sfbg.com/39/01/art_art_la_cucaracha.html, plus "Pocho Magazine": from the ’90s. Chicano and Latino artists who were pushing into new ground, tearing the language apart, writing border theory, were absolutely influential on me from the beginning. Other Bay Area artists were also influential: Craig Baldwin and his collage aesthetic was a major influence on my work, especially Sleep Dealer. Since we had such a low budget, to get the breadth of images we needed I often turned to stock footage. A lot of times in imperceptible ways Sleep Dealer is a collage film. There are aerial images, images of satellites, images of ground battle, a lot of images I could never produce and so I harvested them from the Web and from archives. So, yes, I was influenced by Latino artists working on the border and then artists of all backgrounds who were tearing up the edges of the form and doing new things.

SF360.org: I was delighted when—in your Filmmaker interview with Jason Guerrasio—you applied rasquachismo to Sleep Dealer, dubbing it "rasquache sci-fi", which serves to underscore your characterization of the film as a collage film. That’s so cool.

Rivera: Right on. There’s a lot of writing and awareness about the way that so-called minority communities use sampling, whether it’s in hip-hop or the recycled imagery of Pocho Magazine or the more traditional definition of what’s rasquache: somebody fixing up an old car with pieces from three other old cars; a collage aesthetic of the street. People without resources always turn to recycling and repurposing, making new dreams out of old materials. It’s ingrained in our spirit of survival, resistance and innovation. Sleep Dealer is polished up—it did have a budget, we did do a lot of original photography, we did our sound at Skywalker Sound, the film was realized at a relatively high level—but, to push it as far as we did, I absolutely turned to the old strategy of rasquachismo.

SF360.org: Let’s discuss the qualified critical response to
Sleep Dealer. What has been repeatedly written are acknowledgments of your bravery and your ambition coupled with backhanded slaps criticizing that the film fails to achieve a level of CGI sophistication sufficient to engage sci-fi enthusiasts. I don’t quite agree. Despite a limited special effects budget, I consider Sleep Dealer precisely brave for challenging audiences to reconfigure their appetites about sci-fi. To endeavor an independent sci-fi feature is thoroughly ambitious. What are you, crazy?

Rivera: [Laughs.] Yes! Though there are definitely some antecedents. Pi on one end. Gattaca on another. Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. Tetsuo Iron Man. There is a history of independent sci-fi. That said, I do think I was fairly mad to try to pull this off. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t know what the concept of a film budget was. When I wrote the script, I was writing things that were basically impossible to do on any budget I could ever have. So when we started to charge into the process of making the film, it really was this huge process of hitting an obstacle here, this whole set of locations are just impossible, this whole set you wanted we can’t do that, in the scene where you needed 20 people how about you get four? It felt like we were going off over a cliff into this impossible territory. This project could only have been pulled off by someone who didn’t know any better. It was partly brave, I guess, but mainly naive. [Laughs.] But what you’re saying about science fiction and the critical response to this film is really interesting because—from my point of view—I think that most people that are drawn to science fiction are drawn to the ideas and drawn to the chance to think about the future, to be provoked to think about the future. The most memorable things about Blade Runner is the ambiance of the world, this part-Chinese, part-Chicano future where robot slaves are rebelling. It’s the stew of the future and getting to see that which draws us into science fiction. Sleep Dealer is competitive with any sci-fi at that level. Its ideas of the future are more true, I think, than the ideas in Blade Runner.

SF360.org: I’ve long felt that the futuristic city depicted in
Blade Runner is a false city because we all know it would be more Chicano than Chinese; it’s ethnically imprecise.

Rivera: [Laughs.] Exactly. But Blade Runner and so many other science fictions tell us about a future where robots are built to work and all of a sudden they rebel and want to kill people. Then Harrison Ford or Will Smith or somebody has to kill the robots. Intellectually, that’s what they give us. What Sleep Dealer gives us is a lot more true. It’s a lot more real and a lot more imaginable. In terms of the ideas, Sleep Dealer is competitive with any science fiction film. Now, it’s a first film and a film that was realized with a low budget and so the effects aren’t going to be Hollywood effects. The filmmaking is a first attempt. It’s a homemade, hand-made science fiction and I’m placing a bet that the audience will go along for the ride because the ideas are worth thinking about and talking about.

SF360.org: It’s certainly eligible for word-of-mouth cult status and a prolonged DVD shelf life. My concern is that the people who appreciate the science fiction of ideas might not be the same audience spoonfed on summer blockbuster special effects extravaganzas. I hope that audiences will suspend those appetites long enough to play with the film, to return to an innocent suspension of disbelief, much like I accepted the minimal special effects in black and white films from the ’50s where there were giant ants or whatnot, implausible but entertaining. I’m very intrigued to see what will happen with
Sleep Dealer when it’s released theatrically. How have your festival audiences responded so far?

Rivera: The audiences in person have been tremendous. And they’ve been varied. Sometimes they’re really warm and enthusiastic, everyone stays for the Q&A, and other times it’s a little colder. What’s been interesting is watching the official press. The New York Times was extremely positive on the film. The Hollywood Reporter, Wired Magazine, indieWIRE: We’ve gotten a ton of recognition for the ideas and for the spirit and for the craft of the film. The blog response is where people are speaking more freely about it and the impressions on the Net are much more textured. There are people who are attacking it, people who are defending it, but as we take the film out theatrically—which will happen in the winter—that’s what we’re going for. It’s okay if it’s divisive. So long as people are debating it and enough people get the ideas so they can fight about them, that’s a great achievement for a film.

SF360.org: There is an inherent debate structured into this film and I believe it’s a debate that should be encouraged. We need to be retrained about what we accept from movies, not just what we expect from science fiction. I’m tired of movies that don’t allow me to think. So let’s look at some of the ideas in
Sleep Dealer. One of the ideas buttressing the film’s mise en scène is that of the ‘near-future.’ Can you speak to that?

Rivera: Almost everyone who imagines the future in science fiction literature and science fiction cinema does so because they want to think about the present in a fresh way. They want to reach an audience that a documentary or a news story wouldn’t reach. To think about the future is to open up a space of possibility and it’s something that has never happened in science fiction cinema in the Global South. We’ve only seen the future in Los Angeles, in New York, London, but we’ve never seen the future of Mexico City or Bombay or Jakarta. It’s never been on film, ever. For me, the process of imagining the future from the point of view of the Global South is a radical, empowering gesture. That was one of the seminal concepts of the film: to shift that point of view; to say the future belongs to everybody, right?

Why did it become a ‘near-future?’ The film is set in the future but it’s explicitly about what’s happening today. I didn’t want to go to 2500 because I don’t know if we’ll all be here by then; but, 2015? 2020? 2025? We’re in an interesting time. Just imagining five years, ten years into the future.

SF360.org: I think the Maya give us until 2012. I’m all ready to go.

Rivera: [Laughs.] Exactly! The end of the John McCain administration! It’ll be all over! [Laughs.] Another thing that the film does is it harvests real events that are already happening, things that already happened yesterday, a year ago, that we haven’t seen represented. It repackages what is news, what are contemporary events, in the genre of science fiction. For example, the issue of drones—the idea that a pilot could be on the ground flying a remote control robotic bomber somewhere around the world and making life and death decisions in the style of a video game—well, that started happening four years ago in the war on Afghanistan. That’s yesterday’s news; but, by any stretch of the imagination, it is science fiction. It is the world that movies like The Terminator put forward of robot armies obliterating peasant populations on the other side of the planet. This is our reality today. The ‘near-future’ of Sleep Dealer is made up of some predictions and then some almost documentary elements from the present. The idea is to make it all look and feel as absurd as it is.

SF360.org: Whereas several folks have commented that
Sleep Dealer reminds them of Blade Runner, it reminded me of Gregory Nava’s El Norte with the interesting twist that the only way you can get there is as a disembodied cybracero. They don’t get to go and be miserable in San Diego; they get to go and be miserable in Tijuana. It’s my understanding this element of the extracted labor developed from your earlier film Why Cybraceros? Where did this idea of virtual labor come from for you?

Rivera: Two things. The film is very much inspired—in terms of plot—by El Norte; but, also by Star Wars. Something dawned on me when I realized those were two of my favorite films. I started to think about the character of Luke Skywalker and how he’s a peasant farmer in the beginning of the movie whose home is destroyed by an imperial army and who has to flee that army and its destruction. He goes on this journey. That’s the exact same first act as El Norte, where the main character is a peasant farmer in Guatemala whose home is destroyed by an imperial army—the CIA-backed death squads—and who has to flee. For me it was some kind of revelation about the hero’s journey and stories of migration and the possibilities of genre when I saw that El Norte and Star Wars had similar structures. That’s one thing.

And then the idea of the remote laborer came to me in the 1990s when the Internet was being pioneered and there was a lot of utopian dreaming about what the net would do for society. One of the things people were talking about was telecommuting, saying soon everybody could work from home. I started to think about my family and people like my dad who migrated 3,000 miles to work. I started thinking, ‘What if my dad could work from home? What if migrant farm workers who travel from Mexico to the U.S. to work in the fields could work from home?’ I came up with this idea of workers who would physically stay in the South who would connect to a network and whose pure labor would cross the border to control machines in the North. Their pure labor traveled to the U.S. but their bodies stayed out. So it started as a kind of critique of the Internet utopianism but then slowly it started to reveal itself as a prediction when the call centers in India came online and all of a sudden America had this experience of dealing with people on an everyday basis who are, in effect, working in America but halfway around the world.

SF360.org: And they know more about my computer than I do!

Rivera: They know more about our lives than we do! [Laughs.] They process our parking tickets and all kinds of stuff. So what started as political satire ended up being a way to think about globalization and a world that is summarily connected by technology but divided by borders.

SF360.org: It’s a fascinating, disturbing concept. What lies at the heart of your film is its indigenous integrity. At a time when so much is being wiped out, one species after the other, the indigenous is another facet of diversity that is being systematically eliminated. This heart of indigenous integrity is personified to a ‘T’ in Luis Fernando Peña
’s winning performance as Memo. I understand he’s also starring in Rodrigo Plá‘s Desierto Adentro? He’s a rising star on the Mexican film scene. How did you score his performance?

Rivera: Being a first-time director I absolutely wanted to work with as many experienced people around me as I could and so—with the cast—I wanted actors who had been through it before, who I could dialogue with, and who would bring a strong vision to the project. Luis Fernando Peña a is one of Mexico’s great young actors. Before my film he was in about five features. He’s got an incredible sympathetic face, big heavy eyes, like a young Javier Bardem, and I feel really lucky to have worked with him.

SF360.org: Has the film screened in Mexico?

Rivera: No, it hasn’t. I hope we’ll do our premiere there soon. I’m looking forward to it.

SF360.org: I know this is a horrible question, but I’m curious: What are you working on next?

Rivera: I plan on making another feature. The things that are calling my attention are, strangely, near-future projects. I have a couple more cross-border global concepts for science fictions. Then I’m also inspired by ‘recent-history.’ Other influences include the early films of Oliver Stone that used a lush, experimental visual style to tell true histories. I’ve been looking backward at historical narratives and forward into these imagined futures. Right now these ideas are just seeds but that’s what I’m interested in.

SF360.org: I’m aware you bill yourself as a multi-media digital artist and that—even though you are now also a filmmaker—that you keep a firm grasp on the other.

Rivera: The only way I got Sleep Dealer done as a result of a 10-year struggle was to have a sketch pad on the side. I had the big project Sleep Dealer and I wrote it and had concept art and did location scouting, was building it slowly and getting all the relationships in place, and then on the side I was sketching, making web pages, making short films, making installations, to stay prolific, to not get depressed, and I find that to be a really good way to work. I plan to continue doing that. To make some small work that I can get done quickly, that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, and then keep pushing these bigger dreams and, hopefully, the bigger ones will come faster now that this film has been done.