It is said that history is written by the victors, but so too then is a society’s future culture as centuries old traditions are supplanted by conquers, severing ties to beliefs and practices which had previously been passed from generation to generation. Drawing on a background in anthropology, New Zealand filmmaker Dan Sadgrove’s lyrical short A Dream Dressed in Black, looks to Mexico’s pre-conquistador past to imagine how the traditions of old would present themselves today if they had survived the onslaught of colonisation. Enthralled by this poetic ‘what if…’ take on Mexico’s indigenous population, DN invited Dan to tell us how he crafted this present that never was.
The seed behind the idea of this film was planted whilst I was sitting in a cafe in Mexico. I had been living there for a while and someone asked me if I knew the extraordinary history of Mexico. Somewhat ashamedly I said I did not. So I asked a local friend who recommended I should start with Aztec by Gary Jennings. A volumnous historical fiction book based around the time of Cortes the conquistador and the dramatic changes Mexico undertook during the overthrowing of Mexico by the Spanish invadors, chronicled over the lifespan of an Aztec called Mixtli-Dark Cloud. Absorbed by this book I went through every other book written during the conquest that I could get my hands on. The Broken Spears by Leon Portilla Miguel, Exodus Lost by S.C Compton, The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico by Lewis Spence, Mexico: Sunlight and Shadows by Michael Hogan, Fire and Blood by T.R Fehrenbach, Mexico Profundo by Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, plus poetry books like The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo and Cantares Mexicanos including an untold amount of Nahatul and Aztec poetry from the 16th century.
Most of my film ideas come from books, and one theme I found whilst reading about Mexico – an ancient culture buried – followed a very similar thread to what I found studying Anthropology in the Pacific during my time at University. That many, if not all, of the the islands culture and religions were crushed via colonialism.
Mexico used to be on the richest nations in the world. Why do they now speak Spanish and practise Roman Catholicism? This phenomena of conquest is not unique to Mexico, it has happened all throughout history to probably every country on Earth several times over, but what makes Mexico unique? The fact that in their religion they prayed to both gods and monsters.
Through these books I began to build the basic genesis behind the film – what would Mexico be like today if the conquistadors didn’t arrive – and it was Quetzalcoatl, an old Mexican god, arriving on the shores like Moctezuma II had mistakenly believed.
Once I had this idea I started forming different stories to go into the film. These ideas morphed into something else over the course of production and the result has become a somewhat fractured narrative of this idea. I won’t explain my interpretation here as I feel it might cheat the audience of theirs but it was in the edit where the new story was largely shaped thanks to the hard work and talent of Grason Caldwell at Parallax Post.
The initial treatment (which you can read below) shows some of the imagery I looked at for inspiration and the original working title Black Land Red Land which was based on the idea that the Aztec originally came from Egypt.
The treatment helped me shaped some idea about the production that I tried to adopt, but without many of the absolutes of filmmaking afforded to those with a greater scale of budget I had to temper my ideas to fit into a smaller scope. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think you can gleam a richer experience for this sort of problem solving that is probably inherent in all forms of filmmaking. Finding creative solutions from prohibitive restrictions can only add to your experience.
My creative intent often overrun my producer side. It’s hard to say no when you know it will benefit the production.
Through production I ended up wearing a few different hats aside from director, much more than I am used to. Being an independent filmmaker unfortunately doesn’t give me many options but I was grateful to a lot of people throughout Mexico and mainly in Sayulita who lent me their talent and services for this project, most often for free, to whom I will always be indebted to.
All of their contributions were immense but the two people who helped drive this project on the ground were Brenda Zamudio and Jesus Franco who spent a month and more with me trying to get this all together. From location scouting, street casting, prop and costume hunting, to going to Mexico City and visiting Teotihuacan and the Museums to gather a greater appreciation and find more inspiration.
It was extremely important for me for the all Mexican cast and crew to believe in the idea. Do they feel lost without a history of their own to cling to? Without their support and faith in the project there would be no going forward. Once I knew I had their support I felt much more confident in making this film.
This was around March 2016 when this all started happening. I spent a few months designing and making the headdresses that the Nahautl priests wore. Eventually I settled on 2 after trying 6 different iterations. They look pretty different to what is traditionally worn in Mexico and that was by design. I didn’t want to copy the Aztec headdresses that are prevalent today, but still based on designs from 500 years ago, instead I tried to think of how the art and costume might have evolved to today.
My friend Nick Fuller at Stink LA helped me find Kenji Katori, a Mexican DP who was keen to shoot and he bought along a great steadicam operator Juan Ramos who had a short break from working on the Fear the Walking Dead series. They found camera assistants and our crew began to take shape though I was starting to feel like I was getting in over my head.
The camera equipment was organised with help from Ihxel Perez at The Lift production company and we shot with an Arri Alexa with Kowa Anamorphics through Angela Herrera at EFD who gave us a great discount. Normally my films are made with whatever I can get my hands on at the time, a Sony A7, Canon 5D, a RED epic. The whole production was a gigantic leap for me personally, I normally shoot on my own or with one or two other people and the budget was spiralling out of control. I imagine this is probably a normal occurrence when someone is both the director and producer at the same time. My creative intent often overruns my producer’s. It’s hard to say no when you know it will benefit the production. With these rising costs I ended up asking a friend for a loan. I guess if you believe in something you find any way to make it work.
Production took place in June 2016 over 4 afternoons and evenings. Like I am sure most productions experience there were a lot of problems throughout. Salvaging ideas when things were falling to pieces. The only Maize field within a 100 miles of Sayulita was razed 3 days before we were going to shoot. This was quite a blow as it changed the main narrative behind two characters. It rained for the first time in over 6 months when we were supposed to shoot an exterior scene. The abandoned house had a roof put in place and all the walls were painted white in between scouting and our shoot day. If everything had gone right I am sure the film would probably have been a lot more straight forward narratively and not so abstractly conceptual.
When you are begging and borrowing and on your own you become really good at being patient.
From the shoot until post took about 17 months which is way too long for such a small and insignificant film, but when you are begging and borrowing and on your own you become really good at being patient. You also become really good at handling rejection and moving on quickly until someone says yes. If you keep your vision intact and believe in your idea the ghosting and rejection never really matters.
The reason post took so long was immediately after the shoot I spent six months filming and finishing my documentary short The Rhino Guardians. It took several months to track down a Nahuatl speaker. I tried professors, teachers, language experts, poets, anyone I could think of. In the end it was Ana Gabriel Rues from the town we filmed in who recorded it all on Whatsapp over a few nights. Darri contributed an enormous amount of English voiceover from his home in Iceland, and it was such a shame but we only used a few lines. We also recorded a Zapotec poem in Spanish to finish the film, but I made the decision on the final cut to have an almost single influence of Nahuatl throughout.
Ultimately this film got made with a lot of hard work, perseverance and luck and I am immensely proud of it and to all of the people of Sayulita who came together for it.
I have managed to move the goalposts of what I thought was impossible further into the distance. It was an extremely valuable lesson in many forms of filmmaking outside of directing. From producing, costume making, scouting, researching and more, I gained a lot of confidence that I hope to improve on moving forward in my next project. Maybe I’ll have the support of a production company or a producer who believes in me, but for now I will try to move the goalposts again with the help of anyone who wants to join in.