Sandoval’s The Devil’s Son is folklorish in its inception, magical in its setting and invigorating in its narration. A cross between magical realism and ancient myths, the film is a spectacular testament of its filmmaker’s calibre – Mr. Sandoval, who takes us through his journey of bringing The Devil’s Son to light.
- How did you conceive this story? Were its seeds sown in any of the staple myths you grew up hearing?
Like many stories, this story came from personal heartbreak and pain. The process of letting my wounds heal led me to a path of reflection and growth. In my reflection, I learned to let go and to not let a trauma control my life. I learned this lesson through heartbreak and in my desire to convey this lesson, I thought, what better way to convey it than with a fairy tale?
I always loved how fairy tales use fantastical elements to ultimately teach the viewer a lesson. These lessons can be basic like love conquers all or greed breeds monstrosity. I wanted to teach a more complex lesson: sometimes loving someone means having to let them go…
When I started to write The Devil’s Son, I didn’t want to adapt an established fairy tale, I wanted to create my own fairy tale with my own moral lesson. I looked back on my time living in Mexico when I first heard the story of “La Llorona” and took examples from my community’s respect and celebration of the dead. Talks of speaking to spirits or seeing ghosts roam the woods, frightened me and fascinated me. There was also a belief that animals carried spirits. This energy of living and breathing amongst spirits is one of the biggest takeaways from my time in Mexico. I always wanted to translate this supernatural energy onto the screen and I got the chance to do so with The Devil’s Son.
- How did you arrive at the decision of using animation at the start? It was very effective in the narration.
Executing a story with complex characters, rich themes, and to also be entertaining is tough. It’s especially tougher in the short form. The storytelling needs to be concise, efficient, and every single frame needs to evoke something meaningful. No image can be wasted. With this in mind, I knew the movie would start with an animated prologue because it gave the necessary exposition for audiences to get invested in the story and characters.
I wanted the viewer to immediately understand the circumstances because, from my experience, there’s nothing that viewers hate more than feeling confused. At the same time, viewers want to be entertained and not feel like they’re being told a story. It was risky and tricky to start the movie this way because I could turn off so many viewers. But I was confident in my abilities to capture an entertaining and cool prologue.
I modelled the prologues from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The animation also needed to make the viewer feel like they are being transported into the world of The Devil’s Son. I worked together with Ben Judd, a truly gifted illustrator, who elevated the prologue to command so much respect and attention. It was about a 4-month process of working on the illustrations and then handing it to Brant Duncan, the Visual Effects Supervisor, to add fluid movement from illustration to illustration. When I saw the completed prologue for the first time, I was overcome with so much joy and so much pride.
- What made you jab the conventional narrative? Didn’t you think it would be risky considering the genre?
Since the moral lesson of the film is sometimes loving someone means having to let them go, it had to end with Pedro letting Rosa go. A conventional “happily ever after” ending didn’t make sense for The Devil’s Son because Pedro and Rosa are broken people whose needs don’t match. Pedro needs to let go of the past and not be afraid of expressing love. Rosa needs to regain the humanity that was torn from her and start a completely new life. Pedro and Rosa’s needs do not align. Some viewers have told me they found the ending to be too sombre. That wasn’t my intention. I simply wanted to put more value into the expression of love. Was it risky? Absolutely. The same viewers who found the ending too sombre wanted a conventional ending where everyone is happy in the end. I went against the norm because I wanted the audience to walk away thinking differently about what love means. With that said, I didn’t set out to make a different ending for the sake of being different.
It was well-intended and thought out. When I look at most of the Disney fairy tales, women are viewed as love objects and men fight over them like property. At the end of The Devil’s Son, Rosa is no longer Lukas’ object. She’s a free woman. Finally, for the rest time in her life, she’s able to make her own choices. Rosa no longer has to abide by men’s rules and yes it was Pedro, a man, who fought for her freedom, but he was an ally. I want male viewers to see themselves as allies to women and help de-construct a toxic male-dominated world. Like Pedro, it starts by helping women – not trying to hurt them, not seeing them as less than themselves, and especially not trying to own them like a trophy.
- The story engages one on multiple levels. There’s greed, power, enticement and liberation for all the characters. Was it easy conjuring them up? After all, they’re all equally a victim to their circumstances.
This is a great question and I’m glad you understood and recognized these layers in the story. I think what defines whether a person is inherently good or bad is how they react to broken circumstances. When someone is broken, they can become selfless, like Pedro, or selfish, like Lukas. I think we find Rosa, also broken, at a crossroads. Is she a good or bad person? I think if Pedro failed to help her, she would’ve turned out to be just as cruel as Lukas. Why? Because hatred feeds hatred. I think Pedro helped her down a path of goodness. It was challenging conjuring these characters because the viewer needs to feel the weight of these people on screen. To add weight, I had to go through several rewrites to uncover and solidify the beauty and the darkness to the characters.
- How important is a location for your filming? The Devil’s Son could have been set anywhere remote and isolated. But, you chose the ranch. Please share your relationship with stories and their settings.
I originally wanted to film this in Mexico, but budgetary limitations prevented us from doing so. I drove around with my producers Ericka de Alexander, Mehmet Gungoren, and Sam Frickleton looking for poor desolate ranch houses. I certainly had a vision of the house in my head, but it became clear I would have to compromise. I wasn’t happy with what I was finding until we scouted Big Sky Ranch. I wanted to give the final call to one of my closest friends and constant collaborator, Emre Okten (Director of Photography).
Emre is one of the most brilliant and talented people I’ve ever met. Not only does he have a special eye for cinematography, but he also has a special gift in telling stories. Emre saw Big Sky Ranch and as he thought about all the possibilities, he flashed me a smile. And, so, Big Sky Ranch chose us.
Emre and I started to construct the scenes with this location in mind. I didn’t envision Big Sky Ranch when I initially came up with the film, but incorporating this house and barn were so damn cool. It felt like Mexico. The location was absolutely a key in capturing the story and I’m grateful Emre was able to squeeze as much magic out of it.
- The suffering isn’t just physical for the characters in your film. It’s psychological, mental, emotional and physical. Prosthetics can only help to some extent. What else do you rely on to help your actors immerse themselves into such emotions?
Costumes! Luke Hong did a stellar job designing and creating the costumes for the film. When the actors would put on their costumes, it transported them to a different era AND helped them get into character. Riccardo Dalmacci (Lukas) put on this great red and black suit that allowed him to easily transform into a sadistic madman. Eduardo Roman (Pedro) has a compassionate presence and this softness was complimented by dressing him up in light colours. Malili Dib (Rosa) wore clothes that never belonged to her, a trophy-like golden dress and Pedro’s mother’s dress, which translates to Rosa not having an identity of her own.
Towards the end, she’s no longer “dolled up” and wears clothes of her choosing because she’s finally free to be herself. Now costumes obviously helped the actors, but nothing can replace their dedication and raw talent. My job as a director is to give actors every tool available so they can perform to the best of their abilities. It’s not easy to ask actors to be vulnerable and they need to feel safe and supported. It was important to do rehearsals so the actors could feel they could explore, ask questions, and go into production feeling confident. That confidence would lead to trust and, in turn, they would feel comfortable being vulnerable. At the end of the day, they are leading the ship and all I can do is guide them the best way I can. I’m grateful for their beautiful work on the film.
- You explored a wonderful aspect of love in The Devil’s Son. What shade of love do you find most fascinating; worth exploring for the screen?
To borrow from one of the great master filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, it’s all about the expression of love. When one feels love towards someone, whether it is romantic or not, it’s a feeling filled with so much of compassion, affection, and connection. It’s a powerful feeling meaning that an individual is understood or seen. Love embodies all these positive and powerful emotions of connection, but what happens if you can’t connect? As you can tell with The Devil’s Son, I’m fascinated by unrequited love. Not only because I’ve had personal experience with it, but I feel like it’s a pain that’s never talked about. Everyone in their life, at some point, will experience unrequited love and it’s a unique pain.
In the film, unrequited love is usually depicted as one person becoming a stalker and obsessive over someone he/she loves who doesn’t want to return the love. We’ve seen dark examples of unrequited love in Play Misty for Me or Fear. Hey, I get it. Watching a psycho lose his/her mind over someone is entertaining, but unrequited love isn’t sinister.
Unrequited love is confusing and painful. You have all these positive emotions ready to give, but when it’s rejected, all you can do is sit with your rejection and feel like your emotions are simply wrong. It’s an odd feeling to feel both like you want to love and yet guilty for feeling them in the first place. It was sitting with these emotions that I started to tear myself down and feel shame for wanting to love. This complex feeling towards love is what I wanted to convey in The Devil’s Son by focusing more on the expression of love as opposed to love being received.
- Filmmaking can’t only be liberating. Stories such as these call for more than your time and energy. How do you detach yourself a project like that, once it’s done?
I had a tougher time letting go of projects when I was younger, but my 5th-grade elementary school teacher, Mr. Dale Rhymer, who I remain lifelong friends with, told me something that made perfect sense. (Dale is also an artist and a gifted painter, by the way.) We talked about the process of creation and he said: “the art happens when you’re making it, but once it’s complete, the art is finished .” This seems obvious, but for my younger self, it opened my eyes and helped me detach from projects. I used to become obsessed with my films and, even after they were completed, I would still try and work on them. I needed to let them go. Now, once a film is complete, I simply move on to create something else. It also helps me to just keep pushing forward and find the next great artistic adventure.
- The Devil’s Son began and ended on the utterance of a curse and the granting of a boon. What boon would you wish for in your career, if you had the chance?
The boon I would like for my career is for someone to take a chance on me so, like Pedro, I can unleash my power. As a director, you need a group of people who believe in you and want to work with you.
A film is a collaborative art and I want to attract great filmmakers to work with me. In addition, the success of my career hinges on audiences loving my work. I’m a firm believer in Steve Martin’s quote “Be so good they can’t ignore you” and that’s what I want The Devil’s Son to be for me. Even if The Devil’s Son doesn’t turn out to be a catalyst, I will keep trying and trying until audiences finally can view my work and, hopefully, be so good they can’t ignore me.
- All your films deal with complex, psychological issues. Specifically, what about the human mind fascinates you so much? And, why?
I’ve had my personal psychological battles and coming out of those battles made me humble and wiser. The human condition is filled with many complexities and I’ve learned the world is grey, not black and white. I want to show more stories that explore the greyness in all aspects of life. I want to explore that which is not tangible.
I took inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and his belief that cinema is an art form that should be utilized when the written word or a singular image is not enough to evoke deep emotional layers. Cinema should access the part of the human condition that can’t be described, only felt. I want viewers to watch my films and be moved into something they hadn’t felt before or didn’t know they hadn’t felt. If through cinema, I can somehow challenge the viewer or connect with them emotionally, then I will have fulfilled my purpose.
Personal, honest and deep, Ernesto Sandoval’s works are a reflection of his beliefs and aspirations. His recent short The Devil’s Son, recipient of multiple awards across several platforms is one such film. With several more lined up for screening in the near future, Sandoval has his hands full; and we thank him for his time and this opportunity to discuss a very unique film and its multilayered characters.