Sundance Film Festival

Woody Allen's Chickpea-Sized Soul and Other Sources of Inspiration

Cary Fukunaga (SIN NOMBRE) rode the rails with illegal immigrants in Mexico… Sophie Barthes (COLD SOULS) had a dream about Woody Allen and a chickpea in a box… And Cruz Angeles (DON’T LET ME DROWN) overheard a group of Albanian teenagers in New York City cracking jokes about 9/11…

The inspiration for a film can come from all sorts of places, as these examples from a conversation at the Filmmakers’ Lodge this morning can attest. The three first-time feature-length filmmakers, plus Eran Merav (ZION AND HIS BROTHER), shared their experiences as writer-directors with a criminally sparse audience—not in the anorexia sense—at the final Cinema Café, a new and underappreciated series that has left the rest of the festival’s off-screen programming in the dust.

Fukanaga spent several months in Chiapas, Mexico, doing research for his film about a Honduran teenager who train-hops across Mexico toward the U.S. border. His “research”: visiting prisons to interview gang members and traveling exactly as his central character, Sayra, does.

“It’s gruesome what happens to these immigrants when they fall off these trains,” he said. “I met a 16-year-old, for instance, who had lost both her legs above the knees.”

Fukanaga faced much of the same dangers as Sayra, including gangs and bandits. He described leaving Chiapas at 2 a.m., fireflies drifting by the train. “I was like, ‘Oh this is peaceful, a hobo on a freight train,’” he said, “and then pow pow pow—gunshots probably no more than 50 feet away.” They all climbed off the rooftop, waited, “and everyone sort of jumped back on the train and that was it.”

Except for the young Guatemalan man killed that night by bandits who had demanded his money. “He didn’t want to do it,” said Fukanaga, “so they killed him and threw him off the train—and that was it.”

Barthes’ material, by contrast, came from her subconscious. In 2005, she had a dream about standing in a futuristic white office, holding a white box containing her soul. “Woody Allen was also there,” holding a box, she said. (In the days before the dream she had watched SLEEPER and read Carl Jung’s “Modern Man in Search of a Soul.”)

Inside Allen’s box: a chickpea. When she opened her box, the dream ended. The result, though, was COLD SOULS, in which Paul Giamatti, playing himself, hires a high-tech company to extract and deep-freeze his soul. The company then lends his soul to a soap-opera actress whom he then chases to Russia.

Cruz, whose film portrays two teenagers who fall in love shortly after 9/11, drew inspiration from his everyday life working with kids in the South Bronx and Washington Heights. When he heard the Albanians laughing about 9/11, he was bothered… until someone explained to him what it’s like to grow up in a war-torn country. “When you’re young—or even when you’re old—and going through some rough times,” he was told, “love and laughter is a good medicine.”

Cruz also took material from his family, which carries a certain risk.

“My mom was embarrassed and walked out of the screening,” he said, “because [the film] hit too close to home.”