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How the Tiger King of Mexico Helped Make the New Canadian Film ‘Drunken Birds’ (Video)

TheWrap Screening Series: Director Ivan Grbovic and cinematographer Sara Mishara discuss the making of ‘Drunken Birds’ drama

“Drunken Birds,” Canada’s official selection for Best International Film at next year’s Oscars, is a love story told in a dazzling, unexpected style. Mexican drug cartel minion Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero, the bad boyfriend in “Roma”) has fallen in love with his boss’ wife Marlena, which nearly costs him his life.

The movie then charts Willy’s journey to find Marlena, a quest which takes him to a life as a migrant worker on a produce farm in Quebec. Along the way, there are many surprising discoveries. Including, yes, a white tiger.

“The type of cinema that’s always inspired us is where you’re actively involved and developing your own narratives as the story goes along,” the film’s cinematographer Sara Mishara, who co-wrote the film along with director Ivan Grbovic, told TheWrap in the video above. A key sequence in the movie, which appears early on and gains significance as the story goes on, involves Willy and some fellow underlings walking through the drug kingpin’s mansion, apparently after a raid.

“We wrote a scene set at a castle-like mansion in Mexico and assumed it would be easy to find,” explained Grbovic. “It turned out that it was not easy to find.” According to the director, 80 percent of the movie was shot in and around Montreal, including a scene set in China, where the film crew could not travel after the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. But the Mexican mansion needed to be authentic in order for the scene to click. 

“We couldn’t find our mansion,” continued Grbovic. “I’d seen a lot of these colonial, baroque style places. And then our extras casting agent, she was overhearing conversations. And she was like, Are you looking for a mansion? I just shot a telenovela at this guy’s crazy place. You gotta go see it.’”

And for sure, outside Mexico City, Grbovic and company struck gold.

“This guy had two tigers, one black panther, a horde of bisons, a hundred wolves,” he recalled. “He was a painter, a renaissance man. He had pianos, who the hell knows what else. And there was a carousel inside the mansion. He had his own brand of tequila. We could go on and on. Arguably a documentary on this person would be even better. He’s a controversial figure, but nonetheless he was very nice to us and let us do practically whatever we wanted. ” 

The script called for a kitschy painting of the husband character, which becomes an important totem in the film. The real-life mansion owner, said Mishara with a laugh, “He had hundreds of paintings of himself naked. It was like millions more than what we had written.”

“Drunken Birds” evokes a unique vibe of dreamy magical realism, as seen in the beginning of the Mexican mansion sequence, which opens with an out-of-context image of the white tiger in the grass. But even for the filmmakers, restraint was needed in the making of the scene.

“There were two tigers but I only wanted to use one in the film,” said Grbovic. “You know, sometimes people would read the script and they might say that I’m going too far in the depiction of a foreign culture. And nowadays you have to be careful in how you depict cultures that aren’t your own. But here you go. He had two tigers.”

Also in the video interview, Grbovic cited the influence of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” the 2011 Pulitzer-winning novel. Egan’s book is a short story collection in which a minor character in one chapter becomes the lead character in another. Indeed, Mishara and Grbovic’s screenplay originally focused on a farmer’s wife (played by Canadian actress Hélène Florent), who now exists as one of the facets of Willy’s story.

Furthermore, Mishara mentioned the importance of Terrence Malick’s 1978 classic “Days of Heaven” on the beautifully golden sunlit photography in “Drunken Birds,” which, significantly, was shot on 35mm film. And she singled out Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 ensemble “Magnolia” on this movie’s structure and stylistic ambition.

In “Magnolia,” she said, “You have many different characters and there’s absurdity and beauty and humor, a little bit of everything all mixed together. I like that, as a spectator, you can be caught off guard. And all of the different pieces of the puzzle don’t necessarily fit perfectly together. That’s an exciting type of cinema to watch. We were trying to create a rhythm where the spectator is constantly engaged to put together his or her own feelings about what’s going on on the screen.”

Check out the video above for more about the making of “Drunken Birds,” including the meaning of its title. Hint: It has to do with the translation from French to English of the word for intoxication.