How the Tiger King of Mexico Helped Make 'Drunken Birds'

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

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.

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