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Shooting Secuestro Express

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When a director talks about shooting a film in the midst of 10-hour lines for gasoline, one might assume he’s talking about shooting in America in the fall of 2005.But actually, Jonathan Jakubowicz is talking about filming Secuestro Express in Venezuela, during what he described as an “oil strike”—even an OPEC country like Venezuela can have them—when “nobody was doing anything” during an idled economy.This allowed Jakubowicz to assemble a pretty ace crew. He got the best art director (Andres Zawisza), he explains, because “you can tell them that you won’t be sitting at home watching TV” during the strike.Plus, there are really not that many films being made in Venezuela, the director notes—especially those shot on actual celluloid. “Making a movie in film, in the third world, is pretty impossible,” he says.So, Jakubowicz shot on DV, on a Sony PD-150, and not only solved the celluloid issue, but gave the movie a “style that comes from the material,” that material being a compressed-time, all-in-one night tale of a routine kidnapping in Caracas—routine, because kidnapping is a cottage industry there: the poor absconding with family members of the rich, and ransoming them, usually within 12 to 24 hours.Jakubowicz—who has been kidnapped himself—shot and edited in a frenetic style that attempts to catch not only the always-ticking clock, but the panic both of kidnapper and abductee, capturing what he terms a “cold civil war” between Venezuela’s rich and poor.Making the film “was a complete secret,” he says, as the director, his crew, and his actors, moved from one Caracas neighborhood to the next, using, variously, either local gangs, or local law enforcement, to protect them when shooting at night in the country’s polarized neighborhoods.However, it wasn’t really all that secret, since the project was being produced by Elizabeth Avellan, herself both a native of Caracas and of Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios—plus she’s married to the Rodriguez. All of which made her a good stylistic fit with what Jakubowicz calls the Sin City director’s “Mariachi style” of making a film—i.e., “no fucking around”—while availing him of considerable production and postproduction resources.Among those was Troublemaker veteran Ethan Maniquis, who was an associate editor on both Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City, and a visual effects editor for the Spy Kids movies, among others.He’d receive copies of DVCam tapes at the Troublemaker spread in Austin, and using an Apple G4, Avid Express 4, and Firewire—and one monitor tried to assemble what the three different cameras deployed by Jakubowicz were giving him.“The script was the road map,” Maniquis says, which he had in both English and Spanish. Of course, a lot of the actors were so extemporaneous—Jakubowicz hired three of Venezuela’s top, barrio-raised rappers to portray the kidnappers—that there was little matching between takes.On top of that, the Spanish being used was mostly Venezuelan slang, so Maniquis “didn’t understand half the words.” And while he didn’t have any discussions with the director beforehand, Jakubowicz arrived on the scene and learned Avid Express pretty quickly, thus cutting some scenes alongside Maniquis, and also turning footage over to his editor for tightening up—while translating all that Caracas slang, as well.Bill Jacobs was another Troublemaker vet, who worked on sound—designing and editing—on a number of Rodriguez’ projects, and stepped in as supervising sound editor for Secuestro after receiving a DVD of the movie, which was replete with temp subtitles. “I fell in love with the movie,” he said, “but knew that as much production sound as possible would have to be replaced with ADR work.”That took Jacobs from his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. out to Austin and also to Caracas for a memorable four days capturing ambient sound. For the south of the border jaunt he was armed with a Fostex FR2 Memory Recorder and Sanken CSS 5 Stereo shotgun mic, recording backgrounds at 96k, 24-bit rates—“like old analog, but cleaner,” he says. “And a lot easier to use.”Jacobs found himself walking into traffic to record the fleet of older, unmuffled cars, mixed with mopeds, and buses with entire sides missing that left the passengers visible to all. “Caracas really does sound different,” he observes. “It’s jungle, and it rains a lot,” so mixed in with all the traffic sounds were frogs that Jacobs came to call “peepers,” a sound so reminiscent of home, that Avellan cried when she heard the recording back in Austin.Also in Austin, Jacobs worked with Paula Fairfield and Carla Murray on cutting the sound—they were the sound effects editors—blending not only what Jacobs found, but “airy, insecty, breezy stuff” borrowed from The Lost World—which was shot in Venzuela, along with the ADR dialog that Jacobs had looped in Caracas, since no one in the production was sure that all the actors would be able to get US visas in a timely fashion if the postproduction sound was recorded here.Jacobs pronounces himself very happy with the results, as does Jakubowicz, who has made the “first Venezuelan film to have sold to a major (foreign) distributor,” in the guise of Miramax, who is rolling the film out slowly in the US in anticipation of awards season.But Secuestro Express has become a huge phenomenon in Venezuela itself, and Jakubowicz says that the film pirates—who get DVDs of new Hollywood movies out on the street within a day or two of opening—told him he was getting a “one-month window” before they sold bootleg copies, because they wanted the film to do well.The film is in fact out-grossing the usually more popular Hollywood imports, like The Island, which opened there recently, and may even pass that country’s box office take on The Passion of The Christ.“It’s hard to beat Christ,” Jakubowicz says. But his low-budget, street-gritty film may just do it—something which any advocate of the poor and downtrodden just might appreciate.

Written by Mark London Williams

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