I recently had a fascinating conversation with Guillermo Navarro, in which we discussed his long road to success, where he is now perceived not only as a competent filmmaker, but one capable of extraordinary work. In Guillermo’s case, the road was made rockier — all but impassable — by attitudes he encountered. He told me about his earliest steps in Mexico.
“I went through a lot of adversity trying to grow professionally in Mexico,” says Guillermo. “There were really no schools, so I’m very self-taught.”
At age 13, Guillermo began shooting and developing still film, using a small closet at his parents’ home as a darkroom.
“Mexico has such a visual culture that you’re permanently stimulated,” he says. “There’s so much to see and with the careful eye, you see all the layers. I connected with that, and I was very into it. The visuals were always alive.”
When Guillermo was 14, his father passed away, and he was forced to grow up quickly. “I didn’t have a normal, sheltered teenage world,” he recalls. “I continued doing still photography work as I was studying. I was successful, and I began to have income from it. I was in demand. I did album covers. I did studies for models and fashion. I did tabletop, product work, journalism. I did all kinds of stuff and I was printing all my work at my house – the bathtub was always taken up with washing pictures — and I supported myself beginning then.
“So photography was always keeping me standing,” he says. “I had a need to be productive, and photography provided that opportunity. It became my way of life, and my center. That’s all I wanted to do.”
Guillermo’s sister invited him to a movie set where she was working. He began shooting stills for the production, and one was used for the poster. That’s when he first saw “the difficulty in resolving the motion picture — how the moving image had all kinds of equations to be solved that the still image didn’t.”
“With the still image, everything’s there, and it’s an instant you capture,” he says. “You can play with it. You can light for it because there’s only one perspective. The moment you move the camera, what’s good in one moment is terrible in another. Sorting that out fascinated me.”
He became a camera assistant for a brief period — not a good one, he says, adding that “I learned how not to treat my crew.”
In the meantime, he had been to Europe. France gave him the opportunity to develop a relationship with an Argentine cinematographer, Ricardo Aronovich. Guillermo shadowed him, and today says that this experience was his true school. He made a few connections and gained some employment. In the early 1980s, Aronovich came to Mexico to shoot Missing with director Costa-Gavras. He wanted Guillermo on his crew, but in the reverse of the normal situation in which a production is obligated to use local crew, the union would not allow it.
Being kept out of the union had one advantage — Guillermo could skip assisting and operating and proceed directly to shooting. He shot every conceivable type of documentary and independent project. Finally, after winning a contest with his cinematography for an “experimental” film, he was allowed to officially shoot a legit feature. (In this case, “experimental” was a term used as an official loophole, a way for the industry powers to allow young people to participate.) By this time, Guillermo was 30 years old.
He continued making films through a co-op system, including Cronos (a scene from which appears above) and Cabeza de Vaca. But, eventually, the restrictions and obstacles in Mexico became so insane and absurd that he had to leave. “All I wanted was to be part of an industry that was over-regulated,” says Guillermo. “There was no way out, and there was a turning point where I had a gun on my temple, literally. For me, that was the before and after. I left.”
Guillermo moved to Los Angeles and started from scratch, overcoming much adversity along the way. Meanwhile, Desperado, the last film he shot in Mexico, was getting some positive attention. Eventually, he signed with an agency and was invited to attend the ASC Awards, where he suddenly felt like a very small fish in a very big pond.
“I thought, ‘I’m never going to make it here,’” he recalls. “I felt lost in an ocean. In Mexico, my competition was a handful of people. So 20-plus years later, when it seems like merely a matter of fact that we can come from Mexico, or anyplace in the third world, and be part of this, it’s amazing to me. Mexican filmmakers now have a very strong place in the industry. We win Oscars, and we create good films.”
Guillermo says that being raised in Mexico can be a significant advantage. “When you’re raised in the third world, you have to make an extraordinary effort to rise above the mediocrity,” he says. “For me, it was a must that I be very well prepared. It was a must to learn several languages. Your technique and your work has to be the best. You arrive here with cultural heritage. You not only have a point of view and a vision of the world, but there’s a richness in what you are because of how you learned, and how you became.
“Then there’s the process of becoming bi-cultural,” he says. “You never lose your origins and your identity but then you understand this world, and try to contribute to an understanding of your world. We find the differences and the similarities. We build bridges, and contribute to a better understanding of these two worlds.”