Antonio Méndez Esparza never thought he would make a film in the United States. But after making his first feature, 2012’s Aquí y allá: Here and There, winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Spanish director found himself living in the US. Taking a job teaching at Florida State University’s film school and settling in Tallahassee changed his perspective. He decided Florida was the right location for his next work, one employing a documentary style and using a non-professional cast as he’d done in his debut. The result is Life and Nothing More, a drama in which single mother Regina (Regina Williams) struggles to raise two children on her minimum-wage waitressing job and keep her eldest, 14-year-old Andrew (Andrew Bleechington)—whose father is incarcerated—on the straight and narrow. Here, Esparza talks about his latest feature, the winner of the John Cassavetes Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Q: Why a single mom?
A: We sometimes have these instincts that are hard to explain. You write a poem or you paint a picture. Sometimes it’s just something that you feel. The first reaction is unexplainable to a certain degree. Even to myself. Is because of my relationship with my mom? My wife was a single mom when I met her, so that gave me a little insight to what her daily life was. But all of these explanations come as an afterthought in a way. There is a seed lurking, moving inside you that pushes you to that. Then you try to explain why, but it’s never a straight line for me. Also, in the context of this film, it’s me trying to understand the US. The US is maybe too big. It’s me trying to understand the place where I live, Tallahassee.
Q: Your story is clearly drawn from life. Who did you talk to? Where did your characters come from?
A: From the many interviews I did over the year and a half when I was casting. The whole process was very slow. Now when I look at the film and it’s finished and perhaps one may think, ‘That’s what he intended.’ But in a way, the movie was supposed to be about a single mom, and then over the course of it, it became about much more. It was really all based on encounters I had with many different people. In a way, every scene has a little story—like some of the men they weren’t offended by the story of a single mom, but they told me, ‘We’re fathers. We’re not bad. We’re trying to do good.’ Many of them had been raised by single moms, and they were trying to do better with their kids.
Q: The most solidarity you see in the film is between all the women that work with Regina, all the waitresses. They’re clearly all in the same situation.
A: Those are scenes that I love very much. They are very unassuming scenes, but you see that they care for each other. They’re there to help.
Q: You are known for working with non-professional casts and this film is no different. That has to add a degree of difficulty to what you’re doing.
A: It is a challenge, but I don’t see any other way to make a film, or at least a film like this where you know little about the world and the cast really has to guide you through the process. Casting becomes a process of illumination. You meet people and even if they end up not being in the film, they still provide some jewels, some gold. Or maybe they don’t add to the story, but they end up in the film. Casting becomes everything, in a way.
Casting sometimes is as simple as an interview. With the main actors, there is more of a process. There is an improvisational exercise, and then another one, and then another one. Then we decide to shoot. The actors don’t know the script. They are unaware of what the story is about. They discover it little by little. They know a little bit, like Regina’s going to be the mom. I try to build a world, but not what’s happening. So, we build a house together. They go to the house. They like the house where they’re going to live. Are they OK with it? The school the kids go to is the one they really go to. She has to work in a place where we’ve gone a few times before, so she’s accustomed to it. I try to make it as close to reality as I can, and then we just go. –Pam Grady