Thomas Edison Film Festival Essay Series

Ulises (Ulysses) - Behind the Scenes

by Jorge Malpica


I was thrilled to be a winner at the Black Maria Film Festival 2019. It is not only an extraordinary distinction, but it opened a door for my film to be part of the festival's 38th annual festival tour. The Black Maria Film Festival provides such a great opportunity for us filmmakers to show our work to many, many people, which is what we starve for as filmmakers.

Thank you!

I know Ulises has kind of a wicked sense of humor (sorry about that) but I would be pleased if you were surprised by it, and especially if you decide to be a vegetarian after youve seen it!

Ulises is my Opera Prima or first movie as a director in a narrative feature. It was quite a complicated task as it involved shooting in the ocean in a very distant and secluded location with underwater shots and sophisticated visual effects.

I started my career as a director-of-photography and editor/post-producer, which may be the reason that I felt at ease on this kind of job.

I shot this project during a very difficult and fraught time in my life. I was preparing another short film based on a story about my father-in-law, Pier Giorgio, who is rather like the principal character in Tim Burton's Big Fish. He is a man with a huge life, lots of fantastic stories and an incredible imagination. Unfortunately, one day he suffered a vascular accident in his brain and tragically, he lost his mind forever.

I was deeply saddened and decided to stop the pre-production process on the film about my father-in-law. I just could not bear to continue with all my mixed feelings. Then, a few months later, Jorge Bano, a friend who is a writer told me he had a short story he wanted me to read, to see if I was interested in shooting it.

I told him I didnt have the time, but he insisted, so I read it. Ulises  And I got sucked in. Creative juices flowed immediately, and my brain started to work in a new direction that also helped me to cope with my father-in-laws tragedy.

Bernardo, my father, was born in Veracruz (the state where we shot Ulysses) and he liked fishing very much. I loved it too, so one day I tried to continue the family tradition by taking my 4-year-old twins to fish in the ocean.

The day was beautiful, everything was cool, my kids were happy and anxious. Finally, after a while, we got a nice big fish. Thrilled, we pulled it in and when it was up in the boat the fisherman banged the tuna on top of its head with a mallet to kill it and stop it's suffering, and

You should have seen the little faces of my twins!

They were completely sickened. Their huge eyes were telling me something like Dad, this is not cool what were you thinking! This was the image that came to my head when I first read the story of my friends film Ulises and I felt it was speaking to me.

When you fish, especially for large fish in the ocean like sailfish, you can actually see how, in minutes after being taken out of the water, they lose their amazing color and brightness as they die. It is as if you can see life leaving their bodies.

This is probably the sequence that I engaged with the most in the script and I thought that if it was brutal with a fish, it was going to be even more dramatic portrayed with a humanoid one. And it is.

Creating a mermaid was also something that I was keen to do. I was seduced by a picture I found on the web, of a Beluga whale. In the photo below of an actual Beluga whale, you are practically able to see what looks like legs beneath its skin. Amazing! I also loved its pale color, so I planned to cast an actress who had almost no pigment to her skin.

Mermaids for me are fantastic characters in a classic way, more as they are in the Odyssey than how Disney portrays them. To me they represent incredible and cunning predators that are extremely dangerous to humans. Except of course, if you are deaf.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses is the only human being that could hear the mermaid calls without dying because he had himself tied to the mast of his ship. In my film, the old fisherman is also the only human that can be exposed to the mermaid call and survive. His deafness becomes his strength - he not only survives, but he is also able to hunt and kill the mermaids he encounters.

The mermaid, Michelle Betancourt, to my eyes did a great acting job in very difficult shooting conditions. Being in cold saltwater for so many hours takes a real toll on your body. In the underwater shots a diver had to escort Michelle to her position 15-feet deep and had to leave as soon as possible so we didn't have bubbles in the frame. Michelle had a weight belt tied to her waist to avoid floating immediately, so she had to wait until the diver was out of frame, do her acting and then swim up to the surface by herself. She had to repeat this for each and every shot. She did a splendid job without any complaint.

Her body from the waist down is completely CGI (computer-generated imagery) as is also the spiracle (an external respiratory opening) on her neck. The post-production crew had to rig her body copying her moves so they could have all the information to add the animated tail in an organic way.

It was quite a complicated post-production process that took about 6 months to complete after the location shooting was over. Everybody worked in their spare time because we did not have enough money left to pay salaries. Our crew not only did an amazing high-quality job, they did it for free, as part of the team, because they loved the story and wanted to be part of the challenge in front of them. To my mind, that is the real fuel for any true filmmaker.

Our fisherman, Ulysses, is a renowned Mexican actor who also had a difficult task because, believe it or not, he can't swim! Our fisherman couldnt swim! It sounds funny now, but the weather conditions were not smooth, and he had to be alone in a small boat in quite rough seas without being able to swim! What if the boat hit the rocks? It was certainly possible as there were some shallow places in the sea where we staged his scenes.

We did have a local lifeguard ready to jump for him in case of an emergency, but our fisherman was really brave and did an amazing job staying in his character without showing any fear of the ocean. On the contrary, he always seemed at ease in his boat.

One other very difficult task for me was to give direction to our fisherman as I was pulling focus while the camera assistant was vomiting on my legs in the boat! We had to be out in the ocean in little boats for hours, as our base camp was about thirty minutes away, so we could not travel back to land every time we had people that were seasick. These are just some of the things that went on during this project.

Finally, I want to say a big thank you to Jane Steuerwald and all the people at Black Maria. They have been wonderful! I cannot say enough thanks for their time, effort and talent, creating such marvelous opportunities for filmmakers, and opening up such a great channel for us to share our work and thoughts in such an extraordinary film festival!

Being a Mexican director I could not wish for more than to continue building bridges like this one between our two beautiful countries.

A big hug from Mexico,

Jorge Malpica

Director - Ulises
jorge@metro.film

Jorge's film, Ulises, is available to view on the Thomas Edison Virtual Festival page.

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