Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Filming of "Chac (God of Rain)"

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Filming of "Chac (God of Rain)"

Article excerpt

A magnificent feature about modern Mayans, filmed in the remote jungles of Mexico, garners three top awards at the Virgin Islands Film Festival

The first thing that I am asked about CHAC (GOD OF RAIN) by people who have not seen the movie is whether it is a documentary. Shot under very unusual circumstances, fully on location, with a complete Indian cast in their natural environment, speaking their native dialect, it may sound like an anthropological study of a group of Indians of the South of Mexico. But in reality, CHAC is a normal feature, with a dramatic plot based on old Mayan legends and current traditions of the descendants of that race.

The Mayans had a very rich and colorful mythology. They developed into a very sophisticated culture, with advanced knowledge in astronomy, mathematics and architecture, with a stable government that avoided wars for almost 10 centuries, with methods of agriculture that fed their people and allowed them to build complex cities and ornate pyramids, and develop writing and the arts.

I had a basic script centered around a contemporary village, stricken by a drought, that is forced to revert to its ancestral knowledge to overcome it. I hunted for almost a year, searching for a village that was isolated enough to still hold the Mayan background, but that had easy access by road to allow for the shooting of a film under professional conditions. Finally I settled on the Tzeltal Indians of Tenejapa, a small village in the State of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, just 25 miles away from San Cristobal de las Casas, a town of 20,000. Through the village president, who spoke perfect Spanish, I started recruiting the cast from the local market, choosing from among the people who were willing to be photographed. During the first rehearsal I already realized that they were natural actors. Perhaps because most of them had never seen a movie, their purity of mind and unselfconsciousness allowed them to abstract and perform with a kind of natural absorption. We worked on the movement of the scenes for over four months, rewriting the dialog to their own thinking processes and enhancing it with their own superstitions and traditions. During that period I tried to prepare them also for the hardships of shooting a movie, the need to respect continuity and the confusion of working surrounded by cables, slates, flags and technicians.

Then, in January of '74, during the dry season, we brought down a crew of 25 from the Churubusco Studios, with Alex Phillips, Jr. as Director of Photography and shot for 'eight weeks on principal photography, and for four extra weeks, with a crew of ten, in faraway inaccessible locations.

I have to admit that the logistics were very hard to control in those surroundings. I was determined to cover the scenes in a very traditional way. I wanted to create a feeling of timelessness, and for that the photography had to have a classic quality to it. We avoided hand-held shots or improvised set-ups. The actors hit their marks and their movements had to be timed to facilitate a classic editing style. I realized very soon that they would arrive to a peak in performance and, normally, after the fourth or fifth take, become mechanical in their deliveries and movements. I worked around that problem in many ways, sometimes by going to another setup that required the least amount of camera changes, and returning to it later for another try - sometimes by hitting them with new tricks. If I needed an element of surprise, at times the special effects man would prepare blasts of dynamite that would explode unannounced. But basically the emotions that I was asking from them were very primitive (fear, joy, anger, sorrow) in the context of a story they could relate to very well. The problems were compounded when we had to retake the scenes from various angles, while still trying to maintain the freshness of the performances. Nevertheless, we avoided the use of two cameras, especially inside those tight huts, where camera noise could have affected our sound. …

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