Tribeca Festival : La Cocina / Exclusive Interview with Director Alonso Ruizpalacios

Tribeca Festival : La Cocina / Exclusive Interview with Director Alonso Ruizpalacios

©Courtesy of HanWay Films

La Cocina : In the heart of a bustling Times Square kitchen, dreams and desperation collide as the back-of-house staff each chase the elusive American dream. When money goes missing from the till, the spotlight falls on Pedro (Raúl Briones), a passionate dreamer entangled in a tumultuous love affair with Julia (Rooney Mara), a waitress grappling with her own commitments. As tensions rise and shocking revelations unfold, the relentless pace of the kitchen threatens to shatter the hopes and aspirations of those who keep it running.

La Cocina is a poignant and darkly comic tribute to the invisible heroes who fuel our culinary desires while fighting for a place in a world that often refuses to acknowledge their existence. Tribeca alum Alonso Ruizpalacios masterfully weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative that exposes the harsh realities immigrant workers face, creating a claustrophobic yet captivating portrait of life behind the scenes.––Jarod Neece.

Director : Alonso Ruizpalacios

Producer : Ramiro Ruiz, Gerardo Gatica, Alonso Ruizpalacios, Lauren Mann, Ivan Orlic
Screenwriter : Alonso Ruizpalacios
Cinematographer : Juan Pablo Ramírez
Editor : Yibrán Asuad
Composer : Tomas Barreiro
Executive Producer : Marco Polo Constandse, Jose Nacif, William Olsson, Patrick Pfujena,
Associate Producer : Jimena Aguirre
Cast :Raúl Briones Carmona, Rooney Mara, Anna Diaz, Motell Foster, Oded Fehr, Laura Gómez, James Waterson, Lee Sellars, Eduardo Olmos, Spenser Granese




Exclusive Interview with Director Alonso Ruizpalacios


Q: What’s amazing about this film is that you really capture the vibes of what’s going on in the kitchen, with waiters shouting the menu and chefs coordinating to make one dish in a short period of time. What kind of research did you do to create the vibe? Did you research any specific restaurant or had experience working in a restaurant?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: It’s based on a British play by Arnold Wesker [the 1959 play of the same name] and it’s set one day inside an industrial kitchen. It has a lot of characters and that’s almost all that the film has to do with the play. It’s a big departure from the original play. I set it in New York with Mexicans and undocumented immigrants from other places as well.

When I was writing the screenplay, I came to New York to do research. I went to many restaurants to interview undocumented immigrants. They’re hard interviews to get because of their legal status. They don’t want to be interviewed. I worked with an organization called the Mexican Coalition that helped me get a safe space where they would feel comfortable talking about their experiences. It was crucial getting to talk to them one on one. I interviewed many cooks. We went into many kitchens in New York to see what their daily life was like.

I worked in a kitchen in my student days in London, in a place not that different from the one that ends up in the film. I was always very interested in portraying this. This type of place isn’t a high-end restaurant, it’s more industrial, more about quantity than quality. There’s a fascination by the media with extravagant kitchens, but I wanted to do something like an anti food-porn movie, a movie about the other, nastier side of it. We went into those types of restaurants in Times Square that serve tourists — places like Red Lobster and the Olive Garden. Those places were our inspiration and we visited them a lot. We took pictures and talked with the people.

When you’re doing a film like this, you first have to design a restaurant. We hired a chef to help us really design a restaurant. You have to make it feel real. He had to design what the menu will be, and based on that, you design what the kitchen will look like. It was a double process of first making a real kitchen, and then making it work for the camera.

Q: The fascinating thing about your aesthetic choice — of shooting this film in a black and white, instead of capturing a colorful ingredient which is like a cooking show — is that you really focus on the collective effort of the kitchen staff. Talk about that aesthetic choice; how did you make that decision? 

Alonso Ruizpalacios: I knew that this was the film I wanted to tell. I wanted it to be a fable, to not be completely realistic. I think the most obvious approach for a story like this would be to tell it in a very naturalistic way with natural lighting, non actors and handheld cameras. But I didn’t want to do that.

I wanted to do something that was more cinematic. The story as well deals with the dreams of the workers so that it had to be a more subjective experience and less objective. Making it black and white helped to frame it as a fable. The other element was to make it timeless. The black and white really helps with that. You don’t know exactly in what year it’s taking place. It could be now or 50 years ago.

Q: You used to work in a restaurant in London. It’s fascinating about the background story of each character in this film. What kind of experience did you have when you used to work at a restaurant in London that you ended up incorporating into this film?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: One of the things I certainly found working in a kitchen — and it’s also a thing that Arnold Wesker talks about in his play — is that it’s a place where people come and go, you spend a little time with them and you think you know them. But you don’t really get to know anybody deeply, and then you don’t see them again. That’s who we end up spending most time with, people who will disappear from our lives forever.

Q: When I was working at the Japanese restaurant, we had a lot of people working there for a long time because some of them were undocumented. They don’t want to go to other places to work. ASt the same time, it was fascinating about their background stories — they earned a certain amount of money to give to their family in their country.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: It was important to tell that part of the story because that’s the case with most of the people who come here to send money home, to be able to make better lives for their families. They don’t leave their families behind. That’s the case for Mexican immigrants.

They come here and have very strong ties to their Mexican family. They send millions of dollars every day from the US to Mexico. It’s a big source of income for Mexico. It was important to show that in the movie as well. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be about that. I wanted that to be a backstory, something that’s part of their lives. But it’s just part of their everyday life — they have their own desires and dreams here as well. They have to balance those things out.

Q: One of the most incredible sequences is the shooting in the kitchen, showing all the kitchen staff in one shot. Talk about what preparations you did with cast members and crew to accomplish such a shot. 

Alonso Ruizpalacios: That one was a centerpiece. I wrote it like that. It’s a continuous action in the lunch rush. The idea was to make the audience experience it the way that one of the cooks or waitresses would experience it. Immerse the audience in it. For that process, it was at first, that we had to design a restaurant to make it really work as a restaurant. Then we had to figure out how to choreograph it with the camera. It took us like 15 to 20 % of our total filming time.

Q: Like a week? 

Alonso Ruizpalacios: Yeah, and a bit more it took us to shoot. It’s like putting a dance sequence together. It’s choreography; there were a lot of elements, props and a lot of food. It was doing it over and over, rehearsing a lot before you start shooting. And the approach with the camera, me and Juan Pablo Ramirez, the DP, we both said, let’s imagine it as a war documentary, the camera had to behave like it would in combat. So we watched war documentaries and saw what the camera does to the kitchen staff — it becomes very reactive. We were also looking for safety, but at the same time, trying to capture something.

La Cocina

©Courtesy of HanWay Films

Q: What’s engaging about this film is that there are so many characters in this film that it’s hard to focus, but you choose the stolen money from the office incident as the running theme of this film. You make it into a cohesive narrative. How did you come to that decision?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: The missing money part of the story is something that’s not in the play. I added it because it’s like a McGuffin. It’s a narrative trick to keep the audience engaged, and waiting for something. It gives you the chance to then go off on it. These other tangents about what the film is really about while still keeping a little bit of a ticking clock behind it.

I found that it was interesting that this kind of stuff happens in kitchens all the time. Somebody steals money and then there’s a witch hunt.  People that are suspected immediately are the undocumented workers and they have a lot to lose. I had the idea that it was all a mistake, that he actually dropped the money and there was no missing money. That just made me laugh, that it made people go through a witch hunt.

Q: Talk about the casting process of Raúl Briones, Roony Mara and Anna Diaz.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: I’ve worked with Raúl Briones for many years. About12 years ago, I directed a stage version of the Arnold Wesker play, and Raúl was in it. That’s where we met, and then we carried on working together in theater. He was in my previous film, a cop movie. I hired him because I knew he was a very committed actor and very disciplined. I needed somebody like that for this film. We did a large casting in Mexico for the lead role. When Raul came to do it, it was very clear to everyone that he had the focus, energy and the charm. It’s a very demanding role. Raul was perfect for it.

Then, with Rooney, it was a character that came to my mind when I was writing the script. Once I thought of her, I couldn’t see anybody else doing the character. I’d never met her or anything, but I wrote her a letter and thankfully it got to her. It felt like I was sending a message in a bottle, out to sea and hoping.

She responded after she read my letter. It was a very honest letter and I told her “I admired your work. I think you’re a very intelligent actress and that you pick your films carefully and maybe you’ll consider this one.” She saw my previous movies and liked them. She said she would come to Mexico to shoot. We shot a whole kitchen studio in Mexico.

Anna was somebody that again, it was a character that we cast a lot of girls for. We wanted somebody young and inexperienced because the character is like that.  We wanted somebody straight out of drama school or with no professional experience when we came across Anna. She was so great and stubborn in a good way. She was determined to get the part and she came back and talked to me. She said I want to play this and so, she was perfect for it.

Q: Speaking of impressive performances — the one that Raúl did towards the end when Pedro (Raúl) turned the kitchen upside down. It’s like he expressed the anger and frustration of all the undocumented workers.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: Again, I think you have to establish a base of trust and then of security where the actors can take risks. We choreographed the thing and I said, “Okay, so this is what you’re going to do.” We rehearsed. You have to have the technicalities [covered] so the actor feels secure within, then he can go and take risks and fill it.

Raúl is a very intense actor and disciplined guy and he wants to give you the best with every take. He never does half takes. If you talk to him, he probably will tell you, it did make him vulnerable, especially that scene at the end where they break into the restaurant and he’s dragged around — he did hurt himself even though we had stunt people there and choreographed the whole thing. But then, when he was going for it he went so hard at it. But that’s what we did. Raúl is like that. He’s very intent.

Q: Talk about this cherry coke running of the action sequence. Those are the things that sometimes happen in the kitchen, but in order to photograph with these chaotic and apocalyptic sequences you really have to prepare? 

Alonso Ruizpalacios: It was a tough week for sure. I worked with the art department team and the SFX team to make the kitchen floodable. We tested it many times, how to make the cherry coke  readable. It was water, but it was tinted water. We tested different colors so that it looked like coke. Then we started flooding the stage. Everyone had to focus a lot because it was a wet stage. There’s lots of people coming in and out. It became a very concentrated, focused set.

As to the concept behind it, I came across it once in New York. I was here many years ago with my wife. We spent Christmas Eve in New York but had nothing to do on Christmas, so we went to the cinema late at night. As we were approaching the confectionary to buy popcorn, I realized that the carpet was wet.

Then I saw the soda fountain. It was spilling cherry Coke endlessly. The whole place was flooded. And the funny thing was, nobody paid any attention. The workers just let it run. To me, that was such a perfect image of late capitalism — an endless stream of cherry coke just flooding the space. That was such a great image that I wanted to put that in a movie. When I was writing this movie, I remembered that image.

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