Huesera: The Bone Woman (2023) is the feature film debut of Mexican director Michelle Garza Cervera. Starring Natalia Solián it depicts the story of Valeria: A young, newly pregnant woman who becomes haunted by something sinister. Something that reflects her own uncertainties about her future and the role society sees for her. It’s a great film; in fact, you can check out our review of Huesera. Film Forums reviewer Simon Jefferson caught up with Michelle and Natalia as they promoted the film ahead of its release in cinemas and on VOD with Shudder.
Female stories erased from history
FF: So I suppose my first question is, Michelle, I was rereading the director’s statement where you said you drew inspiration from your grandma and her life as an unnamable witch. Is she still around? Has she seen the film? Is she gone or…?
Michelle: Yes, no, actually I never met her.
FF: Ahh what a shame!
Michelle: She was kind of erased from the family history and that’s exactly what attracted me to her figure because it was like, well, why can’t we talk about this woman? What happened? So just the fact that asking about her kind of dissipated this concept of, like, what evil is supposed to be you know? It was way much more complex than that. I feel like having that conversation really changed a lot of family dynamics actually. And I feel like that’s the power of stories you know? Of narrative. They kind of give you another view of certain things. That process that I went through in therapy here I feel like that’s something that I wanted to bring to the possibility of this film.
FF: So was it really hard if she was disowned? Was it really hard to find out about her? Was it all hearsay and rumour? What was that like? Was it uncomfortable?
Michelle: It was uncomfortable, yes. Because I was asking about these things that are painful because I understand like, it’s painful and you understand why people don’t want to speak about certain subjects in the family. But I feel like there are ways to do it in a respectful way, to really open up about subjects that are not only about your grandmother, they really reflect on yourself. So I think it was very, liberating. I mean, she passed away a long time ago and now I feel like she has a face now. She has a name. And now it’s like I feel like the concept of her as being evil…it’s gone away. Like now we see her in many ways. She was a victim as well, she was just a human being, you know? A young woman that was going through a difficult process, and she needed a little bit more support.
FF: So your family, have they seen the film and seen her in it? Has it helped do you think?
Michelle: Yes, definitely has helped. It has changed at least that concept of what women have to do within the family.
The importance of grounded characters in genre films
FF: I’m pleased about that. I liked the film. I should have opened with that instead of talking about hot water bottles and how cold it is. I really liked it and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since. I really loved the opening sequence, where they were ascending the stairs towards the Virgin Mary and the terrifying Baby Jesus at the top. I was like ‘Whoa, that kid came out of nowhere!’ Where is that? I tried to google it and couldn’t find it but it was amazing.
Michelle: It’s really not that known in Mexico for some reason. Maybe it’s because it’s kind of new? It was built in 2017. It’s maybe two hours away from Mexico City. If you Google monumental virgin in Mexico, I think that it comes up.
FF: I just love that juxtaposition of giant manmade figures against nature. Like whenever I see it in film, I love it, no matter what. What’s that for you? What would be your equivalent? Something that you look at when you’re watching a film or TV show and think: this is my jam?
Michelle: I mean, honestly, I really love flawed and grounded characters. I mean, I like when something is real. Like when in a supernatural film or horror film…I love when those kinds of genres are used to work for a really complex character. That’s when it gets to you. I feel like it has to be about a character and an interesting character for me. That’s what needs to be on the top and then the horror is working for that and not the other way. I guess that’s what I really love.
Natalia: I’m a lover of the characters too because I’m an actress. But it’s because I think that we have the right metaphor for the fiction. When you show a character as a person, like a good construct, you can identify yourself in that and I think that you can be there with the character and you connect in some kind of way.
FF: Speaking of characters, I liked Valeria. I fell for her almost instantly. And I liked how messy the film was at the end. There’s no nice ending for her, and yet, it felt right. You did a fantastic job, Natalia, it was really, really good.
An organic path to feature film making
FF: Michelle, you’ve been pumping out short films pretty much every year since 2013, something I’m trying to do myself over here, so I appreciate just how hard that is! What was the journey like going from short to feature? The step up from a short, perfectly formed thing to a full-length feature?
Michelle: You know, I feel like it was very useful to me. I really felt like I was following the most organic path. I was just so passionate that I just never stopped doing it. When I finished one (short) I was already thinking about what was gonna be in the next thing. I was very lucky also because I got support from different communities and filmmaking worlds in Mexico. I think it was a very good path to follow because I feel like my first shorts were very experimental. In my cinema language classes, I was bored. I was a bad student, like I was, ‘Nah I want to break the rules!’ I was a rebel in that sense. I was very young. Then little by little, I understood the importance of that. I feel like that when I did that in my shorts. I understood that it is important to know the rules and then break them if you want. It took me a while. I feel like when I started doing shorts, I was definitely not ready, at least in my path, to do a feature. It was organic to get to that point to understand how narrative works and I worked a lot on the (feature) script the shorts really gave me the confidence to feel like I could do it. So I think it’s a great path to follow to make a lot of shorts. I think that’s the right path to follow.
Writing is rewriting, eventually the script talks to you
FF: Speaking of writing, because that’s my speciality…that’s where I’m at. What’s your process with writing? I know you started with your grandmother’s story, that’s the inspiration, but taking that and turning it into 90 pages of words. What’s your process there?
Michelle: I am a deep believer in rewriting. I rewrite and rewrite obsessively. The first drafts or treatments or whatever are radically different. I have a co-writer too, and I think having a co-writer is great because we have compromises and deadlines but there’s a moment when you have to stop and you have to face the blank page. I do think that when you write you invest a lot of time in paper, and this sounds crazy, but I honestly think it starts getting its own life and it starts giving you the answers. I feel like there’s a point where it was it was not about me. I mean, there’s a lot of me in that film and a lot of Natalia in the film, but there’s a moment where we worked so much with a team of people on the project, that the script just kind of tells you like ‘No, this is not the way’. You can feel it talking and that’s crazy and I feel like that only happened through the rewriting process.
Creepy children and metaphors for life
FF: So moving on to Natalia now, you’re not getting away with it. You know, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my warning that I’ve only got five minutes but you’re not gonna escape…
Michelle/Natalia: Ha ha ha ha
FF: You put so much of yourself into work as Michelle says, what was that process like for you? I mean, deeply personal question here, but do you have children?
Natalia: Yes. My child is in the movie. She is the blonde kid…
FF: What, the one that is in the trailer? (pulls face) That one?
Natalia: (laughing) Yeah
FF: Right ok, well done. She freaked me out. Brilliant. She’s done a good job.
Michelle: It freaked out Natalia too.
FF: So did you have any thoughts like that, that Isabel had, when you were going through your pregnancy?
Natalia: Of course, I was very scared about myself when I got pregnant because I know how I love my freedom and how I love the things that I love to do. I love my time! So I was very scared about myself and how it was going to change my life and all that stuff. But I think that in the process of making the film, one of the things that was most important for me was to break the guilt, the feeling of guilt. So the script taught me a lot of this in a way. When the script arrived to me, I don’t know, I’ve always said that it was like kind of magic and energy stuff and that’s why I’m in here with you and with Michelle for Huesera. But I think that it is technique too. I’m a strange actress. I love the camera but I love the performance and the aesthetics too. It was an excellent combination for me and my personal history makes sense in the middle of that. It’s the best for me. It’s the correct combination.
Pushing the medium forward
FF: I’m getting the warning to wrap up. So I’ll ask you a question for the pair of you: I’m a teacher in my main job, so I have to interview students for college quite often and this is a question I ask them, when they come in, to see where they’re at in terms of what they’re watching and stuff. What’s something that you’ve watched recently that you think’s important?
Michelle: I just watched a film that blew my mind but I don’t know if I can speak about mind yet because…yeah, I mean, okay. There’s two! One was called Holy Spider (2022) by Ali Abbasi. It’s fantastic and opens up conversations about gender roles and violence against women but in a very radical way. It’s an amazing film. I’m very impressed by that director. Then I recently watched a film that is called Talk to Me (2022) that premiered at Sundance that, oh my God, it’s like an atomic bomb for cinema. That thing is wild! Yes, it’s very, very, very scary. I’m very excited about that. But for that one, I really don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say the moment that you can watch it, go run and watch it
FF: So go in cold?
FF: What about you Natalia?
Natalia: I’m thinking about Hanging Gardens (2022). That is a movie that I saw in a festival. I can’t remember if it’s Iranian or Iraqi which is terrible, but the history and the way that they approach social issues, like the war, I think that is very strong and yeah, Hanging Gardens is important for me.
FF: Well, congratulations. You can both come on my course anytime you like!
Michelle/Natalia: Thank you.
Sound design in scriptwriting
FF: I’ll let you go. But I just want to say I really enjoyed Huesera. I really found a bit with the baby monitor to be one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen and it’s not even supernatural. That was the bit that really really got me.
Michelle: Thank you. That’s been a favourite scene for many people. I’m very proud of it.
FF: Is that a bit that plays really well in an audience? Have you seen it with a crowd?
Michelle: I think that scene is one that most people are impacted by and impressed by. I’m a very sound focussed director. I love working with it and that scene is basically sound, you know? It was prepared and it was designed in the script to be, basically, something that you hear and most mostly don’t see. And I feel like it was like an experiment or something that I wanted to prove to myself and I’m very glad that you’ve worked out.
FF: Yeah. I was watching at home and had to pause it so I could take a breath and brace myself for what came next. It was really good. I really liked it. So, yeah, I’ll let you get back to your day. I hope it goes well. I hope it goes really well on Shudder as well when it gets pushed out I think it deserves to be seen.
Michelle: I’m very excited. It’s gonna be there!
FF: And I’m looking forward to seeing your next project. I’m going to keep stalking you on IMDb.Thank you very much. I’ll let you get back to what you’re doing.
Michelle/Natalia: Thank you!