The experience of sitting on a subway car in New York City during rush hour can be so maddeningly overwhelming that the extremes of solipsism or complete ego death don’t seem that radical. This is America in a small metal tube, likely representing dozens of languages and ethnicities, the whole spectrum of economic classes, and a depth of human experience that would take years to scratch the surface of. Despite the level of diversity you can find on your morning commute, most movies and TV shows set in New York focus on an impossibly tiny cross-section of the population.
En el Séptimo Día, a triumphant film by The Wire alum Jim McKay, pulls back the curtain to reveal just one of the millions of stories not being told. The movie is small in scope without the hallmarks of drama, telling a simple story of a Mexican immigrant making the decision between playing a game of soccer (the finals, no less) and keeping his job as a bike delivery worker. The depth of the narrative is in the simplicity, though.
En el Séptimo Día does a masterful job of painting the small details of the undocumented, immigrant experience, like code-switching and being at the mercy of your employer. This is largely achieved because of the fantastic cast, who are all amateur or first-time actors coming from the same backgrounds as the characters they portray.
En el Séptimo Día also makes the case, though, that the countless stories taking place around you are about basic, universal struggles: supporting your family, finding a community, and earning your day off. By the end of the movie, even if you have had a completely different life experience than the protagonist José, you can still understand where he’s coming from.
In this interview with Cinema Escapist’s Leo Schwartz, McKay discusses how he approached writing a film so different from his own experience, how he went about casting the movie, and why soccer is more than just a game.
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You’ve been working on this screenplay for fifteen years and said you were initially inspired by the millions of stories happening in New York every day, so I’d love to know where you first got the idea for this story.
I wish I had a really good answer. Truthfully, possibly because it was fifteen years ago, I really don’t remember. It just came from a number of different places. My thoughts about immigration, my thoughts about Sunset Park and the neighborhood—thinking about the Mexican community in particular because I had different experiences with Mexican immigrants in my past between jobs in restaurants and some documentary work that I had done. They all coalesced when I came up with the very simple plot idea of this person who has to choose between working and playing, and figuring out how to save face in light of that choice.
It was really just a combination of things. Once I started writing, things got a little more fine-tuned. When I pulled the script out a couple years ago, I of course had to work on it again and make changes—although not a million. The bones of the story essentially stayed the same. I wrote more and then we cast, and then we rehearsed, and then we shot, and then we did festivals and we’re finally coming out. In all the time that those things have happened, the landscape for undocumented immigrants in particular has changed radically with each step along the way, which has been interesting. The story itself is still the story that it is and always was.
I loved how timeless it was. I’m sure it would have been easy to add a political slant addressing the current times to it, but the fact that it was a movie that could have been made at any time made it really powerful.
I know you talked in another interview about cultural appropriation. You were the sole writer on this, but you clearly did a lot of research to make this as realistic a movie as possible. What was the writing process for you and how did you consult on details like dialogue or analogues in the story?
Anything that was rooted in real things that happened really was rooted in general things that I had known about that had happened. It wasn’t like a news story or this or that, it was actually things that were more commonplace, whether it’s someone getting nabbed from the police—which actually came out of my imagination, the idea of this random story might have come from many different places. That day I was writing I might have been thinking about the fact that since 9/11 they’ve been going these backpack checks on the subway.
This is a script I really did try to write in a fun way for myself and in an imaginative way. It wasn’t about having a scene about a particular issue, and I think it freed me up to just let my mind wander about what are some things these guys are going to encounter in their days, and how would the stories come out. There are definitely some places where the writing—whether it’s dialogue or situational—is, in a way, from an outsider point of view.
For instance, when there’s a bag in the apartment, and they come in and they had never seen in before and ask whose bag it is, and Elmer makes a joke saying “Give me the phone, if you see something say something.” He’s just cracking this wry joke. I think a lot of people might look at that and say “I don’t think that character would really make that joke, it’s weird.” It seems like a more urbane, sarcastic remark. I was aware of that when I wrote it, and then I also thought, “Well, why wouldn’t he make that joke. How do we know?” Why can’t he have an urbane, sarcastic sense of humor?
There were some things that were like that where I know when I look at it that it’s my little story, but I would always think about whether it could be there’s as well. Are we really that different.
There were other things I was extremely particular about and would say over and over again to the actors, “I’m asking you to check this all the time, and if something doesn’t feel right coming out of your mouths, or some situation feels wrong, then tell me and we’ll talk about it.”
It didn’t happen a million times, and there’s not a lot of improv in the film per se. There’s little twangs and little idioms that come out that were not there. There’s little additions here and there. For the most part, I think because they were new actors, they were very intent upon really learning their lines and doing their lines. A lot of the more moment-to-moment stuff came out in mannerisms and physicality.
I’ve written a bunch of films that have characters that I don’t have all that in common with—not on the surface. The message is always the same, which is be collaborative, do your research, observe carefully, share the experience, and take responsibility for making sure that things are really accurate. Hopefully that method works.
A lot of the actors in the film were actually living the roles they were depicting in the movie, whether it was being bike delivery workers or construction workers. Did the script change at all when you started working with them?
It really didn’t much. Most of the guys don’t necessarily [live the exact roles]—like Fernando [Cardena] works in construction, but he played a bike delivery guy. He actually had to practice riding on a bike, and I had to make sure he was really amazing because I wanted it be safe. He actually had to do some training on the bike.
There were other guys who were delivery guys [in real life] but I had be construction workers [in the movie], and vice versa. As much as possible, they’re not playing themselves, although I did—in the auditions—look at each character’s tone and feel, and try to find the actors who matched up with that most readily. Elmer being the first and foremost one. When Gilberto Jimenez auditioned, very early on, he was the first actor to actually get a role and have it assigned to him, because I just knew he felt like Elmer as I wrote him. That character was very loosely based on—just personality-wise—an Elmer that I worked with in a restaurant in San Francisco in the 1980s who was a cook and a busboy.
How about with Fernando? It seemed like he could’ve been an actor for the past 20 years. What made you realize he would be so good in the role?
When he auditioned, and when we first met him, he definitely had a lot of characteristics of the person that had commonalities with José. He’s a very hard-working, ambitious, curious person in real life. As a person, Fernando, even though he hasn’t acted, has studied salsa dancing, and he’s spent a lot of time studying English, and he does skydiving as a hobby. He’s someone who’s not satisfied with having a normal, regular, uneventful life. Like I said, he’s always pushing for more. I thought he could really relate to the personality of this guy. When I was talking to him about how José was feeling, it seemed like he would be able to access that material very clearly.
He was fantastic about simply just learning all the skills of acting—memorizing lines and blocking ideas and stuff like that. Then also, most of my direction with Fernando was just simply about the essence of the scene, and reminding him constantly of where he was in the story. This character has so much going on in his life and so much on his mind—we were constantly talking about what the scene was about, but also what was happening with this guy at that moment. He completely got that. He was very much able to act off the lines equally as he was on the lines, which is a real skill.
Soccer is very topical with the World Cup coming up, so I’d just love to hear what your relationship is with soccer, and what you thought it represented for the characters in the movie.
I’m very curious about the sport, and what I like is how different it is from most American sports. There’s a reason why Americans have not dominated the sport. Originally it was because it’s not a commercial sport in the way we see it. There’s not a timeout every three minutes so we could put commercials on TV. I think that literally is what kept it from being popularized in the United States for a long time, and then even when it did get popularized in the United States, I think it’s taught in the United States in a very American way, as opposed to how it is in other countries where it’s just the fabric of a young person’s life. It’s so much more instinctual and less about being taken to the field by your parents when you’re three and running back and forth and not really knowing what’s going on. A little more for the joy of playing, kids congregating on their own and figuring things out. It’s less organized at first and more later.
I just like it as an outlier in the United States, and then of course it’s a very international game. There’s an irony that we’re an extremely international society, and yet this is the one sport that is just not becoming popular. There’s even an irony to that, which is the more popular soccer gets, the less popular immigrants get in our minds. We get friendly to soccer, but we get unfriendly to people who play.
All of that then ties into what it means in the movie. My kid plays baseball and he’s incredibly bonded to his fellow teammates, and they really are like a little family, so i think all sports have that in common to a larger degree. Still, the fact that this league they play in in the movie, which is somewhat divided in terms of teams by where you’re from, or what region of Mexico you’re from—it’s just this continuation of the immigrant experience in the form of an activity and a sport.
Then of course what it means to these particularly guys, which I think is extremely universal. In the course of their lives, you work six days, and this is part of why you work—to have this day where you have this joy and this community. How important that is. I think every American—hopefully—has something that they’re passionate about that they can connect to when this dilemma that José experiences comes up, and they can see and understand his confusion and dismay about what to do.
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En el Séptimo Día is now showing in theaters.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.