In the age of rising stars born out of online self-promotion, finding presumably talented individuals on YouTube is not far-fetched. Harnessing this current casting tool to enhance the offbeat quality of their story, co-directors Daniel Garcia and Rania Attieh created the unusual comedy “Recommended by Enrique.” Apart from the inclusion of this social media component, the film also makes use of the inherent mysticism that exists in border towns like Del Rio, Texas - where the entire film was shot and where most of the cast is from. In the film, a young aspiring actress comes to town to act in what she believes is a reputable horror production. She meets the crew, made of unprofessional teenagers, but she is never allowed to meet the director, who is supposed to be out of town finding resources to make the film. Concurrently, in the same town, a Mexican man has arrived to apparently deliver some plants to a client, but his harmless façade covers something more sinister.
Scattered throughout their stories are clips from the “project” the kids and the actress are working on, "The Return of the Phantom Guards." These very amateur and grainy images attempt to depict a terrifying tale of demons and a cult using cheesy make-up, over the top voice over, masks, rollerblades, and swords. Unbelievably enough, this part of the outrageous plot is based on a true story that the directors themselves experienced as students wanting to be involved in professional filmmaking.
Displaying tonally perfect performances by the protagonists, “Recommended by Enrique” is awkwardly hilarious and downright original. Modern trends inhabit a strange world of makeshift stardom, obscure intentions, and traditional Mexican spooky legends for an indie movie experience unlike many out there.
Aguilar: What was the inspiration for this outrageous take on the concept of a film within a film ?
Rania Attieh: When we first met Daniel and I were in undergrad in Texas. Daniel was in philosophy, and I was doing public relations, but we had talked and said, “It’ll be interesting to one day make films and maybe we’ll go to film school.” He told me he knew of a film set that was shooting in Del Rio, Texas and asked if I would like to go during the summer to help work on that set.
He said “It ‘s apparently a really big budget film that they are making there.” We went there, and obviously it wasn’t a big budget film. We were 18 or 19 years-old, and this was a 35-year-old director crooking the town, taking money from parents of teenage kids telling them “I’m backed by Columbia Pictures, I’m going to make your kids famous.” He was running the set of a film that was not called “Phantom Guards, “ it had another name as weird [Laughs].
We hung out for three months on this film set. The director would disappear, the though he was the Son of God, he was never there. Every now and then he would hire these wannabe actresses from Austin or Dallas and he would pay for them and bring them to town. The actresses would have to hang out with us and a bunch of other teenagers. They would never see the director. We were making what you saw. The film within the film are literal recreations of the scenes we were working on back then. We were also the camera people, the people on rollerblades, and the people with the masks.
The original story escalated to where the FBI got involved because of the money, they shut down that production. That was the catalyst for us to make our first short film. We always thank that “director” in every movie we make because it was one of the most surreal experiences of our lives. Daniel still has a mark from one of the samurai swords on his eyebrow because he gave us real swords and put us on rollerblades. There was no movie, there were just scenes that didn’t make any sense. In the end he put them all together with music, we have a VHS tape of it.
Daniel Garcia: After that experience we went on to start making short films and video art, and then eventually we graduated into features. This scenario was always in the back of our minds, and we though “At some point we should make something based off of this experience.” When we found the opportunity to do that two years ago, we were in Mexico City and we had a month and a half break between projects. We decided to take a shot and make something based on that and go back to Del Rio.
I’m from San Antonio but I have family in Del Rio. Lino, who plays the cowboy, is my uncle, and he lives there. It just seemed like the right time and the right opportunity to make something. We wanted to try and work that into the idea and then mixed in the Mexican traditionalism and mysticism. Rania and I met in San Antonio in undergrad, she had various experiences with Mexican mysticism and then traveling through Mexico we came across that again.
Rania: Towns like Del Rio are neither here not there. They have northern Mexico beliefs but they are also completely American, they go to malls, they love celebrities. It’s a border town culture. It’s a very specific type of culture. It is Mexican and American in the right amounts. It is a very strange mix of those two.
Aguilar: The actress in the film is found on YouTube and there are several other elements in your film that play with social media. Were you interested on the idea of an actress playing an actress who promotes her career online?
Rania: We found her on YouTube [Laughs].
Daniel: She is very active on social media. However, in addition to our own ideas and memories, a lot of stuff happened because of whom we were interacting with. In the original scenario in Del Rio 15 years ago with the weird film set that we were involved in, every now and then the “production” had money. He would get money from various places in town by conning people. He would be able to fly in actresses who wanted to be in a movie, who wanted to start a career in acting. Every now and then an actress would show up for the weekend. She would be ready for her “scenes”, but there were no scenes, it was more like “Run over there, then run back” or “Look over here and then somebody is going to chase you. Be scared” There were just scenarios.
In addition to the whole experience being strange, something that stuck with us were these actresses. The fact that as a struggling or starting actress - especially in southern Texas and not L.A. or N.Y - you might find yourself in bizarre scenarios, which happen mostly because you put yourself there. You entered that casting call and you said, “Yeah, I’ll go to Del Rio. I don’t know what this is but I’ll take a chance” We thought that was very interesting and we wanted to base the actress portion on our memories of the actresses that would come.Also, now with social media people twitter post or Facebook post their experiences in real time, we wanted to keep it modern.
Aguilar: What are the challenges of working with non-professional actors?
Rania: This is the first time on screen for everybody in the movie.
Daniel: We are used to it. We’ve made a habit of using non-professionals.
Rania: Our first feature we shot in Lebanon and it was with a full cast of non-professional actors from 5-year-olds to 86-year-olds. They were all from the same city.
Daniel: It’s a matter of picking the right people. Obviously we knew my uncle and we knew his limitations. He is showman during family gatherings, he likes making everybody laugh, being the center of attention. We knew he would be able to do certain things. With non-actors you always have to keep those limitations in mind.
Rania: You write for them. You write specifically what you think they can give you. You pull from their mannerisms and their possibilities. We’ve done it before so we were really comfortable doing it again. In “Recommended by Enrique” we did it with everybody. The mayor in the commercial is the previous mayor of Del Rio. After we did this film she said, “That’s a cool commercial, you should work on my next campaign,” she was really into it. The barber is a real barber and that’s his barbershop. With non-professionals you have to keep it as close to what they know as possible, because otherwise they don’t have the possibilities to do it. His uncle who plays the cowboy is a real cowboy, he lives in Del Rio.These are roles that are based on their lives.
Aguilar: The cowboy uses these plants as a disguise. It is a very peculiar element. Where did that idea come from?
Rania: We made the film in one month from pre-production to production. We had one month in between two projects. We made the film quickly and left Del Rio. It was an extreme marathon. Before that we were in Mexico City working on a different project and we were thinking about “Recommended by Enrique” and what we wanted to do.
From the car I saw a Mexican cowboy carrying two plants, probably delivering them. I said “Oh my gosh that’s what he should have. He should have a decoy and that’s it. These big plants that he carries everywhere”. It was a visual thing. They are specific plants that live in this kind of weather, and there is something nice about such an iconic prop. For example, the actress is a character that is trying to play a role the whole movie, but the cowboy is a classic fictional character, almost unbelievable, so that prop was a perfect element for him.
Aguilar: The clips we get to see from the fake production within the film, “The Return of the Phantom Guards,” seem like a really clever mockery of B-movies, and I assume that it is also based on your experience. Have you considered making a full version of that film?
Daniel: It was a mockery of the original film we were involved in. The footage that plays at the end of the film over the credits is the original footage from the VHS. What’s in the movie is what we recreated based on the material we had from the VHS. We never thought of making a full version of “The Return of the Phantom Guards,” until now [Laughs]
Aguilar: How did the division of labor worked while making a film as co-directors?
Daniel: It is pretty much split down the middle. We co-write and we edit together. On set I handle mostly the camera stuff, but she also provides in ideas. I’m more camera-based, she is more focused on the art direction, and we work with the actors together.
Rania: We talk to them sometimes at the same time. We probably confuse a lot of them [Laughs].
Daniel : A lot of times it would be like, “I think you should do it this way”, then she’ll say, “No, I think you should do it this way.” Then I’ll say, “OK we’ll do it this way first and then we’ll do it that way” [Laughs].
Aguilar: Did the Mexican mysticism and paranormal undertones come from the fake production that inspired the film or from the town itself?
Daniel: Yes. The original director legitimately believed that he was the Son of God, Jesus’ brother, and that his film was going to save the world from the apocalypse. One of the main characters in that film was a 15-year-old girl who was supposed to be the princess of Heaven and he was supposed to marry her, even though he was 35. We’d be shooting sometimes and the battery would die, which happens on a film set, and he would say “Oh my God, the battery die, I just charged it, it’s the demons! They are trying to stop us from making the movie. “ It always had this supernatural mysticism.
Rania: Allso in this town there is the story of the Llorona. They really believe this. The entire town believes that on top of the Loma de la Cruz the Llorona is buried. They all believe it and they don’t go there, or they go to spook each other. We wanted to highlight the town. We made a fun movie for you to watch and say “I kind of feel like I went to Del Rio” We wanted to make the town a third character in the film.