Oscar-nominated 'Cartel Land' on Blurring the Lines of Good & Evil Waged by the War on Drugs

Director Matthew Heineman showcases vigilantes policing two different fronts of the drug war

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Since 2007, more than 100,000 Mexican citizens have been murdered due to the Mexican drug war, while also bringing an influx of drugs and violence into the United States. The 2016 Academy Award winner for best documentary, 'Cartel Land,' introduces a part of the story that most have been unable to see thus far: the existance of vigilantes on both sides of the border that aid in combating the cartels. 

The film, directed by Matt Heineman, now in the running for an Oscar, focuses on the leaders of both of those groups and explores the story that the war on drugs wage. Matt discusses tackling challenges while filming on the Mexican and U.S. Borders, the camera and 'crew' he used for the film and why this story needed to be told. 

ProductionHUB: What was your vision for CARTEL LAND? 

Matt Heineman: I was compelled to make CARTEL LAND after reading media accounts of Nailer and El Doctor, the film's main characters. I was immediately drawn to know more about their worlds, in which everyday citizens have been forced to take the law into their hands. I wanted to tell their stories from an intimate, yet action-driven verité perspective, without outside experts or text cards. It took many months to gain their trust and to gain the access that I needed to tell this story.

Over the year that I was embedded with both Nailer and El Doctor and their vigilante groups, the story unfolded in incredible and surprising ways that I could never have predicted when I first got started. Having no experience filming in risky situations, CARTEL LAND pushed me into some pretty precarious places – I’ve been in shootouts on the streets of Michoacán and in Breaking Bad-like meth labs in the middle of the dark, desert night. 

The more time I spent down there, the more complex the story became: it was partly an ascent of people seeking to fight evil and partly a descent into hell as they took the law into their own hands, with many twists and turns in between. It is about elemental issues of order and chaos, of the desire for law but also of terrifying brutality and lawlessness.  

I became even more motivated, almost obsessed, as the lines between good and evil became ever more blurred. The film doesn't offer pat answers and, instead, presents a story that I believe will be interpreted and understood in many different ways. 

It is this moral ambiguity that intrigues me, and it emerges naturally in the story and in our characters. For me, it became a timeless story of the conflict between idealism and violence, which has eerie echoes throughout history and across the world today.

PH: Why did you find it extremely important to tell the story from both the U.S. Border Police and the cartel itself in Mexico?

MH: The journey of this film first began when I was riding the New York subway and reading Rolling Stone magazine. Damon Tabor’s article “Border of Madness” completely grabbed me. It explored a group of American vigilantes patrolling the Arizona border, and I was struck by how little I knew about the US/Mexico border, drug cartels, and vigilantism. These were all things that fascinated me. Thinking there might be a film in the story, I reached out to Tabor, who introduced me to one of the primary characters in the article, “Nailer,” a self-appointed American border vigilante. But Nailer was wary of the media, and it took months for me to gain his trust. I began shooting in Arizona in June of 2013, taking two or three trips to Arizona over a four-month period. I had no intention of expanding the scope of the narrative outside the United States until my father randomly sent me a Wall Street Journal article about the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc in the Mexican state of Michoacán for years. Suddenly, I knew I wanted to change the film to be about vigilantism on both sides of the border. In making the film, I was intrigued by what provokes men and women to “take the law into their own hands.” I was also intrigued in creating a parallel portrait of these two vigilante groups that have much in common, but a lot that separates them too. 

PH: How do you prepare to start the production process for a film like this?

MH: I did a number of things to prep for the film. With Matt Porwoll (my co-producer and co-cinematographer), we created an equipment package that would make sense in the intense environments where we were filming. I reached out to Bruce Brown at The Reporters Committee For the Freedom of the Press and a few other lawyers to understand the legal implications of potential scenarios that we might find ourselves in. Given that I had no experience filming in dangerous situations, I talked to other journalists/filmmakers to learn as much as I could before shooting. I did a lot of research into creating a safety plan, which included buying bullet proof vests, creating a network of journalists that we informed every day about our movements in case we got kidnapped, seeking the counsel of a security firm to better understand the various forces at play in the regions where we were filming. But most importantly, especially in Mexico, it was key to find a fixer (Daniel Fernandez) that knew the region, the characters, what roads were safe to drive on, etc. etc. Ultimately, however, you can only prep so much as the reality on the ground is always different. You develop a situational awareness and the key is not to become complacent with the danger around you. 

PH: You shot predominately by yourself. Tell me why you didn't have a lot of crew behind you.

MH: Utilizing small crews or shooting by myself, my goal was to be there to capture in real time each chapter of the ever-evolving and arcing stories, with the camera in the action, not observing it from the outside. It was a wild adventure and a grueling film to make.   

PH: What message did you want to come across to those who watch it?

MH: There’s been a lot of coverage of the drug wars, especially in Mexico. Everyday you open the paper and if you turn to the back of the paper there are pictures of dead bodies. A lot of that violence is glorified in TV shows and movies. My goal was to take this issue out of those headlines, out of pop culture, and put a human face to show what’s really happening, how real people are affected by this narco violence, the response of everyday people rising up to fight back, and the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands. 

PH: What type of equipment did you trust? Did you have to use smaller cameras to hide them easier?

MH: We mainly shot CARTEL LAND with the Canon C300. That camera was dropped, smashed, hit by guns, smothered by dust storms, pelted by torrential rain, and it never, ever failed. Given the situations we were in, I kept the camera very small: body, lens, Schoep's CMIT 5 Shotgun Microphone, and a Diety Miera viewfinder (which was a must given the bright sunshine we were constantly shooting in). Given how important sound is for documentaries, I would probably say the Schoep’s was the most key piece of equipment because it allowed me to be small and nimble (without a soundman) and still get really, really good sound. I was truly astounded at how I could cover a big crowd scene with just that mic. 

PH: How did you approach the cartel for interviews?

MH: Most of the meth we consume here in the US comes from Mexico. Most of that comes from Michoacán. It was an incredibly important part of the story, and every shoot I would ask someone, ‘Hey, do you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody?’ We invested so much time trying to get into a lab, and I gave up on it after four or five months because I didn’t think it was going to happen. It was on one of our last shoots, one of those days where nothing was going right. Our car broke down up in the mountains in a really dangerous area. Then we got a call saying, ‘Be in this town square at 6:00 pm and you’re in. We drove to the town square and a group of masked men drove us through towns and smaller towns and fields and smaller fields and stopped. Another car drove at us, and they led us into the forest. We had set-up ground rules beforehand: I didn’t want to be thrown in a trunk; the cartel members’ wanted their faces covered. I had dreamed of shooting this scene for so long, and we were finally there. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, but for some reason, I’d certainly always envisioned this halogen-lit trailer. 

And I get out there and it’s this dense forest with the sun setting beneath the mountains in the distance. I don’t shoot with lights and I couldn't believe that I had fought so hard to be in this situation, and I couldn't see a damn thing with my camera. But then the head chef started showing me around the lab with this little flashlight. And it’s with that flashlight that I lit the scene.

PH: Describe your scariest moment you had while filming.

MH: For me, the scariest moment in the film was not one of the more adrenaline-packed moments — of being shot at or any of those other experiences. It was actually a moment that I spent in the beginning of the film with a woman who was kidnapped by the cartel along with her husband. She describes her husband being chopped up to pieces and then burned to death-- I’ll never forget her deep, hollow eyes, sunken as if that is where the cartel had sucked out her soul. To think that there are human beings that would do that – that stuck with me more than any of these other moments.

PH: What type of budget were you working with for this project and how did that help/hinder you?

MH: Part of the trouble with funding docs is that people want to know exactly what they’re going to get—what the first, second, and third acts are going to be, but I knew it was important to let this film play out organically based on the footage I was going to shoot. I owe an enormous amount to Tom Yellin, my producing partner, for helping support production, as we sought the support of Molly Thompson and A&E IndieFilms, who came on board about halfway through filming. Molly and A&E took an enormous risk in betting on me and the story, at a time when nobody else did, and for that I am incredibly indebted. Of several grants we applied for early on, only two came through: Candescent Films and the Sundance Institute, plus invitations to its Producers Summit and Catalyst Initiative—essentially a speed-dating scenario in which six documentary and six narrative filmmakers per year are given the chance to pitch their projects to potential investors looking for material. We got strong feedback from the investors, including four individuals whose investments would make up roughly one third of the total budget and round out the financing for the film. It was an incredibly wonderful thing for us and for this film, and I’m grateful for the support of the Sundance Institute. 

PH: What should other filmmakers who want to take on this type of documentary know before attempting?

MH: I heard Al Maysles once say, “If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way.” I think that this is good advice for life and also good advice for filmmaking, and it’s something that I thought about almost every day during the making of CARTEL LAND. Let the story evolve, let your characters evolve, and be open to the story changing.

MATTHEW HEINEMAN - Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor

Matthew Heineman (pictured on the right) is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker based in New York. He directed and produced ESCAPE FIRE: THE FIGHT TO RESCUE AMERICAN HEALTHCARE, which premiered at Sundance 2012. After winning numerous festival awards, the film was theatrically released to critical acclaim by Roadside Attractions / Lionsgate before airing on CNN and earning an Emmy nomination. Heineman previously collaborated for two years with a team at HBO on the groundbreaking, Emmy-nominated HBO series, The Alzheimer's Project, which aired in May 2009. He also directed and produced OUR TIME – a feature-length documentary about what it's like to be young in today's America. Heineman has directed several short films and commercials and is currently developing a few different projects.

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  • Denise Williams said…
    Tuesday, March 8, 2016 1:51 PM
    This is an awesome story! A very good read. I'm looking forward to seeing this documentary.
    By the way, which lenses were used with the Canon C300?
  • Sebastian Neville said…
    Tuesday, March 8, 2016 2:01 PM
    Congratulations Matthew. I am originally from Argentina and living in the East Coast (US) since 1997. I really enjoyed CARTEL LAND. There are so few documentary films done about the struggles (And glories) of South America (And Central A.) . You did your work as filmmaker and showed a clear picture from both sides. I am hoping one day I will be able to follow Maysles's and your advice and produce something in that part of the world, is there a way to communicate with you online? Again, cangrats for a great work done!
    Sebastian Neville
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