April 30, 2014

Rafa Lara Interview

We talk with Rafa Lara, the director of the biggest budget Mexican film of all time: Cinco de Mayo: The Battle which hits Canadian theatres this weekend courtesy of Raven Banner Entertainment.

The film tells the story of May 5th, 1862, when a few thousand Mexican soldiers put their lives on the line against the world’s largest and most powerful army in one legendary battle for freedom and for Mexico.





What was it that made you want to tell the story of Cinco de Mayo?

Well, the story basically began with the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Puebla which took place in 1862. So I started creating this project at the request of the Mexican Government and they gave me a proposal to do a film about Cinco de Mayo; not even just about the battle but something for Cinco de Mayo, so I decided to create in detail the battle because that is basically what happened.

The battle was an invasion of the French army led by Napoleon the Third; the most important thing about the battle is not only that Mexicans won against one of the most powerful and unbeatable armies at that moment in the world with less soldiers and experience. They also had a lot less money and weapons so we wanted to show their heroic side but also the International side which is most important for Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo essentially changed the history of the World as we know it.


The reality is that the real plan of Napoleon the Third was to conquer Mexico really fast and really easy… at least, that’s what he thought. At that time the Civil War was happening in the United States so they had an agreement with the South, the Confederate armies. So if Mexicans couldn’t defeat the French on Cinco de Mayo then one month later the French would be fighting alongside the Confederacy.

That changed the course of the world because if Mexico didn’t defeat the French, then the South would have won the Civil War and Mexico would have belonged to France and so would some parts of the central United States. The States would have been separated into two separate countries so some statisticians have said that Cinco de Mayo essentially changed the history of the World as we know it.



I like the tagline for the film: “It’s not a party, it’s a war”. A lot of people may not know the full story behind this date. Was that important for you as part of the marketing of the film?

It was even more important to tell the real story; I have lived in the United States for more than five years and all the time when people would find out I was Mexican they would say “Oh yeah, it’s Cinco De Mayo! Mexican Independence Day!” No it’s not and it makes no sense at all why it’s celebrated so much in that way. So the film explains why it was so important since Lincoln’s army knew about the plans of Napoleon’s army but basically there was nothing they could do. They were just expecting a miracle which finally happened; that’s the reason since then that the United States celebrates Cinco de Mayo.

la foto

How long did it take to put the script together? 

The script took me about six months which is really fast for this kind of film; it was actually quite difficult as I had to work hand in hand with various specialists on the story, doing a lot of research on the subject using books and the internet too. I wanted to be faithful to the story and most importantly I wanted to do a film where the camera was a time machine that brings the audience into Cinco de Mayo during 1862. So everything had to be truthful and there was a huge responsibility with the country and the government too. So it took me about six months, then it was approved and then we finally started shooting.

Everything had to be truthful! 

Cinco de Mayo: The Battle is the biggest budget Mexican film to date; can you talk us through putting some of the battle scenes together; it looks like there are a lot of practical visuals rather than relying on CGI…

I wanted to do a very realistic film and not a “Hollywood style” film; what I mean is that I didn’t want to do a fireworks and special effects show. I wanted the audience to feel like they were right in the middle of the battle, so I wanted to do everything using handheld cameras where you’ll really feel like you are there. I wanted to do it in an old-fashioned way; of course there are some special effects but the most important elements are done like the old fashioned war films. The special effects are there (mostly physical) but I tried to avoid using visual effects as much as possible.


What was it like trying to coordinate battle scenes with horses?

We had around 140 horses which even for a Hollywood film would be a lot of horses. We had the support of the Mexican army but also brought our own film horses which are specialized for action scenes. That was very difficult to do but in the end they looked great in the film.

“It’s impossible but let’s give it a shot!”

Was there more pressure working with a bigger budget or did it make things easier?

It wasn’t easy at all; making films in Latin America is always difficult but making a film like this one was basically impossible. At the beginning I called the most experienced female producer in Mexico, Anna Roth and she had basically worked all her life on Hollywood films, including Titanic so she’s a huge producer. When she first read the script she said “Rafa you’re crazy! This is impossible! We are not able to do these kinds of films; these types of films are for Hollywood with $100 Million budgets.” She asked how much we had and it was only $9 Million. She looked over the plans for the film and kept saying “it’s impossible” and I said “Yes it is, but let’s give it a shot!”


We started doing it and I was feeling so happy and confident; it’s basically the type of movie I’ve wanted to do my entire life. Since I was a kid I wanted to make big budget movies and even my previous movies have been quite big budget, at least in Latin American terms, but nothing ever this big. We’re talking about $2 million dollars but now we’re on $9 million which of course is the biggest yet.

There was some big responsibility but I also worked with a very strong team so it wasn’t only me. The team had all worked on big films before, nothing quite this big but they knew about making these types of films. So I put them on the film and was pushing, pushing, pushing and at the end of the day we created this “impossible” film and are bringing it to the big screen.

Was there anything you had to cut which you particularly regret?

I’m very happy with the results; everything I wanted to do is basically on the screen. As more time passes the more I will think “Man, I should have done this, that, etc…” but right now I feel very happy and the most important thing is creating a film that connects with the audience. Also, it doesn’t even matter if you’re Mexican or not; you don’t have to be Mexican to enjoy the film and you don’t have to know anything about Mexican history. From the very beginning I was sure that I wanted to make a good war film by itself so you don’t need to know anything about the country to enjoy the movie.

The most difficult and important thing on a film is that you connect with the people; if it doesn’t connect then the film simply isn’t working. At this point, after travelling to so many Festivals with this film in various countries around the world, people have really got involved with the characters and the situations so we are very happy with that result.

Cinco_REVISED Billing1-1

What other projects do you have coming up?

I have several projects going just now; we have to be constantly reinventing ourselves. Right now I’m about to start shooting a completely different film which is a romantic comedy. It’s a chick flick comedy called ‘Size Does Matter’ and I’m also writing another war film, which will hopefully be even bigger than Cinco de Mayo. That really is more my type of film; the first film I did ‘La Milagrosa’ was a big budget for Colombia. It was a war film as well so I think that war films are really my favourite genre in terms of filming. Right now I’m creating a film about the Spanish civil war; it’s basically my origin as I’m from a Spanish family that got into Mexico after the Spanish civil war and World War 2.

Thanks so much for chatting with us and all the best with your future projects.


Rafa will be in attendance to do a Q&A Friday and Saturday at the Carlton Theater in Toronto at 9pm, so come along if you can make it.


About the Author

Eoin Friel
Eoin Friel
I grew up watching JCVD, Sly and Arnold destroy bad guys, blow things up and spew one-liners like it's a fashion statement. Action is everything I go to the movies for and the reason I came up with this site is to share my love for the genre with everyone.



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