Joth Riggs on directing ‘Night of the Sicario’

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Joth Riggs brings us Night of the Sicario, written by Ernesto Melara and Matthew Eason. I got the chance to speak with him about his directing style and working with his talented cast.

Synopsis: Natasha Henstridge (Species) and Costas Mandylor (Saw franchise) star in this action-packed, suspenseful thriller that will shock you at every turn. While transporting the family of a key witness in a federal trial against the cartel, DEA agents are ambushed in a fatal shootout. Now the survivors, including the witness’ young daughter, must take refuge in a nearby home as the ruthless sicarios hunt them down. With danger at every corner and a violent hurricane wiping out any chance of outside help, they must play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the cartel to live through the night.

Check out my Q&A with Joth!

How did you become a part of this project?

Joth: I actually had connected with the producers on this project about another project earlier that we had in development that we were working toward. That one wasn’t quite ready to go and this project was brought to them. They sent me the script and asked if I’d be interested in it and I really liked the story and the characters and I said ‘yeah, let’s do it.’

Do you have any special approaches that you take when you direct- what’s your process?

Joth: Yeah, the one thing that’s really important for me is to keep a very relaxed atmosphere on set, not just among the crew which is important, but particularly for the cast. I want them to feel safe. I want them to feel that they can trust me, that I have their back. I kind of want to remind people that we’re not curing cancer, you know, let’s just enjoy this process. Because when they’re relaxed, they feel free to kind of extend themselves a little bit emotionally and just be able to give you a bit more with their performances. And I trust my crew and my cinematographer to technically give us the great stuff, then I pave the way for the actors to really feel safe to bring us their best performance.

So are you kind of hands off when it comes to the actors?

Joth: Well, no, I mean, I guide them but it’s a process where it’s really a collaboration. I’m hands off in the sense that I don’t pretend to be an actor, I’m not, I’m a director. I give them the sandbox to play in. So I guess the answer would be yes, I guess, in that sense. I am a bit hands off but I give them some real good solid boundaries to work within to make sure that I get what I need for the scene, but to allow them to really bring their own interpretation to the character. 

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
What was it like to work with this cast?

Joth: I had a great cast, I was so fortunate on this project and Natasha was a lot of fun. And, as well as Costas (Mandylor) and the bad guys even. I mean, Manny Perez and Roberto Sanchez, those guys as scary as they were on screen, they were such pros and they were so great to work with off screen. So, I was really fortunate there. And a nice big surprise for us was Addison Kendall who’s a young actress and this was her first time in a feature, and her role is not insignificant, you know, so I was a little nervous about that. But she really brought it and I was really pleasantly surprised with her ability to reach down and she had a really emotional part and she did a fantastic job. I was really happy.

What would you say your favorite scene to shoot was?

Joth: Oh, by far the favorite to shoot would have been the shoot out in the intersection. Which, it’s funny, of course, in the film that takes place during the onset of a category five hurricane and we had tons of rain in pre production as we’re gearing up for this, but on that day it was a gorgeous sunny day without a cloud in the sky. We had to bring in rain towers, and we brought in a giant   ritter fan with a jet turbine engine on it to blast our actors with hurricane force winds. And, you know, flip a car and shoot people and all the things that are really fun about filmmaking, we got to do on that day I was a blast…  It is great fun when you can pull off something that is a total, what we call a cheat, that looks wonderful in the lens but is nothing at all like the real world behind the lens, like some of these storm scenes and rainy days and so on. It was a lot of fun. 

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
What would you say was the most difficult scene to shoot?

Joth: Well I think that there were some pretty emotional scenes, with Addison in particular, that, as I said before, I was a little concerned about because she was a first-timer and I mean, I think she had some of the most emotional moments in this story. And so I was a little nervous about whether or not she’d be able to pull it off, but she was a total pro. It was fantastic. And in the end, I was really impressed with those scenes in particular. Yeah, but the fact that she was able to somehow dig deep in her young life and find the emotion, you know, to bring to the table, she pulled it off, she did a great job.

Yeah, she definitely was a highlight in this movie.

Joth: Yeah, it was an interesting time too, because we shot it in rural Pennsylvania and we were looking for a young girl around that age, and she had to be able to act, obviously, but she also had to speak Spanish. And so, that made it like, ‘Oh, we need to find a needle in the haystack.’ But she was great in the audition and great and all my interviews with her. I’m like ‘okayI think we got something here,’ so I’m excited to see what she does in the future. I think she’ll be one to watch.

Speaking of casting, did you have any say when it came to casting?

Joth: Yeah, I would say with all of them. I mean, Natasha came with the project and in theory, I could have said ‘no thank you,’ if I wanted them out but I love her, she was fantastic, so I was very happy with that. But yeah, I was part of the process for selecting all of the cast. I’m very happy with who we had across the board. Our seniors were great, I wanted to make sure that they had some depth to them and actually contributed to the story. I mean, of course, it’s an action film, but it was important for me for all these characters to really have some depth and not be cardboard cutout figures. Same with the bad guys, you know, they’ve got their own backstory. And each of these seniors has their own backstory and they’re part of the solution in the film, they all have a contribution to make and they’re all valued for each aspect of it so I was really fortunate with the actors that I got to play all these roles. 

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
Can you just talk a little bit about how you shot that ending fight scene with the seniors?

Joth: This is where my background as an assistant director really comes in because I’ve spent decades scheduling films and running film sets so I’m a very organized person as it is and so, we really mapped that sequence out as a dance. It was like choreography. And each character had their beats and has their moment. Really it’s an elephant, you know, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So, we had to basically consolidate everything into individual pieces, but it was just so much fun to be able to pull all of the elements together in the climax and the seniors and the DEA agent and everybody kind of comes together to really wrap this thing up. I felt like it was a ballroom dance. Not that I’m a ballroom dancer, but yeah just kind of taking it one step at a time… We were fortunate to have an amazing location. I mean, that mansion we shot in was the real deal- 20 bedrooms, five floors with an elevator. We shot the heck out of it. We shot in pretty much every corner of that place. But it was just amazing that it was a great setting for the cat and mouse game that happens. But it’s funny, you think ‘how can you possibly hide in a house?’ In this one, that wasn’t hard. There was just so much available for us to shoot in, including that nice, big room for the climax. That was a great set.

Was that someone’s house?

Joth: Yeah, it was their actual residence, It was built, I think in the 20s or 30s and some guy built it for his wife as a gift and it was a huge place on a bunch of acres. And in the end, eventually it had been sold off and it had been turned into a senior care facility, but then that closed and it was bought by individual homeowners. Now there is a gentleman who lives there with his family. I don’t know what he uses all 20 bedrooms for because he only has one kid. It’s a historic residence as well so he probably bought it for other reasons too, but it is an amazing place.

Addison even has a line in there where she tells Taylor that she must be rich for living there. 

 Joth: Yeah, and so does the Sicario, you know, he has his moment with Taylor, Natasha’s character, where he goes ‘you think you have it big here and this big fancy mansion.’ And it’s just them kind of trying to understand each other’s characters and her perspective is different from his upbringing in Colombia, you know, and they all bring their different perspectives to the table.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Joth: I think it’s really important for me to make sure that every character had their moment, and that we kind of understand all the different characters. The five seniors and what they bring and I even made a point to give backstory to the Sicarios, you know, and what their motivation was that brought them to this place. And of course, Taylor, Natasha’s character, and what she’s going through. So I think it’s not just an action film where we set up a bunch of bad guys and shoot them all down and go on our way, there’s a lot of character involvement here and I think it’s a really fun film. It’s a pleasure to watch and I hope everybody enjoys watching it.

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
Night of the Sicario hits theaters on April 16 & On Demand and Digital on April 20.