- “Icebox” is the feature debut for director Daniel Sawka and is based on his award-winning short film that looks at the US immigration policy from the perspective of a migrant young boy trying to get to the US.
- The short film caught the attention of legendary director/producer James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons,” “Terms of Endearment”) who produced the feature version.
- The lead of “Icebox” is Anthony Gonzalez, the star of the Disney hit “Coco.”
Though the Toronto International Film Festival is where the major studios and established players from the independent film world launch Oscar campaigns, the festival can still have a few surprises.
This year those include “Icebox,” one of this year’s TIFF world premieres that could find itself in the running for award season consideration with the big boys by year’s end thanks to a ripped-from-the-headlines story and the backing of one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood.
Swedish-born filmmaker Daniel Sawka has expanded his award-winning short film into a gripping feature that follows 12-year-old Oscar as he leaves his family in Honduras to escape gang life to start brand new in the US with his uncle. The trek illegally across the border to the States doesn’t go as planned and Oscar is snatched by the border patrol and sent to an immigrant detention facility.
Sawka then gives us an intimate look inside one of those facilities through the eyes of young Oscar. Unable to reach his uncle, Oscar must deal with days stuck inside an empty warehouse in a designated area surrounded by chain fences. And in the evenings he shivers himself to sleep on the cold concrete draped in a silver solar blanket. Though he befriends another boy who is in there with him, he finds himself in danger when his gang ties back home are revealed. Oscar must then take desperate steps to get his uncle out of hiding and convince him to come pick him up, which could jeopardize the uncle’s hopes for a green card.
Anthony Gonzalez, who plays Miguel in the Disney/Pixar hit “Coco,” gives an incredible performance as Oscar (he also played the character in the short film), whose adolescence has been stripped from him due to gangs back home and who is determined to make it to the US. Oscar’s uncle, Manuel, is played with a heartwarming mix of comedy and drama by Omar Leyva.
The short film version of the movie, which was also Sawka’s thesis project at the American Film Institute, made the rounds at top-tier festivals like Telluride and the AFI Film Fest, where it won best live-action short. And that pedigree led to it coming across the desk of legendary director/producer James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons,” “Big,” “Terms of Endearment”) in 2016, who was moved by Sawka’s short.
“Seeing the short was my awareness of what was going on,” Brooks told Business Insider over the phone before the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere. “I was very interested in meeting with Daniel and I asked him what he wanted to do with a full-length piece and this is what he wanted to do.”
“I was shocked to be sitting with him,” Sawka said to Business Insider in Toronto the day after the movie’s premiere. “He called AFI and we got in touch and we talked for two hours. I thought that was all it was going to be but then he said he wanted to make this film together and we started developing.”
For Sawka it was the latest highlight in a four-year process from when he started researching the short film. And it was all sparked from his own family’s experience with immigration.
“For generations on my father’s side, people have been forced to migrate and relocate and find new homes,” he said. “It’s something I never experienced, but I was brought up on these stories and I wanted to find out more. Understand it better.”
And one day online he came across a story that included a photo of a group of boys on a warehouse floor with silver blankets around them, and he realised that was the story he needed to tell: The plight of the the immigrant coming to the US through our southern borders.
After months of research and interviews with countless people, from immigration lawyers, to judges, to children who had experienced staying in a detention facility, Sawka had his story. And then he found his lead.
Then only 11 years old, Anthony Gonzalez was found through the casting process and blew everyone away. Gonzalez’s riveting performance is a main reason for the attention the short got and will likely be why it gets attention when released to general audiences. And he’s had success since the short, getting cast as the lead in Pixar’s “Coco.”
“He discovered a star,” Brooks said of Sawka casting Gonzalez. “Which doesn’t happen on every thesis film.”
From humble beginnings, Sawka was now going to the offices of Brooks’ Gracie Films, the home base for the making of “The Simpsons,” to develop “Icebox.”
Though Sawka said Brooks’ imprint is in every part of the movie, the Oscar winner is quick to say that this is Sawka’s movie and he’s just happy to help a talented newbie get his start.
“Every time I do work with a first-time filmmaker it’s because I believe that person has a real voice and I try to help them have their voice rather than mine,” Brooks said. “But the one thing I wanted out of this for myself was the spirit of the film. Just to be around that spirit.”
With a crew made up of recent AFI graduates, or those with just a little experience on set, Sawka used the research he had been compiling since the short as the movie’s guiding light. Shot in 21 days in New Mexico, Sawka and Brooks cast a predominantly Hispanic crew and that turned out to make the story even more authentic, as Sawka would often talk to crew members and learn how similar their families’ stories were to the story they were telling.
“Every day someone would come up and tell you something,” Sawka said. “There was this willingness and want to share experiences so Jim and I constantly talked about how we could get those perspectives into the movie. The challenge of this movie was finding the focus because you could go so many different places.”
And then a big moment regarding the immigration issue happened in post production. Around the time Sawka was getting to the final cut, President Trump announced a “zero tolerance” immigration policy that separated migrant parents from their children at the border (weeks after the announcement, Trump changed the policy so families no longer would be split up).
It’s something Sawka had gotten used to over the last four years, that the topic of his story was essentially a “moving target,” as he put it. But it was time to go forward with the movie in the can, so the decision was made to address the “zero tolerance” policy in an end card before the credits.
“We wanted to show that we’re now on a slippery slope towards something quite terrifying,” Sawka said of addressing the policy.
“Icebox” is now working on landing a distribution deal out of TIFF with the hopes of launching an awards season run. Sawka is also developing another project for Brooks to produce.
But the Oscar character is not far from his mind. When asked if he could ever see himself making a sequel that looks at where Oscar is with his life five or ten years from now, Sawka was excited by the idea.
“I would personally love that and I think Anthony would too,” he said. “I think a lot about what might happen to this character.”
“Icebox” is currently seeking distribution.
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