Director José María Cabral’s newest film, WOODPECKERS, is a stirring star-crossed love story with an intriguing twist. The story revolves around new inmate Julian (Jean Jean) learning to navigate the social hierarchy of his surroundings. Along the way, he discovers “woodpecking,” a method of sign language to communicate with the female prisoners who live in the neighboring prison yard. Julian finds love with Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez), while Cabral’s direction reveals layers of humanity hidden behind prison walls. We spoke with Cabral about filming in an actual prison and preparing his actors to embrace the authenticity of their surroundings.

ComicsVerse: You filmed WOODPECKERS in the Najayo prison in the Dominican Republic. Why was that level of realism important to you for bringing this story to life?    

José María Cabral: It was the only way to portray the story with authenticity. Recreating the prison or the language would be contradictory to the film’s premise. It was about capturing the truth, their real faces, their real beds, their real emotions and the real language. 

CV: I read that you spent months at the Najayo jail prior to the actual shoot to help you fully realize the script. Can you share how the film evolved during your research at the prison? 

Cabral: Yes, about nine months researching and going every day to the three different prisons that are in the movie. At first, I was thinking about making a documentary, but as I got to know more the people and started feeling what they were feeling, I knew I had to make it a feature drama. I wanted the audience to feel this is real, but also for them to ride with the emotions of the story, because that’s how I came to build this. The inmates were telling me different short stories about their love and I grouped all those stories together to make it a feature film.

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CV: Were there any technical challenges posed by shooting in the prison? In particular, the long-take scene that followed Julian through the halls of the jail seemed like a complex one to pull off.

Cabral: Yes, a lot. Sound, for example. It’s a very busy and noisy prison, so there was no way to control sound. We had to incorporate it as a narrative device, always showing how populated and busy is the prison. Same with the extras, there was too many movements of people that we couldn’t control so we had to be quick between shots to maintain a balanced continuity. That shot you mention took about five hours rehearsal and two hours of shooting.

CV: Did the actors in the film accompany you to the prison prior to shooting? What kind of preparation did they do in order to prepare for their roles?

Cabral: Yes they did, for about three months prior to shooting. They went through the process of being a real prisoner, the guards took their clothes off, their belongings and did the entrance as any other inmate. Then they spent hours in the cells talking with other inmates in the prison uniform and more importantly, they learned the sign language through them. 

CV: The romance between Julian and Yanelly is heartfelt and warm even though they are rarely in the same room together. How did you prepare the actors and adjust your own directing to make sure the romance could be felt by the audience?

Cabral: That was one of the main reasons the main character is new in prison, so we get to know the language and the distance as if we were entering the prison with him. So every time he talks to her we learn something new and get closer and closer (emotionally and in the camera position and framing), that’s why the audience gets involved, within time they feel familiarized and start to feel what the characters feel.

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CV: The film strikes a unique balance between prison drama and romance. How did you find the right tone to convey both sides of this story as you were writing the script?

Cabral: It was just a feeling I had when I visited the prison the first time. That contrast of finding love stories in a very hostile place like prison was the key. I felt many of them wanted something different, but the universe they were in was too difficult to get it, so I just wrote the things I saw. I think the tone was created by the characters. They are tough, but they are also really all scared, and that vulnerability makes them sensitive. With that sensitivity, they use the sign language to find liberty through love.

CV: If this film makes audiences want to seek out other films by filmmakers from the Dominican Republic, what would you recommend they watch?

Cabral: Absolutely, I would encourage people to look for LA GUNGUNA, DOLARES DE ARENA, COCOTE, LA SOGA, and CRISTO REY.

WOODPECKERS will be out in limited release on September 15.

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