When I first started telling people about this idea…I had several people, when I was describing the conditions and the locations and the details, asked me if I was making some kind of dystopian, futuristic sci-fi. I had to explain that, ‘No, this is all actually happening.’
It makes an odd sort of sense that a non-U.S. citizen would make one of the earliest films about the United States’ morally odious policy of detaining of children at the southern border. But surprisingly, Daniel Sawka does not hail from Mexico, Central, or South America either, but from Sweden. He began his work on the film in 2014, years before Donald Trump’s family separation policy resulted in thousands of children suddenly becoming orphaned U.S. detainees.
Sawka, a young, emerging writer-director, researched the reality at the U.S.-Mexico border diligently with the help of expert journalists, NGO officials, border agents, and immigrants. The ultimate result is the HBO feature film Icebox, which follows the journey of a Honduran boy named Oscar (Anthony Gonzalez) through the U.S. immigration system and its less-than-humane, overburdened detention centers. The title refers to the centers’ frigid temperatures where children are given only thin foil “space” blankets for warmth in chain-link, cage-like cells with concrete floors. Originally, Sawka released Icebox as a short in 2014, but with the help and encouragement of legendary producer James L. Brooks, he developed it into a feature that was released by HBO in December of last year.
Sawka spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about how he researched the film, the challenges of capturing this real-life tragedy in a fictional feature script, and why, as the son of a Polish migrant, this story was both shockingly foreign and deeply personal.
Given that you started this journey in 2014, tell me about how struck or surprised you were by the events at the border that started to unfold after Donald Trump became president in 2017.
I felt like I was less surprised than perhaps a lot of people were when they were reading about what was happening. I mean, unfortunately, less surprised. This is something that’s been going on for a long time. The biggest shift in what’s happened in the last few years is that it has been used very actively as a deterrent, or has been kind of designed as a deterrent, more than it had been before. But yeah, the problem obviously has existed for decades. When I started working on this in 2014, that was the year that there was a huge problem that then ended with lawsuits. It was a very dramatic year, especially for children coming alone and unaccompanied minors coming alone. The system just couldn’t cope and there were a lot of strange things happening around it, that then started getting picked up in the news. But I was still surprised about how few people had heard about this, [back] then.
There are a lot of critics of this administration, but a lot of them have failed to realize that in many respects, this was a preexisting condition. I mean, it’s obviously been exacerbated, but, initially at least, most people were unaware that these detentions were occurring prior to this administration.
Yeah, this was something that’s been happening for a long time. I’m in no way—I just want to make it very clear—defending what the current administration is doing, because they’re exacerbating it and these policies that are being created are making the situation worse. But yeah, this is definitely something that existed for a long time. When I first started telling people about this idea I had for making this short, I spent so much time explaining what these places were and [the fact] that this was actually happening. I had several people, when I was describing the conditions and the locations and the details, asked me if I was making some kind of dystopian, futuristic sci-fi. I had to explain that, “No, this is all actually happening, I have images to confirm what I’m talking about. I’m not making something up that’s set 50 years in a dystopian future, this is happening right now.” So it is definitely different than right now. I feel like there’s a lot more awareness now.
One of the strong things about the film is how the little details bring home the reality of what this detention is—the foil blankets detained children are given, the icebox-like temperatures. How did you research the internal reality in these detention centers?
That was very difficult because you’re not allowed in. I mean, there have been senators and congressmen and women that had been turned away from these places, because no one has the right to access them, which made the research very difficult, especially with me being not an American citizen. We did, of course, look into whether or not it would be possible to visit, and were immediately told that that would be near impossible, that they would never let someone like me in. So what we did do was—and this is over the span of years, we started in 2014 before the short, obviously—I started by reaching out to several journalists that had written detailed pieces covering this issue. Then I started making a list based off of those journalists. I asked, “If I could only talk to three people about this, who should I talk to?” Then I started whittling down that list and calling those names and those sources, and I was very fortunate to be welcomed with open arms by a few of them. They took me along the border, on each side of the border, to shelters and to different NGOs and they kind of explained [it] to me and gave me insight into it. These are people that were working with it for decades, so they have earned a level of trust with organizations—even unofficial organizations—that normally you can’t really get to, or they’re not very welcoming to strangers. So we started conducting so many interviews, especially interviewing migrants and migrant children, but also border patrol officers, immigration lawyers, NGOs that are working on this, priests that are working along the border. [We were] just trying to get a broad perspective on the issue, and that became the basis of the skeleton for the story.
So you were thrust into a journalistic role here?
Yeah. I’m not a trained journalist. I did what made sense to me and what made sense to the people that I asked what to look for and what to look at. I was guided. But yeah, inevitably, when you take on something like this, you have a responsibility to do that work.
Another powerful, on-the-ground-detail, is when you actually see this steel border fence, and the children are literally using simple ladders to climb over it.
There are big stretches of border that have exactly this kind of fence. We researched the different kinds of fencing that exists and if things were to be expanded what might be put in place. And we looked at statistics of how these are crossed and how often they’re crossed. And we had some very interesting interviews with border patrol officers that were annoyed by having to clean up ladders that had been left behind. You know, these are $10 wooden ladders that are used to cross a very expensive wall. We thought that was very interesting. That moment for me was obviously a very controversial moment to have in the film, but that was one that we felt like we needed to have, to illustrate the journey.
There’s a big challenge here narratively. This is so politically and morally charged. How difficult for you was it to find the right balance, the right kind of restraint to not cross over into sanctimonious or emotionally explorative territory? How challenging was that?
Yeah, that was incredibly challenging. That was something we constantly discussed. Because the hardest thing [that happens] once you research for a long time, for several years, [is that] you have too much. You have examples of everything happening. Then it becomes a matter of choosing and a matter of what do you get to include. What is fair to include? So that work was very, very difficult. Finding that line was something we constantly discussed. Also [discussing this] was James L. Brooks, who was the producer and was very involved in all aspects of the film. For me, the important thing was not to end up in the trap of criticizing individual characters or individual elements, but to make sure that it was an exploration of the system. So whenever you came into a place where you had a lot of stories, a lot of testimonies about border patrol officers doing horrible stuff, or something that happened in the courts that was really terrible… it would risk letting the system itself off the hook. If there was a mean border patrol officer in there that you could focus all your negative emotions onto, it would veer away from the fact that we were looking at the system.
And that is unusual in terms of filmic storytelling. There are a couple of guards that aren’t nice a couple times, but there’s no tangible bad guy. It’s just this omnipresent, sort of invisible bad guy, like you said, the system. So that was kind of your golden rule in approaching this?
Yeah, exactly. The system was kind of the antagonist, rather than one individual.
From a scripting standpoint, how challenging was expanding the original material into a full-length feature?
I hadn’t planned to initially. Honestly, the only reason I started thinking that maybe I wanted to was because of having a chance to include what we’ve seen in the third act a little bit more— about migrants who are in the U.S. and who are living here undocumented. That aspect of the story felt like it was something that we hadn’t touched in the short, that was interesting and an important aspect of all this. So that third act drew me to expand on the short.
How do you tackle script writing?
With this, the structure itself was always going to be more or less the same. You have act one outside of the facility, act two being the icebox, and act three being what happens when he leaves. So that was more or less set. The different character relationships were very challenging because, like most people making this journey, you don’t get to hold onto anything. There was a conscious choice made that you wouldn’t get to keep hold of characters. Once you’d left someone behind, they wouldn’t really come back into this film (with one exception). So every time you left the character, you left that line. That was very challenging, having a main character who has to carry the film and create new relationships for every act that are then taken away again [at the end of the act]. But it was important to structure it like that, to feel what he felt, the feeling of constantly being moved on, and not getting to hold onto any anything or anyone.
That’s an interesting point and definitely true of the film. In general, do you tend to be a big outliner? Or are you a stream of consciousness guy?
I do an outline with the big moments, but I keep it loose because I find that—maybe it’s actually not a good trait—but I get a little bit uninspired looking at too many points. I feel like when the things get so detailed, I might as well just write it. There’s something in discovering pieces on the way that I haven’t outlined completely that I’ve enjoyed. Sometimes it definitely has come back to bite me in the ass, and maybe I should have taken a little bit more time outlining. But it’s something I’m still figuring out. I don’t have an outline where every single moment, every single scene is in there. It’s a little looser than that for sure.
So you like a little space.
I’ve read that your father was a migrant to Stockholm. Where did he come from?
He was exiled from Poland, which was under Soviet rule. So he was put under exile in his late teens and sent to Stockholm when he was young. I think he was 17 or 18. He came alone to Stockholm. I grew up on his story of coming to a new country, not knowing anyone or the language or anything, and being put through a system. Obviously, that system is a lot more generous than the system that we’re encountering here, but that feeling of being at the hands of an institution or some machine that you don’t really have any insight into. And his parents before him had to flee and relocate during different times, as well as their parents before them. So it was something that I grew up on, having to move, being at someone’s mercy, having to redefine yourself and find yourself in a new place. And it’s something that I explored in some short films before when I was younger as well. I tried to get a few different projects off the ground on this topic. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a very long time. And when I was at school in my final year, and I started working on my thesis film, I came across an article about the border here. There was an image of these boys behind this wire fence, in a cell on the floor with these space blankets. It just felt so different from anything I’d seen, yet at the same time a kind of emotion and situation that I’ve been wanting to explore for a long time. So that set me off on years of research.
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