Why Sleep Dealer is a different kind of sci-fi movie

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Leonor Varela, star of the upcoming indie sci-fi movie Sleep Dealer, told SCI FI Wire that she couldn't resist the temptation to support the project, which is a true rarity: an independently produced Spanish-language feature with a story that melds science fiction, social drama and a touch of political satire.

Directed and co-written by first-timer Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer is set in a Mexico of the near future, in a world where people sport nodes that allow them to plug into a giant global computer.

Varela plays Luz, a woman who sells her memories and experiences on the Internet, almost like blogs with images, sound and narration provided by her mind. Meanwhile, Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) is a man who ends up working in a "sleep dealer," or a Mexican factory where laborers plug in and do menial jobs using virtual technology to control robots over the border in America.

Finally, there's Rudy (Jacob Vargas), a pilot who used similar technology to remotely control the drone plane that killed Memo's father. It's not long, of course, before the lives of Luz, Memo and Rudy intersect.

SCI FI Wire spoke exclusively to Varela—whose credits include Blade II, Stargate: Atlantis and The Curse of King Tut's Tomb—in New York on Monday. Following are edited excerpts from that interview. Sleep Dealer opens in limited release on April 17 before expanding into additional markets in the coming weeks.

What was it about Sleep Dealer that compelled you to sign on?

Varela: I fell in love with the script. I was absolutely drawn to the thought that Latin American movies could do a sci-fi movie. I'd never seen that before. And then I thought, "An independent film that's sci-fi? What's that going to be like?" When I talked to the producer and I saw who was involved in the special effects department—and he's a fantastically talented man—I thought, "This sounds really interesting."

The themes that were touched upon were so current and relevant to me that I just felt I had to do it. In a way, this is the kind of movie that brings culture to the face of the public. This is where we sort of reflect for a moment on how we're living our lives and what we do with technology in our lives. Are we making the planet worse? Are we going to use technology to make the planet a better place? All these questions.

Your director, Alex Rivera, had this idea in his head for more than 12 years, but he was also stepping behind the camera for the first time on a feature. What was your experience like, working with him?

Varela: He was somebody who had a very, very clear vision for what he wanted. He came to set with this short film that he had edited together, five minutes, and you understood everything. He showed you how two people made love and how they'd be in each other's universe. He knew what kind of images would form into one another. So it's wonderful to have somebody that has a clear idea, because you know where you're going. On the other hand, being less experienced on the set, it was sometimes challenging for him to handle a bunch of ballsy Mexicans yelling, because he's very soft-spoken, and he's very kind and very gentle. So at times that was more of a challenge for him.

Alex has said that the film really came together in the editing room. You just said it was the script that attracted you. So how different is the finished film from that script that drew you in to the project, and how satisfied are you with the final product?

Varela: Amazingly. Completely. It's completely, 1,000 percent better. For me, watching the special effects incorporated in there, first of all, was mind-blowing. I just saw little green crosses [during the shoot], and now I'm seeing this entire thing come to life, and that's crazy. It also just focused more around the story of Memo and Luz, and how that happened. A lot of the side stories got trimmed, and it just became more of the core, which I always think is good, because if you don't need it, then don't have it there.

If you could sell your memories, and you had to do so to raise money, would you?

Varela: Oh, God. It would depend. Would you lose them if you sold them, or would you keep them? I don't know if I would sell them like Luz, but writing an autobiography or picking a [personal] piece of material to develop is very similar in that sense. As long as you can keep your memories as a point of reference of who you are, I think it's OK to share. I think that's what people do with autobiographies.