A Million Miles Away Interview: Director Alejandra Márquez Abella on Entering Orbit

A Million Miles Away
(Photo by GP Images/WireImage)

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director Alejandra Márquez Abella about the film A Million Miles Away. The filmmaker discussed the process of adapting José Hernández’s story and working with child actors. A Million Miles Away is now streaming on Prime Video.

“Inspired by the real-life story of NASA flight engineer José Hernández, A Million Miles Away follows him and his devoted family of proud migrant farm workers on a decades-long journey, from a rural village in Michoacán, Mexico, to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, to more than 200 miles above the Earth in the International Space Station,” reads the movie’s synopsis. “With the unwavering support of his hard-working parents, relatives, and teachers, José’s unrelenting drive & determination culminates in the opportunity to achieve his seemingly impossible goal.”

Tyler Treese: When did you first learn of José’s story, how did you realize it would make such a great and inspirational movie?

Alejandra Márquez Abella: Well, I knew about Jose 15 years ago when he went to space, but I hadn’t gotten to know his story in detail. It was a producer who brought the film to me and I just fell in love with the story. I was used to making darker films and films about despicable characters. This wasn’t obvious for me. I didn’t expect a movie like this to be in my filmography, but I was super happy because it was such an emotional shock to me that I decided I had to do it and I had to put my heart in it.

In the film, we see his support system. It’s not just about one amazing person accomplishing something great. We see that his family makes sacrifices. We see his parents do that. We see what it puts his wife through. Can you speak to showing that fuller picture rather than just making it about José, who did remarkable stuff, but built off that great support system?

Well, I’d say for starters that I think the Hispanic community has that. We have a very strong sense of community. I truly believe that there are no successful people without an entire village behind them. So I, I think that was an important theme in the movie, starting with the partnership that he and Adela established from the beginning, and then the family, and then the whole community, and then a couple of countries standing behind these guys. Community was a big thing.

I love the framing you use with the recipe and the different ingredients that go into making this dream a reality. Where did you come up with that idea for the movie?

It wasn’t actually in the script. Hervé Schneid, who was the editor, and I just discovered that in the editing room, and it was a surprise, like, “Hey, I think the film has the same structure as a recipe, so should we use that as chapters or something?” And it was a true surprise. I think we didn’t expect that to happen, but I’m always saying that that’s when the soul of a film takes over. It’s there. You did it. You thought it and you intuitively went that way without even noticing. So it’s interesting.

I was so impressed by Michael Peña in the movie. He’s probably best known to a lot of us for his more comedic performances, but he’s so great in this more dramatic role. What about him as an actor made you know that this was your José?

Michael is the Mexican-American superstar of all times, I would say. Plus, he’s a terrific and super professional actor. It was such a privilege to work with him. I really, really enjoyed, and I think he did too, the work together. He’s just the best.

I really enjoyed the opening 20 minutes of A Million Miles Away that focuses on the young José, and I thought the young actor did such a great job of portraying him there. Can you speak to working with child actors and having us meet José as a child, and that serving as the emotional ground, which we all get invested upon?

Well, we had to go to the fields with him. We had to go and suffer and enjoy and walk by his side on those fields to understand the ethics behind everything that established his identity, his will, and his ambition. Working with Juan Pablo Monterrubio, who is the kid who plays José as a youngster was … I mean, it’s always a challenge to work with kids. This is not me saying that — it’s Hitchcock and everyone. [Laughs]. But he was such a sensible soul and such a generous little actor. To me, it was important for him to portray the vibrato that Mexican kids have, and specifically the ones who live tougher lives. So they’re like little men. That was part of the idea that we wanted to bring into the film.

We see a lot of different types of shots in the movie. What was the most challenging aspect, from a technical level, that went into shooting this filmÉ

NASA training, of course. Every NASA training was a challenge. Making NASA in Mexico … we shot the whole film in Mexico and making that was a big deal.

What do you hope people take away from Jose’s incredible story?

I would like them to take away that it was because of who he was — a migrant farm worker — that he achieved everything that he achieved — not despite it. It was because he was a migrant farm worker that he had the ambition and the power and the resilience to become who he became.

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