Jake Allyn is the writer of No Man’s Land and stars in the film alongside Frank Grillo, Jorge Jimenez, Andie MacDowell and George Lopez. IFC Films releases the picture in cinemas nationwide and on streaming services on January 22, 2021. His next vehicle is an independent feature, Ride, which he wrote, and will star and produce alongside Southern Stories Productions. After graduating from Cornell and deciding to pursue acting full time, Allyn landed his first series regular on BET’s one-hour drama The Quad, where he played BoJohn Folsom, a star quarterback forced to attend a historically black college who had to overcome a checkered past and race issues to win over his teammates. Jake’s performance was praised by The Hollywood Reporter and The Quad made The New York Times’ “Top Shows to Watch.” (Picture by Maarten de Boer.)
In film and television, there has never been a time when relevance was such an important component. Now that news is instantly available from an infinitely wide array of outlets, audiences want and expect relevant components to the stories they consume. There’s good and bad in that. It’s an opportunity for creative people to address the burning issues of the day, to ensure that our work will matter to audiences. When that desire for relevance is inauthentic or inorganic, it can lead to hollow storytelling. If a writer just grafts socially relevant material onto plots or characters, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
However, when writers and filmmakers have a real stake in the issue and care about it to their very cores, there are no better stories. Movies with compelling, personal stories are what inspired me to become a filmmaker in the first place. Cary Fukunaga’s powerful Sin Nombre educated me on the realities of immigration, and forced me to find my own point of view on that issue. Fukunaga’s ability to transcend his own background and tell authentic, relevant stories of people beyond his experience pushed me to do the same in my own work.
Sin Nombre was a touchstone for my film No Man’s Land, which fuses my own life experience growing up in Texas and visiting Mexico with my father. As a child, I got to see a Mexico not many of my friends and family got to see. A place of six-hour lunches, a place where people welcomed you into their home as if you were a part of the family, no matter what language you spoke. A place of physical beauty, and one that constantly breaks stereotypes. I still vividly remember shaking hands with then Mexican president Vicente Fox, a man who stood nearly 6’5” and played football in high school.
No Man’s Land tells stories of two families on either side of the Texas-Mexico border, shattered yet brought together by the tragic death of a child. It was the “reverse immigration” script I carried under my arm, and in my heart, for more than six years before it was greenlit. Some days I was told no because it was too much of a drama, some days the budget was too high, some days it was because I hadn’t made a film before, some days the industry just didn’t like it. It’s another key reason the issue of your film has to matter personally to you. If I didn’t have that burning desire to tell this particular story, I probably would have quit by the hundredth rejection.
The film follows a Texas ranch kid, Jackson, who kills a Mexican immigrant child in a tragic accident, then flees across the border to become a “gringo illegal alien” in Mexico. He treks south to face the same trials that northbound immigrants endure, hiding in the shadows of a land he has been raised to fear and hate. Jackson discovers, however, that Mexico is not the dystopia of violence, misery, cartels and crime that he imagined, and embarks on a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness from his victim’s father.
When my brother Conor Allyn, who directed the film, and my co-writer David Barraza created No Man’s Land with me, our intention was simply to tell a story about people, places and issues that we cared about, touching on themes as big as geopolitics and as small as what it means for a boy to say goodbye to his horse. Above all, we believed that in order to change people’s politics, you first have to engage them emotionally.
So regardless of the issue, if your story is truly important to you as a person and as a creator, others will find relevance and resonance in your story. I couldn’t care less about jazz drumming, but for the two hours of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, drumming suddenly became the most important thing in the world for me.
My acting coach says, “By making the scene the most personal to you, that’s how to get the widest number of audiences to connect.” As a writer, I have tried to heed that lesson too and write about what matters to me.
When rock & roll guitarists are doing a big solo on stage during a gig, they are surrounded by their band, and there’s a packed house, but they are essentially all alone. Doing exactly what they love. For a few moments, they get to be selfish. In that world of their own, every audience member is connected, chord for chord, with their art, whether they know or care about playing the guitar, rock, or music at all. The artist is saying, “It’s OK to simply express ourselves, it’s OK to not worry about what the audience will like.” Just tell the story you want to tell, and let the audience decide what truly matters to them.
Featured image shows Jake Allyn filming No Man’s Land. All images courtesy Jake Allyn.