Friday, December 03, 2010

Interview: Javier Fuentes-León and the Oscar Submission "Undertow"

I meet first-time feature director, US based Javier Fuentes-León in a tasty Puerto Rican restaurant called Sazon. We're there to chat up his Peruvian/Colombian movie "Undertow" (also known as Contracorriente), a romantic gay drama which is also a portrait of a rural community and also a ghost story. But the 'where from?',  'what kind?' and 'why this?' of it are surface details. Javier Fuentes-León is not into all these labels, anyway.

Javier Fuentes-León (photo src)

"For me when I moved here people were immediately like 'So what are you? Are you Spanish Peruvian? Are you Indian Peruvian?" The filmmaker says, recalling his first days in Los Angeles for film school.

"No, I'm Javier." I offer, following his train of thought. "No, I'm Javier." he confirms.

His amiable but definite resistance to labels is, as it so happens, a huge strength for the film about a married fisherman Miguel (Cristian Mercado) who struggles to come to terms with his ongoing love affair with a gay painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona). Tragedy will strike and Miguel's pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) will soon know the truth. The fisherman has tough choices ahead.

The subject of labels emerges when I bring up the Kinsey scale. I'm curious about how much stock the director puts in the fluidity of sexuality. "One of the things that impressed me most about the film," I tell him "is that you really feel the fisherman's love for his wife. Usually in "coming out" dramas you don't feel that. Do you view the character as bisexual?"

"I love that you ask about this" Javier begins. "I didn't want the wife to be just an obstacle. 'Let's get rid of her as soon as we can.' I wanted to make her a real character that he really loves in many ways. It's a different kind of love since he loves two people. It's not something that can be dismissed."

Undertow's setting, a small seaside town with deeply held religious beliefs and a wariness about outsiders like the painter -- it's not just that he's openly gay-- is crucial to the success of the film and the actual depth of Miguel's character arc.

the fisherman and his (expectant) wife)
"The reason why I set [Undertow] in a rural town and not in an urban city is because I think we are obsessed with labels where's there's a strong gay community. The US is particularly obsessed with labels, not only in the gay community. Here you are Republican or Democrat, you are a liberal, vegetarian, you are African-American, you are gay, top, bottom. There are so many labels that people use to define themselves."

"Gay. Straight. Bisexual. In rural areas those labels are not as important," he explains.  "They have sex with whoever they have sex with. They might end up getting married and be faithful. They might have sex with men when they're young and nevermore. Or they might continue. Miguel is not having a personal crisis like 'am I gay? am I bisexual?' His crisis is 'How do I dignify this love without losing my marriage and the love of my people? And how do I reconcile this with my religion?' He's not thinking 'Am I bisexual now? Am I gay?'

the fisherman's lover
I wanted to liberate the film from those issues. That's why in the sex scenes in one, one is on top of the other and the other is the other way around and they roll."

"I noticed the rolling!" I say, laughing.

"That was my way of saying I'm not going to be answering to people saying 'Of course the painter is a bottom!'" Despite the heavy topic of sexuality and labels, the director is always smiling and maintains a healthy sense of self and humor and about his film. He admits, not without some self-deprecation, that it was originally conceived in 1996 as a straight supernatural revenge thriller.

"Originally, it was a married fisherman who was having an affair with a prostitute, a woman. It was later in 2001 when I myself came out I thought 'well, fuck it. Let's make it real here.' You know?" he admits, not without some self-ribbing. "In a small fishing village for a fisherman to have an affair with a prostitute the friends are going to be like 'Hey dude!'"

"It's really a love story... about letting go, finding out who you really are, the pain of growing." Undertow's sexual metamorphosis, the filmmaker reasons, was only for the better "Not only did it become more personal, at the same time it made a better drama."

Casting was complicated in terms of timing and funding from various countries but here Javier cedes much credit to Rodrigo Bellot, a fellow filmmaker, who I had asked him about due to the Oscar foreign film race (Bellot went through a similar debut journey some years ago when his first feature Sexual Dependency became an Oscar submission for his home country.)

"I met him at Outfest in L.A. a long time ago. He came with a short and I was a volunteer. We became friends and kept in contact," Fuentes-León recalls. "When he read my script he said 'are you planning on directing because if you're not, I'd love to.' In his own life, in a funny way he became a casting director. He was the casting director for Steven Soderbergh's Che. It takes place in Bolivia -- he was only assigned to cast the Bolivian actors but because Soderbergh loved what he did he ended up casting a lot of the Latin-American roles."

Mercado in Che
Cristian Mercado, who had had an important role in Che, was Rodrigo's suggestion for Miguel fisherman. The director was won over by the photographs and a scene that Bellot shot with him "He can be rough and masculine but also vulnerable and I liked that dichotomy."

The leads are all well known in Latin America but signed on despite or maybe even because of the challenges the material presented. The movie is both physically and emotionally intimate, and since Javier hadn't made a feature before it, they had to trust in his vision and screenplay. "I brought [Cristian and Manolo] to Lima and I guess it was the material, a good challenge for both of them and they liked the story. We connected."

As you may have already ascertained from the dates mentioned, Undertow did not materialize over night. The first scene was written in 1996 and the story took on several shapes before becoming the film that's now Peru's Oscar submission. The director is beautifully candid about complications of funding, and what that can mean for casting and scheduling; Colombian and Peruvian financing meant that at least one of the three leads had to represent each country and the final Peruvian go ahead meant that the film had to be shot a lot sooner than anticipated.

With so many hats to wear -- Javier functioned as writer, director, producer, and editor -- was he ever at war with himself?

"Oh, I was freaking out. I had the worst anxiety depression that I've ever had in my life," he recalls, noting that he isn't usually the depressive type. "Two or three months before shooting I was so anxious. I didn't have the actors yet, I didn't have the crew. The film already has an issue that is delicate in terms of shooting in Peru with a Peruvian crew. It was my first time directing though I'd worked in TV. I was very nervous. Am I going to know what to say when people to ask me 'Is this Okay?'

What took me out of the depression was starting to see that the team was forming and I did know what I wanted when people came with questions, I did know what I wanted. By the time the actual shooting came, I was completely enjoying it. It was like being on vacation. It did not seem like a job to me."

We couldn't leave the interview without discussing the Oscar race and the film's reception in Peru. Fuentes-León knows it's a great honor to be representing his country.

"The press has been amazing. The people who are in the film world, which is very small, have been very supportive. Still it's a film that some people didn't go to see it just because it has two men kissing," he adds, explaining that it hasn't been a box office smash at home. "But on the other hand a lot of people have congratulated us for not only talking about [concepts of masculinity] but criticizing the rigidity."

winning the audience
award at Sundance
Given the long trek to his first feature -- he has two more in development now -- I wondered if he had any advice for young filmmakers.

"Make sure that you develop some kind of skill that will support you while you work on your projects," he says stressing the important of staying in the film world. "Whether that's learning how to edit or  sound mixes or translating or designing websites or subtitling... or buy a camera and become a DP for industrial videos. It's going to take awhile. There are overnight success stories but most people have to work six or seven years to make their films."

Javier Fuentes-León then relates an important story about an unhappy experience writing for telemundo, which serves as a fine point, but a welcome one, in terms of this "stay in the film world!" advice.

"I wrote for a show that i didn't like and that burnt me out. I was like 'I cannot do this.' It's good to be in the world of film but not in the thing you really want to do. Find a skill that will keep you in the world but will not deplete your creative juices."

On the evidence of the unusual and ghostly love story he's created, he's successfully rediscovered his own creativity.

Undertow is in theaters now. The Academy will announce finalists for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations within a month's time. Five official nominees will be announced on Tuesday January 25th, 2011.


film izle said...

Oscar nominated movie super yes may be

cal roth said...

I haven't seen the movie but I loved the post and read it to the end. It's great to meet new voices, specially in this great wave of South American directors. Before, it was only Argentine and Brazil, but now we have Peru, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay.


Kurtis O said...

So nice to see this lovely movie get some attention. :)

Troia said...

I just wanted to say i saw this film last week and it was beyond amazing.
One of my fave's for the year.


Troia -- i'm so glad someone went to it. I keep thinking no one has seen it.

Troia said...

@Nate...actually i downloaded this movie from a "gay torrent" site back in October not knowing it would even be released here at some point...but i just got around to watching it last week...i live in Jacksonville,FL and we just don't get quality foreign cinema here often, much less gay themed :(...but i would STRONGLY suggest seeing this movie to anyone who has the is no doubt one of the most moving, heartwrenching yet also heartwarming movies of 2010...i wept more than once and then steadily for probably the last 20 minutes of the film.