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INT: Walter Salles

09.23.2004

The first time I saw the movie CENTRAL STATION, I fell in love with Walter Salles. I became entranced by the realistic characters, innovative storyline, and heartfelt depiction of the friendship between two people from two different worlds. There wasn't a drop of melodrama, pretension, or manipulation anywhere in sight. I was delighted by the reminder that these types of films *are* still being made, even if they're being done overseas.

I had the same reaction while watching his latest film, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (read JoBlo's review here). Based on the journals of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the film tells the story of his journey across South America with friend Alberto Granado in the 1950's. Their trip together alters them as individuals, inspiring them to later seek change in the world. The movie is exquisitely shot with a combination of depth, humor, and beauty. In another director's hands it may not have worked, but in Salles' hands it turned out flawlessly. He was a great person to interview and had plenty of interesting things to say:

WALTER SALLES

The movie is excellent, and the leads are perfectly cast. Were there any other actors you thought could pull off these roles? Who were your second choices? 

In fact, I never had a second choice for Ernesto. I had seen this incredible film called Amores Perros. Actually, I met Gael before in January 2000, very early on in this process. I was quite amazed by the density, the vitality that he had, but also by the fact that he could be incredibly expressive, yet economical. Since the beginning, I had the impression that this young Ernesto was someone who still had doubts and uncertainties. You needed an actor that had that kind of interior strength and soulfulness to be able to transmit this change. Gael had that within him. Casting had nothing to do with the physical resemblance that some believe is there. His daughter says there’s something, but Ernesto was way more beautiful than Gael. There was never a second choice for that role.

But on the other hand, I didn’t know Rodrigo de La Serna. We did more than one thousand tests throughout Latin America, not just for that one role, but for all the other roles of the film. I saw Rodrigo when I was just coming back from Havana, where I had done a ten hour interview with this 83 years young man called Alberto Granado, the idealizer of the trip. It was as if Alberto was given a second birth in front of my very eyes. I was astonished with Rodrigo as well. This was a real treat. Before this film I had worked with an exceptional actress named Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station. Here, the possibility of collaborating with two exceptional actors, made the journey worthwhile. 

Did you try to create a Latin American melting pot? Gael is from Mexico, Jose is from Puerto Rico, Rodrigo is from Argentina, and you’re from Brazil. 

None of this was planned, it’s just out of the process. We wanted to give a sense of great authenticity in the film. This is why I did the journey twice before the shoot, just to be able to identify the faces-- the human map that pertains to every single moment in the journey. Whether you’re in Patagonia or in Chile, you have actors and non actors coming from that region. Then when you’re in Peru at the leper colony, you have five men in there that were ex-patients of the original leper colony that we found in the original scouting process. All the other men are from the Peruvian Amazon basin. We wanted the film not only to be able to convey a physical geography, but a human geography of Latin America and its diversities.

Did you see a lot of differences in the Spanish speaking countries? 

Very much so. I think if you’re Argentinean then you see even more, because Argentina is a very European country. We were way more influenced by Africa. We are the confluence between Europe and Africa. Therefore, I can only imagine what this revelation was for Ernesto and Alberto-- especially after crossing the frontier between Chile and Peru, arriving in a completely indigenous country. The Peruvian faces are completely different from the faces in Argentina and in Brazil. That journey started like an adventure, like any journey done by two young guys with an appetite for life. I can only imagine what kind of revelation they went through. 

You work with a lot of non-actors in this film. How did that affect the production, working with indigenous people from these different countries? 

First of all, we wanted to be faithful to the two books that inspired Jose Rivera’s screenplay and to the spirit of the original journey. That was one way to go out into the open and be permeable to whomever you would encounter, not only on the road, but on the margins of the road. We decided to work with the local communities to bring them into the film. We wanted the film to be porous to that. The difficulty is that you have to catch things as they are happening in the moment. This film for me was always about filming a story as it was unfolding in front of our very eyes. It’s as if the camera had to be absent, for the film to be alive. You would have the impression that what was being experienced was actually what you see on the screen.

The fact is that we did experience that as we moved on and on. As we met people, we invited them to be part of the film. For this to happen, you have to have actors in complete sync with their characters, because they will be asked to improvise a lot. When you arrive in a place like Cuzco and you meet the little guide who talks about the Incas and the Incapables-- that was something we couldn’t have planned. It just happened to us. I should say that he discovered us as we were there walking in the street. He asked, do you want me to show you the city? I said, yes, as long as we can film it. Off we went. This can only be done when you have actors as sensitive and intelligent as Gael and Rodrigo, because they can recreate things in the logic of their characters. It can only happen if the screenplay is as well structured as Jose’s screenplay was. It’s a little like jazz, if you have a strong core, you can afford to bifurcate, to explore other paths. Because when you want to go back to the melody, it’s so strongly there you can find it again. You won’t get lost. 

What was it like working with the real Alberto? 

This was such a privilege. Here you had somebody that was 83 years young and had an extraordinary memory. He could speak of this journey like it happened yesterday and transmit it with such passion. We filmed ten hours of interviews at the very start of this. It took us five years to do this film. That material was given to Jose. Without Alberto, for instance, we would not have known the emblematic quality of crossing the river. He started to give us information that was not in the book. For instance, the $15 dollars given by Ernesto’s girlfriend to buy the bathing suit in Miami-- that didn’t make it into the two books, but it really happened. It was a subject of heated debate throughout the whole journey, what to do with the $15 dollars. Those human touches that characterized the story, that preceded history with a capital H, they were brought in by Alberto. Then he came to the shoot twice. He came crossing the Andes. We didn’t realize it but that was the first time a motorcycle ever crossed the Andes. Then he came to the leper colony.

How much did the trip affect you? 

How could it have been otherwise? I say that everyone who was asked this question will tell you the same thing. We were quasi-knowledgeable about the cultures we originated from. But we didn’t know as much as we should about the other countries that from South America. Gael knew a lot about his Mexican roots. I knew something about my Brazilian roots, but we didn’t share a common heritage that is only possible when you go through this journey. It’s as if today that the house I live in is a little bit larger than it was before and the contours have gained focus. The other aspect is that you become much more aware of the structural problems that pertain to that continent. You feel the need to act to try and solve them. You can do this either politically, but through your specific work as a filmmaker. We’ve been trying to do that for some time now. Not only in the films that we do, but also in the ones that we help produce, like City of God.  

How was it different dealing with a subject matter like Che, as compared to your other movies?

The films that I’ve done before were original stories most of the time. I did two adaptations before this, but they were mostly original stories where I had complete freedom to evolve in the direction I wanted. Characters could change on the road, which is partly what happened in Central Station. In adapting this film, we needed much more in depth information. That’s why it took us five years to do this subtext. Three years alone were used for research purposes. I went to Cuba maybe eight or nine times. Not only to meet Granado and bring the actors to meet him, but also to access the very rich material that exists in the Guevara Center of Studies in Havana, which actually published the books and keep a wealth of information about him. We had access to private letters and photographs. Little by little, we started to understand all the complexities around this project. We wanted to be faithful to that. This is why we didn’t do the film immediately. We could have started earlier but opted not to. The first part of this question is how much care you have to devote to a project like this. Then you have to make it alive. The fact that we were seeing those characters at a specific moment in time and not the ones they would become later. It made the task a little bit easier, especially on Jose’s side.

I received a letter from a famous French filmmaker. He responded to the film because I was sympathetic to the characters and didn’t try to judge them. I campaigned them through a journey and you feel invited to be part of it. That’s exactly what we felt when we read The Motorcycle Diaries. We felt invited to take a look at our own continent. It’s as if these two guys picked up a mirror that was reflecting Europe or the United States and changed the axis, suddenly we saw ourselves reflected there that first time. This is the importance of the book in Latin America.

Has the movie been shown in Latin America and how has it been received? 

It’s done extremely well critically. The film that been seen by more spectators, spoken in Spanish, was Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her. That film had five hundred thousand spectators and we’re reaching one million spectators-- it’s almost double. It just shows that there is a growing interest in cultures that seem distant from us. I come from Brazil, which is a Portuguese speaking part of the continent. It’s a little bit like Wim Wenders film title So Close So far Away, you have the impression that you’re so distant and yet you’re so close. I think that people perceive this idea. Another interesting consequence was that the book is a bestseller in Brazil. That helps to recontextualize a character that has been decontextualized in the past decade.

How did you fund-raise for this movie? 

The only way to produce this film was thanks to Film Four in England. When we started to do the film, with the idea that it would be in Spanish with non-actors coming from Latin America, Robert Redford was passionate about this project and he is the one who ignited it. He was very courageous in accepting this initial premise. He agreed with it a hundred percent. It took some time to find the funds for the film. It would never have been financed out of this country. 

Did the original idea come from Robert Redford or yourself? 

The original idea came from him. We all knew the book well because it’s the cult book in Latin America. For me, this was a sacred territory. I would not have ventured into it by myself. I also would never have been able to gather the funds to do it. Many other directors have tried before. It was a complex endeavor, without Robert Redford’s constant support we wouldn’t have gotten to the end. You have to understand that he’s very passionate about Latin America. He knows these cultures and the political structures of our countries surprisingly well. The Sundance institute has been vital to the film communities of Latin America. They constantly do seminars on independent film production and screenwriting in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, etc. They’re very present.

How different is it to go from a film like this to an American production like Dark Water? 

It’s very different, but I don’t think you can be dogmatic about cinema. Directors like Polanski and Peter Weir have been venturing from latitude to latitude in recent years. Even closer to us, is Alejandro Inarritu with 21 Grams. I just think that if you attempt that, then you have to have your round ticket with you. A filmmaker can never be distant from his roots. This is where his strength lies in. 

Dark Water is a remake of a Japanese film? 

It was not a pretentious attempt to decoding American culture. It was quite the opposite. It had two themes that interests me, abandonment and urban solitude. It also carried with it the possibility of collaborating with great actors like Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, Pete Postlethwaite, and the fantastic John C. Reilly. He’s very gifted. 

Would like to do an English language version of obscure South American films? 

I don’t think so. I wouldn’t like turning anything that is Brazilian into a North American narrative. I’m the opposite. I want to go back there and do something that is completely truthful to that society. 

Do you believe Che Guevara’s message has been lost? There are people that wear his image on t-shirts who have no idea what he stood for.

There’s that assumption that everybody who wears the t-shirt has no idea of the guy. You’ll be surprised that this is not the case in Latin America. Every time you have an anti-globalization protest in Latin America or a riot against the G-7 in Italy, you’ll be surprised by how many people wear that shirt and have a very in depth knowledge of who that guy is and what he stands for, which is the possibility of confronting the powers that be and proposing an alternative route. Represent the idea that change is possible in an age where they tell you the opposite is true.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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