The acclaimed director of Belle Epoque tells us about his first foray into animation and this very adult Spanish Oscar contender.
Set in Havana and New York during the end of the 1940s, Chico & Rita tells the story of love and heartbreak between a pianist and a singer. Directed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal & Fernando Trueba, the GKIDS release is a joint production between Spain's companies Fernando Trueba PC and Estudio Mariscal, and Britain's Magic Light Pictures, led by Michael Rose, formerly with Aardman. The soundtrack by legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés takes us back to the origins of Latin jazz when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker started fusing Cuban music into their compositions. Trueba talks about the journey.
Bill Desowitz: How did this come about?
Fernando Trueba: I had collaborated with Mariscal in two of my other movies, Calle 54 and Miracle of Candeal, in which he had designed the graphics, poster, and also in the records I produced, some of them with Bebo Valdés. And through all these collaborations our friendship was growing and we start talking about the dream of making a movie together. And when we started these discussions, we knew from the beginning that it had to be about Cuba, not just because we both knew and loved Cuba and its music, but because I have seen the drawings of Old Havana made by Chavi (Mariscal) and loved them.
So I told him, "We should make a movie there. Not in Havana, but in this Havana." Well, Mariscal was responsible for creating characters and sets, for the recreation of Havana, New York, the plastic, the art and the colors, and I was in charge of the script, the actors' direction, the creation of the storyboard and the production of the music. Tono Errando, who is the young brother of Mariscal, has been in charge of audiovisual work at Mariscal's studio for years, so he was the natural person to conduct the crew day-to-day, with a good understanding of Mariscal's style and visual world, and my previous movies.
BD: How did the story come about? And how did you prepare, including your four-week shoot in Havana?
FT: In my life, I have met a lot of people from Cuba, and some of them became good friends: novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, bassist and creator of mambo Cachao, but especially pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés. He's now 93 and Chico & Rita was his last work. But before that, we did Calle 54 and Miracle of Candeal and Blanco y Negro, and he even appears in Shanghai Spell. And apart from my movies, I produced several records of him solo on piano, or with different duos, big bands, nonets, trios. Chico & Rita is like the final result of our friendship of all these years, and even if it's not his biography at all, he was the main inspiration for us. I don't think we would have ever had made a movie like this if it not for our relationship with Bebo.
In terms of the film shoot, in Havana we worked with very good Cuban actors, and the shooting was done at the Cinema School of San Antonio de los Baños, near Havana, where I had been giving classes for future directors some months before.
BD: Talk about prioritizing and balancing the music with the love story.
FT: Usually, you make a movie, and then you call a composer in order to make the movie's score. Here I was working with the music from the beginning of the screenplay. The story is told with music. It is about a musician, and music has a leading part in the storytelling. I wrote with music in mind all the time, and shot, and edited to the music as well... Most of the music are Bebo's compositions and arrangements, but there are some standards of the period, a lot jazz, street Cuban rumba, even Stravinsky!
BD: What was the design process like with the colors, the lighting, the characters the locales, the mood shifts?
FT: Another reason to choose that historic period for the movie was a graphic one. For Chavi, that's the time of brands, and neon, and TV and American cars, and so many things that he likes and that were interesting and fun for him to draw. And also, capturing the New York and Havana of that time, recreating this world was a treasure for Mariscal, who is usually very free style, very Picassian, very fun, but he became very serious about exact locations and places. We spent years studying documentation, photographs, documentaries, live-action movies, books, records… every single thing connected to or related to our story. That's always a very interesting part of making movies for me. You always learn a lot doing all this research.
The idea of recreating some mythic places like Tropicana Cabaret, the Malecon or the Palladium or the Village Vanguard in New York... It was really fun to do. Sometimes we took some freedoms, too, why not? But in general, we were very precise and serious about that.
BD: What was the animation process like?
FT: The whole creation and direction of the animation was centralized in Mariscal Studio in Barcelona, but we also used animators from Brazil, Hungary, Philippines and Madrid. The challenge was if they were capable of understanding and adopting Mariscal's unique style. Not all could make it. We selected the ones that Mariscal liked.
BD: What was it like working with your friend, Bebo Valdés, whose contribution was so vital?
FT: We decided to tell the story at the end of the '40s because that was a magical moment when Cuban music and American jazz really mixed and created a genre: Afro-Cuban jazz, or Cu-Bop. New York was full of Cuban orchestras like Machito's orchestra, and Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, really, were the creators of that style of music, this Latin jazz that is still around. To have Bebo with us, who belongs to that period and knew much of them personally was an incredible privilege.
BD: And your voice cast?
We had an incredible cast of some of the better Cuban actors, and there is an incredible level of talent among Cuba's actors, and no star system at all. Limara Meneses who plays Rita, Mario Guerra who plays Ramón, all of them are fantastic. Many people tried to convince me to use known stars for the voices, but I felt we were going to lose authenticity. So I kept to my initial idea of Cuban actors. And I'm very happy with that.
BD: What were the hardest moments overall?
FT: Well, I think that financing the movie and finding the money takes time, and is long and sometimes painful. You have to deal so much with lawyers that there are moments that were really difficult. In my life, I try to avoid lawyers and psychiatrists. They don't belong to my world.
BD: And some of the happy surprises?
FT: Well, animation takes so much time that surprises are not common! It's not like my past in live-action movies.
BD: What are your favorite moments?
FT: There are some: the dream scene, the motorcycle chase scene, the "Love for Sale" section where we switch the melody from Hollywood to jazz and move from Hollywood to Paris, where the music and movies really match with each other. I like watching real people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and I'm especially fond of Estrella Morente's collaboration at the end. She is the greatest flamenco singer, and a very good friend. She's unique; I like to call her the Princess of XXI Century.
BD: What is your take away from this experience?
FT: It was a very happy experience, so much so that Mariscal and I are already thinking of future animation projects!
All images courtesty of GKIDS.tv.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.