Brotherly love: A conversation with "Rudo y Cursi" director Carlos Cuarón

In an exclusive Twin Cities engagement, the very entertaining Mexican film Rudo y Cursi (which had its area premiere at this year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival) is now playing at the Uptown Theatre. The film, written and directed by Carlos Cuarón (younger brother of director Alfonso, whose last film, Children of Men, was my favorite of 2006) reunites Y tu mamá tambien stars Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal.

The story is about Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) Verdusco, brothers who work at a banana plantation and also play soccer for the village team. Nicknamed “Tough” because of his personality and football style, Beto dreams of becoming a professional soccer player; Tato’s dream is to be a famous singer, and both share the dream of building a house for their mother, Elvira (Dolores Heredia). They have a change in luck when “Batuta”, a soccer talent scout, discovers them accidentally. Tato is the first to move to the big city where he becomes the star goal scorer for the prestigious Deportivo Amaranto (Amaranto Club). His baroque playing style earns him the nickname of “Corny." Although Beto feels he has been betrayed and left behind, he soon travels to Mexico City to become the goalkeeper for Atlético Nopaleros (Nopaleros Team). At the peak of their glory, they forget all animosity—although that does not last long.

Carlos Cuarón was born in Mexico City in 1966. He studied English literature at the UNAM (Mexico’s national university) and took part in Hernán Lara Zavala’s narrative workshop, followed by Syd Field’s screenwriting workshop and the Screenwriters Lab at the Sundance Institute. He has been a FONCA grant holder and is the author of short stories and stage plays including Llantas contra el pavimento, Zapatos y alpargatas, Puro y natural, and Coco Tuétano y la rebelión de las armas.

In 1988, Carlos started collaborating with his brother Alfonso by co-writing several episodes of the TV series La hora marcada. After that, pursuing an idea they both came up with, Carlos wrote the script for the excellent film Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria), which starred Daniel Giménez Cacho and Claudia Ramírez. The film was very successful in Mexico, earned the Ariel Award for best original screenplay for Carlos and Alfonso, and was nominated for three more Ariel Awards—among which were best first feature for Alfonso and best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki.

In 1997, Carlos directed his first short film, Sístole Diástole, starring Salma Hayek and Lumi Cavazos. That same year, he co-wrote ¿Quién diablos es Juliette? (Who the Hell is Juliette?), directed by Carlos Marcovich, which won two Ariel Awards and several other awards at festivals such as Guadalajara, La Habana, Cartagena and Sundance.

Next, Carlos wrote and directed short films such as Noche de bodas (2000), which was selected for the Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival, and Me la debes (You Owe Me One!) (2001). Meanwhile, Carlos and Alfonso co-wrote Y tu mamá también. This film achieved an incredible international critical and commercial success; it was awarded, among many other prizes and nominations, the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for best screenplay and Oscar and BAFTA nominations for best original screenplay.

In 2002, Carlos wrote and directed his next short film, Juego de niños (Child’s Play); as well as the TV short films No me digan Hugo, Amor perdido, and Amor al Tri, which humorously deal with issues related to soccer. The following year, he wrote El misterio del Trinidad, a film that was directed by José Luis García Agraz, and won two Ariel Awards and was nominated for seven more, among which was best original screenplay.

In 2005, Carlos wrote and directed the short film Ofelia. At the same time, he was co-creator and producer of a series of television animated mini-episodes called Poncho Balón va a la final, which aired in Spain and several countries in Latin America during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Carlos worked for several years on the Rudo y Cursi (Tough and Corny) script. It is also his feature directorial debut and the first production released by Cha Cha Chá, the production company founded by Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). The media have dubbed the trio "the three amigos."

I met with Carlos during his visit to Minnesota in April for the Rudo Y Cursi screening at MSPIFF. We spoke about the film, his writing and directing style, his relationship with his brother, and much more.

Have you been surprised with the audience response to this film, especially in this country?
I was. Yeah. I didn’t expect an ovation [at the MSPIFF screening] and we got it [laughs]. It was really nice. It’s probably just that I’m not used to that.

The reason I ask is that it’s a very specific, Mexican story—but of course it has universal themes in there as well. How were you able to get Diego [Luna] and Gael [Garcia Bernal] back together for these roles?
Well, I actually wrote the script for them. The original idea was to make a fake documentary about a soccer player from a humble background who made it big and right at the peak of his success he disappeared. I told Gael and Diego separately about this idea, and they both said they want to be that guy. So I had two actors, one character. And I realized at that moment that I wanted to work with both of them so I made up a brother. I told them. They loved the idea. But Gael said “I have to be Rudo” and Diego said “and I have to Cursi.” And I told them, no, I don’t want to make Y tu mamá tambien 2. I want to start from scratch; make something original. And the way of doing that was casting them against their types. They got it, and immediately started throwing out ideas.

How is it working with them? You mentioned they bring a lot of ideas for their characters. Do they like to develop their characters?
We constructed the characters together because I’m the writer/director and I had a bunch of ideas they probably didn’t expect. Or I don’t know. We just worked together. They are very proactive and positive. They always throw out ideas before, during, and after shooting. It’s weird, for example to dub [sound in post production] with them; it's great because they are so good at it and have so many ideas. It really helps.

For this film, I got the sense you drew on some personal experiences. Would you say you drew on your relationship with your brother?
Well, I don’t know how much I drew from my relationship with Alfonso.

Do you guys have a competitive spirit like Rudo and Cursi?
Not really. Probably when we were little we did, but not that much because he’s five years older so he would just punch me and that’s it [laughs]. But no, we actually support each other a lot. The whole brotherly dynamics is just we—brothers, siblings—we behave pretty much the same way, you know. We poke at each other all day long, teasing each other. In that sense, yeah, we are very much like Rudo and Cursi. If we're together we are teasing each other all day long. It is a lot of fun, and it is also pretty tiresome.

I love the way you deal with humor, especially sexual humor. I noticed those themes come up again and again, along with family and soccer; road trips are a common occurrence in your work. Are these themes that you’re aware of, or do these things just happen?
Yeah, well, I think family is one of my themes that have been repeated in most of them. And that’s because I have a very rich family life. So I guess it’s a very important and universal theme. Then some other themes—soccer, well, I’m a soccer freak. I love soccer.

Do you play?
Yeah, I play every Saturday. I’m very conscious about that, all the different themes. Some of them I realize after I’ve written the script and say "oh, again, man?" But as long as I don’t repeat myself, I can explore the same theme. That is, as long as I don’t repeat myself in the story, in the narration, or the characters, then I don’t mind.

Do you find it hard to not repeat yourself?
No. As you said, I’ve done a lot of sex scenes in everything I’ve done, and none of them are the same. With the sex scenes, what I want to do is explore the characters. We’re all different; we all approach sex in a different way. So to me, it’s all about character.

Like in You Owe Me One, the short film. It’s hilarious—you got the whole family sleeping around, and nobody really knows each other.
Exactly. You see in that short it’s not the same way the father relates to sex or the mother or the daughter...

...or the maid.
Exactly, or the maid or the boyfriend. They all have a different perspective. That’s what I like because to me, sex defines character.

I also noticed you really have a fondness for your country, for Mexico. You shoot it beautifully here with Rudo Y Cursi, but you write about it so well. Mexico City is always such a strong character, especially in Rudo. Were you conscious of that? Did you want to show off the country?
That was the reason I shot there, because I had never seen [the locations I used] before in film and because I know them so well, and I know they are so beautiful. Yes, I’m very conscious about context. I don’t want to be determinist, but, yeah, context is very important for character. So in most of what I do there is a very important social portrait and that’s part of the country. I like context to become like a character so to speak. I’m trying not to only show lusciousness. It’s just showing you reality. It also depends on the project.

You’ve been working with your brother for a while now. Do you feel you are drawing from his style at all? I feel like you both have your own styles, but there are natural similarities as well. Or have you purposefully tried to do your own thing?
Both. It also depends on the project. For example, in Rudo y Cursi I took the things that I liked from Alfonso, things that we did together or not—I didn’t do Children of Men or [Harry Potter and the Prisoner of] Azkaban—like the way to shoot long takes.

You both like handheld camera shots as well.
Yeah, the handheld style which is similar and not the same. Mine, you barely feel. As I told the director of photography Adam Kimmel, who’s a great DP, I need to feel your breath, not your movement, and he’s such a good operator it’s like that. With Alfonso’s films it’s a little bit more shaky.

Of course Alfonso usually de-saturates the colors in his films. You, the colors are popping in this movie.
Yeah, especially during the soccer scenes. In the countryside, in the village, it’s more about the dusty colors. In Mexico City it’s all about grayness. In the soccer scenes it’s all about color saturation. So that’s a different way. But yeah, I take from Alfonso what I like from the different projects, and he’s been a great teacher, you know. I didn’t go to film school, so I’ve learned film and shooting [from] him.

Do you ever find it difficult to separate yourself from him in the public eye or the media? I’m sure these kinds of questions come up all the time. Do you tire of it, or embrace that connection?
To me it’s natural. They are always going to compare me to my brother and ask me about him. He is a great filmmaker, a great director. So as long as they compare me with great directors and filmmakers I’m not going to have a problem...

...like Guillermo [del Toro] and Alejandro [González Iñárritu] too?
Exactly. The moment I start to be compared to lousy filmmakers, then I’m going to be concerned.

That leads me to this (fairly) new wave of Mexican cinema. It’s been great the last few years especially with all those guys getting recognition, even though they’ve been making films for decades. What are your thoughts on this, and also on their new production company Cha Cha Chá?
Yes, this is the first Cha Cha Chá film. It is only the three amigos’ company. What they did is officialize their relationship in practical terms. The fact that Rudo y Cursi is the first film has to do with the fact that they all loved the script and trusted me. They thought in the kind of company that is Cha Cha Chá, a movie about brothers was the right thing to do to start with. We feel like that, like we are all brothers. We are very close to each other. It was very organic.

You like that family dynamic?
Yeah. And also what is really cool is that Alfonso has always supported me. He’s my blood brother, obviously. But I owe the other two my directorial debuts. In the mid-90s I was really depressed. And Guillermo asked me, "why are you so down?" I said, I write all these scripts and they don’t get produced. It’s like giving birth to dead children. He said, "well, why don’t you produce them?" And that had never crossed my mind, because I was a writer. And Alfonso said, "yeah, man, just direct them." So it was Guillermo who put that directorial idea in my head. A few months later Alejandro gave me my first directorial gig shooting, well, they say it was a documentary, but it was more like an infomercial. It was cool. I shot in every port in Mexico. It was a lot of helicopter shooting and time-lapses.

Playing around with the tools?
Yeah, playing around, and I had a lot of fun doing that. So it was very organic that these three guys produce my first long feature.

So was that your film school? Just getting out there and making it?
Yeah. I started to write scripts to direct shorts at that moment. So far I’ve done eight, and they’ve helped me a lot.

Do you consider yourself more of a writer, or do you want to balance between writing and directing? I’m assuming you want to direct more.
I want to do both. I want to keep writing for people I believe in, like my brother or my producers, if they ask me to. I don’t want to write for anyone just for the sake of it unless they pay me, uh, loads of money. Especially for myself, I want to keep writing and directing. That’s what I want to do, I love filmmaking.

How would you classify this movie? You could say it’s a road movie or a sports movie, but it’s not really. I find the focus is more on the brothers’ relationship. What is it to you?
To me, it’s a sibling rivalry story. Guillermo defines it pretty well. He says it is a wolf hiding under a sheep skin. And that’s true. It has this very kind, gentle tone. You laugh, you’re having fun. Then you find the wolf’s teeth and the story starts to get heavy. It has a bittersweet ending. The film talks about many things. It is a social portrait of my country, which is pretty critical. I made a social comment there.

That’s the thing, though; I never felt that you were pushing any social agenda or anything with this film. Was it more important to you to just tell a good story, and that stuff is in the background? That stuff is there, but it’s not obvious. Was the social commentary intentional?
It is intentional as part of that context I was talking about. Yeah, I wanted to show my country just as it is. In portraying that you make a social comment—not only showing all the social classes and strata and all that, but things like the single mother with seven kids from six partners. The pyramid companies Rudo’s wife goes to work for. Celebrity, success, failure, the drug lord thing. That is right now in Mexico very heavy, but it’s like that, you know, those guys provide locally. They build churches, schools, they build roads for their people, and at the same time they deal drugs, they kill people, they behead, corrupt, they are nasty and dark. And that is how it is. Local people love them and fear them at the same time. The rest of us don’t get it. We don’t understand how that can happen in a country.

Were you trying to figure that out at all with this film, to understand it more perhaps? Were you thinking about that when you were writing? Was it always part of the script that one of the sisters would marry a drug lord?
Yeah, yeah. What’s happened is drug lords in Mexico have penetrated everything. So in the movie what this guy does is fulfill the family dreams, and becomes a surrogate father. That is happening, where some of them become surrogate fathers like that. The big problem is that once they fulfill those dreams, the dream becomes a nightmare because they are so unlawful. And that is a problem.

Did you find it difficult to balance the shifts in tone in the film? Like you said, it gets pretty serious in the end.
Difficult? No. I was very conscious of it. I worked that out especially with the actors, my DP, and my art director. I didn’t want a cartoon. I wanted a balance between what is Rudo—tough—and what is Cursi, what is corny. I wanted a really good balance between those two opposites. I worked hard on that, not only visually but with the music and with every single thing. But the most important thing is obviously the acting. I would have to control that sometimes, it would get too corny or too tough and I would say no, let’s do it again. Sometimes it’s great to go for the laughter, but sometimes those laughs get in the way and if I thought it was too much I would say no, I don’t want to laugh here. I knew that in the end we were going to laugh, but the tone restrained itself to become bittersweet.

I’m interested in your influences.
You always give yourself a reference, you know. I want to make a [Stanley] Kubrick film or I want to make a [Krzysztof] Kieslowski film. In this specific case I wanted to make a Coen Brothers film, or a Woody Allen film...actually, a combo because they are very different. Woody Allen is way more intimate, but I love the Coen Brothers.

The Coens have a similar balance of dark humor and bittersweet emotion.
Exactly! So it was sort of that. Those were my two references [for this film]. I’m also a huge fan of American films of the seventies. I grew up with a great combo of European cinema, American independents, and blockbusters of course.

The narration in this film reminded me of Y tu mamá tambien. Both narrators are so philosophical and don’t really narrate the story so much.
It’s really different, because in Y tu mamá tambien the narrator is not a character. He’s very clinical, very objective, and he’s totally deadpan. What he does is he does not narrate either but he contextualizes. He tells stories about different characters or things around the three main characters. In Rudo y Cursi this guy [Batuta] is just being poetical and philosophical. He is not contextualizing, and he is not narrating either. So it’s sort of the same tool used in a different way.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you were writing and fixing the script during shooting, but during post-production you realized you had to go back and shoot some more scenes. You mentioned that the film really changed from that. How did it change?
I felt that act three needed more punch, and the producers agreed with me. What I shot was basically more shots of the climactic scene, the penalty kick scene, just to create tension. Also the Batuta character—I wanted him to get mad. That wasn’t there, or in the script even. I had to re-shoot that. Then we all felt there was something missing. Plot-wise, there was a resolution, but emotionally there was not a resolution in the script. So I made up that final scene on the beach. It makes a huge difference, because now there is an emotional resolution with the two brothers.

You think the film is better for it?
Yeah, absolutely, because the other ending was too dark. The thing is, it’s easy to read it on the script and think it’s not that dark, but when you see the visuals I was like, "oh, man." It was so dark.

Do you feel lucky you were able to go back and make those changes?
Very. It is very common that this happens. It happens more often than not.

I heard this script took you more than two years to write and rewrite. Is that typical for you when writing to take such a long time on one project?
No. This was the script—for me—that has been the most difficult. The reason why was because I probably wasn’t that clear when I sat down to write it, and I found the story, tone and the characters as I was writing it. I don’t know how many re-writes I did on it. I lost count. I don’t even care to know, I just remember it was two and a half very tough years. But it’s usually not like that.

Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI's Movie Talk.

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