RT Interview: "Crónicas" Director Sebastián CorderoCrónicas" just yet. But the Ecuadorian crime thriller (which features a stellar lead performance by John Leguizamo) hits DVD this week, so if you're on the lookout for something a little exotic, intense, and insightful, you should absolutely toss this title onto your Rental List / Netflix Queue. After watching (and enjoying the hell out of) the film, I tossed a handful of questions to writer/director Sebastián Cordero, and here's what the filmmaker had to say.
RT: "Cronicas" is loosely based on actual events. What were the events that inspired the "Monster" character in your film?
SC: A few true cases of serial killers in Ecuador and in Colombia were the inspiration for the "Monstruo de Babahoyo".
One of them was the "Monstruo de los Andes" (Pedro Alonso Lopez), who supposedly raped and murdered hundreds of little girls in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. He was a fascinating and sick character: a friend of mine who met him in prison a couple of decades ago told me he was extremely charismatic, very well liked by other inmates, and a sort of mediator when conflicts arose in the jail. The death sentence doesn?t exist in Ecuador, and the maximum jail time you could do in Ecuador at the time (no matter what your crime was) was 16 years. Pedro Alonso did his time in jail, and was actually released a year early because of his good conduct. He was deported to Colombia, where he was put in a low-security mental institution, from where he soon escaped. Nobody's heard from him since then, but his psychiatrist (with whom I met) told me his type of behavior probably wouldn't have changed, although old age would eventually cut down his libido.
The other inspiration was Luis Alfredo Garavito, a child rapist and murderer in Colombia who supposedly killed 192 children over a period of ten years. I remember when I read about his arrest, I was struck by an interview of his wife at the time, and how she said she thought he was a good man, and had never suspected he could lead such a double life. She actually had a child who potentially could have been his victim, and she had never felt unsafe with him (except when he drank).
I felt the duality within these real characters was absolutely fascinating, particularly since I had been playing with the idea to explore characters that had such extremes within them. It was a real challenge to me to have one character be the most terrible "monster" you could imagine, and yet be at times the most sympathetic character in the story.
RT: Your movie bears a few heavyweight names in producers Alfonso Cuaron & Guillermo del Toro. How did they get involved at the beginning?
SC: The original link to both Guillermo and Alfonso was the great Mexican producer Bertha Navarro. I met Bertha when my first movie ("Ratas, Ratones, Rateros") had been nominated for a Mexican Ariel Award as Best Foreign Film. I told her about the project of "Cronicas," and she was very enthusiastic about it, soon becoming attached as a producer to the film. Bertha had produced "Cronos" and "The Devil?s Backbone", and was actually the person who gave Guillermo his first break, and they've been working together since then; so it was only natural to make Guillermo part of this project. Alfonso came in almost immediately after: Bertha had worked with him before (and knew him very well from Mexico), and it coincided that after the success of "Y Tu Mama Tambien", he and his partner Jorge Vergara had been looking for projects to produce in Latin America. Guillermo and Alfonso became ideal mentors for me, because they respected completely my vision as a director, but they also pushed me to the limit, making sure I was getting the most out of everything. They?re both perfectionists, and when you have people like that pushing you so passionately, you want to take them up and push with them all the way.
RT: John Leguizamo delivers some fantastic work in the film. How early did he come on to the project? Did you find that his involvement helped gain interest from distributors?
SC: John actually came on to the project pretty late (a few months before shooting). I had always had him in mind for Manolo Bonilla, but had been skeptical about him because I had heard his Spanish wasn?t fluent enough. On the other hand, I loved the idea of casting a Latino who had lived all his life in the US, because I felt his severed "roots" was something that added a lot to his character. Eventually, I met John, and realized that his level of Spanish was good enough for the movie (although he always jokes that his grammar level is the same as a third grader, which is the age when he left Colombia!), and actually I loved the idea of playing with him switching back and forth between Spanish and English (something a lot of Latinos in Miami do).
John?s involvement in the film definitely helped to gain interest from distributors, particularly in the US, where he?s very popular. It?s funny, but in Ecuador, while we were shooting the film, people were more familiar with Leonor Watling (because of "Hable con Ella") than with John. I must also add that once John came on board, he immediately became one of my strongest allies, fighting a lot of battles by my side, and supporting the movie passionately at every step of the way.
RT: "Cronicas" has been a favorite across the festival circuit (Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, and many others) for quite some time now. What was it like to finally sit down and watch your movie with an enthusiastic festival audience? Was your pre-festival cut the same as your final release cut? Did you reshape the film in any way based on audience reactions?
SC: It?s amazing to watch the film with an audience, because for the first time in a very long process, you gain a little bit of perspective on the movie you?ve been working on, and you get an idea of what?s working and what isn?t. The biggest challenge I find when writing, directing, or editing a film is to be able to step back and look at the film as if you were just another spectator, so that you can evaluate the problems and issues you might be having with some sort of objectivity. When watching the complete film with an audience, you absorb everyone?s reactions, which is a difficult but terrific experience. The film wasn?t changed since its premiere at Cannes in 2004, but I played with the editing for many months before that (even after it had been submitted to Cannes)? the changes didn?t come from ?audience reactions? per se, but from the comments I got from Alfonso, Bertha, Guillermo, and Isabel (Dávalos, my Ecuadorian producer); and from the reactions I had gotten from my close group of collaborators whose advice I trust the most at every step of the way.
RT: The critical reaction to the movie has been generally quite positive. Do you find yourself reading reviews and taking praise/criticisms to heart? How important is it to a filmmaker that he feel "embraced" by 'the critics'?
SC: It?s wonderful to feel ?embraced? by the critics, but that?s not the reason you make a movie, and you always have to maintain some distance and healthy cynicism about people?s reaction to the movie. I like to read and hear everything that?s been said about the movie, and I usually deal pretty well with the negative stuff (I?m more aware than anyone that my movies are far from being perfect, and filled with flaws!). I usually try not to let the positive things get to my head, and to learn from the negative things so that I don?t make the same mistakes again. However, you do need to take negative criticism with a grain of salt or you will get paralyzed with your upcoming work.
RT: Aside from Mr. Leguizamo's commanding lead performance, there's some thoroughly fantastic work from Damian Alcazar as the duplicitous (and potentially dangerous) Vinicio Cepeda. How difficult was it to cast this character, considering his "duality" throughout most of the film, and how did you decide upon Mr. Alcazar?
SC: Damián Alcazar is one of the greatest actors I?ve ever met, and everyone in México will tell you the same. He?s not very well known internationally (yet), but I feel his range as an actor is astounding, and I would work with him again as soon as I get a chance to. I originally saw him in ?La Ley de Herodes? ("Herod's Law"), a magnificent black comedy about political corruption in Mexico, but didn?t originally consider him for "Cronicas" because his character was supposed to be Colombian, and I was really worried that the different accents would be an issue. Bertha Navarro (my producer) kept insisting that the Colombian accent would not even be a problem for Damián, and thankfully I trusted her. Damián did such a good job that when people saw his portrayal of Vinicio in Ecuador, everybody thought he was a Colombian actor. I think I loved the fact that Damián is really such a nice guy, and he projects that, making you want to trust him, and yet you do sense a dark side inside of him (something which I wanted both in his role and in John?s).
RT: "Cronicas" has been entered as Ecuador's official "Oscar-eligible" title, which is quite an honor in and of itself. Coming from a nation that doesn't produce a large amount of movies, how important is it to you that Ecuador be "cinematically represented" on a stage like the Academy Awards?
SC: That was very important for me, particularly since Ecuador produces very few films per year, and there is no support from the government or cultural organizations towards local filmmaking. So, to have Ecuador ?represented? on an international stage like the Academy Awards brings a lot of awareness that supporting local filmmakers is important. Almost all Latin American countries have strong laws that support filmmaking through a film institute, tax breaks, and financial support (that?s the reason Argentinean cinema is so vibrant today, despite the economic crisis there), and for years Ecuadorian filmmakers have been fighting for support? So when one of our films gets international attention, it?s another way of making politicians realize how important film is to a country?s identity.
RT: After dozens of festival screenings around the world, "Cronicas" ended up as a Palm Pictures release. How did that process work, and how do you feel about the way your film was marketed and released?
SC: After the first Cannes screening, there was a lot of interest from several distributors in "Cronicas", and Palm?s offer was probably the most interesting: plus, they were so passionate about the film that we felt we were in good hands with them. In general, I feel Palm did a good job with the release of the film. Of course, there are always risks we were aware of (like counter-programming, or targeting the film to a Latino audience) which might have not worked as well as we wished, but I think the film did very respectably, and I?m pleased with the results.
RT: With foreign and "arthouse" distribution being the niche market that it is these days, does a film like "Cronicas" work "better" on a home video release?
SC: Although you always want to catch a film on the big screen, you have to be realistic about the fact that most of your audience will watch an ?arthouse? film on DVD at their convenience. However, without the theatrical distribution, an ?arthouse? film will never have the same reach on home video, so it?s the combination of the two releases, which helps the success of the film.
RT: The film is a smart and quietly scathing indictment of modern TV journalism. Do you feel that the mass-media world often makes it more difficult for law enforcement to do their job? Is it ever acceptable (or advisable) for a journalist to "intrude" upon the story he's reporting? Is "Cronicas" a criticism of a specific event, or is it a criticism of modern journalism in general?
SC: I think there are a lot of grey lines when you deal with ethical and moral dilemmas, and the nature of journalism definitely begs for a lot of questions to be asked, questions which don?t necessarily have right or wrong answers. For me, Manolo?s first transgression happens when he decides to stop the lynching at the beginning of the film: as a journalist he should have only been reporting what he witnessed; but as a human being you admire him for stepping forward and actually doing something to stop this atrocious violence (even if he might be doing this for the ?ratings?). I?m very cynical about people?s reasons for doing things, and yet I do believe that a character like Manolo might be very idealistic too, and might be starting out with the best intentions. It?s only later on that his arrogance blinds him into thinking he?s the only one who can do anything to catch this killer. I think I was trying for the movie to work on different levels: to make you think about the nature of modern journalism (the moment you point a camera somewhere, you?re changing the very event you?re covering) without necessarily pointing the finger to anyone; but also to examine human nature, its arrogance, and lack of tolerance.
RT: How difficult is it to balance the "entertainment" side of a film -- along with the messages you're trying to convey?
SC: To me a good film should hook you and not let go off you until the final credits, but it should also make you think. I think there?s nothing contradictory with being entertained and thrilled by a great story, which might also have a strong message. You don?t want to insult your audience with losing subtlety and beating people over the head with a ?message? everyone is aware of, and you don?t want to make the film too challenging to enter. A right balance is tricky, but it?s definitely something I strive for.
RT: Congratulations on being hired to direct Harrison Ford in the historical thriller "Manhunt". Do you see many similarities between this project (which is about a Civil War veteran charged with apprehending Abraham Lincoln's assassin) and "Cronicas", which has to do with a TV reporter who tries to bring a serial killer to justice?
SC: Thank you. There are actually quite a bit of similar themes in these two movies, and I?m really looking forward to exploring these with a completely different approach.