Is everything transient?
Everything! I ended up merging the idea of work and the passage
together so you enter the car wash and it's about work and then, by
the time you leave, it's about this awkward juncture between Mexico
and the US.
About transience and work, you made a clear effort to depict
Carmelo's work as a highly physical one. I mean, this is a 60 -year-
old man, schlepping his nights away on Valencia with his guitar. His
is not a relaxed living.
Hard work. I liked the idea that despite the fact that he sings love
songs for a living, he's really making a living on his feet. It's
very blue collar. I felt like this walking life - these musicians in
the Mission do this circuit between 16th, Valencia, Mission and 24th,
from upscale places to these little joints - but most of the time
they're walking, they're waiting for the last band to leave and
there's something very job-like about it. I really wanted to make a
film about a musician in which the film wasn't a celebration of the
music. Instead it's about a guy who is a musician as a job. Even
though Carmelo happens to be a guy that's rather passionate about
this music, I didn't include one piece of voiceover about how
wonderful he felt the music was. My interest was in music as a gig, a
way to make money and that is certainly part of the plight. The
walking, the hard work of it, the manual labor of it all was
important to me and I'm sure I emphasized that.
Which pairs very well with the sadness of the lyrics. You include
subtitles for all of the songs' lyrics, which gave the songs and
their performances a difference kind of gravity.
When I was thinking about the movie, and this evolved over time, I realized I wasn't making a music documentary. This is a film about a
guy who plays music for a living and it's about the intersection of
the narrative of the music and narrative that's going on in that
guy's life. The music and the lyrics are constant commentary on the
actions and the plot: he plays weddings and the weddings can't help
but intersect with his daughter's life and his fears and the future;
he plays funerals and those can't help but intersect with his
concerns for his ailing mother; he plays quinciñeras and he puts
together a lesser quinciñera for his daughter; his musical partner is
kind of a drunk and the lyrics comment on a life of drinking or
troubled relationships. Or some songs are a celebration of the love
of a young woman, and here he is in a relationship with a woman who
he's having trouble understanding because she's going through
menopause. So there's irony and commentary in the music and it helps
suffuse the narrative of the film.
I read about your interest in American 60s vérité, which you said
- and I love this- had "unbuttoned structures," and I can see how
your film makes a comfortable parallel to say, Salesman, but the way Carmelo mythologized the plight
of characters who might be regarded as indigent or invisible, struck
me as very British New Wave. He wasn't Jimmy Porter -
I was inspired by 60s vérité, but it's true the film isn't exactly...
I don't mean to imply it was Don't Look Back
Right, but when you watch my film you probably have more of a sense
of character subjectivity. Beside the 60s vérité aesthetic, which is
a definitive inspiration, I love that you never felt like you were
being dragged by the nose - in terms of the plot - in vérité. You
felt like the plot was almost accidental, or you were discovering as
a viewer how you feel. And you never felt like the editor or the
filmmaker was trying too hard to make you see their points, though
they had their points. I was inspired, in Romántico
, to make
the viewer feel the randomness of life, and feel how tenuous life is
and how unexpected. In many ways, though I'm leading you subtly, I
didn't want you to feel that "manipulative filmmaker" presence.
All in all, it's funny the weird feedback thing that happens with
documentary inspiring New Waves and now I'm saying I was inspired by
the films that were inspired by the films that were inspired by
I read about your experience at the Morelia Film Festival. It seemed like, for Carmelo, being
part of your film wasn't just cathartic, it was much more. You must
have discussed this with him.
I didn't ask for this, but I ended up with a film subject who had
always wanted to tell his story. He told me that the first night I
spoke with him. This was the gift of the movie. Yes, he gave me the
gift of a plot because he went home in the first week of shooting and
that was totally unexpected, but he also gave me the gift of an
examined life. He belies the cultural stereotype people have about
the hand-to-mouth existence. I feel like, and maybe I'm wrong about
this, but I think people tend to think that if you're spending all of
your time worrying, working and trying to make the family happen and
be comfortable, that you couldn't possibly have the time for
perspective on life or on your part in the larger world. I mean,
that's a stereotype, not a truth. And I feel like his life is an
examined life and it allows a window into his world and makes his
world more poignant because he's a self-reflective guy. At a certain
point in his life, he decided - maybe he kept this in the back of his
head - that he'd love the opportunity to tell his story, and when I
met him he told me that. He was 57 at the time and said, "I've been
waiting a long time for this." It was very odd for me.
It sounds almost prophetic.
I know, but I hesitate to make it sound too prophetic because that's
the reality, that's what he told me. When he did eventually see the
film, despite the fact that he's in almost as shitty of a position as
he was in the beginning of the film in terms of his economic
situation, he told this audience at Morelia - he quoted himself from
the film - he said, "Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to
become somebody, and now I feel like I am somebody because I've told
my story." The mere telling of his story was a great satisfaction to
him. Now he's a person like anyone else; he needs more satisfaction
than that. He needs a degree of comfort that he doesn't have, so I
don't mean to be patronizing in that way, but it's also true he's a
musician and he likes being the center of attention and I'm sure when
he walks down the street and people yell, "Hey Romántico!," he loves it.
I appreciate the amount of respect and responsibility you have
towards Carmelo - he's not just your documentary subject.
There's an economic thing that I don't know if we should talk about.
Why shouldn't you?
I'm still in debt to the film, but I feel like I can't make a film
about a person like Carmelo and not share in the proceeds. So I made
a promise that whenever the film makes a dime, he'll get half that
dime. The film might make ten thousand dollars - I don't know if that
sounds small or big; it's really nothing over the course of seven
years working on it - but if the film made ten thousand dollars over
the next few years, I'd be helping create an account for him and I
can not wait for that to happen! Lastly, there's a non-profit
organization that contacted me and they formed a little website story
about him and they have a little PayPal button for direct donations
to Carmelo and his family. Their thing is marrying philanthropic
minded individuals with families in need and I set up a little fund
for him. It's not benevolent on my part. It sounds silly but I don't
think that anyone who has spent time with Carmelo or has worked on
this film, anyone would want him to benefit from the fruits of the
film. Anybody would want to do this. The guy is just inspiring to be
around, and after we talked about the economics of the film, he never
asked for a dime - he only asked to tell his story and that only
makes you want more to provide what he needs most, which is money.
Tell me about how you were featured on Apple.com.
They didn't find me, I found them. This last two years since the film
premiered at Sundance, I've been a crazy one-man promotional machine,
and I hate promoting, and yet I think any filmmaker feels the same
about it: When you create something and you want people to see it,
you lose those inhibitions that might keep you from calling up
strangers to come see it or helping get your movie out there or
helping you push it, though you have no money, or whatever. And so I
work as an editor for documentaries, but I spend every waking hour
I'm not doing that trying to get the movie seen. It was on the
festival circuit for a year and that's really satisfying because the
festivals are only about love. Distribution isn't about love because,
even if people love a film, they're still worried about whether or
not the film will break their company.
, from New
York, took it on in April of this year so it was taken on a year and
a couple months after Sundance. It was partly because they knew that
I would contact every non-profit and poster entire cities with a
staple gun myself and I'm so gratified that the film has a chance to
reach so many more people because the film has a theatrical release.
I really honestly couldn't ask for more than for it to screen at the
Lumiere and the Shattuck in the Bay Area. This is the home of my
characters and the home of people who are really sympathetic to
immigrants in general. San Francisco is progressive and sympathetic
and a real home for Romántico
. I feel like the fact that it
will see the light of the movie theater is a testament to a lot of
hard work and never taking "no" for an answer.