During the San Francisco International Film Festival, I caught up with Carlos Bolado (director of Sólo Dios Sabe) in the hospitality suite and he graciously granted me the following interview.
MG: Carlos, first I want to commend you on continuing to create films that are spiritual sojourns. Bajo California, which I saw back in 1999, I believe—it's been a while since you've been here!—I was very impressed with that when I saw it and am likewise impressed with Sólo Dios Sabe.
CB: Thank you so much.
MG: I had a lot of fun interviewing Alice Braga when she was here and I have to praise you for being prescient enough to cast this beautiful young actress as your character Dolores! Alice is definitely going to do a lot of fine work.
CB: I think so, yeah.
MG: How did you find her? What drew you to Alice?
CB: A photograph! She's very photogenic. I was looking for the actress for the movie because I already had Diego [Luna], the main guy. So I went to Sao Paolo and I did a casting and I saw a few actresses, very famous ones, but didn't feel like I was finding the right people and I came back to San Francisco and they started sending me emails, photographs, and one day [Alice] showed up in my computer and I went like [gasp]. I think I said, "She's the one!" Because she looks so similar to Ana Mendieta and, at that moment my movie had more of Ana Mendieta, this Cuban artist. At the end we didn't get the rights to use [the Mendieta material] because the gallery—she's dead now—the gallery's very [protective].
MG: Notwithstanding, I respected that you mentioned her and had Dolores simulate Ana Mendieta's work. One of my favorite themes is the presence of absence, which was one of Mendieta's main themes.
CB: Exactly! The presence of absence, yeah exactly, I like it! But anyway I want to use parts of the Super8 and things of Ana Mendieta … because she was close to Santeria and because she was killed. I wanted to put in the story a little bit of her but it was not possible because the gallery said no, we don't want to do that. Because I really get some of the material from her and talk more about Ana Mendieta, so it's just like a mention in the film, an homage in some way, which is a pity because I want to use it more. So anyway, so Alice she has [a similarity] to Ana Mendieta, especially in the photograph that they send it to me. So when I saw her it was like [gasp] there's something, there's something here. So I asked for more images of her, they sent me some more, and I said, "Can she move? Can she act?" They just finish a movie called City of God. So they sent me that movie and some images of her. I saw the movie and I liked her.
MG: She's fantastic! And getting to see the two films here at the festival was a wonderful introduction to her work so, again, you were really sharp to catch her early in her career.
CB: Exactly. It was fortunate.
MG: Obviously you are a man who thinks and feels deeply and considers the Spirit and finds the Spirit in various elements. I love how the movie starts with water and ends with water.
CB: The river and the ocean. Because it's the river that goes to the ocean. And this Oxum, she's the Orisa, the spirit of the river basically and the river is the sweet water that always goes to the ocean. It's the fertility too. In that way that's why it has to have water and why it has to end in the ocean. And it's like Heraclitus—you don't wash yourself two times in the same river. It's always like a flow.
MG: Yes. Are you a practitioner of Santeria?
CB: No, no. I was very interested. I knew something when I was in Cuba in 1989, actually, I was very interested, so I went there a few times and I went to certain ceremonies because I always wanted to make a film about that, a documentary, but it was not possible at that time so I went to Brazil … and I started doing my research and I said, I want to make it about this. But I was close to trying to understand it, because the animistic religions they were always interesting so it was more for that animistic side, that you give this spirituality to the rivers, to the mountains, to the rocks, to the trees. They do the same in Japan, with the Shintoism in the same way. Or so many first religions start with that. All of them are animist. The hispanic religions, the Aztecs basically you have the same idea.
MG: Perhaps that's why I was so taken with it. When I was younger, one of my instructors was the mythologist Joseph Campbell who taught me a lot about syncretism.
CB: Ah, yeah yeah yeah. I've read a lot of Joseph Campbell.
MG: And I also had the fortune of studying with shamans in Mexico. I was pleased that you put the same truths of these different practices but layered them in the different geographies. One of my favorite scenes in the road trip through Mexico was when Damián accidentally hit the zopilote. He then proceeds to give it a proper burial which Dolores doesn't get at first. She mocks Damián 's ritualism and criticizes his attention to a scavenger bird. Damián responds by saying that the scavenger bird survives but never by killing. That was a great insight. The kind of gift the desert gives you. The turkey vulture, like other scavengers, recycles. It's that symbolic premise that often places the vulture in the mythic role of a Mother Destroyer/Creator goddess. I've never seen anyone depict that in a film before. That was a powerful image that you commented upon there.
CB: That's great.
MG: Diego Luna, how did he become involved?
CB: He became involved because we always talked about making a movie. We knew each other but in a festival in Guadalajara we really started talking more, deeply, about movies. He was coming to make a movie that he didn't like … and I was [there] after doing Bajo California and we talk and we find out we were orphans, we both lost our mothers in car accidents, and that night I said I will write a movie about the orphans, I will put that in a story, and [Diego] said, "I will do it, so just call me." Years later, two or three years later, I called him and I said I have the script that I talked to you [about]. "Ah, send it to me!" So I sent it to him and he really liked it. He was doing Havana Nights, or something like that, so he really liked the story and said, "Let's just do it." So he was involved and from there he started being involved a lot because he's a producer/director too. He has….
MG: … a keen eye on projects.
CB: Yeah, exactly. I think he will end [up] directing basically, so he became involved as a producer, as an associate producer of the film.
MG: Excellent. Why was there such a gap between Bajo California and Sólo Dios Sabe? What have you been doing? I know you did the one documentary….
MG: Yeah, Promises.
CB: We spent a lot of time with that documentary. It's very difficult to raise money to make films, especially in Spanish. I finished Promises in 2001. So I was already doing Promises when I was doing Bajo California. I finished my relationship with Promises in 2001 basically [but] I was already working on this project but I [thought] I would be shooting this movie in 2003. But the money was impossible. It became so complicated to get the money, to raise the money.
MG: It's a complicated script, it covers a lot of territory, and you presented a lot of information to your audience. That's what I liked. What I came away with and why I think the movie might do well is because it's hopeful, it leans into faith. Dolores basically starts out as someone who has been used, and is cynical, and is scoffing what other people believe in, but, by the end of the film, she's the one who really believes.
CB: Yeah, exactly. They go like this [he gestures a crisscross], they change in some way. They cross paths. She begins having faith and believes and he does not so much. So it grows in that way.
MG: I also appreciated your recognition of the spiritual concept of the longbody, that it's grandparents and grandchildren who are connected.
CB: Yes, exactly.
MG: Which made me interested in the role of Olivia the mother, Cecilia Suárez, it's a very strong role that she plays. She changed also by the end of the movie.
CB: Yeah, exactly.
MG: Can you talk about her as an actress?
CB: She was a theater actress. I was looking for that kind of actor but I didn't want a mother that was like—even some people in Brazil [are] like so classica, y'know?—I want to change in some way, they were thinking of two people or something like that and I said no, but she's not, maybe we should paint her hair, frivolous things, but the way that they saw themselves, Brazilians no? I said, no. I want to look for her. I did a casting and [Cecilia] came to do another role. And I saw her and I said let me see you, and I did another test with her, and I liked her and I went to see her theater. She's a well-known theater actress and I liked her work so it was interesting to work with her. She's very smart. She does a lot of improvisation at that theater that she does and she works a lot with a famous director. I think there was a lot of understanding. She was a very receptive actress [with] this background, this dedication or whatever, this preparation.
The other thing about Alice too, they sent me that day, I like her and I found out that she was the niece of Sonia Braga so I was like, "Ah! So maybe…", and I even think like, we tried for a while to be like the mother would be Sonia and [Alice] just to have the mother and daughter, but it was mother and niece. But it didn't work out because of the dates and it was good because I found this woman, that it was more clear, it would be a little bit of a miscast—Sonia Braga as the mother of Alice—even if they are related; but, the age, she has to be younger, but now Sonia did an operation, she looks amazing.
MG: She always looks amazing; she's radiant! So the preparation for this movie—this script is a very complex, rich script—how many years have you been working on this one?
CB: Like two-three years. I had the outline in 1999-2000. I still made corrections [up] to 2004 because when you don't shoot you start going crazy and you just move things around. But, you know what the thing is? There's something that I miss in this story …. I had to reduce the script a lot because it was too long. So there was more scenes, more dialogue, and more, to tell a love story, and to make it more dense. There were 180 to 200 pages but I had to get it into 110, or something like that.
MG: That must have been so difficult to do!
CB: Yeah, exactly. Especially after two, three years of working and you have to go down because there was no way to produce it, there was no money. No way to make it. They feel like it was long. We was still working with Diane Weipert, my co-writer. Finally we had to go there. I always had a feeling when I was shooting, how much I trimmed of the story to make it, how many layers, because that's a layer that is the love story, the Damián side, the two of them, because there were more layers. So I don't know how much of the layers I lost doing that and go to make the film, cutting all these things. It was a very complex story. It was long. So many, in two places.
MG: I would be intrigued to think how many more layers you could have added on to the story because it was already rich, and a lot to absorb, especially because I think that—though Santeria has a certain cachet—most people do not really understand the religion, myself included, though I'm intrigued by syncretic Catholicism. Within the film you include a Mexican celebration of the Moors which is a very early Spanish-colonial syncretization of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.
CB: Exactly, the Others!
MG: And then you carried it over to show that this same syncretic process is in the Orisa. Also the fact that you used—I call her Purgatory: the Soul in Flames but you called her the Saint of the Orphans—was very interesting.
CB: Exactly, yeah yeah.
MG: Another scene that struck me was when Damián first loses Dolores and he's crying in his apartment listening to music…
CB: …to Jose Jose.
MG: That's a moving scene. Because I know many men who could only express their grief that way.
CB: Exactly, a lot of people! That's right. It's very Mexican, that way.
MG: In terms of the music, it's very current. I was not familiar with either Otto or Julieta Venegas. So thanks for turning me on to both of them.
CB: Julieta is very famous in [Mexico]. Even here. She won two Latino Grammys. She has a record called Sí where she is dressing like a bride. They were records that you could hear on the stations here, on the alternative Latino stations or even some other stations they put her music…. When they do compilations of Mexican things they always use Julieta; she was kind of alternative rock. But she made a record that was very pop and it was very funny and good and it became like a big seller, people love it in Mexico, like a young crowd, and it won two Grammys. She's more famous, even in Mexico, she was on the trucks, the Pepsi ads, with her face.
MG: I admire that you gesture to all of these artists, relatively young artists, that you cast Alice, that you work with Diego, that you profile these musicians. I have trouble with seeing so many movies and having too many recognizable actors.
MG: I like more when someone's new, and young.
CB: Yeah, it's true.
MG: When I saw Alice, I was wowed, I thought, "Look at her!" She's really a remarkable talent. You're a Bay Area person?
CB: Yeah, I spend a lot of time here lately because I'm trying to find more jobs. But, yeah, I live here.
MG: And the distribution of the film?
CB: It's Palm Pictures out of New York.
MG: When can we expect it out?
CB: Probably in the Fall. That's what they say. They say that date, the Fall, which, you never know but that sounds right.
MG: All the more reason for being happy to talk to you now because the festival's put a hold review on me so I can't review the film, they only allow me 50 words or something, but in an interview I can talk about the film…
CB: Ah, great!
MG: … which is really what I enjoy much more. Were you pleased with the movie? Is it the movie you wanted? You said you had to trim a lot, is it basically the movie you wanted?
CB: No. Not really. But I'm never happy. It seems to me that the challenge was—the thing was [it was] very complicated to make the movie. There were so many problems to make the movie happen. I feel like I lost something. I think it would be a better movie. I like it. People like it. I'm happy that I [made] it; the challenge was very complicated, it was a challenge to do it. But I feel like, if I would do it again—which doesn't normally happen all the time—I would just try to not produce. The problem is I had to be the producer of this film, I am one of the producers. I was so involved in the production. So involved with the budget.
MG: It distracted you?
CB: Exactly. It was very difficult to keep my mind [focused]. If you're producing, fine. If you're directing, fine. But producing and directing, especially—well, everywhere!—like in Mexico and Brazil.
MG: You were fighting yourself?
CB: Yeah, exactly. So in some way I feel like I wish I would have more time and I didn't. And more money. We were always five minutes late and one dollar short.
MG: You were talking earlier about wanting to work with the story of Ana Mendieta. Do you think that will happen? I would love to see a film on Ana Mendieta.
CB: There were a few things in the script [about] Ana Mendieta [but] rights [were] complicated. So yeah, the gallery didn't want to… I would love to do a film about Ana Mendienta too but it's still not possible and especially because there are still so many stories, like even the way that she died.
MG: The controversy…
CB: Very controversial that story. But the gallery is very closed. And this was very traumatic for the family, for her sister. Basically, she doesn't want to be involved, and the gallery in New York manages all [Mendieta's] work and all her permits and everything. They were very protective. We talked a lot with them. And finally, we didn't agree on anything. So, we had to take out—we didn't even have to shoot things that we were thinking to shoot and to ask for, we didn't do it because we knew that we would not get the rights.
MG: I hope when that finally gets the green light that you get to be the one who handles that because I think you understand the essence more than most of Mendieta.
CB: Hopefully. I would love to do it. I like her work a lot. I followed her for years. First time I saw one of her works it's like, "Who is this person?" I started to find out it was Ana Mendieta.
[Carlos receives a phone call from Brazil which he has to take. I take a few minutes to cruise the hospitality suite.]
MG: To help me understand better, Dolores' grandmother directed her to a personal altar in the city where she found the stones and these were the stones that needed to be returned to the water.
CB: Yeah, to the same place.
MG: What is that? Can you explain that to me? I'm not familiar with that tradition.
CB: The stones. These are stones that they settle them in that place. You take them and you make your altar. They had to take it back to the place that they came from and they came from that terrain. So she put an altar there because she was a Santeria priest. They had to take these things back because she's related and the grandmother died so [she] has to do it. She's not directed to the—and probably that's a mistake of the movie—to another place in the city, she's directed to the top room of the building of the grandmother.
MG: Oh! I wasn't sure where the altar was.
CB: It's in the top room. The thing that you do not see is the thing in the shooting, you see the building from here and you don't see the back part of the building, so when I show the shot of the back part, you [don't] make that connection so clearly that it's the same place, which I feel there was a possibility but I said, "Oh, that is not important. The important thing is that she goes to the room and finds these things from the grandmother, no?" That room [that] was in that scene was not in the same apartment but in the same building. But anyways, she goes there and she found [the stones] and she has to take [them] back because she goes and asks and that's what you have to do basically. You can't keep a place like … only people that are related or have some relation with the religion can touch [them], but all family and she has to take that there because there's a curse. Bad things will happen to you if you don't do what you have to do. Like a threat in a strange way. If you don't do the right things, bad things happen to you. It's like a karma too in some way.
MG: And the ants on the altar? What's with all the ants?
CB: I wanted to put something organic. There were ants everywhere. There were more image of ants that I didn't [use]. At the end of it, finishing the cut, it was kind of stopping the story. But I wanted to keep the ants because they were something organic, they transform, they move, they're animals too. They move things, the animals, they're the organic side of life. And I liked to put something alive there.
MG: It worked very well. So what's the next project? What are you working on next?
CB: Basically trying to direct a movie that maybe I will just be a director, not writing the story. So I'm looking for something like that. In Los Angeles. Which obviously I like it. Those few projects that I will direct the script I like because I want to start working with a writer, so If it's possible, that would be great. That's my idea. And I'm writing a thriller.
MG: A thriller?!!
CB: A thriller that has some spirituality there but it's more of a thriller like—it's about, I guess, fatherhood in some ways. So that's a story that I'm writing. And I'm trying to finish two other documentaries that I've been working.
MG: Wow. A lot of work.
CB: Yeah, a lot of work. But writing takes a long time to do. For me, writing's a long process. This movie took me so much time and energy so when I finish it I have just a synopsis of my story that I'm writing. So to really write a good script it usually takes me more than a year. …And I have to see how I will be making my living too.
MG: There's always that, huh?
CB: Exactly. So I have to be thinking on directing something.
MG: Well, I'm going to be monitoring this movie. I want to see how the public reacts to it because I think they're going to really be intrigued by it. Thank you so much.
CB: I hope you can make it to the screening and the Q&A.