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September 2004
Motorcycle Diaries: An Interview with Director Walter Salles

Motorcycle Diaries: An Interview with Director Walter Salles

By Caroline Memnon

Walter Salles has directed many films such as "Central Station" and "Behind the Sun" and he has produced other acclaimed films such as "City of God". His next feature is the story of Che Guevara during his youth that may give glimpse into who he was before he became the man who became a legend. In speaking with blackfilm.com about "The Motorcycle Diaries", Salles talks about his two leads and how affected he was by their performances.

Where you surprised how good Gael and Rodrigo were?

Walter Salles: I never had a second choice for Ernesto. I had seen Amorres Perros very early on. Actually I met Gael before this film; I met him in January 2000, so very early on in this process. I was amazed at the density that he had you know. The viscerality that he had, but also by the fact that he could be incredibly expressive and yet economical everything was constructed form within. This younger Ernesto was one that still had doubt and not certainties, and so you needed an actor with that type of interior strength, and almost soulfulness to be able to transmit this change and Gael had that within him. The casting had nothing to do with physical resemblance that some people may think is there and some not. Actually Ernesto's daughter said that he was way more beautiful than Gael. And so there was never a second choice for that one role. But on the other hand I did not know Rodrigo de la Serna. And we did more than one thousand test throughout Latin America, not for that one role but also for all the other roles of the film. When I saw Rodrigo we had just been coming back from Havana where we did a 10 hr. interview with this 83 year old young man named Alberto Granado, who's the idealizer of the trip, it's as if Alberto was given a second birth right in front of my very eyes. I was astonished with Rodrigo as well so, so this was real treat, you know before doing this film, I had the privilege to work with an actress in Central Station named Fernanda Montenegro, who is truly exceptional, and here I was having the opportunity to collaborate with tow exceptional actors and this made the journey really worthwhile.

This filmed turned out to be a Latin American melting pot. People who worked on it were from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, was that planned?

WS: Nothing of that was planned it still the result of the process. We wanted to give a sense of great authenticity. This is why we did this journey twice before the shoot to be able to identify the faces, human map that pertains to every single moment in the journey. So whenever you are in Patagonia, the faces of the people from that region, and when you are in the desert in Chile you have actors and non-actors coming form that region and so forth and so on. When you are in Peru in the leper colony you had five men in there who were ex-patients of the original leper colony that we found during the location scouting process, all the other men where from the Peruvian Amazon. We wanted the film not only to convey a physical geography but also the human geography of Latin America and its diversity. Do you see differences between the various countries?

WS: Yes very much so, especially if you are Argentinean, because Argentina is a very European country and we were way more influenced by Africa for instance, we have a continent between Europe and Africa and therefore I can only imagine what kind of revelation this journey was for Ernesto and Alberto. Especially after crossing the border between Chile and Peru and so being in a completely indigenous country. The Peruvian faces are completely different form the faces in Argentina and way different from the faces that you see in Brazil. That journey was an adventure for these two young guys with an appetite for life.

What was it like working with the indigenous people from different countries who are non-actors?

WS: We wanted to not only be faithful to the books that informed the Jose Rivera's screenplay but also to the spirit of the original journey and that required us to be out the and to be open, to be permeable to whomever you would encounter not only on the road but also on the margins of the road. We work with the local communities to bring them into the film. We wanted the film to be porous to that. The difficulty in doing that is that you have catch things as they are happening in the moment. Filming a story as it was unfolding right in front of our very eyes. Its as if the camera had to be absent for the film to be alive so you can have the impression that what you see on the screen was actually experienced and the fact is that we did experience that. As we moved on and we met people we started to invite them to be part of the film. For this to happen you have to have actors in complete sync with their characters because they will be asked to improvise a lot. For example, when you meet the little guide who talks about the Incas that is completely in the spirit of the journey, we couldn't have planned. But we just happened to meet him or should I say he discovered us. We were there walking on the street and he said "do you want me to show you the city?" we said yes, as long as we can film it and he said ok, lets go. And off we went. This can only be done when you have actors that are as sensitive as Gael and Rodrigo because they can really recreate things in the logic of their characters. And it can only happen if the screenplay is as well structured as Jose's was. It's a little bit like Jazz. If you have a strong chord, the you can bifurcate and explore other paths because when you want to go back to the melody its so strongly there that you can find it again and you don't get lost.

How was it meeting Alberto Granado?

WS: This was such a privilege, here you had somebody who was 83 years young, who had an extraordinary memory and who can speak about this journey as if it happened yesterday and transmit it with such passion. We had 10 hrs of interview with him. And that material was given to Jose. Without Roberto we would not have understood the emblematic quality that the crossing of the river had. He also granted us information that would never make it into the book like the story of the 15 dollars given by Ernesto's girlfriend to by the bathing suit when they arrived in Miami at the end of the journey. It did not make it into the two books but yet it truly happened, those human touches that characterizes this story that preceded History with a capital H, they were brought in by Alberto. He came to the shoot twice, he came when we crossed the Andes and he told us that this had been the first time the any motorcycle had ever crossed the Andes in 1952. And then he came to the leper colony, which was very important.

Did this film affect you?

WS: How could it of been otherwise? You know. And everyone who worked on this film will tell you the same thing. We were knowledgeable or somewhat knowledgeable about where we respectively came from, that we did not know as much as we should about the other countries that form South America, you know. Gael knew a lot about his Mexican roots and I knew something about my Brazilian ones we did not share a common heritage, that is only possible when you go through this journey. It's as if the house that I live in today is a little bit larger than what it was before. The other aspect is that you become much more aware of the structural problems that pertain to the countries of that continent; you feel the need to act and try to solve them. You can do this in a political manner through your specific work as a filmmaker. I've tried to do it for some time now not only in the films that we do but also in the ones that we produced like City of Gods and Madame Sata in Brazil.

What were the specific concerns in doing this film? And when you say your house is bigger how does that influence your future filmmaking?

WS: These are an interesting set of questions and require more time than I have to answer them. The films that I've done before were original stories most of the time. I've done two adaptations before this. But most of them were completely original stories in which I had the freedom to evolve in the direction I wanted. The characters can change on the road which is partly what happened in Central station. Now in this film we needed much more in-depth information than Ive ever needed this is why it took us five years to do this project. 3 years alone were used for research purposes. I went to Cuba about 8 or 9 times. To meet Granado but to have access to the rich material that exists in the Guevara Center on Studies in Havana which actually published the 2 books originally and keeps a wealth of information about him, either letters or photographs. So little by little we started to understand all the complexities around this project and we wanted to be faithful to that. This is why we did not do the film immediately. You have to put a lot of care into a film like this. You also have to make it alive. The fact we doing a story that preceded History with a capital H, the fact that we were seeing these characters at a specific moment and not as the ones they would become later, made the task a little bit easier. I don't know if you know Robertrand Tavernier, the French filmmaker, he just sent me just a beautiful letter, it very generous for a filmmaker to send another filmmaker a letter after seeing a film. He said I really responded to this film, because you're so true to the characters and you don't try to judge them, you just accompany them thru a journey and you feel invited to be part of that journey. It is exactly what we felt when we read the motorcycle diaries. We were invited to take a look at our own continent. It's as if we are seeing our reflection for the first time. These two guys picked up a mirror that was reflecting Europe and the United states and changed the axis and suddenly we saw ourselves reflected there for the first time. And this is the importance of these books for us Latin Americans.

Was the movie well received in Latin America?

WS: Yes extremely well, critically and public wise. In Brazil the most popular Spanish film was Almadovar's Talk to Her with 550,000 thousand spectators, we are now reaching one million. So it's almost double. It just shows that there is a growing interest to see cultures that seem to be distant from us. Brazil is the Portuguese speaking part of the continent. You have the impression of being so distant yet so close. The book became one of the ten best sellers in Brazil. So it helps to recontextualize a character that has been decontextualized so many times in the recent years.

What about the marketability of this film?

WS: We had to do this film in Spanish and with actors and non-actors coming from Latin America. Robert Redford who was just as passionate about the film as we were, who ignited it really, was very courageous in accepting this initial premise and it took some time to finance the film which could not have been financed out of this country for instance.

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