Filmmaker Mariana Chenillo won praises for her feature debut Nora's Will back at Latinbeat 2009. The film also won a slew of festival and Latin American awards, including top prizes at Mexico's Ariel Awards and nods from events from Havana, Mar del Plata, Miami, and Morelia.
In Paradise, Chenillo's sophomore feature, which will screen this week in Latinbeat, married couple Carmen and Alfredo move from their small Mexican hometown to bustling Mexico City after Alfredo receives a promotion at his bank job. The romantic comedy follows the happy overweight couple as they adjust to life in the big city, facing obstacles and embarking on a journey of self-discovery.
FilmLinc briefly chatted with Chenillo about Paradise, which screens on Friday, July 18 and Sunday, July 20 in Latinbeat, which continues through July 20.
FilmLinc: How did Paradise come about?
Mariana Chenillo: Julieta Arévalo wrote a short story, which was 10 pages long, a very long time ago and Pablo Cruz [the film's producer] had that story because he grew up in that neighborhood [Satélite], and so did Julieta. The short story is very different from the film. It's more about the context of this neighborhood that is stuck in the '80s and has this American-influenced way of life. It's a strange place; like another universe. The short story explores the humor of being from that neighborhood. In it, the couple move to the city and decide to go on a diet because they want to start a family. The short story, however, wasn't structured for film adaptation.
When Pablo gave me the short story, he initially asked me to write the screenplay only. So for a few years, I worked on the screenplay and other projects. When they asked me to direct, I suddenly felt I had to make it "mine." I changed the main character from the husband to the wife. Before that, I found it difficult to get to the characters and make it personal. My first film was about my grandparents, so that was easy. Eventually, I made Paradise about me and my husband. We haven't been on a diet or anything, but I tried to make it about looking for love that's hidden in everyday life. We say, "I love you" in the morning and at night, but the rest of the time, where is love? I tried to make that the whole thing, and have the film in Carmen's point of view and the process she had to go through. This meant I was talking about me and the things I'm ashamed of, which isn't easy.
FL: At what point did Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal's production company Canana become involved?
MC: My producer is Canana partner Pablo Cruz, who owns the company with them. I worked with him for years, and he hired me. There was a long time when I was on my own to develop the screenplay, but it was very good to be hired as a director. Mexico is behind, just like the rest of the world, in the sense that women directors get to shoot films if they get funding on their own, but we almost never get hired. So it was great because I was able to direct one-and-a-half seasons of the popular Mexican show Soy tu fan, and other projects as well. It helped me to work with other people's screenplays. It was a great opportunity. Also, when I shot this film, I had just had a baby. There are so many prejudices against women working after giving birth, but it was great to be able to do this film, and I think Canana is advanced in that aspect.
FL: Alfredo and Carmen are very loving and adorable, especially at the beginning, and Daniela Rincón is fantastic as Carmen. How did they become involved?
MC: We knew that we were not going to find her amongst the first 10 girls we saw, so we decided to do a massive casting call. It's done all the time in America, but in Mexico we don't do that. We have a pack of actors and actresses that we use again and again. But we made an ad, which played on television and on the radio, as well as on the Web. We saw 800 women, and we found Daniela. She did go to acting school, but this was her first film job, probably even her first encounter with a camera.
FL: Did Daniela and Andrés Almeida have their own approaches to playing their characters or was it more direction on your part?
MC: I really spent time constructing how each one of the characters speak, so most of what is on screen is in the script. The characters, however, have chemistry and [convey] love in their eyes, so in that sense it's better than the screenplay. On paper, Alfredo was supposed to be nastier. But he had something inside that made him adorable also, so people became attached to him. Carmen was overweight all her life and he had a way of digging in the character's skin. She was talking about herself at some points. When she looks in the mirror at her body, she knows that feeling. She was very brave and while I was directing I didn't have the time to think about how brave she was.
FL: Issues surrounding weight are actually not the central plot point but instead it is the fact that they move someplace new and find it difficult to fit in. Was this inspired by any of your or Julieta's personal experiences?
MC: No, but what is really personal is that I hate change. I hate to travel. I love my routine. When you shoot, everything changes every week and I hate it. I could be an accountant and go to an office everyday and be fine. When things start to change and you move around like Alfredo and Carmen, the cracks start to show.
FL: This is a bit different for American audiences because lately we're constantly being told that being healthy is the best way to live, and then people associate healthy with skinny, but Daniela's happiness is something else. Is this also unusual in Mexico?
MC: It's the same thing, or even worse because of the genetic constitution. Most of the population have no blonde or tall physical characteristics, so it's even sadder. There's a lot of pressure with plastic surgery, makeup, dying hair, etc., and Mexico is now first place in obesity, so it's an issue that's floating in the air. I wanted to have a protagonist who doesn't fit in the typical beauty standard. For me, it was liberating; it was like a breath of fresh air to have her. I also felt it was interesting to have the problems really be not about her weight but about discovering what she wants for her own life.
FL: Many of the class and beauty themes are just as strong in America. Did you ever consider the movie's potential international appeal while making it?
MC: My other film [Nora's Will] was released in other countries and was well-received. With that film, I knew that it would work even better outside of Mexico because it dealt with Judaism, and it was a black comedy. We showed Paradise at festivals in Toronto, Spain, Dubai, Panama, Australia, and many other countries, so it works, but it is very much for a Mexican audience.
FL: Is paradise a person or a place?
MC: I think it's a place that is geographical, but is also in the characters' minds. It's where they grew up, where they feel safe, and where they need to leave to find out what their lives are about.
FL: Will you talk about the music selections?
MC: The songs that Alfredo and Carmen dance together to are to show that certain parts of Mexico are stuck in the ’80s. We were hesitant at first, but then we decided we have to be brave because that's what Alfredo and Carmen would listen to. We wrote the score twice and it was a lot of work. The version that played at Toronto Film Festival had a different score; there were more violins and chords. But we felt that it was too explicit, so we took all the chords out and worked with guitars and sounds that give the film more space to breathe. And the Bon Iver song in the middle of the film was expensive, but I had to have it.
FL: The costume design by Adela Cortázar is great. The Gap sweatshirts, hamburger earrings, and that blue dress gave so much to characterization. Was all that mostly Adela's idea?
MC: Yes, it was intentional to have Alfredo and Carmen dress in more colors than the city people around them. But there's another layer of the costume design that I noticed when I was editing the film. It's psychological. When Carmen feels fat, she looks fat. She had different sized clothing for different scenes.
FL: Are you working on any future projects?
MC: There's a screenplay I was writing before I started working on Paradise. I'm back to working on it now, and it's another very personal story about things that have happened to me. I'm also working on a small documentary about a woman who survived World War II, and of course I'm enjoying my newborn son!