Monday, April 9, 2007

Director Rodrigo Moreno on Actor Julio Chávez, Storytelling, and "El Custodio"

The remarkable character actor Julio Chavez ("A Red Bear," ND/NF 2002) disappears into the nearly silent role of a middle-aged bodyguard. The cleverly paced, slow-burning tale is a mesmerizing portrait of a man whose all-consuming job is to be an invisible human shield.

Director and screenwriter Rodrigo Moreno spoke with me about his film, "El Custodio." Prohibited from smoking by a stern cafe-owner, Moreno banged the table to emphasize each point. I trembled with the table.

Interview by Jon Robbins

Why a movie about a bodyguard?
I used to tell an official story, but I’ll tell you the inside story, Jon. In reality, my ex-girlfriend’s father was appointed to a government position five or six years ago. He was not involved in politics, and was in no danger, but protocol dictated that he have a bodyguard. So the family’s life was transformed with these silent, armed guys following them everywhere they went. One time we were gong to a restaurant, and there was no place in the family's car, so I rode with the bodyguards, and it was during that short period that I decided I had a film. As we ate I was overwhelmed by the idea that these armed men were waiting for us outside.

Was there one bodyguard who was like Reuben?
No, Reuben is my invention. What interested me was how vicariously Ruben lived, and moreover how people can experience life so vicariously. This isn’t just the case for bodyguards, but for husbands, bosses, wives, parents, whatever. So I created this very silent character called Ruben.

The actor who plays Ruben, Julio Chávez, is fantastic.
He’s not a famous actor, but he’s well-known and very well respected. In fact he just won a Silver Bear in Berlin for another film a few weeks ago. Yes, he’s a very good actor, and I’ve known him since I was a kid because he’s a friend of my mother's. That made it easy for me to get the script to him.

Julio Chávez played the main role in an Argentinean film from the 80s called La Pellicula del Rey, about a filmmaker trying to make a movie in Patagonia. It’s a fantastic comedy that won big awards at Venice, and a very good film. I was eleven when I saw it, and it was a kind of revelation for me. I don’t know quite how it happened, this symmetry, but that film, when I was eleven, made me want to study film. And now Julio is the protagonist in my first feature film.

Was there a lot of discussion between the two of you on what form the film would take?
We spent a year preparing, reading the script, discussing how we would approach it. Julio asks such precise questions that it makes you a better filmmaker, you learn from him. He made me a better director.

Rodrigo Moreno and Julio Chávez between takes

Is he a director as well?
In a sense. He is one of the most important professors of theater in Argentina. Everybody in Buenos Aires wants to study acting with him. And he’s also directed a few plays. Mostly he is very intelligent and excellent to work with.

One really impressive aspect of "El Custodio" is how you were about to blend comedy with serious moral examination. It was a marriage, not a juxtaposition.
For me it is very important that everything should have a sense of humor. My previous films were all comedies.

At the same time, I needed to say in my film that a bodyguard is not a doorman, although he can be treated that way. Ruben is a soldier, a policeman, he has a loaded gun under his jacket, and he thinks in those terms. The way Ruben knows how to live, the rules he knows, all lead to the end.

And what a challenging role he had to play. I was particulraly interested in how you constructed Ruben's sexuality. Sex for him wasn’t erotic, but humiliating...
Ruben spends his time guarding the family. On a rare day off, he finishes his birthday with a decadent prostitute in Buenos Aires. I wrote Ruben as someone who is contained, who needs to keep everything inside. Sex fits into this theme. That scene shows how alone he is in life, how folded into himself he is.

I have to say that everything in this film is a preparation for the ending, everything goes to that point. It is a a big boiling pot that is always ready to overflow its container. Every level of the film works in this way, leading you to the end. In formal terms, it is a film about point of view. That is how I did the sound, the framing, everything from Ruben’s point of view.

The ending is risky...
It’s nice to able to take risks in life, and in film, as well. When I was writing the script I was invited to many workshops in France, in Spain, and even then I knew that some people would love it and some hate it. So I was prepared for the reaction it’s gotten. But this is the film I imagined. Indeed, the day the film came to me, I wrote an outline, and have stuck to it.

Film is an exception, different from real life, for me. The reason Ruben ends as he does explains my need in making the film. I made it because I wanted to see this choice, it is my view of the life Ruben has to lead. The minister is hardly the Latin American villain, and the film is not a sociological exploration. I say this without meaning to be pretentious, but I mean the film to be an existential film, a universal film, not a sociological treatment.

Interview by Jon Robbins