Illustrates the History of Jazz with the Oscar-nominated Chico & Rita
by Jay S. Jacobs
Spanish film director Fernando Trueba has had a long, fascinating career which has branched out in many directions. He started out as a movie critic in the 1970s for the newspaper El Pais. He has since worked as an author, screenwriter, movie director and producer, book editor and a musical producer. He has won Grammys for his work as well as the Goya Award, Silver Bear and an Oscar for his 1994 film Belle Époque, which won for Best Foreign Film.
He was recently nominated for his second Oscar for Chico and Rita, his animated love song to the jazz scene of the 1940s and 1950s. Trueba created and wrote the film with well known Spanish artist and designer Javier Mariscal. The two decided that they wanted to create a far-reaching celebration of Cuban jazz, as shown as an intimate and troubled love story between a talented pianist and the singer who is his muse. The film revisits such jazz hotspots as Havana, New York, Paris and Vegas and spans years to tell its heartfelt story.
A couple of days before the Academy Award ceremony, Mr. Trueba gave us a call to talk about his film, his love of jazz and his Oscar experience.
You and Javier Mariscal have been friends and collaborators for years. How did the idea of making Chico & Rita come about?
It’s because we became such good friends that we wanted to make something together. I always thought that a movie is like making a treat. You have to put together a great crew and you go far away to look for some far island where you think you are going to find a treasure or something like that. Javier Mariscal and I, we wanted to do some work together, to share more time, to really collaborate. Chico & Rita was the way of doing this. We thought about what things we like the most and the first thing was music. Jazz. Cuban music. Cuba. It just started like this. From this we started working on a script, story, characters, etc.
Music has obviously been just as important to your career as filmmaking has been. How exciting is it to get the chance to mix your two passions so completely as you do here?
I’ve done that before, when I did Calle 54 ten years ago, a documentary on Latin jazz. As I’m getting older, I always try in my movies to put the most possible things that I really like and enjoy. I don’t like to make movies about people that I dislike. I would never make a movie about Margaret Thatcher. I think that’s horrible, for me it would be a nightmare to do a movie about a character like this. So, when I do movies, I try to put in them all the things that I like – music, love, New York, Havana. Also, Chico & Rita is [about] my love of classic American cinema. I think that’s there all the time, also, the classical narrative ways. So, that’s it…
As a jazz fan, how much fun was it to recreate such legendary scenes as Havana, New York, Paris and Vegas in the 40s and 50s?
It was a lot of fun. One thing that was very exciting was mixing the fictional character with real characters like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or all the real musicians that we squeezed into the story. That was a lot of fun. Also, the production of the music of the score of the movie is part of the script, in some ways, because the story is told through music, most of the time. That was one of the nicest things about making Chico & Rita, for me it was a very exciting, very strong work. Very hard work sometimes, but at the same time, I would start tomorrow again.
Since the movie is so much about music, how vital was it to get legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés involved in the film?
That was an idea that came to us at the beginning of the movie. When we decided that we are going to make our love story and that we wanted a lot of music in it, so let’s do a story about two musicians. She can be a singer. He can be a musician. Then we said, “What if he’s a pianist? Then we can have Bebo playing for him.” That was a crucial moment for the movie, because then, we started to put everything together from that moment on. It was a great privilege. Bebo was already very old at that time. He has just retired, stopped having concerts and performing in public. Chico & Rita was his last work, his last professional achievement. It was a gift for us. It was a privilege. That’s why we dedicated the movie to him. He’s now 93. He loved the movie. When he saw the movie finished, it was the only time in my life I saw him crying with tears like a little boy. For me, it was a moment I will never forget in my life. He said to me a beautiful thing. I had never thought that way. He told me, “You know, Fernando, I’m not going to be here. Because of this movie, people will be still listening to my music.” I love that he takes the movie this way. It was a very emotional, strong moment for us.
Were Chico & Rita based on specific musicians, or were they more loosely based on lots of different people?
Yeah, we picked from a lot of different things. When you are writing a book or writing any fiction work, you pick things from your own life, from stories that you heard, stories that you’ve read or stories that you know through someone else. I’ve been in the musical ambience for many years. I’m friends with lots of musicians and lots of Cuban people – not only musicians, but also actors and writers. So you have a whole biblioteca [Spanish for library] of personal experience. It’s just to choose the right ones and invent the right ones that you need for the story. It’s always like that, fiction grows from reality.
I believe that Chico & Rita is your first animated film.
How was making it different than making a live-action film?
It’s the same, but it’s completely different. The most important thing is that you need to have the whole movie shot by shot in your head before actually making it. That’s a big thing. That makes a really, really big difference. When you do live action movies, you have to think out a lot of things before, but you can let many, many things happen in the process. Say, for the actors, there is some room for improvisations from the moment of inspiration. But here, you need all this inspiration before the movie gets done. (chuckles)
Even though the film is animated, you did spend some time in Havana filming. What was that experience like and how did it add to the feel of the film?
We work a lot with Cuban actors and Cuban musicians and also doing research, photographs, everything to prepare the movie. So, we did a lot of work there before.
Animated films tend to be aimed towards children. Why do you think that the art form is not used more often for adult stories like Chico & Rita?
This is a process that started in the comic medium with graphic novels. When Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Maus, he demonstrated to the world that comics can be adult, not just superficial entertainment for children or for childish adults. He and people like Robert Crumb and some other artists demonstrate that was a medium that can tell complex stories. I think that after graphic novels, now is the time for animation movies. That’s why a movie like Chico & Rita [can be made] or other movies like Waking Life [by Richard Linklater] or Persepolis [by Marjane Satrapi] or Waltz with Bashir [by Ari Folman] and now… the other day we were in New York for the opening of Chico & Rita and we were with Jonathan Demme and he’s working on Zeitoun, David Eggers’ book, to make it into animation. So I think animation is growing.
One of the great things about Chico & Rita is – and nothing against computer animation – but it is a reminder of how vivid and powerful traditional animation can be on screen. Why do you feel that hand-drawn films are so rare anymore?
We are in a very important technological moment. A lot of things are happening that are wonderful, but at the same time, we wanted to keep that human hand inChico & Rita. We didn’t want it to be an animation technological thing. We wanted to keep the human factor all along the program. It was a Mariscol project to me. To keep a Mariscol style, Mariscol lines and colors and drawing, I didn’t want it to lose that. It would be different if I was doing a movie with Pixar. I know Pixar has its own style. So, I will work for Pixar’s style. But here, I was working with Mariscol, so what I wanted in the movie was to have as much Mariscol style as possibie.
How did you find out about your Oscar nomination? What was that like?
(laughs) That was a lot of fun. Very nice surprise for us. We are very happy with it. Already to be nominated to me is like an award.
Generally these days the animated film Oscar nominees are sort of made up of high profile computer animated blockbusters. How exciting is it for you as a filmmaker that two smaller, traditionally animated, foreign-language titles like yours and A Cat in Paris were recognized, particularly over high profile films like, for example, The Adventures of Tin Tin?
Well that proves that the Academy is very open. The same way they have the Iranian movie A Separation nominated for Best Screenplay. I think that’s great, because it’s really one of the best screenplays. For me, it’s the best movie of the year. (laughs) So, I really appreciate that the Academy has an eye and an ear for this kind of movie, too. It’s very interesting and for us, we are very grateful for it.
You had previously won an Oscar for Belle Époque. Does that make another nomination easier to handle? Are you ready with your speech just in case?
Not yet. Not yet. But it’s true, that having been through it before makes you be more comfortable at it. Also, being eighteen years older made things just a bit different. (laughs)
What are your plans for the Oscar weekend?
Well, there is going to be a viewing party with all the friends and family here in LA. [There will also be] another party in my home in Madrid. And another one in Mariscol’s studio in Barcelona. So, I hope now through Skype and that, the three parties, we will get in touch one with each other, because there’s going to be a lot of people in these three towns. (laughs hard)
What do you have planned next?
I just finished my new movie. It’s a live-action movie, my first movie in French. It’s called The Artist and the Model [El artista y la modelo]. It’s with Jean Rochefort, Claudia Cardinale and a young Spanish actress, Aida Folch.
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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 24, 2012.