Since shooting to international fame opposite best buddy Gael Garcia Bernal in Alfonso Cuaron’s racy Y Tu Mama Tambien, Diego Luna has combined a Hollywood career (appearing in the likes of Milk and The Terminal) with passion projects in his native Mexico.
Co-founder of production company Canana, Luna, 31, makes his directorial feature debut with Abel, a charming and often hilarious drama about a young boy suffering from an unusual delusion. After nine-year-old Abel (newcomer Christopher Ruiz-Esparza) ceases to communicate with his family, he is sent to an all-female mental institution, barely equipped to cope with him. His mother Cecilia (Karina Gidi) brings him home for a week, where Abel suddenly assumes the role of the long-absent father. Convinced this is a sign of recovery, the family encourage Abel’s behaviour, with both amusing and worrying results.
We had a nice long phone chat with Diego ahead of the film’s release on 7th January. He tells us why fatherhood was the inspiration for Abel and its criticism of absent fathers, and how his past as a child actor guided him.
You’ve given yourself the challenge of working with children for your first film - why did you want to tell a story from a child’s perspective?
Well, because I became a dad, and I decided I wanted to tell a story about parents and sons. I also was an actor as a kid, and I believe we blame the kids, you know? They always say, oh it’s difficult to work with kids. But the problem is not with the kids, the problem is the way we approach kids. You do it the right way, you can get an amazing performance. There’s a magic in the eyes, there’s a spark, a freshness that you cannot get from a professional at all. That’s the part I felt most comfortable with. It was very risky, because we never got to see the kid as the character, you know? I worked with him for a long time, but never with the script, and we shot in strict order, so he never knew the story. There were no rehearsals at all - he was finding out the story day by day. It was quite interesting, to see everyone working around the kid, making it work for the kid. For me, it was also nice to make a comment on adults through the voice of a kid. I don’t believe it’s a film for kids, and I don’t even know if it’s a film about kids. The line is quite thin between reality and a fantasy world. It’s more a comment on the father and the parents - why a father would decide not to be next to his kids. Why a father would not want to be a part of raising his family.
So it was intended to that critical of absent fathers?
I did a film about who I was as a kid, and who I don’t want to be as a father. In my case it was very different, as my mother died and my father had to play both roles. But I lived in a house where there was an absence of a parent, and in my case, there was no one to blame, but in many cases there is. They abandon them even being there, you know? They’re there to provide and that’s it. We kind of accept that idea - even the law accepts it. When you divorce, the judge tells you to pay 50% of what you make, and see your kids every two weeks. That dictates the structure of what a father should do, how to behave. Like I said, I had a baby, and there’s no way, no reason for me to lose the chance to be part of every decision that has to do with my kids.
Christopher seems wise beyond his years, but he’s not a professional actor. How did you go about directing him on set?
We always forget they’re kids. Many times directors choose kids if they can treat them as adults, and I belive it’s the other way around - you have to remember they’re kids. So I designed a playground for him, a place he’d be willing to be there every day. Many times he didn’t know exactly what we were doing - he just needed to know what he needed to know to make things happen. But when he saw the film for the first time, he realised what film he made, but not before. That was very nice because he didn’t have the weight of the film on his shoulders, the pressure wasn’t too hard on him, even though there was pressure obviously. I remember as a kid you would read the script and decide which were the most challenging and difficult scenes, and that would haunt you for the whole shoot! Here it was an everyday task he had to achieve, and he would celebrate, and I would tell him, you’ve done the most difficult part of the film, we’ll see you tomorrow for the easy stuff! Every night it was a celebration.
Karina is an amazing find as the mother Cecilia - what did you like about her?
I think she’s a gifted actress and she’s my favourite actress of her age in Mexico. I’ve worked with her in theatre, and she hasn’t had too many opportunities in cinema. For me it was important to give her one. Also, she’s a mother of two kids, so she understands perfectly the struggle of Cecilia. Even though I did the process of casting with other actresses, I always had a feeling she was the right one. She would give me everything I asked for and more. She has a complexity that the character needs, as the character commits many, many mistakes over the film, but in the end you have to know that parents are going to make mistakes no matter how good they are, but it’s about the love behind the decision. She brought that.
As an actor, do you feel confident directing other actors?
That was the nicest feeling! I know the process of an actor, and I feel very comfortable working with them. I mean, I made everyone work around the actors, so probably not everyone was happy about it at the beginning! There were a lot of things that needed to happen to prepare the film - we went to Aguascalientes with all the actors a couple of weeks before to feel the city and learn the accent. It was to make this family real, so the professional actors needed to build a communication with the kids, and the kids needed to trust them.
What are the laws like in Mexico regarding child actors on set, and did that affect the shoot?
Definitely, there are as many rules [as the US]. I don’t believe the rules are strong enough - we were stronger than the rules! I never wanted them to be around for long periods of time. We were shooting at a studio a block away from their home, so whenever there was a break they’d go back home to their parents. Then we would do the scenes without the kids, and I would help the actors make it happen without the kids. When the kid was sad, we had to shoot when he was sad, or shoot someone else. There’s no way you can ask a kid to leave himself out of the stage, so many times we had to move when he was ready, and wait when he wasn’t.
What did you want to achieve visually?
To create a reality that was a little bit twisted - the thin line between reality and fantasy. At the beginning it starts to be a very contemplative film about a kid, and you see everything really close from his eyes, and it’s all about him looking at the world. But then suddenly it becomes about the whole family. I wanted everything to be a little twisted - the camera’s always moving a little bit, there is a strange flow in this house. I wanted to achieve that with how the light hits the space. The design of the house was also important, to create a house that would tell you the state of this family.
How did you balance the humour, as it’s quite a funny film despite the subject matter?
For me it’s important to laugh! Every comment I make has a bit of irony, and irony and sarcasm are the best ways of criticism. The easiest way also! I wanted to do a film where you laugh, and suddenly it’s not funny anymore. And it’s not funny because it’s also a film about a mother, and if you’re in the shoes of the kid everything seems really funny, but if you’re in the shoes of the mother, it’s not.
You’ve been passionate about film behind the scenes for many years, with your production company Canana and film festival Ambulante, but why was the time finally right to make your first film?
I was waiting for this moment for a long time, but I just didn’t have the right story. I believe it was becoming a father that made me feel I was ready. I grew up, I changed, I started seeing myself as a different person. I wanted to do a film about how parenthood could change you.