The job of adapting Ernesto "Che" Guevara's memoir, Diarios de Motocicleta, was entrusted to noted playwright José Rivera. As the process of creating the film began with Rivera's script, it is appropriate that he is the first member of The Motorcycle Diaries team that I speak to about the film.
Rivera is on the board of directors of IFP/LA, an organization I started working for in 1996. It was at an IFP/LA event in March 2003 that I first heard Rivera talk about The Motorcycle Diaries along with director Walter Salles. Soon afterwards, I read Rivera's script, and was struck by just how difficult it must be to attempt the feat of adaptation, especially of memoir and especially with obstacles exponentially magnified when the subject is a legend as grand as Che Guevara. During our one-on-one discussion, Rivera was more than willing to get to the bottom of this process.
One of the things that struck me most - and I don’t know which draft of the script I read - was that there was a tremendous difference in the script and in the finished product of the film. So I’m wondering if we can work out through our discussion what the process entailed between you handing that script over and what I ended up seeing. Were you in constant communication with Walter or did they just take it and run with it? How did it work?
Well, there was a period after the first draft was written of several months where I would get notes from Walter and from Michael Nozak, the producer, and do...I can’t even count how many drafts it was. But the script evolved over many, many months that way in which I would get their notes, I would do revisions, then it would go back to them. You know, just sort of an endless cycle.
Did you write it in English?
I wrote it in English, yeah. What made the process kind of unusual were two things: one was the fact that it then had to then be translated into Spanish, and then because it was translated into Spanish, obviously a lot of the meticulous nuances that I wrote into the script were lost or translated in such a way that it didn’t quite have the same impact. And so that was…I don’t want to say disappointing, but that did sort of alter the nature of the material.
It was a challenge.
(Laughs) Yeah, it was a challenge. The other thing that was kind of unusual in this process which I thought was incredibly, incredibly helpful, was once there was a Spanish translation, Walter asked me to come down to Buenos Aires where he and the two guys, the principles, were rehearsing the screenplay. Because so many of the scenes are two-character scenes, he could rehearse it almost like a play. And so the process down in Argentina for two weeks was a lot like the process that I know from the theater, which is you have some actors, you do the scenes, they ask questions, you go back home that night, you rewrite scenes, come back with a new draft, and you do the whole thing over and over again for two weeks. So, that process was great because first of all it was all in Spanish and it was also in Argentina, and Rodrigo is from Argentina and he knows that idiom much better than I do and Gael.
So he finessed the script.
Yeah, he was able to sort of massage the language in such a way so that it began to sound more authentic. So those two things were really important in the process and probably contributed to having read the script and then seen the movie, going, “Wow, this is a different experience!” And I also think just because of the nature of filmmaking - and I wasn’t with Walter the entire process down there - you make decisions on the spot where suddenly what had been scripted and sort of carefully planned months in advance, suddenly you’re faced with, oh my god, we didn’t know we were going to have this problem or these obstacles, you know. In a way, even though there’s very little improvisation in the film, I think there were times when scenes had to be thrown out or altered in such a way to fit the situation.
Right. It’s funny that you bring up that there’s such little improvisation, because it seems like the major difference between the script that I read and what ended up coming to be was a sense of improvisation, actually – there were certain hand-held moments or just intimate moments when they’re interacting with the people and whatnot. But that sentiment was obviously a decision on the spot. Not to say that the script was very structured, it was just so different. There were episodes that I missed which you’d included from the book that had gone away. And in that regard it sort of became its own entity away from the book.
The finished movie I think is a very kind of fascinating hybrid between documentary and fiction. A lot of it obviously speaks to Walter’s prior experience as a documentary filmmaker and I think he really wanted to give the audience a “you are there” feeling, that you are there on the road with Ernesto. And so I think that definitely had that feeling of being on the spot and happening right before our very eyes and not having a scripted feeling. Most of the scenes that you see in the film were scripted, with the exception of scenes in Lima with the indigenous women that they meet, and there’s a scene with a farmer that they meet who talks about being kicked off his land that they improvised on the spot. Those are the two main ones. There was a third improvisation that they did in the leper colony that didn’t make the final cut of the film. But everything else was scripted so I think it does get to the skill of the two main actors that it does feel kind of spontaneous.
Absolutely. And the language change helps a lot, too. Even though I speak Spanish I have no confidence in my ability to do it, so watching the film I flip-flop from reading subtitles to processing the Spanish they’re speaking. Or like you said, the nuances of Spanish versus English, and then even further than that, the Argentinean Spanish versus the Mexican Spanish I’m used to or the Puerto Rican Spanish perhaps that you are used to, with so different with so many other layers of meaning.
Now this whole concept of fact versus fiction is totally intriguing to me, and when you guys were talking at the director’s series, I remember feeling …I got very defensive about the book. You said something about the difficult yet interesting process of having to fabricate dialogue based on two first-person accounts, based on diaries, and that whole question of not revisionist history but fictional history and memory as fact or fiction. I’m wondering what kind of dilemmas, maybe upon reading Granado’s account and upon reading Motorcycle Diaries, you encountered in terms of having to translate those into your traditional three-act dramatic piece. And fabricating or at least massaging…I seem to remember you using the word “fabricating” which struck me, because it’s like, “How dishonest!” But I mean, we writers all do it, you know? We have to make something out of nothing a lot of the times. But because it’s Che Guevara and there’s all that weight, did that ever inhibit you?
Well, it’s a great question because it really gets to one of the big challenges of the book, which was that we weren’t going to bow to the deification of Che – we just weren’t going to do it. This is a movie about Ernesto Guevara, long before Che Guevara ever existed. So we could not really either pay great homage or pander to the legendary person that everyone believes they know and very few people actually do. I think our challenge was, how do we tell the story of an adolescent coming of age into manhood on the road essentially? And that to me was our guiding principle. It’s funny – I don’t consider making up dialogue dishonest, you know? It’s sort of what you do as a screenwriter! The scene where Ernesto visits Chichina in Miramar, it must be page and a half in the diary, it’s so elliptical and so impressionistic. It talks about lying on the beach with his head in her lap and the waves sort of beckoning him on the road and stuff. We had to come up with a life for that character Chichina – we had to come up with, who is she? What does she say to Ernesto when they were leaving each other? He has one brief line [in the book] – he says, “In the back of the Buick we said goodbye,” or something like that. So we had to come up with that complete scene. A lot of it is from my training from the theater, which is if you have a basic situation, what is it that two people say based on what do they want from each other? And that was our challenge. Within that, I think I particularly was very faithful to what might have taken place at that time between the two people.
Yes. This question for me I think sprung from a process of acceptance that a lot of people are going to have to go through when the movie comes out or when they see it, especially if they’ve come to believe in this book as this sort of hallowed piece of literary canon, a very treasured biography that plays into that myth and that idolatry that you said you were trying to avoid. They’re separate and completely different entities, and the great genius of the film I think is that it does bring across that this is a coming of age story, it is a much more universal experience than the Che Guevara that you said a lot of people don’t really know, they could never know. But how many people go off and do what he did, but how many people have fallen in love or gone on a roadtrip with a friend or interacted with a best friend in these different sort of situations? So many!
Exactly! And you know, no piece of literature will ever be everyone’s Che Guevara. And we weren’t trying to make a movie for everyone’s Ernesto Guevara, we just weren’t. We have a particular point of view, it’s very specific to both Walter and I as artists, and that’s what we sought to tell. And there will be – from the left, from the right, from north and south – every conceivable attack on the inaccuracy or on the soul of the movie. But I would say we got certain things right, because I think the third character in the movie is Latin America, and on any level I don’t think you could fault Walter as a cinematographer, as a filmmaker, on how he depicts the continent and the people. It does an absolutely brilliant job of that. And really the point is that Ernesto Guevara is just one more person in that tapestry.
Right, in that huge populace. Going back to you first getting involved in the project, you brought up your training as a playwright contributed at least during that early process. What was the process of you being approached in the first place - was it Walter coming to you? Was it Redford and company coming to you? And do you think they came to you more so because of the themes you had written about as a playwright, or perhaps because you were a playwright and they wanted that sort of quality?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I know that one of the development people who worked for Redford is a woman named Leslie Urdang, and she knew my work from the theater, so I think when they were probably sitting around going, “We need a writer for this project,” she said, “Well, I know a playwright.” And a lot of my work is political, and I am Latin American and old enough to actually have grown up with images of Che, and I’m sure that was all appealing. Actually, when the project first came to me, my agent had sent me The Motorcycle Diaries to read. I read it, and I said to myself, I can’t do this! I didn’t know how to do it. I read the book and I said to myself, this is not a movie! There’s no movie here. The book is too impressionistic, too elliptical, too episodic. The narrator is not very active, except for the fact that they take all these journeys and have all these adventures. But he didn’t seem to have an agenda or a purpose. And it read like any diary would read – it had this sort of passive narrative quality to it. But anyhow, I re-read it and thought about it, and by the time I met Walter I had really gotten psyched about it and thought, God, to do a movie about this subject would be a dream come true, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I had seen Central Station, and thought, wow, this is a guy with enormous sensitivity and humanity, this is the kind of person that could do this story justice. We hadn’t met at that point but he turned out to be in person every bit as wonderful as the film is, and we hit it off instinctively.
And from that hitting it off, how did you progress from not really being able to envision it as a film? Did he have a lot of input like, here’s your structure?
Not at first. I think he was sort of struggling with it as much as I was. But it did have a central idea - and I think it’s one of these Screenwriting 101 questions - which is, what is the climax of this story? What is the turning point in which everything leads up to and from which everything proceeds? And he really felt that it had to be the swim across the Amazon.
Which is like half a sentence in the book!
It totally struck me watching the movie, how that scene just builds and builds and builds - I had to go back to the book thinking, did I miss that? Because it’s literally half a sentence. (Laughs)
Yeah, yeah! It is, you know, I wouldn’t say a cinematic device, but it really was what makes the movie the movie and not the Diaries.
Yeah, it makes it its own entity.
Yeah. We did compress things to make it fit his birthday, to make it fit the eve of his departure from the leper colony, to give it as much dramatic weight as possible. So once Walter kind of brought that to the table, I more or less could see the structure of the movie.
Did you read Granado’s book as well?
I read Granado’s book as well.
And did you speak to him?
We didn’t speak, no. I saw a couple of documentaries about his life.
I didn't know that there are documentaries about him.
Yeah, there are Italian documentaries about him. I watched him and I swear I felt I knew him instantly. He’s just like my father in so many ways, a little bit like my grandfather. Same kind of bawdy, earthy sense of humor, kind of I don’t know, just like what we would know in Puerto Rico as a jíbaro. And so I really was very lucky because I felt instantly I knew how to write him, that I just knew how he was going to think and say what he was going to say. So that was great. His diary is very different from Ernesto’s. Ernesto’s is very romantic, idealistic, very literary – almost self-consciously literary – and Granado’s is very factual: “This happened, then this happened, then this happened.” So you would go to one for the facts and you would go to the other for the mood.
Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t read Traveling With Che – it’s been out of print for a while. But it seems like he would be the more down to earth of the two. And it’s interesting that you didn’t speak to him, because I know that the actors and Walter spent some time with him.
Right, they went down there, yeah.
But the interesting thing to me in that regard, the bipolarity of it and the fact that it comes down to this buddy story in a way, the important thing is the relationships with their country or their worlds and their relationship with each other. Because the book Motorcycle Diaries is so impressionistic and because he’s writing not necessarily about what’s happened but his thoughts about it and then in sort of a grander sociopolitical structure, were you ever tempted at all to not put any of that in there and just reduce it as much as possible to a story about these two friends, about their trip, about what they saw without any sort of hints of how they were processing this, specifically Ernesto, as a kind of foreshadowing or allusion to who he would become? And the epilogue before the end credits was interesting to me too - it sort of seems like it wasn’t necessary.
The writing of the screenplay was a constant tug of war between telling a personal, idiosyncratic story of this particular young man’s coming of age and a political story. To me, there were times when I wrote scenes that seemed political, then I would delete them – there was a constant struggle. I think that’s just sort of the difference between my temperment and Walter’s: I personally don’t have a problem being more overtly political, and I think Walter does; I think it’s just his sensibility as a filmmaker, which I completely respect. And in this process I knew I was trying to write the movie Walter wanted to film. So it really wasn’t about me. If I had my way I’d be much more political in the story.
For instance, there’s a scene in the diary that I wrote in the first draft of the screenplay where Ernesto is getting an asthma attack and he’s on the boat in the Amazon and somebody in the crowd witnessing this terrible asthma attack gives him a cigar to smoke, saying, this will be good for your asthma. I loved it and I put it in and then I thought, you know what? It’s gonna seem like too much foreshadowing - like, oh, there’s Ernesto’s first cigar!
(Laughs) Yeah! Like what if his head’s cold and someone gives him a beret!
Yeah, exactly, or let’s have a shot of Das Kapital in his backpack. We couldn’t do that. It’s too much. When you have a story of a man of such weight, every little detail could add too much weight to the film.
Right, which is what makes it even more curious to me that that epilogue is at the end of the movie. You know, I was told before coming into these interviews that the filmmakers didn't want to talk about the politics – it’s about the movie, which I totally respect, and I’m enthralled with the process of what brought it to fruition. But not being able to necessarily remove the politics, tacking that on to the end just seemed like it thwarted that whole sentiment.
Are you talking about the words, the titles?
Yes. It just seems to me anybody going into this movie is going to know pretty much who it’s about and then be treated to this totally different look at this person, which relates much more to any kind of person, and then that at the end is just sort of like, “We gotta hit you over the head to remind you that this was somebody bigger!” (Laughs)
Yeah, we could be faulted I guess in wanting to have it both ways. It’s a little like the movie Elizabeth, where they deal with her coming of age and at the very end, it puts that coming of age into its historical context. I actually remember watching Elizabeth, and I’ve read about and studied Tudor England, I knew the history. But even then having gone through that movie and seeing her life as a younger woman, then putting the context into her reign, I appreciated the movie even more, to be honest with you. I said, “This is why I’m watching this movie, because of this person.”
Yes, that’s true, and I’ve often thought about that – would I have gone out to pursue this movie in particular if it didn’t have this historical and global context? I’d like to hope that I would because it's just such a beautifully crafted piece, it is really stunning in that regard. You mentioned that you’re not afraid to be more political and I read somewhere that you are working on a play about Che. Are you still doing that?
Yeah, I finished it actually. It’s called School of the Americas.
And that’s much more political?
Well, it’s 48 hours in his life when he was captured in Bolivia. I don’t know if you know the story.
He was held in a school, right?
He was held in a school and the legend goes that the woman who taught school went to her school that morning to teach and he was held prisoner. She insisted that she talk to him and they had spent all day together speaking. There’s a documenatary, The Bolivian Diaries, in which she’s interviewed and she talks about the conversation. When I saw that and I saw her speaking about having spent the day talking to Che I immediately knew that was a play. She didn’t talk too much about what they said, so I imagined it, and I wrote a full-length play about that conversation.
And is it finished to the point that you’re ready to bring it out in the world?
Well, in New York in September, the Labyrinth Theater Company, which John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman run, is doing a workshop of it, so if you’re in New York, you should come!
Yeah, that would be amazing to see! And was this inspired by working on this film?
Absolutely, yeah. Doing the research on it and then seeing this documentary and seeing this young woman talk about her experience. I put off for almost a year writing it because I just had other things to do.
And have you become more attached to the film now, sort of brought back into the fold now that they’re doing publicity and all that? Were you away from it for a long time and now they’re pushing you back out for it?
That’s an interesting question. Kinda, yeah, because as a writer my job is done – they made the movie and I went on to other things. But yeah, I’ll always be emotionally attached to it.
And have you read anything that’s come out about it? There hasn’t been too much yet.
There hasn’t been too much; I mean, there was sort of kind of a summation of the Sundance Film Festival and there were some articles after Cannes talking about it, but there haven’t been the big reviews yet.
Yeah, those will come in a while. Were you at Sundance?
I was at Sundance, yeah.
And were you surprised at the reaction?
I was blown away. I had no idea.
Was that the first time you’d seen it?
No, I had seen it on the Avid at Walter’s house when he was cutting it. I had seen it, you know, thirty different ways. (Laughs) But that was the first time I’d actually seen it on the big screen with the full sound and everything.
Did it move you, do you think, as much as it blew away everybody else?
You know, I wasn’t in a psychological place to be blown away. I was more blown away by the people experiencing the movie than the movie itself. Maybe if I don’t watch the movie for five years, then maybe I’ll have that freshness.
Yeah, that’s true.
I also watched every frame going, “Oh yeah, I remember writing that line…I wish I’d written a different line!” You know? (Grins) Or why is Granado picking his nose in this scene? (Laughs) Literally, he does that in one scene!
That’s way too political!
Was it very different experiencing that premiere from experiencing the first time a play goes up?
It is so different, it’s just so different.... Perhaps I’m naïve - I guess I am, mostly because The Motorcycle Diaries is my first made film, I wasn’t prepared emotionally for the extent to which it is the director’s movie and not mine. I was not prepared for that. And in a way it was…not hurtful…it was disappointing in a professional and personal way that this is a treated as a movie by Walter Salles – who as you know from this interview I could not respect any more than I do; I mean, I love the man. But it is something to feel that as people experience film, they really do experience film as the vision of one person, and that person is not me in this case. Whereas in the theater, no matter who the director is, the play is my play, and I know it and the audience knows it.
Well, theater is more about words and cinema is about vision, but it’s so incredibly collaborative it still strikes me as odd that one individual can take the credit and that everything can be allowed to belong to them in that way.
Right. It’s not even that Walter took the credit, it’s that he was given the credit. He was bathed in the adulation for it.
That’s how the system is.
You think, wait a minute, two hundred other people helped make this movie happen!
So, when you talk to something like the IFP director’s lab, as a screenwriter, what's the message from this experience that you want to get across to directors about working in that collaborative process? Was it something that you got out of your experience with Walter or something that you hope to do later as a writer, especially one that comes from such a strong theater background, to make that collaboration easier and more effective?
I think the thing that Walter taught me was the best idea wins, essentially. When we worked together, I had written the first two drafts on my own and then Walter came in for the process and his amazing respect for what I had done as a screenwriter never faltered, never went away. And I thought that was really a great thing because writers don’t want to feel like employees. A writer wants to be inspired, a writer wants to feel like they’re as important as the director - at least in the early phases of the process - and I think it’s a responsibility of the director to create an atmosphere where a writer can’t wait to get to work in the morning and feel empowered. I felt that the entire process, even during editing when Walter was cutting the film and I’d be at his house watching different scenes and he’d switch things around and change things and take things out, constantly asking what I thought and how I felt and deferring a couple of time when we disagreed. So I really felt included.
As for this question of Latin American identity, there's a kind of unified identity that runs through the film, based on a belief that Ernesto later emphasized as Che. For you, what is that Latin American identity? What are these qualities that define it? Or does one even exist in your opinion?
Well, it’s hard to talk about the identity of a continent – it’s so diverse. I think what we strived to do is to show the range of faces that Ernesto had encountered on this trip. Not so much to talk about identity per se, but to give this feeling that on this journey, Latin America itself is the third character, and that one of the things that Ernesto awakes to is that intense variety. Like up until then he’d never met Mapuches… For me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a general statement about identity in this case except that it is about the diversity and the beauty of the racial, ethnic, nationalistic identities of people down there. In a lot of ways, we hope that people will just want to go visit, you know, want to see for themselves.
Sure. And what about you as a Latin American – what did it help you realize about yourself and maybe more specifically as a Puerto Rican?
Well, you know, Puerto Rico is a little island that in 1898 was colonized by the United States and has been part of the United States for all this time. I felt a sense of empowerment simply because I felt connected to this vast continent and all its history and, to me, that’s where my identity comes from. That is vastly empowering when you consider the size and wealth – I mean, the material wealth, the mineral wealth, and the beauty of the land...
The historical and cultural wealth, too.
Exactly. And it’s
nothing to be ashamed of - because I think as a colony you do grow up
with this feeling of shame that you've been colonized and that you’re
under the thumb of this superior power. And I think the one thing about
this movie is you see them going to Machu Picchu and you see the struggles
of people at the coal mine, but there’s a great deal of dignity
and beauty and power in those experiences. Hopefully people encountering
that for the first time – especially North Americans – will
be awakened to the fact that they don’t know the first thing about
this place, and whatever stereotypes they may have harbored are completely