Director Walter Salles burst into global cinematic consciousness in 1998 with his second feature film, Central Station, an unflinching yet empathetic examination of humanity’s capability for good and bad set in his native Brazil. The film garnered overwhelming kudos from critics and was showered with awards, including several Oscar nomations. His follow-up, 2001’s Behind the Sun, further cemented Salles’ abilities and style.
Salles went on
not only realize more of his own daring, unique work but to help other
Brazilian filmmakers bring their projects to fruition as well, most notably
by producing 2003’s stunning City of God (nominated for
four Oscars). At the same time, Salles is becoming more global –
after The Motorcycle Diaries he shot Dark Water in Canada
with Jennifer Connolly, Tim Roth, John C. Reilly and Pete Postlethwaite.
He’s now headed back home to Brazil to start his next film in the
new year with Vinícius de Oliveira, the young star of Central
Station (who is now 17).
But as Rivera, Salles and almost everyone else involved with the film will tell you, The Motorcycle Diaries is not really about Che. It is about the young man he was years before, his state of malleable youth that all of us share in those critical years between adolescence and adulthood, where the potential for us to become anything imaginable still exists. As Guevara's father wrote, "He had the potential to do whatever he wanted, but potential isn't always enough; actually turning the dreams, plans and hopes into reality is the most difficult part." Who can't relate to that?
Upon entering the hotel room for a roundtable interview with a half-dozen journalists, Salles greets each of us with a smile and handshake, radiating the energy and confidence that have made him a great filmmaker. He sits down and recoils in mock horror at the barrage of microphones arranged in front of him and everyone laughs. Then there’s the usual uncomfortable pause before someone decides to speak up. [Note: questions are being asked by a series of journalists, including myself.]
I suppose you did a lot of research on Che Guevara and I’m wondering, because he’s such a controversial figure to a lot of people, was there a line to walk not to over-romanticize him?
Well, it took us five years to do this film and three were devoted to research. We went to Cuba and had access to all the archives at the Che Guevara Center, which his family takes care of – this is the place where they first published The Motorcycle Diaries. And then we did a lot of research with Alberto Granado, who is the idealizer of the journey and who today is an 83-years-old young man with an extraordinary memory. (Laughs) He can talk about what happened in 1952 with this first motorcycle journey as if it was happening yesterday. There we were fed with so much information. Plus, of course, we read the three biographies that exist. And I did the journey three times: two for the location scouting purposes and then the third one for the shoot.
Guevara is such an extraordinarily complex character that you need to listen to all the sources to capture as many angles as you can, and we also wanted for Gael [Garcia Bernal] to play a character that wasn’t full of certitude but on the other hand still plagued by doubts. It’s really a journey of finding one’s identity, it’s a journey of understanding who we are and in what place of the world we want to be and fight for. And therefore it was not only important to know about him but it was important to know about Latin America as well.
I’m wondering how this journey changed you as a person during years of research and doing the film, how much it means to you.
I think it changed all of us who were involved with this so radically. When you spend so many years of your life devoted to one project it already changes you. But this one, because of its characteristics, created something that we all will take with us for all of our lives. We know much better where we come from; it’s as if we have a better understanding of who we are and what our roots are. I would say it’s as if my house now was a little bit larger than it was before, and that the contours of this house have gained focus. It also gives me the assurance that I’m not only a Brazilian film director but I’m also a Latin American film director. That’s something that you carry with you for your life.
The journey itself is portrayed as a very pivotal moment in his life. How pivotal was it? I mean, obviously, [Ernesto] did undergo change throughout the course of it, but was it as pivotal as its portrayed?
You know, many events in Guevara’s life changed probably his path as well, but this one was very important because for the first time he had the possibility to dive into his own source, into his own continent. Alberto Granado told me once that he knew much more about the Greeks and the Romans and the Phoenicians than he knew about the Incas, and I would say the same thing for my generation still today. (Chuckles) In school we know more about or we’re exposed to the Romans and the Greeks much more than to these civilizations that really define who we are still. And I think that that journey was extremely revealing to him. It showed him what kind of social reality the continent really was facing. He changed due to that contact with that reality, and I don’t think that he was the same man at the end of this journey that he was before.
It’s clear in the dialogue that it’s Alberto’s first time outside of Argentina. Was it Ernesto’s?
No – Ernesto when he was 17 had done a journey outside of Argentina because he worked on a boat for a couple of months. This boat actually went to Brazil and then went to the Caribbean – it was a merchant boat and he worked on board. Therefore, he had gone beyond the frontiers of Argentina. But he knew very little of Latin America; he hadn’t been in that part of the world. He had an incredibly adventurous spirit because when he was 16, he had a bike and he put a small little engine on that bike and he did a 3,000-mile journey throughout Argentina on that very small bike with that engine, to the point where later the bike was photographed for an advertisement by the people who built the small little engine because they couldn’t believe that somebody would embark on something like this. (Laughs) So you can you already see the constant movement in there.
And then I think that he never ceased to be that kind of person who never stood still and never accepted a certain I would say classical role in society. On the opposite – whenever you expected him to stay, like after the Cuban revolution, and occupy a very specific role in that society, he felt the need to continue his route and off he went to fight in the Congo. And then again he went to Bolivia to continue to fight for his ideals. So you have there somebody for whom the journey never ceased to exist.
What’s so impressive about him after seeing this story is that I think a lot of people could take a life-changing journey like this but then just go home and fall back into their old patterns. But he was truly, profoundly changed and it’s shown throughout his life. Does that just kind of show what a remarkable person he is, that he actually internalized the journey and made changes?
I think that when you go on the road, you automatically will suffer influences and you can either refuse that and be oblivious to change, or you can be affected if you have the sensibility for that, then take the measures that result from that. I think that he was a sensitive man for sure and on that journey he understood that his career as the doctor that he would be was less important than one of a man who would fight politically to change the social injustice on his continent, and he opted for that. I’m sure that many other young men were exposed to the same social reality but did not take their destiny in their hands. He did. This is what makes him quite unique for sure.
Since you took the journey and went through it through him, has it changed you as a filmmaker or the stories you want to tell? Did it have an impact on you or did it reaffirm what you were doing?
Well, I was already doing films about identity. Central Station is really a result of this desire, and a film I did before Central Station called Foreign Land as well. It reinforced my need to be part of Latin American cinema, and also to help young American filmmakers talk about that social reality. Basically it reinforced my desire for instance to produce the films of young filmmakers in Brazil and to help other people in Latin America to do their films and talk about what they see. Cinema can be a really wonderful way to understand the world we live in. It goes beyond popcorn. (Laughs) Or should go, and this journey reinforced that.
There’s an awakening that takes place with the characters in this film. When you were doing the research, did you get a sense that they had any sort of ideas or premonitions of what their roles might be in addressing some of those social injustices later on in their lives?
I don’t think that there’s a point of rupture, you know? On the opposite I think that the changes occurred in layers as they progressed. And the main changes occurred once the motorcycle broke, paradoxically, because from that moment on they had to improvise, they had to continue on foot, and this is when they started to meet a lot of people that they were unaware of – the indigenous populations in Chile, in Peru. They were much more in direct contact from that moment on with social injustice than they were before, and they started to change slowly, little by little.
And we wanted the film to have this same quality, that the characters would change and you wouldn’t perceive immediately that they were changing – it’s as if you’re walking in a gentle rain and at the end of your walk you’re completely wet but you don’t know what happened to you. (Laughs) And I think that this journey that they went through, these eight months through Latin America, changed them little by little, but radically. At the end, these young men were not the same ones that started that adventure in Buenos Aires.
Walter, I’m curious about the journey of the book into the movie and your first exposure to the The Motorcycle Diaries, how it made you feel and what it made you think about, and then later in discussing the script with José Rivera, what you wanted to bring to the screen from that book.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a cult book in Latin America, and how could it be otherwise, because it talks not only about the self-discovery of these two young men, who they would become, but it talks also about what we could call, quote unquote, Latin American identity. So for us, it had a very, very important meaning. And the idea here was not only to be faithful to these two books, but also faithful to the spirit of the original journey, and that meant that we also needed to be exposed to the same kind of unpredictable adventures that they had been into. And the film is very much the result of a really wonderful screenplay written by José and a lot of improvisation that occurred during the journey.
What did José strive for? I think basically to convey a very human perception of who these two young men were at that specific time and age, and not as the ones that they would become later. This was certainly the biggest challenge – not to let the iconic figure take over too early in the film, because then there wouldn’t be any change.
Can you talk about the people that you met on the journey? What was it like meeting the different people on the journey and what did they give you in terms of making this project?
Well, that was I think the main gift that we could have received, it was to be exposed to so many different persons that came to us and wanted to be part of the film. A few examples: the little boy in Cuzco that talks about the Incas and the incapables, or these four women who don’t speak Spanish but speak Quechua near Machu Picchu. These were encounters that we made on the road and how could we expect those to happen? It just happened as we were filming.
And you can only improvise and do the scenes that we have in The Motorcycle Diaries when you have two actors that are as talented but also as sensitive as Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna because they really managed to find a way to very respectfully talk to these people that we were encountering, and in character. They were so close to the characters they were playing, they had researched so much, there was so much work behind it, that they could really reenact that route and it was not about acting, it was about living those experiences. And a lot of the encounters that we had the possibility to have during this journey, you will find them in the film.
What was the inspiration behind showing the indigenous population at the end of the film? What went into that?
We were exposed to different indigenous groups throughout the journey. At the beginning in the frontier between Argetina and Chile, there’s a group called the Mapuches, and we did film several scenes with them – they are the ones, for instance, you have a father and son that are in the back of a truck after the big motorcycle accident, and they talk in their original Mapuche language. The two youngsters don’t understand a thing about what’s happening there, our two travelers. (Laughs) And then you have of course as you get nearer the Inca heritage near Cuzco and Machu Picchu, then you have the whole Quechua ethnic group that starts to appear and takes over in the film. Then at the very, very end of the film, in the San Pablo leper colony, you also meet again several of those indigenous people. So we were continuously exposed to them and we wanted to of course reflect what we found in the film. There’s an homage to all of them in the pictures in the very end.
You said you researched in Cuba – I’m just wondering, did you attempt to speak to Fidel Castro?
No, I did not because this film was about these eight months that these two young guys lived in 1952 and not about what happened seven years later. Again, we wanted to really focus on this journey and not to let it be impregnated by what happened later. So we did not, but Robert Redford did at the end when the film was completed and he brought it for the Guevara family and for Alberto Granado to watch in Cuba. I think that Fidel came and visited him at a specific moment of his stay. But that was it – we didn’t try to talk to him about the young Ernesto because he didn’t know the young Ernesto.
Did Fidel watch it?
No, I don’t think that Fidel Castro was at that screening because it was a screening only for the family.
Did Redford relate to you if Fidel had any reminiscences about Guevara?
Oh, he certainly has, because they fought together for so long, but you would have to ask Redford. (Laughs)
Speaking of Redford, can you explain how he became involved and what that meant to you, because you’re saying something about telling Latin American identity and suddenly an American comes in and says I can relate to this, so clearly it becomes about global identity.
Well, I would say first, he's a North American. (Laughs) Redford was extremely important in this picture. I think that he was the one who sensed that there was an important story to be told in this moment that we live in, a story about idealism, a story about a possibility to change the world as opposed to just sitting on your sofa and living vicariously through what you see on television. He was as passionate about this book as I was and as Gael was, and I think it’s not a surprise because he’s been involved with Latin America for a while. He knows the territory really well. Sundance Institute has a very important strategic role in Latin American cinema through the seminars that they conduct. It was for us very inspirational to have him with us during the whole journey.
Also, the fact that he agreed that the film should be spoken in Spanish and could only be done with actors coming from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, was really a decisive aspect here. Only somebody with his sensibility would probably have accepted this. Now you see the film it seems like it was an obvious necessity but when the film has not even started you’re tempted to look in other directions, and Redford, as the political man that he is, understood that you had to do this with complete integrity, or it was better not to do it. I couldn’t have dreamed of somebody with a better understanding and a better producer for a film like this with such a delicate subject.
The scene of Ernesto swimming across the Amazon on his birthday - did it really happen like that?
Guevara had a certain timidity sometimes in talking about himself so you would have to listen to Alberto Granado talking about the importance of that more than in the book itself where it’s pretty compact, that scene, that crossing of the river. And Alberto was the one who really made us understand the importance of that specific moment. It was about making a choice, it was about opting for the bank of the river that he would stay on for the rest of his life. Ultimately he would fight for it and die for it, so there was a completely emblematic quality to that crossing, and if it wasn’t for Alberto I think that we would not probably have understood this quality.