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The 'Chico and Rita' Team on Their Surprise Nomination and Bringing Jazz to Life Through Animation

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire February 13, 2012 at 1:31PM

This year’s Academy Awards nominations had a few surprises, the chief being the Best Animated Feature race. Two foreign indies – “Chico and Rita” and “A Cat in Paris” -- beat out the likes of Pixar and Steven Spielberg (“The Adventures of Tintin”). While the latter is an endearing fable aimed at families, “Chico and Rita” helmed by Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque”), artist Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando, is strictly for adults (there’s plenty of full-frontal nudity), making the team’s Oscar coup that much more impressive. The film tells the story of Chico, a struggling pianist in Havana who falls for Rita, a curvy singer. As Rita’s fame rises, their drama-loaded love story takes them on a tumultuous journey to New York City. Bustling with original music by legendary Cuban pianist, bandleader and composer Bebo Valdes, “Chico and Rita” is feast for the senses and an innovative love letter to the evolution of jazz. Indiewire sat down with Trueba, Mariscal and Errando in New York to discuss the surprise nomination and how they brought “Chico and Rita” to the screen. Fernando, you’re close friends with Bebo. The film’s a love letter to him in many ways. When did he see the finished product? Trueba: When the movie was finished I went to Malaga, in the south of Spain. I went there to show him and I’ll never forget that. This man, who was 91 at the time, was crying. It was beautiful. He said one thing that will always stick with me, “When I’m gone, people will still listen to my music thanks to this film.” I was very moved. I was moved because I’d been his friend for many years, but I’ve never seen Bebo cry. Is the character of Chico at all based on Bebo, given Chico’s age, background and love of music? Trueba: Chico’s a fiction character, but he has some things from Bebo and he has things from other people. Fernando, you’ve made documentaries and narrative features but have never dabbled in animation. What made you take that leap? Trueba: I didn’t know anything about animation! I still don’t consider myself an expert at all in animation. We wanted to do something together. Javier had been offered animation gigs before, but he never cared for the stories. He didn’t want to spend years on something he didn’t feel passionate about. When I saw his drawings of Havana, we decided we needed to make a movie there. Mariscal: People had told me that it would be a great idea to have my images projected on the big screen. I was nervous though that people would notice my mistakes. I love Fernando; he’s like another brother. Trueba: When I was very young, after completing my first film with the little money I had, I bought a painting for my wife and it’s by Javier. It was my first painting and it’s still at home. I didn’t know him at the time (laughs). Mariscal: It’s a love story of Fernando and Mariscal and it’s a love story of “Chico and Rita” (laughs). Did you see those 'mistakes' you feared seeing, Javier, upon seeing your work on the big screen?
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"Chico and Rita"
"Chico and Rita"

This year’s Academy Awards nominations had a few surprises, the chief being the Best Animated Feature race. Two foreign indies – “Chico and Rita” and “A Cat in Paris” -- beat out the likes of Pixar and Steven Spielberg (“The Adventures of Tintin”). While the latter is an endearing fable aimed at families, “Chico and Rita” helmed by Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque”), artist Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando, is strictly for adults (there’s plenty of full-frontal nudity), making the team’s Oscar coup that much more impressive.

The film tells the story of Chico, a struggling pianist in Havana who falls for Rita, a curvy singer. As Rita’s fame rises, their drama-loaded love story takes them on a tumultuous journey to New York City.

Bustling with original music by legendary Cuban pianist, bandleader and composer Bebo Valdes, “Chico and Rita” is feast for the senses and an innovative love letter to the evolution of jazz.

Indiewire sat down with Trueba, Mariscal and Errando in New York to discuss the surprise nomination and how they brought “Chico and Rita” to the screen.

Fernando, you’re close friends with Bebo. The film’s a love letter to him in many ways. When did he see the finished product?

Trueba: When the movie was finished I went to Malaga, in the south of Spain. I went there to show him and I’ll never forget that. This man, who was 91 at the time, was crying. It was beautiful. He said one thing that will always stick with me, “When I’m gone, people will still listen to my music thanks to this film.” I was very moved. I was moved because I’d been his friend for many years, but I’ve never seen Bebo cry.

Is the character of Chico at all based on Bebo, given Chico’s age, background and love of music?

Trueba: Chico’s a fiction character, but he has some things from Bebo and he has things from other people.

Fernando, you’ve made documentaries and narrative features but have never dabbled in animation. What made you take that leap?

Trueba: I didn’t know anything about animation! I still don’t consider myself an expert at all in animation. We wanted to do something together. Javier had been offered animation gigs before, but he never cared for the stories. He didn’t want to spend years on something he didn’t feel passionate about. When I saw his drawings of Havana, we decided we needed to make a movie there.

Mariscal: People had told me that it would be a great idea to have my images projected on the big screen. I was nervous though that people would notice my mistakes. I love Fernando; he’s like another brother.

Trueba: When I was very young, after completing my first film with the little money I had, I bought a painting for my wife and it’s by Javier. It was my first painting and it’s still at home. I didn’t know him at the time (laughs).

Mariscal: It’s a love story of Fernando and Mariscal and it’s a love story of “Chico and Rita” (laughs).

Did you see those 'mistakes' you feared seeing, Javier, upon seeing your work on the big screen?

Mariscal: No (laughs). It was fantastic. I saw it for the first time in Toronto. The projection was incredible.

Let’s talk about the process you all took in bringing this to screen. I learned you actually shot real-life footage before animating anything.

Trubea: I was so happy taking this on, thinking I wouldn’t have to work with actors this time around. But Tono told me we’d actually have to shoot with actors. I got it after some persuading – how can you direct the animators without giving them something to work off of? If you give a shot to 20 animators, they will give you 20 different shots. To direct the characters, we needed to do it this way so everyone had a uniform style.

We did traditional casting, chose some of Cuba’s best actors. We needed to give them the right dramatic information. We even edited the footage.

How much did you shoot?

Errando: All the stuff concerning actors, except for the big chase sequences. We’re hoping to include the footage on the DVD.

This process brings to mind the motion capture technique used in “Avatar,” “Tintin” and the like.

Errando: The main difference is that motion capture allows you to give the exact movements of an actor. The animation acts in the exact same way an actor does. In our case, it’s different. We’re just giving very good material to inspire the animator. The animator is left to his/her own devices.

Trueba: We wanted to the movie to be very human. But at the same time, we wanted vindication of illustration in the movie.

Fernando, you’re not accustomed to sharing directorial duties with others. What was it being a collaborator on a film of this nature?

Trueba: Every time you do a movie, it’s a challenge. In this case, the most important of my work was before the animation phase – working on the script, doing the storyboard, shooting with the actors, editing the animatic and doing the score. When all that was done, the animators made the movie. That was different for me.

I remember the day that Tono sent me the first finished shot of the film. It was maybe five or eight seconds long. I was blown away. I asked, “When’s the next one coming to me?” They said, “Maybe next month.” I watched that one clip 40 times. That’s what was really strange for me.

How long did you have to wait to see the finished product after doing your part?

Almost three years. During that time, I went to Chile and made another movie [“El artista y la modelo”!  

The wait paid off. Congratulations on the nomination.

Trueba: Thanks. I’m really happy that “A Separation” was nominated for not only for Foreign Film but Best Screenplay. I consider this to be the best movie of the year. I would like it to be nominated for Best Picture too. But it’s the first time an Iranian film’s been nominated for Best Screenplay and I feel it’s well deserved. I’m very happy.

I’ve sent so many people to go see it. In a world dominated by publicity, a movie like “Drive”; people go and see it even if word of mouth is bad. Even if you praise something like “A Separation” to your friends, it’s hard to get them to go see it. Publicity dominates everything. We have to be free of this and go and see the good things. “Drive” isn’t bad, but I’ve seen it a 1000 times before. There’s nothing new in it -- nothing. That’s the thing that’s important to me, to keep the torch of good movies going strong. Fight for them, defend them – make a space for them to exist.

Errando: It’s true, we complain a lot about Hollywood. But Hollywood sometimes surprises us.

Trueba: Always.

This nomination marked a big one.

Trueba: We were very happy.

Errando: We were really taken aback that Spielberg and Pixar both aren’t in the race. It’s really incredible that out of five, two of them are independent, small films from Europe.

Trueba: You know, it’s very important. For months, we’ve been talking about doing more projects together. So this kind of recognition in our film, it’s very good at helping us making other projects. That’s what great about this.

Animation is a wonderful language. Making “Chico and Rita” opened another door in my head. I realized that some stories are better suited for animation in making this.

It’s ironic; Rita’s journey to New York in a way mirrors the journey your film's been on.

Errando: More than ironic, it’s a gift – it’s magic. We always tried to work close to that magic. This is a dream, really.

This article is related to: Interviews, Chico & Rita, Academy Awards