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Toolkit Case Study: “Undertow” Director Javier Fuentes-León Comes Out On Top

Toolkit Case Study: "Undertow" Director Javier Fuentes-León Comes Out On Top

“Don’t underestimate the potential of any ‘door’,” said Javier Fuentes-León in a statement to indieWIRE. Fuentes-León, the director of “Undertow,” was initially unsure about participating in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Talent Campus. After deciding to accept, he (profiled by Brian Brooks in June) has been reaping the rewards.

A winner at this year’s Sundance, and opener of NewFest in New York this past summer, “Undertow” follows a fisherman devoted to his wife. Little does she know, that he has a male lover.

The following profile of “Undertow,” reformatted for publication on indieWIRE‘s filmmaker toolkit, is one of the filmmaking case studies featured in the case study book handed out to participants of this week’s Film Independent Filmmaker Forum in Los Angeles.

Case Study for “Undertow,” with information provided by the filmmakers and courtesy of Film Independent.

Development and Financing

While studying film at Cal Arts in Los Angeles in 1996, filmmaker Javier Fuentes-Léon was given an exercise in his screenwriting class: to write a scene with three characters in one location, and create an intense conflict. Javier wrote a scene that contained magical elements, which he later developed into a play.

Five years later, he decided to write a feature and used his play as the basis for the story about a married fisherman in a Peruvian village trying to come to terms with his secret relationship with another man. A year later he had a first draft. At the time, Javier was part of Film Independent’s Project: Involve. Javier had met filmmaker Don Roos (“Happy Endings”) at Outfest, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Los Angeles and he agreed to become his P:I mentor.

While developing the screenplay, with input from Roos, Javier was invited to participate in Outfest’s Screenwriting Lab. There he met screenwriter John August (“Big Fish”) and Sundance’s John Cooper and they both gave him feedback and suggestions.

During the script’s development, Javier applied for the Nicholls Fellowship, a screenwriting grant awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was shortlisted as one of the semi-finalists. As this award is followed closely by the industry, he found himself solicited by production companies all over town, wanting to read “Undertow.” Many liked his script but it wasn’t for them. Others suggested shooting it in English, but Javier was adamant about shooting in Spanish, to give authenticity to the story’s magical realism elements.

The first break came when Javier was selected to participate in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Talent Campus in February 2005. He was one of 500 filmmakers selected from all over the world. He was also one of only 20 filmmakers selected from the Talent Campus to be a part of a co-production market (the Talent Project Market) taking place during the festival alongside the official Berlinale Co-production Market. A German producer, Annette Pisacane from Cameo Films, who was one of the jurors selecting projects for Talent Project Market, loved “Undertow” and approached Javier wanting to produce it. Cameo Films was able to secure a film grant from the Nord-Rhein Westfalia film commission called Filmstiftung.

Soon after, Javier and Cameo Films made a grant application to the World Cinema Fund, overseen by the Berlin Film Festival. They were not successful, but once again, one of the jurors on the awards committee loved the project and recommended it to a French company, Memento Films, a films sales company that also specializes in financing films made in third world, and underdeveloped countries. Memento came on board and applied to the French Ministry of Culture’s Fonds Sud film fund (dedicated to fund films shot in underdeveloped areas of the world).

In November 2005, Javier was invited to participate in another screenwriting lab in Spain, for emerging and established Spanish and Latin American writers. “Undertow” developed further, and through rehearsals with actors, Javier refined the script, often cutting scenes from three pages to one page. By the end of the lab, he was close to a final draft.

Whilst in Spain, and afterwards in Los Angeles, Javier met with Colombian producers Michel Ruben, Andrés Calderon and Rodrigo Guerrero from Dynamo Productions who had created a film fund from private equity and government money. They liked the project and came on board as producers. Their Colombian fund stipulated that the film had to have a Colombian lead, and at least two department heads on the crew had to be Colombian—conditions Javier was happy to honor.

The French and German producers were not able to acquire any more funds, so they took a back seat on the project, and the Colombians and Javier took over as the hands-on producers. Fund raising continued for a few years, with the producers pitching the project at festivals worldwide, including Toronto, Cannes, and Berlin. During this period, Javier was working as an editor, and subtitling films into Spanish.

In June 2008 Javier was awarded a Peruvian production grant, and Undertow’s final piece of funding fell into place. The film was finally greenlit.
“Undertow” shot for six weeks in Perú in November and December 2008.

Javier spent the first half of 2009 in post, initially cutting the film in Peru, and then later on, moving back to LA where picture was locked in April. He then went to Bogota, Colombia where the Digital Intermediate and sound premix were done. It was a hectic post-production schedule, as everyone was racing to try and complete the film for a Cannes debut in May 2009. Ultimately they just weren’t ready in time, and they weren’t accepted.

During the hectic post period, “Undertow” was selected to participate in the Latin American Film Festival in Toulouse, France in March 2010. “Undertow” played in the festival’s Film In Construction section, where it screened as a work in progress. It’s important to note that the Toulouse screening wouldn’t be considered the world premiere, as the film was incomplete.

As is often the case with foreign co-productions, the European funds had a caveat attached to them. The German funds had to be spent in Germany, and some of the French funds had to be spent in France. So Javier completed the sound mix in France, along with the score (conveniently, Javier found a Peruvian composer he liked, Selma Mutal, who lived in France). The final film blow-up to 35 mm was completed in Germany, with the German funds.

Festival Preparation and Strategy

At the end of March, after the screening of “Undertow” in Toulouse, Javier was invited to premiere the film at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain in September 2009, one of the most prestigious festivals in Europe behind the big three of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. Shortly thereafter Sundance accepted the film for its 2010 festival. Sundance programmers usually prefer to screen world premieres, but they were not bothered by the San Sebastián premiere. However they did request that Javier not screen the film publically after its debut, so the filmmakers had to turn several festivals down that wanted to screen the film after San Sebastián and before Sundance.

In the run-up to Sundance, Javier received calls from prospective producer’s reps and sales agents. At the end of 2009, Javier and Dynamo hired Steven Beer, a well-respected entertainment lawyer in the U.S., to advice them during the whole process of finding a sales agent in time for Sundance. Although they had partly financed “Undertow,” Memento Films didn’t want to handle foreign sales. On the first week of January, Javier and his Colombian producers chose to go with Shoreline Entertainment for world sales. Rights to Colombia, Peru, France, and Germany were already being handled by the respective producers on the film.

In addition, Jeffrey Winter and Orly Ravid of the Film Collaborative came on board to take over the festival applications. By the end of 2010, “Undertow” will have played in over 100 festivals worldwide.

Based on Shoreline’s recommendation the filmmakers hired Jessica Edwards from Murphy PR to handle publicity at Sundance. Edwards got great coverage for the film in the Latin press and television outlets, and made sure the film was covered by the trades.

Sale and Release

During Sundance, Maria Lynn from Wolfe Releasing saw “Undertow” and loved it. Wolfe paid six- figures for all North American rights, except theatrical.
“Undertow” proved to be an extremely popular festival title – to date it has won 36 awards worldwide, including 19 audience awards – that the filmmakers decided to self-release the film theatrically in the U.S., in conjunction with the Film Collaborative. The Colombian producers and Wolfe Releasing signed a separate deal for the initial release, starting with San Francisco, and expanding from there.

“Undertow” opened in San Francisco on September 17 to great reviews—the Film Collaborative spent very little on advertising but spread the word via grass roots marketing, reaching out to gay and Latino audiences around the city. As of this writing (October 2010), it has played in San Francisco for 6 weeks so far and it will expand to LA and NY in mid-November, and wider in December to Miami, Portland, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, Washington DC, and Boston. The filmmakers got a major boost for the theatrical release when, in September 2010, Peru selected “Undertow” as its official entry to the Academy Awards® for Best Foreign Language Film.

Due to the success of the film on the festival circuit and a promising theatrical run during the 2010/11 awards season, Wolfe has delayed the DVD release until sometime in 2011.

“Undertow” has already opened in the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and Ireland to great reviews. It has done less well in Colombia and Peru—Javier notes, “The real issue in Latin America is that having a love affair between two men in the film is still a major obstacle for audiences to go see it, with audiences not being comfortable with two men kissing. Still, the film brought 50,000 people to the cinemas in Peru.” Shoreline continues to sell foreign rights.

Advice from the Filmmaker

“Don’t underestimate the potential of any ‘door’,” says Javier. He was unsure of the worth of participating in the Berlin talent campus, but that’s where it all started. It made him realize that there is a lot of financing available to filmmakers outside their own borders. “It’s worth looking.”

“Undertow” opens in NY and LA Nov 26 with national release to follow.

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