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‘Viva’ Director Paddy Breathnach on Making an Irish Film in Cuba and Visceral Transformation

'Viva' Director Paddy Breathnach on Making an Irish Film in Cuba and Visceral Transformation

Viva” is Ireland’s Official Submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards. ISA: Mongrel International. U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Authenticity is what filmmakers strive for when their characters are grounded on real life hardships and situations. To be able to capture a cinematic version of truth and put it up on the screen is an accomplishment not many can claim. The search for this dramatic honesty becomes immeasurably more elusive when dealing with experiences that are foreign to us, those that take place in places far away from our comfort zone, and where people face daily life in ways that could seem unfathomable for outsiders. It’s due to fact that he successfully created a truly authentic film under those circumstances that Paddy Breathnach’s “Viva,” an Irish production set in Havana, Cuba, has been met with acclaim and admiration since its debut in Telluride this fall. 

The idea of an Irish director making a film about Cuban drag performers could make many suspicious or dubious about his intentions or raise concerns about Cuban representation, but all these should be put to rest because in “Viva” Cuba shines with its own light in a vibrant manner that never hints at the fact that the film was crafted by foreign hands. It’s impeccably genuine.

The film’s protagonist, Jesus (Héctor Medina), a young gay man, discovers that the only time he is free from life’s pressures and struggles is when he is on stage transformed into Viva, his beautiful alter ego that bares her soul on stage lip-syncing to classics songs of unattainable love and raw pain. His dream, however, clashes with his alcoholic father’s standards of masculinity. Angel (Jorge Perugorría), a macho ex-boxer who spent several years in prison and who was never part of Jesus’ life, returns to impose restrictions on how his son can live his life. Their mutual need for affection, their financial instability, and their opposing views create constant confrontations as they seek to reach common ground.

“Viva” is a striking blow of emotion that disarms you with the unflinching heartbreak of the musical performances, the tragic humor of its world, and the passionately nuanced acting on display. Here is our conversation with the Breathnach on the peculiarities of making an Irish film in Cuba, his love for visceral transformation, and finding one’s identity both individually and within those who we accept as family.

“Viva” will open in theaters in U.S. through Magnolia Pictures by on February 5th, 2016

Carlos Aguilar: What sparked your interest to make a film about this particular type of performers in a country like Cuba ? One of your producers, Robert Walpole, has mentioned the idea came from a show you attended while visiting the island.  

Paddy Breathnach: The film had a couple starts. What Rob talked about was the genesis of our desire to make a film in that world. There was a moment that evening when a performer got up on stage and was singing this incredible and emotional song. We had been talking to two women sitting beside us. One of them started crying and I turned to her and said, “Why are you crying?” She said, “That’s my brother, and this is the only time he is happy, when he is on stage.” I thought, “That’s a world that’s interesting. There is something about that world that I have to explore more. “ The visceral power of that performer miming to these wonderful songs, the effect that it has on family, and what’s behind the performance, that’s what was very interesting.

That was the genesis of my interest in doing something in that world, and then we went and got Mark O’Halloran, the writer. Mark writes in a very authentic and realistic way, his research would be meticulous, and he has very fine intuitive senses. He had a sense of responsibility towards portraying this culture in the right way. He wouldn’t take it lightly and he has the instincts to know when he is not doing that or when he is stepping right on the mark. I went over to Cuba with him quite a few times to do research. Then he’d write, and then we’d go back to do more research on that world. We talked to a lot of the performers. I filmed a lot of those performances and the songs being performed. I built up a library that included the type of music that I wanted, the nuances those performances had, why they were powerful, and why I liked them. There was a lot of research done in advance.

The story, the dialogue, and the performances feel incredibly authentic. Did you have any fears or hesitation about the challenges of crafting a film in a foreign language and in a foreign country?

Paddy Breathnach: There is still trepidation about going into something like this. Once it was done we delivered the script to Cuban talent for the translation process – it was written in English. We wanted to make sure that we hadn’t stepped on any landmines or that we weren’t inauthentic in some ways. They couldn’t believe that a Cuban hadn’t written this script. I was involved in the translation process as I’d spent some time learning Spanish and I knew the script backwards both in English and in Spanish. I knew the language of the film, and I could communicate that in Spanish. It felt I had a basis, but until I started working with the actors I was very conscious that I could have missed nuances and that there were certain things I could be blind to. I had to very careful about that.

Once the audition process started it became clear to me that 90% of it was instinct and intuition. My choices and judgments were always the same as the casting directors. We chimed on that and I knew that I was able to make certain judgments in the right way. I felt confident about my judgments. There were some areas, particularly with humor, where they might be some difficulty in the translation. If you know there is something that isn’t working about the scene – even if you don’t know what it is – or if there is an element missing, you dig into the line, you dig into what it’s supposed to be, and you discover what that was. I ironed must of that out through the rehearsal and the audition process.

What was your approach while on set in terms of working with the actors? Did the language barrier influenced the way you interacted with them and in turn their performances?

Paddy Breathnach: I worked on a lot of the dialogue with the actors in terms of just conversations about what it was, what I felt it meant, and what the characters were. When it came to shooting I had done my work. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to construct the performances. Luckily I had very good actors and because of that it worked out well. I think it’s difficult when you are directing in a language that isn’t your first language when you have actors that aren’t good because then you need your language to construct that performance. With good actors you can say something to them in whatever language you have, engage with them, and instinctively they’ll understand what you are talking about. Good actors get up to speed on that very quickly and I found that to be the case here.

I found that I was able to just take a nuance and say something, like an optional choice, and it would come back to m. I understood that it had come back to me in the way that I wanted it to. Also I had a very good translator. The first AD was also an interpreter, and sometimes I called on him. Equally, I discovered that actually my own body language and my own energy was as important as my definite in language. If I used an interpreter they missed my inflections and my feeling. As I said, with good actors, they read that and they know what you want. In any case, my Spanish was reasonably good at the time. I could work in it. I was nervous, but I began to learn that I didn’t need to be that nervous because I had a lot of tools that I could draw upon and the most important ones I had. I began to realize this in the audition process. I knew that it wasn’t going to be a disaster [Laughs].

The political and economic situation of the country is present and unavoidable. We are aware of it but it never becomes the focus of the film, which is what might happen when you make a film about such a politically charged place as Cuba. How did you work around this in order to make a humanistic film rather than a political one?

Paddy Breathnach: Domestic films have a voice in one way and then there are films that are made by people that come from outside and those are another type of cinema. Cuba has a romance about it and a certain atmosphere, and a lot of the times the films made by people who come from outside romanticize the country in a way that contains a lot of clichés. We very quickly said, “OK, we are going to be careful about anything that possibly resembles a cliché.” Mark again, as a writer, would be very good at that. He has a strong intuition on that. We sort of avoided those moments.

I’m not a political filmmaker with a capital “P.” I came form a philosophy background in college and university and I was very interested in a particular philosopher called Herbert Marcuse, who was a political philosopher in many ways. However, his view was that the power of art is in the beautiful. It’s not in its overt ideas of what is political. It’s in its substance, in its sensuality of what characters desire to be. That’s more important than the political ideas around that. I don’t know if I completely hold to that, because of course certain films need to be political, but I wouldn’t be a political filmmaker with a capital “P.” I don’t have the ability to be that. My own tone would be to avoid that overt political calling and try and bury and charge those ideas into something that’s a little bit more in the substance of the story or the texture of the story.

At some point we thought we should call the film it “Transformista,” because that’s the name for Cuban drag artists. They are known as Cuban “transformistas.” This is a film about transformation. There is transformation in lots of different ways. It’s a film about a country that is changing and needs to change at a particular time. It very much needs to change in the context of generosity. If it’s a very rapid change and it’s a change that isn’t grounded in it’s own culture, it could end up being a very savage and dangerous change. Equally, if it doesn’t move forward through the generosity of the older generation, that younger generation, who may have been repressed in terms of their talents, won’t have the energy or the ability to push that through in a coherent way. It has to be a marrying of the past and the future for that change to develop. These were some of the ideas that I had in the background so they didn’t need to be in the foreground. It’s not a political film.

Tell me about your decision to not subtitle the lyrics of the songs in the performances. These verses are very profound and heartbreaking, but in a sense the performances speak for themselves emotionally. Did you feel subtitles would take the audiences away from the scene?

Paddy Breathnach: That’s a question that’s come up at festivals. It splits the audience. My answer, I think, wins over the audience generally, but there are still people who don’t agree and I might be wrong. The songs and the performances have a real visceral power and I felt that if they were subtitled you would be in the process of reading and not watching. You wouldn’t be completely present to the power of those performances and in a way the power of those performances is what drew me to make a film in the first place. I made the decision not to do that. Spanish speakers get a little bit of an extra element to it, and maybe in the future on whatever platforms the film is available you might be able to have the option to subtitle that part. Maybe a distributor will twist my arm, who knows. I wanted, particularly in the two final performances, to have that strong, visceral, physical, energy dominate and I didn’t want an interface between that and us. Even though you might think, “I want to know what he is singing about,” I think you feel it. It’s a very emotional film, so the feeling has to be unbridled.

What did you want to convey with such a stunning character like Viva, who is essentially Jesus’ alter ego? Viva is freer and happier version of himself. Viva also means alive in Spanish, which seems like a fitting description for how Jesus feels once he has transformed.

Paddy Breathnach: For me he is a character that has to find his voice in life. It’s not enough for him just to choose that voice. He has to find it in a way where he is both the master of this own individual identity but also of his group identity.  He needs to know he has a place within the group because those two aspects of our identity are very powerful to us. He needed to have a sense of family and community and also a sense of his won distinctive individual voice. That’s what his journey is about, to try and reconcile those two things. In the end when he performs there is a sort of triumphalism about it even though there is a little bit of grief in the performance as well. Still, there is a sense of triumph that he’s married those two things. At that moment, in the very last couple frames, you see him and say, “He is Viva now.” At that point he is completely Viva. He’s become Jesus a little bit before that in a fuller way as well, but Viva exist as its own character at the end. This other character is now there. I talked a lot to Hector about it and the need for a progression. We had to arrive at that moment at end. He couldn’t be good too early. He had to still maintain some of Jesus in those performances early on, but by the end we had to release the full power of Viva. Luckily I had a very good actor who was able to make that journey.

Watching Héctor Medina‘s performance one could think that he comes from that world because it seems so natural and real, but I’ve heard his personal experience is nothing like Jesus’.

Paddy Breathnach: He is a straight guy who likes women a lot and who is very gregarious. He is the center of fun and likes to go out and party, but there is a part of him that’s like Jesus in the sense that he is a very good person. He is a good man. He is a very kind and descent person, I know that because of how he treated me and the other cast members. Generally he is just a descent person.

How difficult was that transformation for him as an actor? It’s an emotionally demanding role that has two distinct sides to it.

Paddy Breathnach: For him initially there was a huge sense of fun about it because it meant it was a challenge and he had to go there. By the end of the shoot I think it was hard for him. There were a couple moments in particular. One was when we shot the finale. I had to reshoot a little bit of that because he peaked and spent himself emotionally too soon. He gave me the anger and grief the first time and the second time I got the contentment, the sort of sense of completion, and the triumph about it. I marry the two sequences. I pushed him and then he pushed himself more. He pushed himself so far emotionally that I think by the end of the last two or three days of the shoot he’d given everything to us. He is the sort of actor that wouldn’t talk too much about it. He goes deep into a place to get there. He’d go to a dark deep place.

There seems to be a recurring theme or concern regarding Jesus. It seems like he doesn’t think he is a good person despite the fact that everyone reminds him how kind he is. He forgives his father, which is a great personal feat.

Paddy Breathnach: I don’t think he thinks he is bad, but there is a lack of confidence in himself. He doesn’t value his own voice and he doesn’t value his won pain. Maybe the goodness, or being a good boy, is mixed with being used. The other side of the coin is being used. He is willing to help people, he is willing to give, but he is used. It’s a double edge sword in that regard. But then as he develops that confidence his sense of himself is given worth and value and that encompasses his goodness. It gives him conviction and confidence. It’s important for him to treat his father with love, and because he does he enables the father to express his own emotional life to Jesus in a way that he wants to but is too inarticulate to do so. He frees his father and in doing so in the end allows himself to be freed because of that goodness. This lets him become the master of those two worlds: his group and his own identity.

Jorge Perugorría, who plays Jesus’ father Angel, was in an Academy Award-nominated Cuban film called “Strawberry and Chocolate” back in 1993. It’s interesting to see him in this hypermasculine role here, which is the opposite of the character he played then.

Paddy Breathnach: Yes, he played the gay character in that film. I’d seen “Strawberry and Chocolate” and I looked at him and said, “I don’t know if he’ll ever do this,” because his name came up as a person of interest. I researched a few other films and I saw a film called “Guantanamera” that he made, which is by the same director Gutierrez Alea. He is like a Cuban George Clooney, this is like 20 years ago, and he is so handsome, but masculine as well. Suddenly I said, “OK, I’ve seen him in this other film where he plays a gay character, and I’ve seen him in this now, so he is obviously a good actor and he can do it.” He also had that charm that you need when you are playing a character that is so horrible in many ways and who treats his son so badly. His language is rough, he is trough, and even brutish. You need that charm to be there because that way the audience hates him but they hope he’ll turn. That charm is what let that hope live and Jorge had that. He’s been working for a long time in Cuba and he is a successful actor, but it’s lovely to have this as a marker to his career that includes “Strawberry and Chocolate” and now this film. I think there is a nice journey between these two films. For the world audience to see him again I think it’s kind of a nice journey.

In terms of the cinematography, was the visual approach shaped by the limitations or constraints of shooting in Cuba regarding equipment or production facilities? There is definitely film production there, but tools are probably not as available as in countries where there is a larger industry. 

Paddy Breathnach: We limited ourselves partially because we had a tight budget, so that was a restriction. We didn’t want to load the cranes, dollies, tracks and all that. I said, “OK, we don’t need them.” Luckily it makes it an easier type of shoot. It suited the aesthetics and the practicalities. I think when you are making a low budget movie the aesthetic has to honor the practicalities, because if you try to fight them it just doesn’t work. You have to marry the two and choose a style that works. We tended to light 360. We used very fast lenses so we could shoot in most locations we were going to be and shoot in every direction, which allowed the actors great freedom. This allowed me to respond to the actors’ performance. My DP, Cathal Watters, is also a very good handheld-cameraman in terms of reading actors as well and capturing little movements and nuances. He brought in a lot of those moments.

What about the locations? Did you use spaces and items that were already there or did you have to construct the character’s world from scratch with your art department? 

Paddy Breathnach: We didn’t have a huge amount of money for the art department, but I also didn’t want to spend money on the art department because I wanted to choose real locations. I wanted to shoot in real locations as much as possible and use the relationship between one apartment and another apartment. Where Cecilia lives and where Jesus lives they are just around the corner and you can make that journey. We do it in the film when he walks around. What we tended to do was clean things out a little bit in terms of de-propping spaces and be very specific about where we chose to put the props. I had a very good production designer who is excellent at set dressing as well. It was more about control. It wasn’t about big spends or getting lots of things. Also, in Cuba you could walk to somebody’s house next door and they’d have like 20 table lamps that go from the 1930s to the 1950s. If those were here they’d be fetching thousands of dollars as collector’s items, but there they are available for people to use. There were a lot of resources on the ground that were available to us. It was about saying, “What style and what technique do we want that maximizes the value out of the place that we are in. “ It was an organic style.

All things considered, what would you say was the most difficult challenge, logistical or otherwise, about making the film on location in Cuba? Did the limitations helped your creative process in any way?

Paddy Breathnach: The biggest challenge for me was that going into it I didn’t know how good the actors were going to be. Until I started auditioning I thought I was going to shoot it in a naturalistic style, and I might have gone even more naturalistic than I did if I hadn’t discovered how great the actors were. Once I discovered how good they were, I allowed the style to be a little bit more beyond complete naturalism because I just knew they would bring something special to that. I knew it was a challenge, but it also became a big opportunity. As soon as I realized that was there, it expanded the horizons of the film for me a lot.

There were definitely production problems in terms of transferring money from A to B.  Also, in Cuba you can’t just walk down to a shop and buy costumes, but I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted costumes that somebody else had already worn. It suited the film. Small things we had to get in advance. One of the characters has tattoos and you can’t just walk down and buy tattoo transfer, so we had to make sure that came over from Ireland. Another thing were wigs. The things we found difficult to find there are the same things artists find difficult to get. Getting shoes, getting wigs, getting make up, those sort of things had to come from outside. We already knew that from our research because we’d go back and forth between Ireland and Cuba and bring stuff back as present for some of the drag performers because we understood they needed them. We knew they had value there. We already knew those sorts of things and factored that it.

I would say that there were more opportunities than challenges. The limitations completely worked for us. I was aware of them going into it and I knew we had to honor and find the opportunity within them. A lot of films I’ve seen made by people from outside tend to light Cuba in way that tries to double up on its colorfulness. They use color gels and all of sorts of lights that bring all these mucky colors in and that’s not what Havana is. It doesn’t look that way. They tend to over-light things. It’s over-lighting without a lot of big lighting equipment. It’s a weird thing. Trying to light too much with limited resources is an awful thing to do. We’d seen that problem and we tried not to make that mistake.

Would you say “Viva” is an Irish film, a Cuban film, a Cuban film seen through and Irish lens, or an Irish film about a Cuban story? What’s your take on this relationship between the story and the talent behind the scenes? 

Paddy Breathnach: I think every film becomes itself. It has its own journey. You make it and then the rest of the world will see what happens with it. It’s a very Irish film to the extend that it has an Irish director, an Irish writer, it was an Irish idea, and it’s Irish financed. It was conceived in Ireland and a couple of other key creators are Irish as well. But we are sort of vagabonds in the sense that people from small countries always travel. You use up your curiosity fairly quickly in a small country. You need to travel and go. It’s in the history of our country. We’ve gone to all sorts of places as a nation to find something interesting for ourselves. Even that in itself is quite an Irish thing, but I think the story is an important story in Cuban terms at the moment.

The Cuban cast and the Cuban crew completely embrace it as theirs, see it as theirs, and celebrate it as theirs, so I would like to think that it’s a sort of marriage between the two. I’d like to think that’s what it is. Now, I know that ‘s true of the crew and the cast, whether it’s true of the public we don’t know because they haven’t seen it. I’ll be very excited and nervous when they see it. It’s not important that they like it, but it’s important that it’s true. It’s important that they feel there is truth in it. They don’t have to agree with it, but I hope they feel that it doesn’t misrepresent them. I don’t want to steal their voice. It’s very important that we don’t rob their voice.

Ireland is a country that was colonized, so we understand that. We have an intuitive sense, and I think Cubans recognize that about us. We are both island countries and have both have a history of colonization. We just have an awareness of the importance of that. I think we’ve done OK by doing that but I can’t know yet. Somebody else would have to say that, but I think there was a very fruitful relationship and genuine engagement between us both. We needed to get that and I think they were very generous to offer that to us.

Drag performers are often associated with satire, comedy or exaggerated personas, but the ones depicted in your film embrace a much more dramatic type of performance. They are really heartbreaking and raw. Is this what you think makes them different from similar acts in other countries?

Paddy Breathnach: They do have comedy there, but what really stroke me were two specific things. One was the emotional power of the performances and the particular type of songs, which aren’t all Cuban songs. Some of them are Puerto Rican, Argentine or Mexican songs. It was that raw emotional power that drew me. It’s something you see in the drag world there. We really liked that.

The other thing that I think is very interesting and unique I witnessed in one of my visits. I’d just got off the plane and went to a show, because I was hungry to see as many shows as I could. You don’t always know whether there were going to be any shows or not. I went to one that was sort of in a blue-collar suburb and blue-collar crowd, it was a small backward. They put up a red curtain and one spotlight and that was a theater. I thought the alchemy of transforming this ordinary backyard into a place of dreams, theater and magic by just putting one curtain and one spotlight, cut to the heart of transformation. It says something about how the human spirit can become something else and how it pushes on to become something else. It tell us about what is it about art that allows us to imagine beyond our here and now into something really special. That was something that I think their situation and circumstances brings to that world of drag that another country doesn’t have.

Their economic deprivation and the history of it needing to be clandestine, it doesn’t need to be clandestine anymore but when I started making the project it was clandestine, bring a certain power to that world.  Singers like Lucecita Benitez, whose songs we wanted to use but we couldn’t clear them in the end, were the type of singers that I wanted to use. Maggie Carles was another one, and we actually used some her songs. These are many of the songs that Luis Alberto García‘s character, Mama, sings in the film. They are raw and powerful songs by women in their 40s talking about loss and plaintively asking questions, “Why did you do this to me?” and all those raw emotions. I love that about that world.

There are many Vivas in the world, people trying to discover who they are and a way to show to the world. Do you hope the film connects with people at a crossroads in this discovery?

Paddy Breathnach: I think so. I think there is part of that world that’s about finding your own sexual identity, but I think that in a broader sense it’s about finding your place and being both yourself and also being able to be part of your family. Increasingly I think individual identity is important. We’ve gone through a period where the need to discover our own individual identities was so important, but I think we have to reconcile that with our community as well because it’s part of our identity. We are ourselves as individuals but we are also members of group whether that is nations, genders, or political groups. We belong to things in groups and that’s a really important instinct that we have. I think the film can appeal to people in that universal way.

There are several instances in which Jesus’ clothing or even his umbrella resemble the colors of the Irish flag. Was this a small way to pay homage to your homeland or was it subconscious?

Paddy Breathnach: It isn’t actually [Laughs]. It wasn’t deliberate. It was about what colors would work in those places. If you look at the very beginning of the film there is a strange moment, which was the very first shot we took. Jesus is with Cecilia and she asks him to go out because she wants the apartment. Jesus is walking across a square just before he meets Don. As he walks, there is somebody, who isn’t an extra, coming towards the camera as we are panning with Jesus. This Cuban man was wearing a t-shirt that says “Ireland” on it. I didn’t do it! I thought to myself, “People are going to think I did this!” It was just weird.

The sequence that plays during the credits where Don, the male prostitute, reappears, tells us a lot about what a family could be and also about the lives this characters will continue to live. Was that an important final message you wanted to get across? I’ve also heard your daughter appears in the film.

Paddy Breathnach: She is in the film, at the very end of the film. She is the little baby. At the time she was eight months and she became like a mascot for the crew. At lunchtime everyday they hand her around. She knew them all. We scripted that scene, but I think we scripted it during the shot actually. Don, the character, is in the film s few times and I said “Wouldn’t it be great if he comes back and the next time around with a cast on his leg?” Then we thought, if we do it a second time then we had to finish with the guy,” so we gave him a neck brace. I always feel that when you finish a movie it’s always great to finish it with a bit of energy at the end, so that it gives people something to talk about. If you conclude the film too much in the film itself, it’s all answered. You want the audience to finish the film on their own. I wanted to say that there is life for these characters after the film, that there are different types of families, and that this world is changing. Although it’s a positive moment, partially we are also saying this character is still selling sexual favors. We are not saying that there are magic wands being waved and everybody can stop doing that. The truth is those necessities and the reasons they do it run deep. We wanted to end it on something positive and have that happy feeling about it, but at the same time you are also saying, “Well, some things have changed, but other things haven’t.”

The final performance is such a riveting moment. It’s a triumphant scene, but it’s also devastating. Viva wins her battle in a sense.

Paddy Breathnach: I’m very happy with that scene. That song is great.We did a take where he finishes defiant and I didn’t want it to be defiant. I wanted one that said, “I’ve arrived. I’m here.” I wanted that openness, because that’s what the triumph.  Not that he wins, but that he wins by being himself and being open and truth to his emotional spirit. That’s the real triumph, that you can win by being truth to yourself.

 “Viva” will open in theaters on February 5th, 2016

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