Sometimes a story just begs to be told. Documentary filmmaker Heidi Ewing (Oscar-nominated “Jesus Camp”) thought she knew her good friends, Iván and his partner Gerardo, who she met in a lower Manhattan neighborhood bar in 2005. The Spanish-speaking Ewing (thanks to an Cuban old boyfriend) hung out socially with them, danced salsa, and they came to her wedding in 2007.
But eight years ago at Pizza Noodle on Main Street, when “Detropia” played Sundance, the couple told her more of their history. “There were dimensions to my friends I didn’t know existed,” she told me on the phone as she waited for her reps to close a deal with Sony Pictures Classics for her first narrative feature, “I Carry You With Me.” She wrote and directed this true romance about her friends today, as well as “a past that shaped them in so many ways.”
Their story haunted Ewing, as she directed and produced other projects over the years with her longtime Loki Films partner Rachel Grady (“Just Another You,” “One of Us”). “I couldn’t shake it,” she said, and started filming the duo, off and on, thinking she would make a documentary.
As she continued to interview the two men, she studied films to figure out how to make the non-fiction story more cinematic. As they described their romantic first meeting — which came via laser pointer in a clandestine gay bar inside a decrepit mansion club with a drag show on the outskirts of Puebla, Mexico — “the context was so visual and visceral,” she said. “Their childhood, stories of how their fathers made them ashamed, who didn’t understand their child’s sexuality.”
How was Ewing going to portray that backstory on film? No footage existed of them at that time. Animation or recreation? It wasn’t possible. “I was flummoxed by the story I wanted to tell, desperately,” she said, “but didn’t know how to tell it.”
She kept on filming, as dramatic stories unfolded involving Ivan’s son, left behind in Puebla and trying to reunite with his father, and the opening of the chef’s multiple restaurants in New York. “I couldn’t stop shooting them, even though I knew I didn’t have a successful documentary.”
Then Ewing bought Final Draft software and started writing her first screenplay. Over eight years, she never stopped shooting her subjects, often herself, even when writing the movie and making other documentaries. (She completed the script with Mexican screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga.)
Meanwhile, Ewing directed a TV episode for Netflix last year on her own, and she and Grady alternated directing episodes on their upcoming four-part Showtime series “Love Fraud.” “We choose to direct most of our work together,” said Ewing, “but we’re both our own women. Rachel is supportive of this departure for me. She’s my dear friend; she saw I had to get this story out.”
Forging ahead, Ewing wrote a fiction film based on her friends’ true Mexican immigrant story, not unlike “Argo” or “The Imitation Game.” “I did not adhere religiously,” she said, “But I stayed pretty closely to what they had told me over the years. I invented moments and scenes. The most pivotal narrative scenes that advance the story all adhere closely to what they experienced.”
She wanted to retain the naturalistic, observational aesthetic of her documentary work, from “Boys of Baraka” onward. “People are complicated, especially in this movie,” she said. “All the characters have complicated lives, which they are not going to give up easily.”
Applying her non-fiction instincts to “scripted fiction was for me an incredibly satisfying experience,” she said, “because you have control over the action that you don’t have in non-fiction, when you’re running and chasing after things and your batteries run out, or when nothing happens.”
Bringing her friends’ story to fictional life was “a joy,” she said. “I was becoming a different filmmaker. I was very self-conscious about going from what I know how to do and not rolling out the tripod and starting with my master. I didn’t want to start making those mistakes, to betray my own aesthetic. I was a beginner again.”
The movie spans four decades, cutting back and forth between time periods and Mexico and New York, which made it a tough sell. People told Ewing, “You know this is tough to shoot. It’s ambitious and complex for a first feature. Don’t you want to film four friends on a weekend in New York with natural light?”
Another funding a challenge: Ewing, like Lulu Wang on “The Farewell,” wanted to shoot the story authentically in her subjects’ native language, Spanish. “Thank god for ‘Parasite,’ for ‘Roma,’ and Americans being more sophisticated,” Ewing said. “There was no other way to do the movie. When I was first going out for financing, several people asked, ‘Could you make it 50% in English? Do it in Colombia for a tax credit?’ I had to trust the audience, knowing it would make my life harder to sell it.”
With the support of her documentary subject Norman Lear (“Just Another Version of You”) and Black Bear’s Pictures’ Michael Heimler and Teddy Schwarzman (“The Imitation Game”), she moved to Mexico City and filmed with producer Mynette Louie (“The Tale”) and a crack Mexican crew. They filmed in Puebla, Mexico City, Puebla, Jilotepec, and a desert nature preserve doubling for the border areas around Chihuahua.
Top Mexican casting director Isabel Cortázar helped Ewing to assemble a local cast. Rising indie actor Armando Espitia (Directors Fortnight film “Our Mothers”) is Iván, who has graduated from culinary school and is impatient to become a chef instead of scraping dishes, while his lifelong love Gerardo is played by TV heartthrob Christian Vazquez. “It was a stretch for them both,” she said.
Ewing believed the actors could do something different from what they had done before; neither had ever played a homosexual. And their best friend Sandra is played by top Mexican comedienne Michelle Rodríguez (“Chicago”), who had never tried a dramatic part.
“I didn’t know the ins and outs of the Mexican film industry,” said Ewing, “which allowed me to go with my gut, and not be swayed by what they’d done before. My direction was new to them. It was an adventure for all of us. They all appreciated the opportunity and gave it their all.”
Ewing’s longtime documentary editor Enat Sidi edited the dailies during filming on over 100 locations in Mexico. “I needed to know if I got it or didn’t get it,” Ewing said. “Shooting a feature was scary. We’d shoot at night, 70%, she’d go to edit, working during the day while I was asleep. I’d get up to see the edit to know if I needed to reshoot something. That reality of narrative filmmaking was not a joke.”
Weaving all the time frames into one sustained arc took nine months to finesse in the editing room. “It’s baked, to the chagrin and shock of everyone on the feature team,” Ewing said. “We restructured a lot of the fiction. The flashbacks take place over four generations. Documentary editors are the best problem solvers. They’re used to things changing.”
Six months into the edit, when the central character seemed a tad inaccessible, Ewing wrote a voiceover narration. “The audience needed to understand him more,” she said. “We were recording with the actor on Skype.”
Finally, “I Carry You With Me” is a moving love story of two Mexican immigrants with an unconventional twist, as the director skillfully blends fiction and documentary. “It wasn’t the easy way to go,” she said, “but the right way to go. There was some formal risk.”
Now that Ewing has unveiled the movie in Sundance — and Sony Pictures Classics will give it a robust theatrical release in partnership with Sony Worldwide — “it’s like having my little gremlin under my bed jump back in the box,” she said. “It gave me many sleepless nights.”