Need to Know: Javier Fuentes-Leon


By Phillip B. Crook

IndieWIRE called you 'a fresh cinematic voice' in gay film. Is that a genre you're going to continue working in?
I wrote this film hoping it would connect with gay audiences and that they would be proud of it. It's been great that it's been embraced by most of the gay people that I've talked to or that have written about it, but I never wrote it thinking, I want this to be a gay film. I wanted it to be a love story between two men. I wanted it to be embraced by anyone who wants to see a moving, heartbreaking love story. The three projects I'm working on for the future don't have gay characters, but they are very much of a gay sensibility. One is a love story with fantasy elements about a woman who lives in hut in the middle of a forest because she cannot go out into the sunlight. If she does, she'll burn up into flames.

Like a vampire.
But, you know, without the blood-sucking. The story starts when a human-cannonball guy crashed through her roof and destroys it two hours before sunrise. It's the conflict that starts the story and how, through love, she's able to go out into the sun and not burn. Really, it's a metaphor for coming out. And then I have a rock musical that I'm writing. It's Romeo and Juliet, but set in a world where left-handed people are ghettoized. They're supposed to be sinister, because sinister is Latin for left. It's a love story between a left-handed girl and a right-handed guy. It's about stupid discrimination.

So the big news now is that Undertow has been submitted for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.
I think the movie has elements that the Academy tends to favor: long, sweeping love stories, an ending that is moving, takes you to another world, that's rooted in the traditions of the culture but hits on a universal theme. It's set in Peru but it has elements that connect well with American audiences. And the prize at Sundance and the other festivals -- most of our awards are from the U.S., so I'm hoping the Academy will go along the same lines. But, it's strong competition from 65 countries.

How has Outfest affected your film's success?
Well, I love Outfest. I live in L.A., and I came out kind of late, but it was in L.A. The first time I sat down to watch a gay film in a gay setting was at Outfest -- it was Criminal Lovers by Fran'ois Ozon -- and then I saw Hedwig, so Outfest has always been great for me personally. The screenplay for Undertow was workshopped in their writing lab, so they were the first ones to believe in the story. So coming back to Outfest and showing it there in July was like a homecoming.

I read that you were adamantly opposed to the idea of making Undertow in English.
I don't know if that film would have worked with Pen'lope Cruz speaking in English, although I think she's a great actress. You know what I mean? Javier Bardem and Pen'lope Cruz playing a fisherman and wife in a Peruvian village and speaking in English would have been a different movie and not one I wanted to make. It would have killed the essence of the story.

A lot of which has to do with the supernatural elements. That's now becoming a theme in your work. Where did that seed come from?
I like the way magic and fantasy allow you to talk about very real issues but in a symbolic, metaphorical way. Undertow becomes a fable that is universal. People are willing to go anywhere as long as you present a world that they can buy.

How has the film been received in Peru?
Audiences in Peru and Latin America are much more in tune with film that's being done here. They'll go to see a Hollywood film much more than a Peruvian film. Of all the Peruvian films released this year, we're the biggest one in terms of box office. That said, it's still far from what American films do.

Do you think that attitude will change if you win the Oscar?
If it wins, it'll be the first time a Peruvian film wins an Oscar. If it gets nominated, it'll be the second time.

Well I hope it happens.
[Laughs] Me too.

Undertow is now playing in select theaters. For more info about the film and to find a theater near you showing it, click here.

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Tags: Movies