Since winning the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010, Peruvian director Javier Fuentes-Leon has been hailed as the freshest voice in gay film. His first full-length feature, Undertow, which opened in theaters on Friday, tells the story of a fisherman, Miguel, who's caught between his devotion to his wife and his affair with a male painter, Santiago. The twist is that Santiago spends most of the movie as a ghost, clinging hauntingly to Miguel's side. We caught up with Fuentes-Leon to chat about the film, breaking the Latin American machismo stereotype, and what's next for this bright talent.
Out: I think the most powerful moment for me in the film is when Santiago says to Miguel, 'You're afraid of accepting that you love me.' What were you thinking when you wrote that?
Javier Fuentes-Leon: I had a much bigger scene and I ended up shortening it with the two actors in my house in Peru. Manolo, who plays the painter, said to me, 'It has to be bigger. This is the time for Santiago to tell him 'Fuck off. I've followed all your rules for hiding but now you're going to hear me.'' So, I came up with those lines in the moment.
Are there moments between the lovers that come from your own life?
It's all made up. I mean, I do have a boyfriend and we're very happy together and he's my first longtime boyfriend.
How long have you been together?
Five years. He's American. But it's not like I had a torrid love story that ended really badly.
What, no sex on the beach?
I wish. I don't know if I wish I had all of what Miguel has, but it's romantic. Some people will think it's really corny, but what the fuck? We've seen it a million times between men and women. Why not between two men?
Throughout the film, Miguel feels caught between two forces: between insiders and outsiders, between the living and the dead, between gay and straight. Where did that theme come from?
It's not my life, it's not my story, it's not autobiographical because I'm not a fisherman or been married or see ghosts -- which is good -- but it's definitely my own fears when I was dealing with coming out. I come from a nice family, which has always been supportive, but conservative in their views and religious. I felt that pull between being loved and at the same time having to hide who I was to be loved -- at least that's what I felt like I needed to do when I was younger. I was a golden boy but with a big secret. I feared I would lose my golden boy status when I really revealed who I was. Miguel is me without being me.
Miguel loves and has sex with both men and women. Is he bisexual or gay -- or neither? Is there even a label?
It's funny that you mention the word "label" because the reason I wanted to set the film in a rural area is because I think we're obsessed in an urban area with putting everything in a pocket so we can understand it. When I moved here, I was amazed at how people say, 'I'm a German-American with Irish descent, I'm a vegetarian, I'm gay' and a top.' Whereas in a rural area, for Miguel, it's not in his list of things to worry about. He's worrying about, Am I in love with this guy? And that's supposed to be horrible according to people that I love. And I'm definitely committing adultery, but I love my wife and I want to be a good father. When you're in the closet, there's this yearning to belong and clearly you don't belong to the society that surrounds you. When you come out, being a part of the gay community many times comes along with having to adopt the music, the way you dress, the places you go to. Whereas in a rural area there's not a community to come out to so there's not a discussion of, "Who am I? Am I LGB'T'Q'" And we're going to continue adding letters. This is a long-winded answer to say I don't have an answer. I don't think it's that important.
Does Undertow reflect the status of gay people in Peru today?
No, and that's why I never mention Peru in the film. The intention was to tell a universal story about personal struggle and coming into your own and accepting who you love and are attracted to, and dignifying that. If it's hard to come out in Peru and still not a very open-minded community, thank God it's changing. This generation is doing way better than my generation and my generation did better than my parents' generation. It's my way of saying the youth will be the engine of change. It's happening in Peru. I don't think there's evil, mean-spirited homophobia. It's just common and accepted to be homophobic. It's linked to this twisted macho version of what masculine should be, which I'm also trying to make a comment of in the film. Can a man be tender, vulnerable, noble, honest?
How do you react to Ricky Martin's contribution to the image of gay Latin American men?
I'm much more of a rock fan -- Radiohead and Arcade Fire and the Cure -- than Latin pop. But I understand how hard it can be. If it was hard for me to come out in my own private world, I can only imagine having to struggle with that in the open eye with everyone looking at you, saying, 'I love you, I love you,' and especially women. You're supposed to be the hot Latin lover. It has to be really hard, so I don't blame him. I'm glad he did it. After making this film, I've stopped being cynical about other people's intentions.
Because it's really easy to criticize. It's easy to say, "Of course Ricky Martin's coming out because now he needs money." It's easy to make everyone's intentions a business move or a call for attention. I don't know why he did it now. Maybe because he wrote the book or maybe because he really felt like he couldn't hold it in anymore. Whatever reason he did it, I'm happy and I applaud him for it.
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.