Today: April 18, 2024

Diego Luna

Q & A with Diego Luna

For his directorial debut, actor
Diego Luna takes a penetrating look at a child struggling to cope with things
beyond his understanding. Co written by Luna and Augusto Mendoza, Abel explores the fantasy world of a
nine-year old child whose father has abandoned the family, and left him
confused as to his role as the eldest son. The film takes us into the disturbing,
surreal, and occasionally darkly funny corners of Abel’s mind as he fabricates
a new identity he’s more comfortable with. Taking the long view, the film is a
meditation on the complexities of the father/son relationship, the role of the
mother in Mexican culture and the impulse that male children feel to protect
their mothers.

Shot in 2009 in over eight weeks
on locations in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and on a Mexico City soundstage, Abel
stars
Christopher Ruiz-Esparza, a non-actor who makes his feature debut here. The
film also features Jose Maria Yazpik and Karina Gidi as bewildered parents unable
to pull their son from his alternate reality.

The story in Abel is quite unusual;
what was the seed of the idea for the film?

My father is a set designer. Six
years ago he and I went to see Trevor Nunn’s production of Hamlet in London, and it included a
scene with Hamlet and his mother that struck me as very sexual. After the play
I said to my father, ‘what if we’ve been wrong about the play all this time, and
that Hamlet actually killed his father because he’s in love with his mother,
then put the blame on his uncle?’ I read a book that a friend wrote that has a
child character who believes he’s an adult, and that reminded me of what my
psychologist used to say when I was twelve and I was seeing her for a strong
case of insomnia. She said to me that for a few hours of the day, I had the
personality of a twenty-year old, but at night, I was becoming a five-year old;
and that we needed to find the twelve-year old that was inside me hiding
somewhere.

In a way, that’s what happens to
Abel in the film. I also waited for a long time to do something with “Edipo”,
and this seemed like a good opportunity. So that’s how Abel was born; I decided
to develop a story about a boy who’s in love with his mother and pretends to
play the role of the father.

What’s the cause of Abel’s
inappropriate feelings about his mother?

The mother is hugely important
in Mexican culture, and that’s partly because for decades, fathers have been
leaving their families to go to the U.S. and find jobs. I’m using this story to
talk about something much bigger that affects the entire society. There are towns
in Mexico where you just don’t see any men between the ages of twenty and
fifty, because they all left to look for work. You don’t have to physically
leave in order to abandon your family, either. There’s emotional abandonment,
too, and this occurs not just in Mexico. Fathers leave all the emotional work
of raising children to the mother, and children can feel that. If you’re not
there the day your child says his first word, or takes his first step, I call
that abandonment. When I had a child, my life stopped being about me, and it
happened in a moment.

So, Abel sees that his mother is
in need of a husband, and he’s willing to sacrifice his childhood in order to
be there for her. He takes on the role of fathering his brother and sister,
too. A hugely important part of being a good parent is being able to listen to
your children. And in several scenes, Abel’s character doesn’t speak, but
listens intently to his brother and sister. In many ways, it’s the first time
they’ve ever been heard. Abel’s a child, but he takes on another identity that
feels less pain and is in control. He no longer has a missing father or a
dysfunctional family, and he’s no longer ill. It’s an easier role for him to
live. We all do this to varying degrees, too. We try to escape who we are in
various ways because it’s tough to accept who we are. We have to be ready to
accept pain, tragedy and loss – many things it would be easier to live without.

A central theme in the
story is the trauma of the absent parent. You lost your mother in a car
accident when you were two years old; how do you relate to this story
personally?

Obviously, it’s really personal.
When you direct your first film, you may think you’re telling a story that has
nothing to do with you, but that first film is always autobiographical.

My mother died when I was two,
and I don’t have a memory of her, so it’s not like I had something and I lost
it – I lived without a mother from the beginning. My father was always there
for me, and he treated me like an adult from the time that I was a small child.
I started working when I was six, so I kind of had to become a grown-up at a
really young age. I was a grown-up in some areas, and in other areas I’m still
a child. All aspects of our personality don’t develop at the same rate.

This is very much your
story; why did you feel you needed a co‐writer on the script?

I began by writing a two‐page
treatment that was very simple. Then I realized I wanted to work with a co-writer
because I needed some structure to the writing process. I didn’t want this to
just be one of the little ideas I get and think about for a few weeks and then
forget. I wanted to go all the way with this and I wanted it to be serious.
Augusto

Mendoza has a very special sense
of humour that I thought was perfect for the film, and we found that we worked
well together. The credit list would be really long, by the way, if I listed
everyone who helped me with the writing of this script.

Why did you set the story
in Aguascalientes?

My father was married to a woman
from Aguascalientes for five years when I was growing up, and I spent a lot of
time there between the ages of four and ten. And, when I met Augusto, I
discovered that he lived there for four years of his life. We set the story there
because it was a place we knew as kids and thought that setting it there would
help us think like kids. As soon as I wrote the script, we went straight to
Aguascalientes to see if it was possible to shoot there, and we found a lot of
support and help from the government and the cultural institute there. Shooting
in Aguascalientes was the best that could happen to us. The state became a
character of the film.

How did you go about
casting the film?

I wanted to cast a non-professional
as Abel, partly because I think all kids are professional actors regardless of
whether they’ve ever been on a stage. So we put an ad on television in
Aguascalientes, and ended up seeing four hundred kids. Almost every kid in the
area who was the right age showed up. We selected three of them, and those
three did a two month theatre workshop that I would then go to watch. One of
the reasons we ended up casting Christopher is because he’s really smart, and
he understood that he was playing a character – Abel – who was also playing a
role.

Our set was completely designed
to make the kids comfortable. We tried to make a perfect playground for them,
and the crew was instructed not to talk to the kids about the story we were
telling. You couldn’t swear on the set either. I had a rule that you had to pay
five pesos every time you swore. I paid a lot, too! It’s tough not to swear
when you’re under pressure!

What sort of look did you
want
Abel
to have?

I wanted it to have the look of
a dream. As for the format, we choose 235. I wanted the film to tell the story
of how Abel affects the people around him, and, as is the case with theatre. I
wanted the viewer to be able to choose what they want to look at in the frame.

Who are some of the
directors who inspired you in terms of how you wanted to approach the job?

Alfonso Cuarón, of course. In
many ways I think I decided to direct because of him. Y Tu Mamá También came at a moment in my life when
I was starting to settle in and get comfortable, and that’s a dangerous place
to be. That film really pushed me in terms of how far I was willing to go as an
actor, and I started to travel around the world with my work.

There was no way I could’ve
grown if I’d stayed in Mexico. It’s a special film – and it, too, is about kids
trying to learn to be men, and to understand women. I also admire Paul Thomas Anderson
and the Coen Brothers – Barton Fink, especially. The Royal Tenenbaums is a kind of reference for this
film, too, in that it’s about a family living in their own little bubble. We wanted
to situate our story in a similar reality that’s kind of twisted and a little
bit unreal.

You’ve been on sets for
most of your life so you’ve observed the directing process; what surprised you
about directing when you actually did it? What did you discover?

It was the most amazing ride
ever, and I discovered that I enjoy directing more than I enjoy acting. It’s a
huge responsibility. But then, as an actor, I’ve always worried about what everybody
else on the set is doing anyway and basically want to be in control. As an
actor, I care a bit too much. On the set of Y Tu Mamá También, I was constantly running over to

[Cinematographer] Emmanuel
Lubezki with some problem I thought we were going to have with the upcoming
shot, and he’d say, “don’t help me so much, Diego, we don’t want that kind
of help from actors.” Film is a director’s medium, and an actor is just a
tool to help him tell his story. I want to continue to be part of other
directors’ stories. But I want to tell my own stories, too.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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