JPP sat down with Romántico director Mark Becker to discuss his documentary about Carmelo Muniz Sanchez, a Mexican musician who returns home to his family after three years of making ends meet on the streets of San Francisco.
Romántico premiered at the Sundance film festival in 2005, and has received numerous awards since then, including two Independent Spirit Awards nominations and a Special Jury Recognition at Silverdocs. It opens this Friday.
JPP: So it was completed two years ago, but it’s just being released now. How do you feel about that?
Mark Becker: Well, I think it’s like a lot of independent filmmakers will tell you, it’s just an arduous process to get from. There’s this disconnect between the festival life of a film and getting actual distribution. There can be such a long delay between the two. And you get all this love on the festival circuit for films like mine, from regular people and programmers and people that are interested in the arts; and then there’s a level on which a distributor looks at it, which is all about dollar signs. Obviously distributors are interested in quality work that they love, but they have to think about the economic aspect of “is this film going to help us make any sort of money?” And of course with a film like Romántico, depending on how you look at it, it could seem like a bit of a risk – A foreign language film documentary?
I read that in first week of production, Carmelo actually left San Francisco and you had to change the whole film to accommodate his return to Mexico. Are you happy with what happened?
Oh, I think probably most filmmakers will tell you the same thing, that there is a degree of happenstance of randomness in the production process while you’re following somebody that only helps movies. If films only achieved preconceived notions of the filmmaker at the beginning of the project, I think many of them would be pretty boring. And it was only a gift for me that Carmelo’s circumstance evolved suddenly and drastically in such a way that it helps create this narrative arc for the film. I originally thought I was making a film that was about this trio musicians in [San Francisco’s] Mission [district] and their itinerate route around the taquerias and restaurants of the Mission district, and in the end that’s not at all the film that I made. The film evolved through the randomness of life and that’s how I wanted it to feel.
So what attracted you to this project?
The reality is, I met Carmelo and he offered me something I hadn’t imagined. He’s a guy who had been telling his personal history for a long time. He’d been telling these stories. Yes, he was living a hand-to-mouth existence, but he’d also been living an examined life. He’d been thinking about his place in the world, and he told me that the first time we met. He was 57 at the time and I had no idea that I was going to be encountering somebody like this, but he said, “You know, Mark – I’ve been waiting a long time to tell the story of my life, and I think this is it.” And so Carmelo in many ways was waiting for this opportunity and I was lucky enough to encounter him.
It’s certainly an interesting story and an interesting person. It took you three-and-a-half years to make this film. How often did you go to visit Mexico during production?
The whole film was funded by grants from foundations and I never had enough money to do more than a few weeks of filming at a time. So I shot that first shooting week, and then he left, and I couldn’t afford to even go with him. So I wrote some grant proposals and I raised a little bit of money, and I flew down there for a couple of weeks, and then we got a certain amount of great footage and came back, and I re-edited what I had, then applied for more grants – so over the course of those three-and-a-half years that I was working on it, I shot probably about eight weeks with Carmelo and then maybe a couple without.
What finally made you decide to stop filming after three-and-half years?
You know what’s funny is that when we told Carmelo that the filming was over, he was terribly disappointed. He thought like we’d agreed to tell the story of his life and it just seemed like we haven’t done enough. [Laughs] I think there’s a level on which, when you’re making a movie, you have to [know while shooting] what the narrative might look like. As we got closer and closer to the end of production, the editing was coming together at the same time – it was a concurrent path – and I was more and more focused in terms of what were the elements I was missing for the film. And I also felt like, you can shoot endlessly and never finish a documentary because you’re so concerned about having the right ending. I decided that there was a certain amount of momentum with the film and I decided, “Okay, the ending is now, and I’m gonna work with what I have.”
There’s been a surge of documentaries coming in recently, and what I noticed about your film that’s a little bit different is that most of them have some message – whether it be political or social – in them, while yours is more focused in this one man’s story, this personal story. Is that more appealing to you?
From a filmmaking perspective, yeah. It is the personal [aspect] that inspires me. On the political front, I can’t imagine the personal [aspect] being more political than Romántico. If you analyze what happens to him over the course of the film, you are witness to everything that brings a person to the border. I don’t know anybody that could see the film and not sympathize with facing that reality. I suppose my goal with the film in one way was to tell the portrait of a person in such a specific, individual way – where you could sympathize with him as an individual, as a person – to the point where you couldn’t even imagine this guy who you’d become close to, who you’d grown to love in a way, would want to do anything less than what you would do as a parent or as a father or as a husband or a son.
Do you think in your next project you will jump into another three years commitment?
Well, I mean, I imagine that they take a long time. I would love to be able to finish something in two years. It would be wonderful if that was the scenario. It all depends. Right now, I’m looking at this project that I’m hoping that I can produce and edit in a shorter period of time than Romántico, but you never know.