The Director & Writer of ‘Esteros’ on Why Rural Argentina Was the Perfect Setting for Their LGBT Drama

Two youngs boys in rural Argentina bond in ways that suggest a budding sexual attraction. Comfortable in their own bodies and equally at home sharing a shower as they are a bed, they eventually part ways only to meet again over a decade later. By that point, Matías (Ignacio Rogers) seems uncomfortable when seeing his old friend Jerónimo (Esteban Masturini), not least because while he’s told his girlfriend all about his idyllic childhood escapades by the Uruguay river, he’d never talked at length about Jero.

In Esteros, Papu Curotto’s debut feature (an extension and a reworking of his earlier short, Matías y Jerónimo, where two young boys witness a hate crime), the palpable chemistry between his leads is sexy and heartfelt. It adds to the ambiguity of the relationship between the two: while Jero is openly gay and at ease in his own skin, the film doesn’t condemn nor victimize Matías’ own discomfort at the attraction he feels for his longtime friend. Their coming together is treated with a delicate sensuality that feels reminiscent of Looking—not surprising given Curotto’s admiration for Andrew Haigh’s work.

Beautifully showcasing the estuaries of the river that give the film its title and offering us a move away from the urbane world of contemporary LGBT cinema, Esteros may read like a well-worn story but its undeniable sultriness makes it a revelation and an impressive calling card for the first-time director and his screenwriter, Andi Nachon.

Ahead of the film’s screening at New York City’s NewFest, we chatted with Curotto and Nachon over Skype about the treatment of childhood sexuality in Esteros, the importance of a rural setting for their drama, and why they’re so excited about their follow-up project. Check out some highlights below.

Esteros screens as part of NewFest on Sunday October 23, 2016.

On Turning a Short Into a Feature Film

Andi: The core set piece of Matías y Jerónimo was key to Esteros. What we did in the short was make it very self-contained and we were able to do that. But then we realized that that moment of violence wasn’t as important to the story. But there’s obviously a connection between those boys in the short and the ones in Esteros.

Papu: When we began to work on this project, I had never directed before. Esteros is my first movie. So to direct Matías y Jerónimo was a way to see how we all worked together as a crew and to work on the film’s look not to mention figure out how to work with children. So not only was this my first film but it was my first time working with kids—and to tackle sexuality with child performers. So producing the short was key to finding a way to communicate with the young boys.

On Working With Non-Professional Child Actors

“I wanted them to not be self-conscious about that closeness. That was key.”

Papu: Both sets of kids—for the short as well as for the film—are non-professionals. We did castings not in drama schools or anything but in regular high schools. For me it was very important to find boys who were from the area so that they could better reflect the region, you know, in terms of their cadence and their relationship to the space. We wanted kids who were attuned to the environment of the film. That they wouldn’t have issues working and playing outdoors—we needed them to have a looseness to them, when it came to their bodies. It was quite the process. First we did a casting call where we didn’t tell them what was in the script. When we found some that matched physically our older actors, we then talked to the parents what the film was about. That’s when a handful of parents took their own kids out of the running, and others who were still interested. So we asked them to relay the film’s plot to the boys. We were curious how they would breach the issue of sexuality to them. At the beginning it was a struggle for boys we cast but throughout rehearsals we focused on getting them to work on how they gazed into each other’s eyes. I encouraged to sort of keep their eyes locked in and to inch ever closer and closer, to the point where they were comfortable staring at one another while being inches away. I wanted them to not be self-conscious about that closeness. That was key.

Andi: In addition, Papu worked a lot with them ahead of the shoot. Not just in terms of rehearsal but he would just spend time with them. Going to the river, playing ball. They got to know the actors who were playing Matías and Jerónimo as adults. To get them comfortable around one another.

On Avoiding Gay Stereotypes

Papu: We found both our leading actors through casting calls. Ignacio was an easy get; Matías was an easier character to cast. Esteban, though, had originally auditioned for Matías but he ended up as Jerónimo. That was a trickier character to find. We didn’t want him to fall into the stereotype of a “gay guy.” It’s something that can happen quite easily in LGBT films. I think sexuality is a key part of one’s identity but it need not isolate nor define you. When we were building this world and this character, we talked a lot about how we wanted Jerónimo to move outside of that.

On Looking to Other Movies for Inspiration

Papu: One film that I love and that I just find beautiful is Tomboy. It’s a movie that really nails childhood sexuality with a simplicity that’s just amazing. There’s Gus Van Sant, of course. And then, another film that portrays male sensuality really well is Weekend by Andrew Haigh. I love it and I kept it as a reference in terms of handling the same-sex intimacy in our film. The other film we talked a lot about was Summer Storm for the way it depicts space and the environment around its characters. We also looked at a couple of other non-LGBT films that helped us with that, in terms of capturing nature (we obviously love Malick as he has a great way of doing that).

Andi: We also thought especially about some Argentinean films like The Last Summer of La Boyita for that as well.

On the Importance of the Film’s Rural Setting

Andi: For me the script was really about that. There were two strands here: there’s the love story between two boys but it’s key that it happens in this specific context. But when it comes to Argentinean films, I think it’s also crucial to move away from the urban world, exploring different areas outside of the city. And in that the landscape was very important—it’s almost a part of the characters. It’s a place that Matías longs for. It’s a kind of lost paradise for him. And then these vistas are also breathtaking. The setting may seem rather plain but it’s so vibrant and alive, and it’s something I think the film conveys really well.

Papu: The other thing, of course, is that coming out of the closet is slightly easier in a big city where you can just lose yourself. It’s not the same in a small town. And that’s also the story in the way we see the passing of time in the film, where those prejudices seem to have been washed away a bit, making way for a more accepting society.

Andi: In that sense the marriage equality law has also helped.

On The Pair’s Upcoming Project

Papu: We are currently in Madrid because we won a fellowship, a contest actually, called the “Concurso de Desarrollo de Proyectos Cinematográficos Iberoamericanos” (a long name, right?). It’s an Ibermedia program co-sponsored by the Fundación Carolina. It’s the same thing we won when we were developing Esteros. We were here 3 years ago writing up that film’s screenplay so now we’re working on a new project called Leonciña. We’re hoping it’ll be a co-production between Brazil and Argentina just like Esteros. And again, we didn’t want to write a coming out narrative, we wanted it to be about family.

Andi: Not just that but for it to be about second chances. The story follows Julia, who’s a Brazilian cook who lives in Argentina. She’s been with another woman, Barbie, for a few years now. Together they’ve raised Barbie’s son and they own a restaurant together. They’re at a crossroads in terms of their jobs and their relationship but they truly love one another. And then Barbie suffers a stroke and Julia has to decide whether she wants to keep up the life she’s made for herself with Barbie—you know, keeping up the restaurant, continue being a second mother to her son, and all that. We’re very happy to be working here. The script is a bit of a challenge because we don’t want to write a dour, grief-stricken drama. We want to write a film about love and life. We’re very excited.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.