Director Hernán Jiménez on His Sweet & Sour RomCom and the Rise of Costa Rican Filmmaking

Hernán Jiménez’s Entonces nosotros (About Us) is what you could describe as an inverted romantic comedy. While it features a bickering couple at its center, the plot doesn’t move toward a happily ever after, but toward a seemingly unavoidable breakup. From the film’s first scene, it’s clear that Diego (played by Costa Rican writer/director Jiménez) and Sofia (Argentine actress Noelia Castaño) are not quite the couple they used to be. After their therapist asks them to say one positive thing their partner has done for them, passive aggressive jabs and hurt feelings get in the way of any constructive conversation.

Diego’s suggestion of a beach getaway seems almost too perfect a solution to escape their romantic rut. But before they get a chance to rekindle their relationship, a chance encounter with one of Sofi’s old friends (played by Marina Glezer) puts into relief just how far apart the two have drifted.

Despite the sour subject matter, Jiménez avoids making a downer by sprinkling just enough hilarious set-pieces (including an out of control banger of a party hosted by American bros on holiday that features a mechanical bull) to keep the film on the lighter side. No surprise there, considering Jiménez, who studied in Canada and New York, is an accomplished stand-up comedian in his native Costa Rica and credits Alexander Payne and Woody Allen among his inspirations.

Remezcla hopped on the phone to chat with Jiménez about Entonces nosotros, which is a box office success and the fifth Costa Rican film to ever be submitted to the Oscars in the Foreign Language category. He shared with us how humbling it feels to shuttle between the U.S. and Costa Rica, how Natalia LaFourcade’s “Lo que construímos” was always intended to close out the movie, and why he’s tempted to explore what American television has to offer. Check out some highlights below.

On What Growing Up Abroad Means For His Filmmaking

Well, I still split my time between here and the US. And I think it hasn’t just informed [my work], it’s been a determining factor in everything I do. Both in my stand-up, and my filmmaking, and my writing. There’s the obvious elements – that being far away for so long gives you a totally different perspective on my own country, my own family, my own old streets and friends and people. My relationship with Costa Rica has always been complicated, very colored by all the times that I’ve spent abroad, [but] despite the amount of time that I’ve spent in North America, I’ve always maintained a strong relationship and close ties with this country and with my family. Most of my work has happened here. I would also say that a really important element has been putting my own career into perspective every time I leave. I have managed to build an audience here and it’s a very loyal audience. People are very grateful for my work and all the theatrical releases have been really successful. And it’s such a small country that it can be a very dangerous and easy trap to fall into to suddenly start believing that your work is at a certain level of accomplishment. I think it’s always very healthy and sobering to get off a plane in L.A. and be a nobody once again.

On Costa Rica’s ‘Booming’ Film Industry

I think there’s factual evidence to support that feeling that it’s growing. It’s definitely grown. Costa Ricans as an audience are much more attuned to local work. They don’t discredit it as easily and as quickly as they used to. That has also served as a real engine of motivation for filmmakers in trusting audiences and trusting the market—to actually jump in and do more. There’s some actual institutional support that has become a lot more palpable in the last few years. I don’t know if “booming” is too strong a word but there’s a sense of more going on. The work doesn’t feel as isolated as it used to. Another result from that is that we’re starting to see a lot more variety in what Costa Rican film looks like. That’s also healthy. There used to be a very monotonous range of what Costa Rican film used to be. The industry, if you can call it that, is producing all kinds of different work. The festival was a good testament to that.

On Living In That ‘Ni De Aquí, Ni De Allá’ Space

I have always found my work in film inhabiting this complicated and very ambiguous territory that isn’t unlike my own life. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic with that statement, but I guess what I’m saying is that, to go back to your very first question, I am not very deeply rooted in Costa Rica. I am also not very deeply rooted in North America. I inhabit this middle ground that has defined my life, and has defined the way I write and the kinds of stories that I want to tell. I think Entonces nosotros is the most honest approximation of that ambiguous no-man’s land that I inhabit, which is all these influences from what American traditional storytelling might push you towards and at the same time, the story takes place in a Costa Rican context and speaks to a lot of real elements of my own life. The origin of the story is very much intricately related to all of these things that we’ve already talked about. It’s a story that I wrote while in the States, while going to film school in New York. And it’s an attempt at understanding traditional three-act structure and romantic comedies as a genre. And then I tried to take all of that and bring it into my own experience and a Costa Rican context, even though two of the actors were Argentinean. But I basically wanted to tell a love story. That was my best attempt at trying to do that. I wanted to tell the story of a breakup because I needed to. It doesn’t really go much further than that.

On How His Cinematic Inspirations Blend Comedy And Drama

Any filmmaker who deals with family and relationships combines comedy and drama within the same sort of brushstroke. I’m endlessly attracted to that. The closest [artists] I see making movies like that would be Alexander Payne on the North American side and Mike Leigh on the other side of the Atlantic. I guess Woody Allen to a certain extent, but not as intensely as Payne’s work has really tapped into the kind of sensibility that I would love to learn and hone and bring into my own movies. From my own artistic experience it’s mostly that kind of masterful combination of comedy and drama that you never quite know whether you should be laughing or should be crying. Those are the kind of elements that I’m most inspired by and would love to bring into my own work.

It’s not coincidental that our composer, Mark Orton, works out of Portland and did the soundtrack for Nebraska, which was Alexander Payne’s last movie. Most of our temp score was from [Payne’s] old music in other movies. When Mark listened to it he recognized that sensibility. We even temped with some of Nebraska’s music. I think his contribution was absolutely essential, not only because of his endless talent, but because he kind of understood that. We worked really hard to walk that fine line between we’re laughing at this guy but we’re telling a really sad story, which is deeply troubling for him. His attempt at bridging that gap between the comedy and the drama was absolutely essential to the movie. The music choices that we made in terms of, especially that last song, which I was married to from the very beginning, was also a final attempt at bringing that bit of that nostalgia into a story that you’re not quite sure how to feel. That was really important for me, to maintain that ambiguousness towards the end. It’s a very sad song but it doesn’t go quite let you go there.

On What The Future Holds

I am quite infatuated with, as I’m sure most filmmakers are, the current landscape of TV in North America. It’s just so rich for anybody who dreams of writing and developing characters, which is at the core of what I want to do with my career. There’s definitely that [in the future], though there aren’t any concrete projects. Right now there’s another film in English which is something that I wrote that I’d been developing with my producing partner Chris Cole. We are on the verge of packaging that movie and hoping to make it in the next year. It would be a project that would be shooting in the US in English with an American cast. So that should be an interesting sort of step forward and one that I’m really excited about. Mostly because of the caliber of acting talent that the US offers. I’m an actor myself and so the experience of having worked with Noelia Castaño and Marina Glezer, just such high caliber talent coming from Argentina, really opened my appetite to exploring that. It’s a story that taps into all these things that we’ve talked about and I’m really looking forward to that.