An honest portrayal of the ever-evolving and deeply personal coming out process is at the core of all four stories encapsulated in Sergio Tovar Velarde’s feature film Cuatro Lunas (Four Moons). The four narratives take place at very different but equally poignant times of a developing queer lifespan: an eleven year old boy experiments sexually with a male cousin, two college friends begin a clandestine relationship, a middle-aged couple weighs routine against new desires, and a sixty-something married man seeks the sexual favors of an Adonis-like prostitute who is way out of his price range.
Velarde’s honest and straightforward approach to the material makes the film highly relatable. There are many scenes bound to resonate with queer audiences such as the collegiate couple figuring out how to have anal sex for the first time and watching a more seasoned couple work hard to maintain unity in spite of individual changes. Larger themes of love and tolerance are sure to resonate with all audiences. Despite the film’s dealing with such big emotional issues there still are moments of humor and eroticism. In other words, it’s a great date movie (if you get my drift.)
Ultimately, the film’s message is one of self-acceptance, that which comes from within and that which we need to reassert throughout our lives as needed. Velarde’s abilities as a storyteller shine through in tackling these four accounts with a variety of well-defined characters and unique circumstances. They are interwoven throughout the film, a choice that could have easily produced to a clunky pastiche but instead feels more like a four-strand braid. The stories weave effortlessly, the glue that holds them together being related less to plot and more to character and “feel” as we are taken from one section to the next.
We got the chance to talk with Velarde about his process both as a filmmaker and, more intimately, his evolution as a gay man in Mexico.
You knew from an early age that you wanted to make films. Who did you aspire to be? Is there a film or filmmaker that cemented that goal for you?
No, I started making films way before I knew I wanted to do that for a living. I remember I wanted to tell stories, but wasn’t really aware of what it meant to be a filmmaker. I wrote my first script when I was 9, a vampire comedy that was pretty much only a depiction of actions and dialogue, but I didn’t know that it was, in a way, a screenplay. I didn’t shoot that one. The first one I actually shot was a short film based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens when I was twelve. I was the lead actor, director, and pretty much any other available role in the production.
“I wrote my first script when I was 9, a vampire comedy. I didn’t shoot that one.”
I directed as a consequence of my need to create stories, and even after doing it, it took me long time to realize that what I was doing was actually filmmaking. I eventually decided not to keep appearing as an actor and focus instead on writing and directing. That’s why my first influences were not directors. I became a director because I needed to keep telling stories not the other way around. Later on, once I had it clear that I wanted to dedicate my life to filmmaking, I started to look at cinema with brand new eyes, and discovered some great directors, and became specially impressed by Kubrick, Almodóvar and Lynch. Maybe those are the three I admire the most, however, the films I make don’t attempt to imitate their styles. I don’t even believe I have a style of my own. Probably not, at least not yet, maybe in some years.
Can you describe the moment the idea for Cuatro Lunas popped into your head? What were you doing? What were you eating? Who were you with? How did the light bulb go off?
I clearly remember that I already had two of the ideas in my head with the intention of producing them as a couple of short films or maybe of integrating them into a bigger plot. However, I was at the UNAM Gay Film Festival one day, and, while watching a documentary about gay people looking for sex in dark and underground places, the third story came to my mind, right there, at the cinema. When I came out, I had my head full of ideas and I started working on the screenplay that very night.
What were some of the challenges that you faced while writing the screenplay? Was there one particular story that was more difficult to develop than the others?
The story I struggled the most with was the segment New Moon, with the boy, because that is the only story that shows some connection between a character and religion. I wanted to show how big of a deal it is for a child to carry the heaviness of that which he considers to be a sin. I also wanted to show the father as a tough guy. The original draft had a way more tragic ending for that story, but then I decided that it was unfair to approach the story like that and looked for a more logical ending, which showed the characters’ weakest moments and the love of the parents toward their son as the strength to accept and understand. I wrote the stories individually, and afterwards I mixed them all together. That was another huge challenge! Combinations were pretty much endless and each way to mix them up could deliver a different feel. That struggle kept on going until the last stages of editing because we wanted to have, amongst the infinite possibilities, the one we could consider the best for telling all these stories, giving each of them the proper treatment.
The film is full of great performances, all of them very varied. Did you have specific actors in mind while you were writing? What was the casting process like?
“I don’t need to be looked up to as the director, the authority, the creative master who pulls the strings or anything like that.”
Thanks for considering them great performances! And it’s true, the film has actors with way different backgrounds. Some of them have an impressive career on TV, or on stage, or as commercials models. We even have some of the biggest names in Mexican cinema. The challenge was to make them all feel a part of one same film, despite of each other’s style and technique. Sounds easier than it was. The casting director Carlos Cambiazzo, the producer Edgar Barrón and I, had lots of meetings in which we discussed several names as the ideal actors for each role. Some of them were actors I had admired for a long time, like Mónica Dionne, Juan Manuel Bernal or Karina Gidi. Others were an impressive find, actors whose careers I wasn’t too aware of and turned out to be absolutely stunning such as Alejandro de la Madrid, Antonio Velázquez or Gabriel Santoyo. And, of course, there were some others I had in mind from the very beginning, like Alonso Echánove, one of Mexico’s greatest film actors ever. There were some characters we called a casting for but I believe most of them were directly contacted due to the admiration I had towards them.
During production, while you’re on set, what is your best quality as a director? Is there any area where feel you have room to grow?
Yes, all of them! There’s a lot, a huge amount of things I’ve left to learn and get better at. However, if I had to decide which is my best quality as a director, I could probably say that I’ve chosen a way more “human” approach to the actors. I’ve decided that I don’t need to be looked up to as the director, the authority, the creative master who pulls the strings or anything like that. I’ve found that it works way better for me to talk to actors and all my crew as what we are: equals, creating a relaxed and friendly environment for all of us. I also tend to believe I have a good ear, which allows me to feel whether the acting tone of an actor is in the right place or not, and the eloquence to ask for corrections. On the other hand, I think I could improve a lot in my concentration skills. I’m distracted all the time and it takes me a lot to focus. Other than that, I’m just a regular director, as honest as it can get.
Because there are so many gay characters, of all different ages, the film makes Mexico City seem like a gay metropolis. How has life for gay men changed in Mexico recently? Have gay films had an effect on the Mexican film industry?
Yes, Mexico City is definitely a gay metropolis. It is a city that allows gay marriage and adoption. It has evolved very fast into a world class city. However, it doesn’t define the whole country at all. Mexico has still a lot to learn. There are some free-minded places, which have managed to obtain certain visibility, however, most of the country still lives under fear, homophobia, lack of tolerance, and the will to deal with changes. I do believe media and globalization have played a major role in changing and breaking down walls, but not cinema specifically since I feel there hasn’t been a film with real impact depicting gay life in Mexico. There have been some failed attempts in the mainstream circuit, and also some impressive films that have earned very important awards, but so far it has been lacking a film reaching a wider audience, a film that gay people can relate to. I’m not saying Cuatro Lunas will be that, I’m just hoping it does.
“Mexico City is definitely a gay metropolis. It is a city that allows gay marriage and adoption. However, it doesn’t define the whole country…”
What has the response from the public been like? Has your family seen it?
Audience response has been absolutely overwhelming! Every festival it has screened at the public seems to fully connect with the film — they laugh, they cry, they take the time to contact us and tell us that it has been a long time since they watched a film they felt so identified with and all that. For me it is absolutely amazing. Some of them recommend it to their friends and they practically drag their families to watch it for whatever reason. My family was a bit afraid, unable to guess what the film was going to be like especially my mom, who always gets nervous when there are men in full frontal naked scenes. With this film she had lots of reasons to be worried! But after my family watched it, they said they liked it a lot and that they were now able to understand my life and my world in a better way. My dad said they were proud of me, and it meant a lot because I know he meant it in more than one way.
Shame and self-loathing are big themes across all the stories in Cuatro Lunas. What has your own path toward self-acceptance been like?
I had the regular process. I must admit it wasn’t extremely difficult for me, but not that easy either. Like most of the stories, I guess. I’ve been through all the regular, almost clichéd stages of gay self-acceptance: the religious rigid formation at an early age; the confused and shy sex attempts during puberty; the bisexual era as a rebellious teenager, which I believe most gay people go through, thinking it might be less bad to be just half-gay than the whole thing. I’ve been through the gay rights struggle and the activism and the married stage (for four years). I can say I’ve not skipped any of the steps. I guess right now I’m in the “So-gay-that-I-even-make-a-gay-film-to-say-what-it-has-been-like” stage.
Cuatro Lunas opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on November 21.