Paraíso may be director Mariana Chenillo’s sophomore feature, but she’s no underclassman in the world of Mexican cinema. After graduating from the country’s prestigious film school, the CCC, Chenillo went on to direct Cinco días sin Nora (Nora’s Will): an artistically-minded comedy with romantic overtones that picked up prizes at film festivals in Miami, Moscow, and Biarritz before solidifying her place in history when she became the first female director to win an Ariel Award (something like a Mexican Oscar) for Best Picture back in 2010.
After trying her hand at television directing, Chenillo finally returned to the big screen last year when Paraíso premiered in Mexican theaters, and audiences thanked her with impressive box office numbers despite summer competition from Transformers and Return of the Planet of the Apes. Following the emotional trials of an overweight couple who move from the comfortable suburbs to the dense core of Mexico City, Paraíso is noteworthy for its warmth and intimacy, and also for giving a dignified portrayal to female body types almost never seen in Latin American media.
Now, on the cusp of Paraíso‘s L.A. premiere, we talked to Chenillo about the pressure to look good, finding love in the little things, and keeping her sense of humor.
I know Paraíso is based on a short story. What exactly did you connect with in that story on a personal level. What made you think it would be a good film?
“I found it very refreshing to have a female character that doesn’t fall in the beauty archetypes…”
Chenillo: Well, I was actually hired to write and then later on to direct the film. The producer of the film, Pablo Cruz, he had already selected this short story among many short stories that the production company had read for a television project that never came through. So, he had this short story, that happened in the neighborhood, in the context where he grew up, so he was very fond of it. And he shared this short story with me. The premise is the same, but the main difference between the short story and the film is that in the short story the main character is the husband. So it’s very different because it’s very short and everything is told from his perspective.
I saw it was a world within another world. The world is not quite the same in the short story than in the film because I had to do lots of things to make it work for this film, but it was like there was a little world in there that was very interesting. At the beginning I didn’t realize that it was going to be very difficult to tell the story from his perspective because I think that I was also connecting more with her character than with his character, so when writing got more serious and we knew that we wanted to make this film, that I was going to be director, then I decided to switch to her perspective because I found it was more interesting, and because I also think that there’s a lack of feminine roles in the film industry.
All of the markets, like in the mainstream big film market, but also in other types of films, I think that women like this, they don’t have the leading role, and if they do it’s because of other qualities, not the qualities that my character has. So, I found it very refreshing to have a female character that doesn’t fall in the beauty archetypes, prototypes, however you want to call them, at all.
How did the original story transform in the process of both writing for the screen and working with the actors?
“When you’re a woman and you appear in front of a camera… the first thing that was expected, is you are looking okay, or your hair was okay, or your dress was okay.”
Chenillo: I think that it passed through many phases. The very first phase we thought that it would work very similar to how it was originally conceived. So we just followed… I mean, there wasn’t much of a story. The short story is more like a context. So in the very first draft the characters remained what they are in the short story. And then it sort of wasn’t working on many levels — not for me, not for the producer — and the characters weren’t very appealing. There was something that made it difficult for you to like his character specifically.
So then it started to get more personal, and I got much more involved with the character than I was before she was the leading character. And, when I was writing, I was also in the middle of the promotion of my first film. And I always — in different ways, and sometimes it was very subtle and sometimes it wasn’t — but I always get this feeling that when you’re a woman and you appear anywhere in the media or you have to go through a TV thing to present your film, or do whatever promotion you have to do and appear in front of a camera, the first thing that was expected is you are looking okay, or your hair was okay, or your clothing, or your dress was okay.
And I felt, I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about it. But then it’s so different for women than for men, that I started noticing that there was this thing, like this weight put on to women to keep up their appearance. I felt it was good to be able to talk about that in the film, because I think it affects everyone, the whole society.
I found that the chemistry between the two leads is absolutely phenomenal. The performances separately are great, but together you really feel a connection between the two. What was the process like of finding these actors? How did you create such intimacy between them?
“For the character of Carmen we saw like 800 girls.”
Chenillo: Well, for the casting process we knew that he didn’t have to lose any weight. All of it was via effects. It was makeup plus postproduction visual effects. Most of it was made during the shoot in this mask. So we had to find him very early in the process of making the film because we needed a few months so that his face and body could be casted. There were these different stages of latex masks that were applied to him two hours every morning. So we had to find him, so we hurried and found him first.
And then for the character of Carmen we saw like 800 girls because we knew that we wouldn’t find her amongst the first five, so we opened like a casting for actresses and non-actresses. She is an actress. She did go to acting school, but we saw many great girls that were not professionally formed actresses. And we had him during the whole process of finding her, so that when they danced together, it was very obvious that they had a very good chemistry. So that’s how we chose them.
“There were these different stages of latex masks that were applied to him two hours every morning.”
And I think that part of the intimacy is more in the screenplay, because when I was writing I was really trying to portray and design love. I was asking myself all the time, “Where is the love here?” Not during the big moments where you just get married or get engaged or whatever, not then. The rest of the dates, like the regular things, the small. And I took lots of little details from my own long personal relationship, because I was really desperately looking for the little things.
It was difficult to make them up because you know when they’re true and when they’re not. So I was very observational with my own life for a period as I was trying to pick up those little details where you show your partner that you love her. So, part of it comes from real life and part of it comes from what the actors did together.
That really came through. How did the film go over when it premiered in Mexico? Did you receive any unexpected reactions to the film?
Chenillo: Well, we weren’t sure it would actually work in the box office. So even though we didn’t have that many copies — we had about 200, which is a pretty good medium size opening, but there was not a lot of — I don’t know how it’s called — like the publicity that you see outdoors, like buses and big, you know, in the sidewalks.
Chenillo: Yeah, billboards. We did try to cover the more media and the more TV things that we could. The distributor did a very good job doing that, but then it was up to the people because the film was like not felt in the streets. It was very nice that, even though it was in the middle of the World Cup and Transformers — it was a Transformers weekend — and then the next weekend there was like the Planet of the Apes, it was like a crazy summer to open, and we sold almost 600,000 tickets. So, I think it was not on the top 10 of last year, but it should’ve been like 11 or 12. You would see the number in the 10s.
That was very nice because it was people… You saw the posters and it sort of looked like a conventional dramedy, but then there’s something different about the characters. It was nice to know that it could connect to real people, the people that go on and buy the tickets in the cinema and they know nothing about cinema. It was nice that they were the ones that recommended it and made it work in the box office. I think that was a very nice surprise.
There’s obviously been a boom of Mexican cinema over the last few years with a very diverse output from the commercially oriented, to the more artistically-oriented. I’m curious who are some current Mexican filmmakers whose work you admire?
Chenillo: Many, actually we all know each other and we are sort of close to each other. I mean, just to mention the ones that come to my mind, I really admire and like Amat Escalante’s work. And there’s lots of women directors, Lucía Gajá, Natalia Beristain. And there’s also from the previous generations from us, like directors doing films that are very different from what they were doing when they started.
So I think it’s not only like the new generation. I think it’s everyone. There’s more production, there’s more audience, more people willing to pay to see different types of films, and I think that’s a nice energy that is flowing among the whole community.
Cinco Días sin Nora did very well when it came out in 2009. How has the playing field changed for filmmakers in Mexico in the five years that passed between the first film Cinco Dias sin Nora and Paraíso?
“We don’t get paid to think of the next film. It’s like starting all over again every time.”
Chenillo: I think it’s always difficult, because there’s more films being produced, there’s more money, but also there’s more people that want the money. So I think that there’s always like a 3:1 chance. You have to get into three different funds or three times in the same fund to get the money. It’s like we all have to wait because there’s many good projects trying to get in. But they’re all state funds so we all have to compete in the same funds.
I think that the more people compete, the more experienced crew and the easier it is to get all the paperwork. Because at the beginning with this tax fund it was very difficult to get the paperwork done because it hasn’t been really applied so many times, so there were doubts. So that was difficult when I got the money for Cinco días sin Nora. It was like we had it, but then we didn’t know if it was really going to happen.
And for Paraiso it was, I think that came through easier and I was working with Canana, which is a big production company, but we also had to wait. So I think that’s sort of the same. I think that the exhibiting part we are still complaining because it’s still unsold. It’s very difficult to get to the screens; not all the films get to the screens. And it’s difficult to stay there and… I think that’s worldwide. I don’t think that’s a problem that happens only here. The authors around the world in many platforms, not only cinema, it’s like we do a lot of work and we devote our whole time to produce those works and then when they get to be sold or exposed to the audience, it’s difficult to be in a good place in that chain. So I think that’s something that it’s still there and it’s something to be solved worldwide.
“I’m happy to be part of this moment in the Mexican film world.”
But I think that there’s a very nice energy now, as I was saying before, it’s like when you know about like friends or other directors’ projects, it’s like there’s this feeling of, “That’s going to be a very nice film.” You get this feeling all the time. I think that perhaps a decade ago, we didn’t really get to enjoy all the Mexican cinema that was produced. Perhaps we didn’t get to see it and it wasn’t as exposed as it is now. But now there’s a very nice feeling, there’s lot of emerging directors doing their first film and you wouldn’t read this film, but you just listen to the title and you say, “This sounds very good.”
And I think that has to do with all the work that we’re doing, investing everyday, because, I mean, we don’t get paid to think for the next film. It’s like starting all over again every time, but it’s very exciting to know that there are so many good films being produced. I’m happy to be part of this moment in the Mexican film world.
How do you think Paraíso will resonate with American audiences when it premieres on the 13th? What, for you, is universal about this film?
Chenillo: I think that relationships are pretty universal. I think that loving and being afraid to love and to let go and to change. I think that Carmen’s character is a woman who would rather stay where she is and she thinks that her life is good enough, but there’s lots of things that she has to solve. And I think that we are all exposed to changes all the time. We change. Sometimes we don’t change, but the whole circumstances around us change. So I think that doesn’t happen in Mexico, it happens to every human being.
Do you have any plans to make a film in the States at some point? Have you received any interest from Hollywood?
“It’s not something that I do like a rule, but… How can I find the absurd and the humor and irony when it doesn’t seem to be funny?”
Chenillo: No, but I’m interested in whatever comes next. I mean, I think that I would really like somewhere along, to make a film in English, which gives it another platform in terms of distribution and possibilities.
But I don’t think I’m looking for it. Again, I’m very, very happy writing something that’s very personal that I sort of had left behind, because I was hired to do Paraíso and it took so many years, so I’m back to that very personal thing. And I’m just so very excited to understand how much I learned by being hired and working as a hired director for so many years, because with Canana I also worked hired in other projects. I think that women sort of we get hired less, so it’s a wonderful opportunity. I’m really just very happy thinking about what’s next and how many years I have been wanting to finish this screenplay, so I’m working hard to finish it.
Do you have any ideas for a next film that you would be willing to share? What kind of stories are you interested in telling?
Chenillo: I’m interested in some pretty uneasy subjects. Like what I’m working on right now it has to do with being vulnerable and being able to live your life the way you want to and what happens when some outside circumstance challenges the possibility of doing your life like you want to.
I think that in this subject or any other subject I’m really interested in humor, in how it’s like any given subject or any scene that feels like… Like, it’s not like the subject itself looks like comedy at all, because I always travel for a long time—not that I want melodrama, but it’s like the subjects I like would easily go to a more melodramatic place. So I spend a long time looking for like, “What’s absurd about this? What makes it funny? How can I detach from it and make a little fun of myself and try to find humor?”
It’s not something that I do like a rule, but in this project I’m working on, I’m again looking for, “How is it funny? How can I find the absurd and the humor and irony when it doesn’t seem to be funny?” So I’m looking for that again.