Monday, April 16, 2012

INTERVIEW: JUAN OF THE DEAD'S Alejandro Brugues and Jazz Vila!!!

Calling writer/director Alejandro Brugués’ crowd-pleasing zom-com a Latino Shaun of the Dead is both a spot-on assessment yet a dangerously reductive one. In the same way that Edgar Wright’s capturing of the London suburban slacker culture proved to be Shaun’s secret weapon, so too does Brugués immerse the viewer within the pulsing poverty stricken Havana streets, lending the film an unexpected authenticity. What could have been a cheap, derivatively titled zombie flick turns out instead to be a genuinely rewarding and thought-provoking piece of apolitical entertainment that packs an emotional wallop and side-splitting splatter. Juan of the Dead is a worthy addition to the walking dead canon, and popular Cuban actor Alexis Díaz de Villegas delivers the kind of star-making role that should have Hollywood taking notice (a la Simon Pegg).

Below, Brugués and actor Jazz Vila (who plays La China, the feisty transvestite amidst Juan’s ragtag band of survivors) were kind enough to share thoughts about their film and its place amongst the cinematic undead hordes.


AC: What was your final budget?

Alejandro Brugués (writer/director): About 2.5 million Euros ($3.5 million). I don’t think there was ever something like a “green light” – since we started as a co-production with Spain, we always assumed it was going to get made. Well, at least I did!

Jazz Vila (China): When I first read the script, you could just tell, “Wow, this is something special.” It’s not heavy; it’s a comedy about the Cuban society, but it’s not about the political situation, where everything is blamed on the U.S. government and the zombies represent America or something.

AC: Was there ever a point where you thought of doing a straight horror film?

AB: It was always a horror/comedy. It all started as a joke, and after that it was just a matter of seeing the Cuban reality through a zombie film with lots of dark humor.

JV: The Cuban people have two solutions to their situation: Leave or fight. The point of the film, as represented by the character Juan, is “You can go, but I prefer to fight here, for my ideas, for my country. I will fight and maybe other people will join me and maybe something will happen.” That sounds kind of deep, but we had a great time shooting the film and the people watching now are hopefully having a great time as well.

AC: Alejandro, is it true the character of Juan is based on your brother?

AB: Absolutely true. In fact, my brother’s name is Juan. A lot of things that Juan does in the film, my brother did in the ’90s. He’s the one fishing on the raft, he’s the one jumping to the neighbor’s balcony and then climbing up, he hid money on his kid when dollars were illegal. Every insane scene you might be thinking of, that was probably him.

JV: Juan is from the older generation when the Soviets gave more financial support to Cuba; the Cuban people lived more affluently then, they didn’t have any problems with transportation, etc. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba collapsed as well.

AB: They saw their world crumble around them. Which, in a way, is what happens to Juan in the film.

JV: Whereas my character is from the newer generation; they don’t have any connection, they don’t have any honor. They only focus on themselves, their only objective is to survive. Not the community, just themselves.

AC: You’ve put together such a funny, real ensemble of actors. What was the casting process like?

AB: I wrote the film for Alexis Diaz de Villegas (Juan) and Jorge Molina (Lázaro). I knew it had to be them.

JV: Alex is very popular in Cuba, but nobody else knows about him! The problem with being a Cuban actor is that Cuban movies don’t often show outside of the country, but in Cuba, he’s famous, a master, a very strong, amazing actor. This character is a gift, because it really represents his generation. He loves his country, he lives in Cuba, he chooses to stay… He would often say how much he identified with the character.

AB: I also wrote La China for Jazz, because we had worked together in my first film and I just love him.

JV: We agreed early on not to play him superficial, “Oh, it’s a transvestite, gay, okay, got it.” I didn’t just put on the dress, do my hair, change my voice... Doesn’t matter if he’s homosexual or if his exterior is feminine, China is strong and brave and he will survive. These characters exist, they are part of the Cuban society, and it’s important to show them as real people, not just for comic relief.

AB: Then the other actors just “appeared.” I found Andros Perugorria (Vladi California) while casting another film. Eliecer Ramirez (El Primo) is a bodybuilder. I just saw him on the street, stopped the car and told my producer to talk to him. It took months to convince his wife he was really rehearsing for a film and not cheating on her!

AC: Where did you get your makeup artists?

AB: The head makeup artist, Cristian Perez Jauregui, was Mexican, as was most of his crew, because they had more experience doing this kind of film. But we also had a Cuban team working alongside them, who could do wonders with nothing.

AC: Social and political commentary are certainly a part of Juan, but they never overwhelm the story, much like Romero's early zombie films. There’s a real sense of nobility within the poverty.

AB: That was a conscious decision. It was a balancing act, and I didn’t know if I had done it right until I saw it for the first time. Very stressful. Never tried that.

JV: The monster is only the device to tell the story about how the people respond. The special effects are not what it’s about; it’s about the people, the ideas. The movie also has a very important thing: the Cuban spirit and the feeling of Cuba right now, the new generation. All the cast and crew say the same thing, “We are fighting to make a very good film with a very important message for the new generation.” Not just for Cuba, but for the world.

AC: It’s funny that this film, because of the political disconnect, will be many Americans’ first view of Cuba.

JV: (laughs) With zombies!

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