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Interview with Sergio Castilla

benson lee

SERGIO M. CASTILLA's films have introduced many unknown actors, including John Leguizamo (Gentille Alouette), Meredith Scott Lynn and James Thierre Chaplin (The Girl in the Watermelon), Sebastian Perez and Mateo Iribarren (Gringuito), and Adrian Castilla (Te Amo, Made in Chile). His work has been seen at many major festivals including New Directors/New Films at MoMA, the New York Film Festival, San Sebastian and Sundance. Castilla taught film directing at Columbia University's Graduate Program ('91-'94) and NYU ('95). His film, Take the Bridge, is about four young kids who, without knowing each other, try to commit suicide on the same day at the same time in Washington Heights. They all end up in the hospital where they meet and start a life together. This fresh, original take on city life pays tribute to the vitality and energy of the Dominican community in Washington Heights.

Tribeca Film Festival: Why this film? How did you come up with the idea?

Sergio Castilla: I chose to make this story because my father committed suicide when I was two and a half. But it’s not about my father’s suicide; it’s not an autobiographical movie. [That was] the trigger that started the whole thing. The official story of my father’s death was that he had died of a heart attack. And then at around 17,18 I found out how he had really died. And I didn’t know how to deal with it, and it became for me a big secret that not even my best friends knew.

For two years I was sort of paralyzed with a lot of very violent things, and I was…it was a very, very hard two teenage years. A lot of drinking, a lot of doing crazy things, and in a way I think I wanted to die. But the death streak was not as powerful, so I was trying to get close but not really.

So after two years it ended. And in a way I wanted to revisit that time. And I thought I had wanted to do a Latino movie, so I thought ‘why don’t I do it in Washington heights?’ Which is a very powerful neighborhood. And I set it there.

Tribeca Film Festival: How did you avoid the darkness in the movie?

Castilla: I decided that I wanted to make a serious comedy. For me, comedies, to be really good and not you know, high school comedies, have to be about very serious subject. It’s tragedy with a distance.

Tribeca Film Festival: Tell me about the use of the narrator in this film.

Castilla: I wanted to try a different thing. I wanted to bring in the culture of a neighborhood in a stronger way than if I added it to a character. So I decided to have a narrator, a voiceover at first, and then, as I wrote I said ‘no, the voiceover has to be a person.’ And this person has to come from the neighborhood.

And there’s a tradition; if you go to little towns in Spain, you see all these older women sitting in front of their homes dressed in black generally, looking at everything that happens. And then they tell stories and they comment and they judge, and, depending on who they are, they’re going to judge horribly, or they’ll be more sympathetic, or they’re going to forgive, etc.

And this tradition takes place in Chile, in Argentina, the Caribbean, everywhere. There’s always people sitting somewhere, watching and telling the stories. And in the neighborhood in Washington Heights, there’s the same thing. And they’re called bochincheras. And these bochincheras sit in front of the buildings, and you can see them in the summer, with their plastic chairs, their drinks, their chips and everything. And they’re watching. They’re looking this and that. And they know exactly what’s going on: who’s going out with who, or who’s betraying who, and who did this, and who did what, and that kid is not the son of who he thinks. They know hidden stories.

Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not true, sometimes it’s fantasies. But that’s the thing. So I thought that a woman like that should tell the story, except that she was going to be young, she was going to be from the hood, and of course she had been through all the stuff that the characters go through. And she was going to be the narrator.

I wanted this woman to be there, and she’s absolutely charming, and she is real, and she also speaks Spanglish which is a very important language in this thing.

Tribeca Film Festival: Did you spend a lot of time in Washington heights before making this movie?

Castilla: I had to know Washington Heights upside down, because that’s what you do. When you shoot a movie, you occupy a territory. It’s a peaceful occupation. I spent many months there. And what is interesting about Washington heights is it’s a mix. It’s a mix of Anglo and Latino culture.

And then, architecturally, it is magnificent. You have these buildings from 1900, and you have the George Washington bridge, and you have this huge bus terminal from 175th street, and huge apartment buildings. So it’s a combination of this monumental architecture, mangos, fruits, people, Spanish, English. There’s even a Starbucks there now!

Tribeca Film Festival: What’s your favorite part of the process, and why?

Castilla: When you do a low-budget movie, some of the pleasure of shooting a movie goes away. But there’s a scene where the characters can’t go over the bridge. And there’s traffic. We didn’t have cops—we had permits, we had insurance, but we didn’t have cops. And we were like 6 people in the crew and everybody was working. But I was the director, so I knew what was going on. So at the same time I said ‘action’, I was directing traffic, looking at the scene, stopping cars—just literally getting in the way of cars.

That’s fun. But takes a toll at the end of 12 hour days, sometimes 13 hour days, 14 hour days. The fact that you have very little money…you just need to wake up and ‘okay, let’s go.’

Tribeca Film Festival: What is your favorite moment in the film?

Castilla: Every achieved scene is a wonderful moment. Even those things where you need to shoot inanimate objects like blood on the floor. It—the blood—has to have a certain shape, and a certain light.

So every shot is like a little battle, like a little conquering thing. But the best shot is the last shot, when it’s over, and we’re done!

Tribeca Film Festival: How many different hats did you wear while making this film?

Castilla: I wore three hats, plus directing traffic. I produced. I put together the whole thing. I wrote it. I had help with the writing, but I basically wrote it myself. And I directed it.

Tribeca Film Festival: Did you make the film that you set out to make, or did it change?

Castilla: It changes. You never end up with the film that you wanted to make exactly. Otherwise, why make it? It’s a whole adventure, it’s a whole discovery. You write the thing, and you say ‘okay, this is a story,’ and then you write it, it changes. And then you shoot it, it changes again. And you cut it, and it changes again.

It’s constantly changing; it’s a permanent metamorphosis, so it’s amazing. And sometimes, when you stop making movies, you think it’s not like that. You want to impose a certain thing. And then very soon after, you discover it’s a metamorphosis; it’s like an animal that it’s always moving and changing.

Tribeca Film Festival: Were there any surprises?

Castilla: Maybe the epiphany of working with this narrator is going to open up a new thing for me. I’m working on a new screenplay and I’m working again with that idea. When you discover something about language in movies, it’s wonderful.

Tribeca Film Festival: How does it feel to have this film in the Tribeca Film Festival?

Castilla: I think the Tribeca Film Festival is very important, and I think it’s acquiring more and more importance. It’s a festival that is, I would say, in gestation; the 6th year is still young. So in a way it’s a sort of a festival looking for itself, and it’s wonderful to be a part of it.

Tribeca Film Festival: Tell me about when you heard you got into the festival.

Castilla: I got the call from the festival, and then you gotta run. You gotta run, you gotta have a trailer, you have to find a person who’s going to do a trailer, you have to have a poster, you have to finish up all the details that have not been finished with the movie. It’s a final push.

The best thing for me, it’s a very selfish thing about Tribeca, is that it’s 15 minutes away from my home. So it’s wonderful, it’s terrific to have a film New York when you live in New York.

Tribeca Film Festival: Why do you think that TAKE THE BRIDGE is an important film?

Castilla: The actor who plays the lead is my son. He is the grandson of the man (my father) who killed himself, and he plays the role where he saves other people. So in a way, that’s sort of a hidden thing, an internal thing. It was a job we did together. Maybe for this absence of a father that I had, I had to be a father for a little longer.

My son decided to be an actor. I had nothing to do with that. One day he said ‘I want to be an actor.’ I said ‘look, this is going to be tough.’ But he said he wanted to be an actor. So the fact that we worked together was also a little bit of something that we had to do. It’s not easy for a son to work for his father, not easy for a father work with his son. But in spite of the difficulties, I think we did a great job, and we were very happy we did this.

I think it’s important for me. People have to decide when they see it—they have to decide whether it’s important for them. It’s circumstantial for other people, but for me it’s really important.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is the film trying to say about suicide?

Castilla: You know…the movie’s more than about suicide, it’s about connection. I mean, I think the fact that these kids connect to each other and come up with a surrogate family—that’s what saves them. I think that’s what the movie’s saying. It’s about finding the connection in spite of a depression or in spite of dark view of life. This is not a recipe. I could never give a recipe because depression is…you can’t overcome depression with recipe. Giving a depressed person a recipe is going to depress them even more.

Tribeca Film Festival: Why did you want to make a Latin film?

Castilla: I am sensitive to that race. I come from Chile—a Latin country. My mother tongue is Spanish. Although I learned to read in English before I learned to read in Spanish.

And there’s a certain view of Latino people in New York, and the US, that is sort of narrow, schematic, ignorant. And in order to change that, you have to let them present themselves. I lived in Chile and after I lived here, people [would] ask me about Americans. ‘Sergio, tell us, how are they? They’re not human, right? They’re totally calculating, and materialistic?’ And these are educated people, very educated people. But they don’t want to know, they want me to confirm that Americans are totally materialistic, totally square people, that they don’t experience any pain or any anguish or anything like that.

I said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing. I was in group therapy in New York, and I can tell you they suffer like shit. And what they go through is huge!’ And they look at me like ‘Really?! No. Wow!’

And this back and forth I’ve been having between Chile and New York, and these long periods of time when I didn’t live in Chile, you discover the American influence. For example, when kids in Chile used to be surprised about something [in a movie], and saw something lurking there that’s going to happen, they’d would say “(gasping noise)!” Now they say ‘uh-oh.’ But that’s an American thing that didn’t’ exist in Chile before. And since all the movies in Chile are subtitled, the language changes.

For example, the word ‘bitch’ in Chile didn’t mean anything, but now it means something. How are you going to translate ‘bitch’ into subtitles? Does that translate, so it becomes an insult? So now it’s an insult in Chile, and 15 years ago it wasn’t.

And these influences have to happen, and you have to receive this Latin influence that’s going to make the people here richer. And that’s why I wanted to make this movie, because there’s a rich thing there.

Tribeca Film Festival: What have you learned about filmmaking that you brought to this film?

Castilla: Whenever I want to make a movie, I like the spectator to go to a place he hasn’t been before, whether it’s a city or a fantastic place. And I think I wanted to introduce spectators to Washington Heights. It’s right here; it’s 20 minutes from Times Square and nobody knows it really. Generally today, New York films are not shot in New York. They’re shot somewhere else because it’s cheaper, because of the union, or this or that.

No, this movie’s shot in New York, by New York, for New York, because it happens in New York. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to introduce this place to New Yorkers first, because they’re not aware.

One of the characters in the movie, one of the actors, is a cop now. And he tells me that he’s working in Times Square, and that when he sees a tourist map, Manhattan ends at 125th, max. There’s nothing else there. So what do you mean there’s nothing else there? There’s a million people living there and having a life. I wanted to show that.

Tribeca Film Festival: Tell me about the fantastical element.

Castilla: This movie has a fantastic vein because there’s a fantastic vein in Latin culture, starting from Don Quixote. It’s not real—like, the guy’s crazy, or whatever. But nothing is sort of real. It’s real and not real. And this movie has that.

Tribeca Film Festival: Why do you like New York?

Castilla: New York is a town full of lonely people. There’s a commonality, and it’s people who acknowledge the loneliness in the most mature way than you can find in the world.

The basic thing of a human being is that he or she is alone. Then you build connections, so you’re not alone. But to start with, you’re alone. And I think here is a city that acknowledges that more. It’s a mature thing that I like about this city.

Although the sense of loneliness is disappearing because people think that because they have money they’re not alone anymore. So the city is going to become like a museum—an old city. What happened to Paris, what happened to other cities where creativity goes down and they show what was made once in the city. But it’s climaxed already. If the city continues to gentrify, and everything so rich, rich, rich, rich, the dramatic creativity will have climaxed. And it’s not going to be the real thing.

Tribeca Film Festival: If you were stranded on a desert island, what three films would you take with you?

Castilla: If I was stranded on a desert island, I would take with me a Jean Renoir moive. I would take with me a Preston Sturges movie. And I would have a problem choosing between Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. But those would be the guys.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is the best piece of advice your mother ever gave you?

Castilla: I think that the best advice that your parents give you and you give your parents is not so much what you tell them. Because there’s a lot of ‘blah blah blah’ that’s completely opposite to what you’re doing. So the best advice, what you give to your children or your parents give you is what they do, what you see them do. That’s a crucial thing, I think.

And my mother, the best advice she gave me was to embrace life. She had vitality and an adrenaline that was just amazing, and she still does. And she embraced life freely. And the advice my father had given me: die. So it was very contradictory advice that I received.

But then throughout the years as I sort of sift through the advice of my father, it’s more complicated than just ‘die.’ It’s like ‘I couldn’t make it, you can.’ So basically it’s a life-affirming thing.

Tribeca Film Festival: Do you have words that you live by?

Castilla: This is a very tough business, so you gotta keep on going, and that’s the thing. Just keep on going, keep on going, keep on going, keep on going.

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