Rudo Y Cursi, the first feature film directed by Y Tu Mamá También screenwriter Carlos Cuarón, is a rags-to-riches fable about two squabbling brothers who work at a banana plantation and end up being recruited for big-time soccer in Mexico City. Beto "Rudo" Verdusco (Diego Luna), has a nickname that translates close to "tough and ruthless," while Tato "Cursi" Verdusco (Gael García Bernal) has a more complicated nickname, according to Cuarón: "[Cursi] means many things. In general terms, it's corny, cheesy, mellow, overtly romantic. It has different connotations in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain. In Argentina it's more like a tacky thing, but the more important part of the Mexico meaning is it's so romantic, it's so romantic that it has bad taste."
[Although Cuarón doesn't say it outright, essentially, "cursi" is a term best embodied by the smooth/romantic/cheese of "Yacht Rock," that musical genre of soft rock hits like Christopher Cross' "Sailing" or The Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes."]
In a recent New York appearance, both director and stars dished on the fútbol philosophy, accordion lessons, and happy reunions that went into the making of this film. Perhaps underscoring their 20+ year friendship and spookily parallel lives (both have recently had babies and directed films), the terrifically foxy Luna and Bernal were identically clad in black sweaters and army jackets. Theirs is a chemistry that comes from years of friendship, and they joked easily and teased each other as only amigos can, leading to a genuinely pleasant interview.
What was your first inspiration for the film?
Carlos Cuarón: I originally wanted to make a fake doc about a soccer player from a humble background who made it big and at the peak of his success, he mysteriously disappeared. I told this idea to Gael and Diego separately, and they both said, "I want to be that guy." I had two great actors but only one character, and I realized at that point that I wanted to work with both of them, so I made up a brother. I told them it was going to be a sibling rivalry story, I told Gael I wanted him to play Cursi and Diego Rudo and their first reaction was no, they wanted to play the other guy. I told them no, I didn't want to repeat myself, I didn't want to make Y Tu Mamá También 2, and I would cast them against their type. They got it immediately and they started to throw ideas around.
Can you talk a little bit about Gael and Diego's chemistry?
CC: That chemistry, that very strange chemistry between the two of them, it's not something you can get with years of rehearsal. It's the two of them together. It's great, they have this dynamic that helps create the brotherly dynamics. They dont behave like Rudo y Cursi—well, sometimes they do—it helps a lot that they know each other.
When did you two become friends?
Diego Luna: I used to hate school, and the happiest moment of my life was going to rehearsals. We were doing a theater play when we were nine or ten, and I did realize that this guy was going to be my friend when I could share this passion with him and I couldn't share it with anyone else.
Gael García Bernal: We decided to be friends in the journey. The only other person I can relate my experiences to as an actor is Diego. That was a decision, a subconscious one, but we were there, and we made the effort.
What's it like working together again? Diego and Gael, you've directed films, and now Carlos is a director as well...
GGB: It was very nice to work together again as actors. Before the film we had been working together with our production company, helping films get made. We have a documentary film festival in Mexico that's pretty nice—that I invite you all to see—Ambulante, a film festival that travels around to various cities in Mexico.
DL: It was nice to be actors again, just actors, it was nice to be thinking about our characters and scenes and the relationships with the characters, not thinking about money and what's going to happen. When you're an actor, they protect you. It was fun to find that relationship with Carlos. In Y Tu Mamá También he was the writer, and he'd sit with us at rehearsals. As soon as the shooting started, Carlos was [in the background]. This time, he was on our set, complaining about the producers and saying terrible stuff about them and all the pressure they were putting on them. [Everyone laughs.]
What was it like working with Cha Cha Cha (the new production company from Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro)? Did you feel any pressure having your brother and two other accomplished directors producing your first film?
CC: They encouraged me the moment they decided they wanted to produce the film. I pitched the idea to my brother, and he said, "When you have the screenplay, I'll help you produce it." The next thing he called and said, "What do you think if Alejandro and Guillermo help produce?" And then he explained that they were starting Cha Cha Cha. I was just like the donkey following the carrot, and I never thought about pressure. i just wanted to make my movie. They gave me complete creative freedom, but they were also very demanding. The feedback was great because it comes from great filmmakers. It was great, they would've done the same thing if they hadn't produced the film, because that's how we relate to each other. They send me their scripts, [and] we look over things in the editing room. We sort of officialized the friendship with a production company.
How come there's no soccer in your soccer movie? (Cuarón focuses on the faces of people in the stands during soccer scenes.)
CC: I didn't want it to be a sports movie or a soccer movie, I wanted it to be clear that it's a movie about brotherhood, that the main thing is the main thing. I didn't need soccer. If you like the game, there's no better place than the stadium or the TV to watch it because they have these cameras and slow motion things to see the beauty of it all. And there's no way you can shoot that in a movie. I thought it was distracting. You see the human emotions reacting to what's on the field, and I only go to the field in climactic moments between these two guys, since that's what's important. Soccer is a sport that is not easy to dramatize. A sport like baseball, it has a process, and between each pitch, there's something at stake, like American football. With soccer, the ball never stops, so there's no pause and there's no drama. The only real drama is a penalty kick. And that becomes a duel, a western duel, with two guys facing each other, destiny and potential ahead of them.
How is it working with Cuarón's script? Everything's in there, comedy, tragedy, sports...
GGL: The hybrid is a very Cuarón-esque approach. Even in Alfonso's movies, there's this strong criticism and philosophy about society. For example, maybe sometimes it's hidden, but in Children of Men, the hero, his weapon is his tennis shoes. Little things like that are a very Cuarón-esque thing, they say something very transcendental, but it's still very light and funny.
What about the influence of the drug dealer in Rudo and Cursi's family?
CC: Part of my intention with the film was to create a social portrait of my country in the present time. There were the class issues, country/city contrast, and all of that. It was also important to me to show that the drug lords pervade everything. They have become the most solid institution in Mexico, and it's terrible. It's part of the Mexican dream that has become a nightmare. There are very few opportunities for young people: yeah, you can become a professional soccer player, but it's very difficult to make it to the big leagues. Another is you can become a singer, a plastic idol. What's more usual now is the drug thing, recruiting youngsters as dealers. The drug lords provide to their communities. There's lots of corruption. They control through weapons, money, and power. The drug lord becomes at the end a surrogate father to everybody. We've come so far, but this Mexican dream has become a nightmare when it is touched by these guys.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Cursi's music video (set to a Spanish-language norteno cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me")? Where did that idea come from?
CC: I knew that I needed a hit song for the character. I knew we needed a pop hit from the past that we could cover and make into a norteño song. I was flirting with the idea of different songs, one was "Lips Like Sugar" by Echo and the Bunnymen, "Urgent" by Foreigner, and the thing was, all these songs, what they share is really stupid lyrics. One day I was driving my kids to school and this Cheap Trick song came on and I started to sing along in Spanish. This song, someone who sings "I want you to want me," has some serious affection and attention problems, and that song is Cursi, it's the character.
What inspired that video?
CC: The video, I spent a whole year watching this TV channel in Mexico, this norteño channel for music/MTV. Their videos always have a kitschy style, for some reason the backgrounds are always the countryside or horses. The suit Gael's wearing is the style of suit they would wear. We had a lot of fun shooting it in mini-DV, because I wanted a shitty quality. It became a success [in Mexico and Argentina]. At some point when we choreographed that dance I said, "Act out the song, I want choreography that we can dance to at future weddings." She said, "Huh?" I clarified: "Something easy, I have two left feet. If I can dance it, then it will happen at weddings." And that's whats happening right now in Mexico.
CC: Really! And that's the beauty of the story.
The song's been a big hit in Mexico and Argentina, too?
CC: Gael's become a big hit, especially in mobile downloads. People sing it on the street. It's weird. He took singing lessons so he can control his voice [well] enough to sing badly. Gael actually sings way better than what you see on screen. The first time we recorded it, it was closer to his voice and he was pissed. The first version was actually pretty good, and during post, we recorded this... I dont want to use an adjective, "bad" version that we have.
Gael, can you talk a little bit about Cursi's singing?
GGL: It was very fun to be singing with the accent of the character. The characters normally have this kind of... very, very tight voice. They both have it. It was difficult to talk, yet they are very vocal, and in their own syntaxes, they are very free, they can go on forever. It was very fun to sing with the character's voice. Also, if you're familiar with some of the radio stations, there's this genre called banda, which in particular has 1000 ways of the singers singing the songs; there are a couple where you'd be surprised that the singers are singing. It's a style that's very unsinging in a way. Yet at the same time it's full of a certain... [emotion], and that's what we wanted to get at.
DL: We wanted? I never wanted you to sing. If I had a chance to choose I would say no, people don't deserve this!