One of the best movies at the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival this year was Red Princesses (Princesas rojas), a story about the daughter of Sandinista activists forced to flee Nicaragua and rebuild their lives in Costa Rica. (And if you haven’t already, check out my review.)
Screenwriter-director Laura Astorga Carrera undoubtedly pulled from her own life experiences in the telling of such an indelible story of the interplay between the social and the political in much of Latin America. Born in the capital city of San Jose, Costa Rica but raised in Nicaragua, Astorga Carrera herself grew up the daughter of Sandinista activists.
Earlier this month, I sat with her at The Whitehall Hotel, the Chicago Latino Film Festival’s base of media relations, to discuss her entry and her approach to filmmaking.
I understand Red Princesses is your first full-length film? How does it feel to have it in the Chicago Latino Film Festival?
It’s great because this is different. I’ve been in a lot of festivals. We started in Berlin in February of last year, and we’re in 20 or 30 festivals. Not every festival, but most festivals are places where people are rushing to do business. This festival is more for the people. You can see movies, it’s also more quiet, and you’re not being rushed to begin working for your next film. So this is different; it’s a different kind of festival. It’s very into the culture of movies, not because we want to make another film — of course we want to make another film — but the thing is we’re here for this film. This is very interesting to me because in other festivals attendance is always one step, and then there’s the next step, and another. This festival is more, “This is your film, we liked it, and–.”
“We’re going to show it to people so they can enjoy it, too.”
Exactly. To show it to the public directly. And this is really great.
I know the weather’s pretty lousy, but how do you like Chicago, now that you’ve been all around the world.
Chicago betrayed me a little bit.
Because of how nice the weather was a few days ago?
No, no. I’m very involved with Chicago in a fictional sense because I love the TV series The Good Wife and one of the main characters just died — has been killed by someone — because the actor wants new horizons, which is an excuse I hate. And I’m a bit in mourning, like a widow, wearing black inside, because my favorite character in The Good Wife is gone. This is the first betrayal.
The second is the weather, because I packed my luggage for four days expecting something in between rainy and springtime.
No, you have to pack for winter and summer — in one week!
(laughs) Exactly. It’s interesting. Tomorrow I want to go to the Art Institute of Chicago and then to the — Jelly Bean? The super Jelly Bean.
We just call it “The Bean.”
And I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do the Sears Tower because it’s cloudy. Yesterday I looked up and saw three floors and nothing else.
When you’re at the top it sways, too.
That’s fine because my country has earthquakes every day. Swaying for us is nothing.
You were born in Costa Rica, right?
Yes, but Nicaragua’s the same way. There are a lot of earthquakes. But you can’t see anything here, just clouds. Someone told me being in the Sears Tower is like being in a plane, but it’s a building. I thought to myself, “I have to see this.” But how? The weather’s against me. I hope the next movie or next trip I take here will be a little bit more summer. Or is that impossible for this time of year?
Well, we have summer for like two weeks. And then the summer’s going to be really hot; you’re not going to want to go outside. But my mom’s from Honduras, I’ve been to Honduras, and it’s really hot in the day and rains at night.
I have a very good friend in Honduras.
You based Red Princesses on your own life growing up. What made you make a film about your experiences?
I like the environment involved with making a movie. It’s a kind of circus. A crew comes as a circus to a place, shoots a movie, and then everybody goes home. I love that kind of work. But before and after it you have to concentrate on writing and then editing. So it goes from being a closed process, to being a very open process, with people, and then back to being closed for the editing. The filming of the movie is a sparkly moment.
Which part do you like most: the writing, the shooting, or the editing?
The writing I like because I’m first a writer and then a director. But then I also love to direct because shooting is the moment I get to have a deeper relationship with the actors. I love the actors. I’m a casting woman, and I know how to work with actors very well. Then I love the editing process, but I don’t know anything about cameras or technique. There comes a time when you’re directing when everyone says, “Use the camera!” I don’t know how to use it. “But you’re a cinema director!” No, I always have someone who knows more about that than me. People find that difficult to understand.
The end of a movie is the editing, and in that process you can rewrite the movie. You write a movie, you shoot something, it’s very close to the script but not exactly, and in the editing process you rewrite it but with the material you have. Editing and writing are the same kind of process, only with different material.
I like the whole process, but I hate finding money, to say something I don’t want to say. I have to convince you to give me money. I’m like, “This is a good movie, but if you don’t have the money, don’t worry about it.”
How did you find Valeria Conejo, the young actress starring in Red Princesses?
Three months of casting and training. We looked at 1300 kids. We did workshops every weekend to filter them out and ended up with seven kids.
What was it like directing them? She kind of steals the movie. Even when she’s not talking, you follow her because she’s very–.
She’s great, but I’m really a casting woman. I can’t say it’s my talent as a director. No, it’s a collaboration. I love that style of acting, and she’s a natural actress, a natural talent. She’s the kind of person you can ask to cry, and she can. The little one [Aura Dinarte] is very spontaneous, but she can go through all the physiological changes. She can cry a lot or a bit or put a little glimmer in her eyes.
When you were writing the movie, did you know it was going to end how it did?
Yes. It was a decision I made with my co-writer from Argentina [Daniela Goggi]. She goes, “I have an alternate ending, because we have no money” — as always — “to shoot in Miami.” I go, “Okay, please tell me.” I hear her idea for the ending and I think, “Great. That seems like something my mother could do.” It was both an economical and a corresponding solution to the story.
You don’t expect it to happen, but when it does, you’re like, “Of course.”
(laughs) Right! “Of course.”
I understand Red Princesses is a Costa Rican-Venezuelan production. What does that mean?
Venezuela has a budding cinema industry with 10 or 15 years of cinema funding, and they’re interested in helping other industries in countries without money, like us [Costa Rica]. Spain or Argentina or Chile have established industries, like 20 or 30 years, and they’re very grown up, very professional. To them we’re not attractive. Venezuela’s a little bit above us, and so we’re able to have a better relationship with them. Colombia’s a little bit higher than us, too. We have no fund, but we’re comparable to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. They’re still developing, so they can do coproduction more easily.
The co-production aspect, the collaboration, is super complicated. It’s easier at that level to get funding because they approve it more easily. But then putting those funds into the movie is another thing, because we’re a country with no funds and they have them. So to bring those funds to make the movie ourselves, to bring professionals from those countries, there’s a big cost. Thus, if one of the Latin American countries gives us 20, it reduces to 10. There are flights to pay for and such, but since our country has no funds, we have no other choice but to do it that way.
Getting funds from Latin America requires getting twice as much as the actual filming will cost. But if Europe were to give us 100, out of that 100, we’d only see 30 in the movie. They get paid more. They have high salaries, flights and other things. Doing co-productions is much better when the countries are nearer the same level economically, with a more equal currency. Venezuela might give us 20, but we’ll see 10. It’s hard.
That’s the funding part you were talking about.
Yes. That’s why I hate it.
So where was the film shot? There are some scenes that look like Costa Rica, with the hills and everything.
The whole thing was filmed in San José [Costa Rica]. We staged everything to make it seem like the countryside.
Really? How long did it take?
You call yourself a “casting woman”–
And a scriptwriter.
So what advice would you give a young Latino actor?
For me it’s not about Latino, because we’re all Latino. Everybody’s the same.
I’m looking for somebody who can give a naturalistic interpretation, not a verbal one. This is really hard to find with adult actors, because everybody comes from the theater and they’re focused on voice. But with young actors it’s so easy because they come from nowhere. They’re from home and mom and dad and the family. They’re truly natural. For me the key with directing is to cast naturals, or take people from the theater or musicals or dance or wherever, and put them through training, two or three months. I’m not going to say, “Oh, you come from the theater. I’ll bring you the script and see you in the shooting.” No, no. It’s like rehearsal and training for the theater, but for a movie. At times we go to the location and do a rehearsal there. Depends. It’s important to remember that people aren’t only trained actors but people, even if they’ve done theater or whatever.
So when it comes time to shoot you know what to expect.
What I do is train them myself, so I’m already sure of the result. I’m make sure to get people who are pliable and open to the training.
I noticed that you used a lens that gives the feeling of watching an Eighties movie, because it takes place in the Eighties, of course. How early in the process did you know you were going to use that technique to bring the audience back?
From the very beginning. In fact, in my pitch for the project I said I wanted to present a Polaroid. At that time the Polaroid was the ultimate technology. So I wanted the film to be like a fresh Polaroid photo, because a fresh Polaroid is in a kind of Technicolor but it isn’t sharp. This look was very important for me in my pitch. And I don’t know how my DP achieved the look. We discussed it a lot, and he proposed a few things, but I know nothing about the technical issues. I just brought him my pitch and told him it was going to have an Eighties feel with a Polaroid look.
It’s like you’re looking at a Polaroid of this family or this girl.
Exactly. And another thing is that, when we realized we didn’t have the money to make a formal or traditional movie set in the Eighties, with wide shots and other things, we decided to make a very custom Eighties movie. We didn’t invest much in the cosmetics, because there was no way to dress it up digitally or physically. There was no way to de-modernize the look of the film. We only focused on the wardrobe and little else because there was no way to invest in the rest. It would’ve been impossible to do economically.