Hard as it may be to imagine for those who first came to know him through his role in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, 34-year-old Diego Luna has been making movies since his early teens. His natural talent and charisma has been a draw for filmmakers as diverse as Gus Van Sant (Milk), Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls), and Harmony Korine (Mister Lonely). During an interview at this year’s Berlinale, the actor, who most recently appeared in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, bemoaned the number of quality scripts that come to him these days, but that’s only one reason why he first chose to take the director’s chair back in 2007 with a documentary about Mexican boxer Julio César Chávez. That film was followed in 2010 with his first feature, Abel, and, now, Cesar Chavez, about the famed Mexican-American labor leader who peacefully organized workers in California in 1960s. Luna spoke with me not only about the difficulty he faced in accurately recreating that time period, and the working conditions under which men like Chavez worked, but as well as his understanding of the man’s legacy.
Is the reason why you chose this project the universality of its message?
Yes, I generally try to choose stories that do not belong to one nation or one country whatsoever. What really matters is a good story and well-written characters, even if it’s a cliché. I know I choose projects when I simply feel the necessity and the urge to film something. This time, as a team working with Cesar Chavez, we wanted to make sure to tell something that belongs to all of us, a piece of recent history, which, in the end, conveys this optimistic message: that many things can be done if you really believe it can happen. Another cliché, sorry [laughs].
How did you find this particular story, or perhaps how did it find you?
It’s interesting, because it seems that in California everyone should know Cesar Chavez, judging by the number of schools or streets that are named after him. But, in fact, the young generations have no idea. When I moved to California, I suddenly realized that there was this character, a hero, and nobody told his story before properly. Then I just decided to do it, although I soon realized how little I knew and how little has been generally known. But after all, even though Cesar Chavez tells a story of a real person, it’s not a film just about him. Our goal was to pay tribute to the whole community of Mexican Americans struggling for survival in the past and present, and, of course, to those who actively participated in the fights and boycotts back then. Simply put, we tried to use the example of Cesar Chavez as an illustration of the experience, with its complexity and challenges that were included.
Has the family of Cesar Chavez seen the completed film yet?
Of course. Helen Chavez and the family watched it, and they were with us all the way. First we showed them the script, listened to their opinions and insightful remarks, anecdotes, too, and later we did the research and lots of interviews. We asked about literally everything: their struggle, the intensity of those days, their feelings toward it, even the weather. And they patiently answered. I admired that. We had their full support.
Dolores Huerta is one of the last people who directly and closely worked with Cesar Chavez. Was it difficult approaching her, and was she willing to help from the start?
Well, let me answer this way. You always have to be careful while trying to make a film about a real person. By trying to please everyone you end up pleasing no one, including yourself. We had those words in mind when we first thought about making the film. Preparing for the movie, we interviewed a lot of people, not only family and friends of Chavez, but also random people who still remembered the events. Chavez’s actions are rather well documented, and there were many references for us, sometimes even too many. We needed all of it to prevent us from showing just one side of our main hero. After this long process, we had to concentrate and condense everything we learned, so that it fit the screen and lasted two hours [laughs]. Of course, we did the film for the family and those who took part in the boycotts. I simply can’t imagine going against their will, because it’s their story and it’s also a celebration of what they’ve achieved.
It must have been really difficult to make a movie in two languages simultaneously. You communicated with the American cast in English, and with the extras and some members of the crew in Spanish. This is also your directorial debut in English. Can you speak about the challenges that you encountered in that respect?
Well, yes, obviously it was all very complex [laughs]. But after I realized that, it also struck me that it’s something that this particular community has to deal with on a daily basis, this certain bilingualism. That’s also a part of the complexity of the story itself. We shot Cesar Chavez in Mexico, so many of the extras didn’t speak any English. In a way, it was like time travel as well, because when Cesar came to the fields to talk to the workers about the conditions of their work, many of the workers didn’t speak any English either, so he had to communicate in Spanish. Although maybe he didn’t feel most comfortable with it, it had to be done. So, in a way, we were remaking the real-life situation, although on the set we weren’t really fighting the field worker’s fight, we were fighting our own small battle.
Coming back to your question, it’s difficult to direct a film in a language that isn’t in your mother tongue, because at the end of the day it’s the little details that matter most in this job. There usually are specific differences between one thing and another, and it’s necessary to master the language to follow that richness of vocabulary and be well understood. But I think I managed to find a way. Besides, there were people to help me when I had trouble. At times I just had to force myself not to act instead of explaining what I meant [laughs].