Few contemporary cineastes have enjoyed so estimably varied a career as Fernando Trueba. A onetime book editor whose film oeuvre has garnered no fewer than twenty-eight Goyas, he won an Oscar for Belle Epoque (1993), his sexy tale of a young deserter from Spain’s Civil War landing up at the farm of an aging artist whose comely daughters—one craven, one queer, one a young Penélope Cruz—impart a barnful of lessons about women and love. Since the 2000 release of Calle 54, his warm, exacting documentary on Latin jazz, Trueba has also devoted much energy to the music he loves. His work as a music producer has perhaps been highlighted by his association with Bebo Valdés, the supreme Cuban pianist whose sound was key to the evolution of both Cuban dance music and American jazz a half-century ago and who has spent his ninth decade making impeccable records with his Spanish friend. Trueba’s latest project, a gorgeous animated feature built from Valdés’s music and moments, marks a culmination of his work not only with the ninety-two-year-old pianist but with another long-term collaborator, the celebrated Spanish designer and artist Javier Mariscal. I caught up with Trueba a few days after Chico and Rita opened the Miami International Film Festival to a rousing ovation.
Where did you get the idea to do an animated film about Cuban music in the forties and fifties?
One day I was in Mariscal’s studio in Barcelona, and I saw some drawings he’d done of Habana Vieja. That’s when the lightbulb came on: we should make a movie in these streets, in a Havana created by Mariscal. We agreed that it should be a story about musicians. And then I suggested that if we have a story of a pianist, we could have Bebo play. And I thought, well, what Bebo represents is the style of the forties and fifties, so let’s do a story set in that period. How beautiful—the Havana nightlife of that time, which I knew only from books, or the stories of friends like [Guillermo] Cabrera Infante, the great Cuban writer of Tres Triste Tigres. And it also seemed like a time that was great visually, for Mariscal this era was when modern design started. We started developing the idea, and Mariscal said he felt the work should be very dramatic, like a bolero. And so we had that reference for the story—not a cinematographic reference, or a literary reference, but a song reference. Not a song-style reference, but a song itself. We wanted to build the story like a song, like a bolero.
The tone of a bolero is melodrama, and a lot of those elements are in the story: lost love, longing, nostalgia for that breezy room over the Malecon where Chico and Rita first make love. But how did the music come into it as you were actually writing the script?
When I was writing, I was trying to imagine how Mariscal’s drawings would move, and I had Bebo’s music in mind all the time. We used music to tell the story, to build the characters, the tension. When I work on live-action films, I leave a lot of room for last-minute decisions. Not in terms of the screenplay—I like to have the best possible screenplay in hand—but in terms of directing. I don’t like to work with a close storyboard, like Hitchcock. I’ve done a lot of comedy, a lot of work with actors, and I often like to find the shot on the set, to improvise the line. But with animation, you have to think of every single shot. Absolutely everything is storyboard, and that’s a big difference. To have to imagine one hundred percent of the movie, before it’s actually done—it’s a really strange mental exercise. But it’s great, I love it.
How did you come up with the protagonists? These people aren’t real, though they could be—they’re interacting with historical figures, moving through real places.
I think both Chico and Rita are fictional characters. Even if Bebo’s music is playing all the time, and Chico is playing it—Chico’s story is very different from Bebo’s. Bebo left Cuba in 1960, just after the Revolution, and Chico is deported back to Cuba at that time. So they’re completely different. Mariscal’s drawings of Chico, certainly, are very much inspired by Bebo, by photos of the young Bebo that we have. But I like to say that Chico is no one in particular; he’s every Cuban musician of that generation. For me, he represents them all. And Rita, really, has aspects of very many people; we weren’t thinking of anyone in particular. She’s Cuban, but there are American women of that time in her character, too—people like Dorothy Dandridge, who was the first African-American woman to have a leading role in a studio movie.
I wonder if you could talk about the decision to set the film in Havana and then New York. Both those cities are rendered with such care—it was amazing, as someone who knows both cities, to recognize individual blocks and buildings.
We took some liberties because we had to—but it’s true, most every set is true to life. Early on in the research, as we were watching films from that time, looking at every photo and book we could find, it struck me that this time—the end of the forties—was also the time of that great encounter between Cuban music and American jazz, through people like Mario Bauzá, and Machito, and especially Dizzy Gillespie with Chano Pozo. So I thought, Why don’t we use that, too—let’s take the characters to New York. That’s how we came up with this idea, to have the second act of the movie take place there—this amazing period in New York, too, in both musical and visual terms. These are two really different landscapes, but united by the music.
That’s something the film really brings home—the inextricable way that American music is Cuban music, and vice versa. These worlds were totally intertwined. There’s no bebop without the Cubans—no rock ‘n’ roll, even, without Cachao’s bass lines, those Cuban rhythms.
Yes, I think the Cuban influence in American music was hugely important, from the start. Jelly Roll Morton used to talk about that “Spanish tinge.” But this is a story that hasn’t been told right. And it’s part of what’s important about Bebo, in the other direction—he always was in love with American music. He says that he owes as much to Gershwin and Harold Arlen as he does to Cuban tradition. And you can feel that in his music. There are some scenes in Chico and Rita—the opening overture, or where they’re arriving in New York—where the music belongs to the “Cuban Suite,” which was Bebo’s most ambitious composition for big band. And you can feel that this is as American as it is Cuban. You listen to that music with the images of New York, and you realize: Bebo belongs to this tradition of music, too. Because at that time, you know, Cuba and America were not cut. It was a constant influence; they were looking and listening to each other all the time.
In Chico and Rita, most all the music was recorded special by the film, much by Bebo, but also with great people like Freddie Cole (Nat King Cole’s brother), Jimmy Heath, Estrella Morente. But there’s one moment in the film where the music is diegetic; an old original record is playing: that scene when Chano Pozo is shot by his pot dealer in Harlem, with his and Dizzy’s “Manteca” playing on the jukebox.
Yes, you know there are a few different versions of Chano Pozo’s death. He was shot in the El Rio Café by Cabito, who was his dealer—that’s true. And the story is that “Manteca” was playing on the jukebox. I don’t know if that’s the legend or if it’s true, but I always heard it like that. And in that scene, it is one of the few times in the movie where we use the original record, the Dizzy and Chano record—a canonical example of Latin jazz. Chano Pozo was a friend of Bebo; they were really good friends. And Chano Pozo could not speak one word of English, and Dizzy couldn’t speak one word of Spanish. But they communicated in music. And they were very close friends—not just musicians playing with each other. And it was great fun to include those characters in the film, to include some of those relationships and stories from a time when Cuba and America, as I say, weren’t cut.
I really admired the subtle way you handled the politics. The history is there, of course, but without the heavy commentary that an American or a Cuban would be expected to bring.
You know the first Cuban who saw the movie was Bebo, and he was crying—I’d never seen tears on his face like that. And then in Miami, and New York, and especially in Havana, it was very moving, showing the film to a Cuban audience. You could feel it in the theater, in a very direct way, the embrace. That was very important for us: that Cubans feel like the movie belonged to them. That’s a test, really, that we had to pass. I have so many friends from Cuba—friends living in Cuba, in the States, some in Sweden like Bebo, some in New York, in Miami. Long before I was thinking about a movie like this, I was listening to their stories, witnessing their lives, their separations from friends, their tragedies. So I wanted to make a movie that was very close to their lives, their stories.
And what’s the situation with distribution in the U.S.? Will people here have a chance to see Chico and Rita?
Well, some have aready! All the screenings in the States were fabulous—at Telluride, Miami, New York. I find it surprising that there’s no U.S. distribution yet. It should happen, though. It’s out in theaters in England, with incredible reviews, and it will be out in Spain in July. And we are traveling around the world showing it at festivals. But definitely, it is a movie that has to be shown in the U.S.; this story is as much American as it is Cuban.