Filmmaker Aitch Alberto, Reese Gonzales, Max Pelayo, and producer Valerie Stadler discussed Aristotle and Dante during TIFF.
Alberto wrote and directed the film adaptation of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel. In addition to Gonzales and Pelayo, the film also stars Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, Veronica Falcón, and Kevin Alejandro.
Aristotle and Dante premiered in TIFF’s Discovery program in September. The following interview took place one day after the world premiere and it’s my hope that the jokes also come through in print as much as they did when the interview was conducted.
Congrats on the world premiere at TIFF. How does it feel to premiere the film at TIFF’s first time being back since the pandemic?
Aitch Alberto: I think it’s such a great way to celebrate a very long journey. It’s been a seven-year process for me so having a screening in person with so many people that I love around me and an audience that loved the movie was really, really special. A moment I’ll never forget. What about you two?
Max Pelayo: Yeah, it’s definitely a huge honor. It’s a relief to have people see it because now—it’s not a wide release but now it’s been seen so it’s out there in the world. I feel like I can kind of let that go. Now I can see it as like, wow, look at this film. Also, me, I’ve been a movie lover since I was a little tiny tot so to be at TIFF, it’s awesome. I saw Bill Nighy in the hallway earlier, just chilling out. Like, what? It’s super cool so it’s an honor.
Reese Gonzales: Yeah, it’s incredibly special. I mean, I’ve been involved in this for a little over four years now. We were talking about it so long. It’s been a dream for so long. I’ve been imagining it and fantasizing it and then finally we filmed it. And now that we’re here, it’s just feels like it all came together and we did it. We’re here. We made it. All of us. We put our heart and our soul into this and people are recognizing that. It’s really special.
After reading the book, how quickly did you know that you have to make this into a movie?
Aitch Alberto: It was instantly. I read it in one sitting and when I put the book down, I was like, oh, shit, I need to make this movie. It literally happened that way. Because it was such a visceral experience for me reading it and then it was a very long process after that. But yeah, it became my life’s work to tell the story. I was gonna make it happen, hell or high water. Luckily, I had someone by my side that really helped me. Val was a producer who was really helpful on that front. I’m not just saying that because you’re here. (Laughs) I have to say I appreciate that.
You have another big name producer, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Aitch Alberto: Who’s that?
Valerie Stadler: Lin who?
How did he come to be involved?
Aitch Alberto: I didn’t know but through the process of learning more about the book, he had done the audio book. I was like, we need to get him involved in some capacity. We tried the traditional route—that didn’t work out. I was like, I’m gonna tweet at him. I tweeted and 20 minutes later, he replied, and three months later, we were having lunch or dinner with him at the Beverly Wiltshire.
Valerie Stadler: Dinner.
Aitch Alberto: He agreed to be a part of the project. He’s been an invaluable supporter and resource in so many ways throughout, from the very beginning—notes on the script, notes on the movie, say in casting and music. I’ve just been able to really lean on him in a real way.
Valerie Stadler: Something that’s been so amazing is how seriously Lin-Manuel really took the project and also, how seriously he took Aitch and her vision for the film because we had been laboring on the film for a couple of years at that point. We always think about it like it’s stone soup, right? It’s like, we got nothing but throw this in the pot, throw this in the pot. But when someone like Lin-Manuel jumps in and says to the world, this is important, it really helps. I think that watching their relationship has been incredible. Aitch deserves that kind of support from everybody.
Aitch Alberto: It’s also still weird that he texted me last night. I’m like, oh shit—Lin-Manuel Miranda texted my mom. But yeah, I’m really grateful for validating the story and validating me and it’s invaluable.
I know when I was watching the film last night, and the guy comes on the radio, I’m like, is that Lin?
Aitch Alberto: It is! That’s an Easter egg. Real fans, audiences that will understand. I love that you recognized his voice. Yeah, it’s really sweet
Max and Reese, were you familiar with the book before going into the movie?
Reese Gonzales: I first read the book around four years ago when I was about to do the live table read that we did. I read it all in one sitting and I bawled my eyes out. The only book that ever really made me cry. I mean, I just immediately knew how important and how special it really was. That was before I knew how many people knew it and how popular it was. When I read it, I was like, more people need to see this. This is so important the representation that it has, the kind of story that it tells—it’s so different. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
Max Pelayo: Actually, my first exposure to the novel was from the audition. They recommended reading the book. It’s very similar to the script. So that day, I go out and get the book. I have about a day and a half turnaround time to read and get ready for audition. I read as much as I could. Immediately just from that little bit of it, yeah, this is it, and I got a good ways into it but I knew where I was going. I knew the things I had to say. And yeah, this is a story that I would definitely love to tell.
What sort of prep did you all do for the role heading into the film?
Aitch Alberto: I locked them in a room without food and water.
Max Pelayo: Yeah, that was terrible.
Reese Gonzales: It was horrible.
Valerie Stadler: This is an OHSA violation, we did not do. (Laughs)
Reese Gonzales: Let the record state, they did not do that to us.
Aitch Alberto: It’s a joke!
Reese Gonzales: That turned around on you pretty quick.
Aitch Alberto: You all turned on me!
Reese Gonzales: For me, it felt a little weird because most of my preparation was definitely like, we got cast and we had about a month to prepare. Max and I, we both created music playlists based on our characters. I just listened to only that the whole entire month. I started to do things that Dante did. I’d walk around and I would see people in public and I’d start creating little stories about them like Ari and Dante do on the bus. I’d walk around barefoot. I’d go outside every night with my telescope and I’d look at the stars. I just really got in touch with Dante and how he thinks, how he lives in his dreams and his fears, his anxieties and all of that. But before I got cast, over the three years before that, I every once in a while, I would go back and I’d touch base with Dante and I would take inspiration from Dante for myself and my own growth. My preparation and relationship with Dante has always been very intimate. As soon as I got cast, it only got even more intimate.
Max Pelayo: For me, there was a month between being cast and us yelling action.
Aitch Alberto: You yelled action?
Max Pelayo: No.
Aitch Alberto: There’re no yellers on my set.
Max Pelayo: For you saying action on set the first day. I had a month to get ready so I had to get my body right, mind right, motions right, everything. I just developed a bit of routine, workout in the morning, had to relearn how to swim. I hadn’t swum in a while. That was that was the morning stuff.
Aitch Alberto: Tell the story about your dad and then learning how to drive a stick?
Max Pelayo: Oh, yes. The driving training was at the end of the day so yeah, we’ll get there. After lunch and stuff, I’d settle in and I really just worked with the script, just doing my best to really analyze the character and so that way, I can be as efficient as I can on set and snap into it and we can get it done real quick. Just understanding him fully and coming up with what’s going on in between the time jumps, all these things like that.
I would just really work very hard with the script during the day and then after dinner, I worked with my dad learning how to drive stick shift because the truck in the film is stick shift but we don’t have access to a stick shift car. All of our cars are automatic in my family. My dad, an engineer, built me this little really cool rig out of PVC pipe and plank wood. It was an exact replica of a steering wheel, a shift right here behind the steering wheel, gas, clutch, brake, all that stuff. We got it down because he knows how to drive stick shift, of course, so he taught me. But yeah, that was awesome and that really helped. But there was a bit of a surprise when we got to set because the stick shifting gears wasn’t behind the steering wheel. It was on the floor. It was a four-speed car that was so old that it was only three speeds now.
Aitch Alberto: The truck honked every time we drove!
Reese Gonzales: Yeah. Oh my gosh, that was crazy!
Aitch Alberto: You would do the smallest little lean in and it would be like, HONK!
Reese Gonzales: It was like the loudest horn you’ve ever heard in your life.
Valerie Stadler: I feel like one day, I was just like, unplug it!
Aitch Alberto: It was. That was exactly how that went down, thank G-d.
Valerie Stadler: This is producing.
I’m sure that’s a lot of fun for the ADR and sound editing.
Aitch Alberto: Yes, exactly. Luckily, the majority of the time—it was day three where we’re like, we need to unplug this thing.
What was the most challenging aspect of the production aside from the car honking?
Aitch Alberto: Getting the movie made was really hard but we had a really limited time to do it. I think that on the next one, if there is a next one, I hope to have a little bit more time to be able to play with them and discover more on screen. But we didn’t have much time so we had to come in and out. I think every director says that but I think it was really especially true for us. Just maintaining the nuance of not leaning into tropes that come from Latinx stories—that was really important to me and somewhat challenging to what was coming at me.
Having interviewed a number of filmmakers, that is the most frequently said answer: not enough time.
Aitch Alberto: Yeah. I think that’ll always be the case, right? But this was like, really, I can’t say how much not-time there was.
Valerie Stadler: No.
Aitch Alberto: Yeah.
What were some of the biggest challenges that came about because of the pandemic?
Aitch Alberto: Luckily, we did good. We didn’t have one Covid case on our site. I think Val’s genius was to have us shoot from Wednesday to Sunday so it limited contact from the outside world. We sort of unintentionally bubbled together. I never wore my mask because I don’t follow rules.
Valerie Stadler: She always wore her mask.
Aitch Alberto: I never wore my mask! I was like in it.
Valerie Stadler: I’m standing by my answer. She always wore her mask. (Laughs)
Aitch Alberto: Okay, Val, it’s been lovely having you, next! (Laughs)
Reese Gonzales: I don’t know what she’s talking about.
Max Pelayo: You always had the mask on.
Reese Gonzales: You were right on top of it.
Aitch Alberto: Stop! I never (inaudible). I’m standing by my answer. That was the challenge, right? It was just creating a space that felt like there weren’t limitations because of Covid and we could trust each other, which I think we succeeded.
Reese Gonzales: We were really good about that.
Valerie Stadler: If I could say, the other thing is that there’s downsides to a smaller movie and an upside to a slightly smaller, more intimate movie, right, is that you have a smaller group of people so it’s a little easier to control. And also, because this group of people was so invested in making this film and we all understood what the stakes were and we all understood what it would mean if someone went down. I think people were really mindful and kind of shut their lives down for the period of time that we shot the film and we were able to get through it. I think that really spoke to Aitch’s ability as a leader because everyone just wanted to jump in and really show up and get this movie made.
Aitch Alberto: That’s real. I think everybody felt the importance of what the story could be and it didn’t matter what department, it didn’t matter what their gender was, what their sexual identity was. They really cared about the story and they cared about these two boys and myself and they really wanted to show up for it. Towards the end of the movie, the scene with Ari and his parents, everybody was crying and it was such a beautiful thing to watch because its men that you wouldn’t accept a sort of feeling where and I think that was just a testament to the story.
How long was the shoot?
Aitch Alberto: I can’t say. It’s not long.
Valerie Stadler: Yeah, it was a sort of a typical indie shoot.
Aitch Alberto: What?!? (Laughs) Timewise.
Reese Gonzales: We shot the whole thing in three hours. (Laughs) The length of the movie, 96 minutes—that’s actually how long it took.
Valerie Stadler: I mean, listen, you always want more time and you always want more money, you always want more resources and that’s always gonna be a thing. I think of the fact is what we put together what we’re able to put together to shoot the movie and I think to Aitch’s credit, to these boys’ credit, to the credit of everybody that worked on the film, we were able to deliver a beautiful film but it was definitely a struggle.
Aitch Alberto: Our joke was we live a lifetime every day.
Valerie Stadler: Yeah, it wasn’t really a joke though.
Aitch Alberto: No.
When Dante was reading the list of people that he’s met or seen in Chicago, there was one very important subset that he left off.
Aitch Alberto: What?
The improv comedians!
Aitch Alberto: (Laughs)
Reese Gonzales: There’s lots of improv comedians here. They make me very happy.
Aitch Alberto: That’s so true though. Chicago is so rich with improv and it’s like, iO—all the greats have come out of there.
Reese Gonzales: Dante would have definitely tried out improv in Chicago.
Aitch Alberto: He probably did.
Max Pelayo: He’d have succeeded or failed.
Reese Gonzales: I think—
Aitch Alberto: Not Reese, Dante.
Reese Gonzales: Dante would have succeeded, yeah.
What he have made SNL?
Reese Gonzales: Dante?
Aitch Alberto: Dante?I want to say yes. Ari, no.
Max Pelayo: Put that in the sequel, yeah.
Reese Gonzales: Dante’s SNL audition.
Aitch Alberto: Gino would definitely be on SNL.
Reese Gonzales: Oh gosh, yeah.
Max Pelayo: Gino the comedian.
Reese Gonzales: Oh, yeah.
On that note, what do you want people to take away from the film?
Aitch Alberto: To be kinder to yourself on your journey to self-love and self-acceptance and often, your ugly is your superpower.
Reese Gonzales: To give love to the people around you, who you care about the most and who care about you the most, and appreciate them. To allow yourself to be yourself and not be afraid of that and to understand others in their perspective.
Max Pelayo: You deserve to love, you deserve to be happy. Once you allow that in, that’s when the whole world opens up. That’s when life really begins.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is currently seeking distribution.
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