Stephen Frears & Josué MéndezA year of mentoring

Published in 2007clockTime to read: 4m55s
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During the year of mentoring, Méndez shot his feature film Dioses with the guidance of Stephen Frears. While they initially met in Lima, the real discussions between mentor and protégé began on a trip to the long-lost, mountain-top, Inca city of Machu Picchu – an hour by plane plus four hours by bus from the capital. After contemplating the sacrificial altars and communing with the grazing alpacas, what else is there to do but talk about film? “All you can do is ask questions,” Frears believes. Méndez has to provide the answers. “Frears forced me to think what I wanted. He wants you to be sure of everything,” Méndez says. “There are many questions that, even now, I'm trying to answer.”

by David Patrick Stearns 2007
  • Stephen Frears
    The Mentor
  • Josué Méndez
    The Protégé

The Project

Movie-making is often too complicated to allow much behind-the-scenes mirth. But on this balmy Saturday evening in Lima, Josué Méndez's team of designers and cinematographers are brainstorming over their forthcoming film with exclamations of agreement – “Si!”, “Bueno!” and “Let's do it!” – around a table littered with books on their idols.

Dressed in t-shirt, shorts and sandals (typical Lima urban wear), Méndez ceremoniously produces a viewfinder – a cylindrical lens that is standard for most directors, but a luxury for Peruvian ones on a budget. As it teasingly emerges from its leather case, wolf whistles cut the air.

Such are the spirits of those who are young and have little to lose. The world, it seems, is daring them to make Dioses, a satiric, comedy about Peru's hermetic upper-class.

In Peru, the film community is so small that virtually nobody works in it full-time. One of the magnetic leading ladies of Dioses – a popular soap opera actress named Denisse Dibos – makes part of her living producing local stage revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar to supplement her income. Méndez's producer, the charming, resourceful Enid “Pinky” Campos, has seen the world from India to Bulgaria via invitations from many film festivals. But, for financial reasons, she still lives at home with mother. For a last-minute Dioses fundraiser, they held a beer “fiesta” netting $1,400.

While location-scouting in an exclusive, gated beach community – where desert at its most desolate hits aqua sea shores – they saw one household with Indian servants in uniforms designed to blend in with the wallpaper. In a world this stratified, one community's interior decoration easily becomes another's social commentary. “But they don't know that!” says Méndez, eyes gleaming.

Just manoeuvring around Peru has restrictions wrought by years of terrorism that turned Lima into a city of gates, guards and speed bumps. In one location-scouting mission Méndez was admitted to an exclusive beach community only with an escort on bicycle who was never more than five metres away.

Into this strange world arrived Frears at the start of the mentoring relationship. With Méndez well into the conceptual stage with Dioses, Frears was optimistic that he could make a difference. “It was important that Méndez was making a film,” says Frears. “All you can do is go on making films and slowly you learn. It took me a long, long time. You get good people around you, and listen to them. I wouldn't know how to light a scene, for example. But I can see that I can orchestrate it. And I can do the human bits. On a good day.”

The lessons

“Frears forced me to think what I wanted. He wants you to be sure of everything,” Méndez says. “There are many questions that, even now, I'm trying to answer. I should leave certain answers to the audience, but, as a writer, I like to know – and then decide what I want the audience to know.”

Many film-makers don't hesitate to go into production with an unfinished script. Alternate endings can always be shot. Frears once did that, but not anytime lately. “My experience is that if you get things wrong, you’ve probably got it wrong in the writing,” he says, adding that you cannot simply use ambiguity. “It's an excuse for something that perhaps isn't a good idea. When you start making films, you're not quite sure about anything, and it [the result] is all a bit generalized. People can't tell what your intentions were. Then, as you gain more experience, you're more confident and become more precise in your intentions. Then, of course, you're accused of having the wrong intentions. So you find a new way of torturing yourself.”

Lucky for Méndez that he had such well-established compass points from Frears, since the first days of shooting with Dioses left little room for anything but dealing with a production crew that turned out to be rather larger then necessary. “The first week was tough… everybody was shouting all the time,” says Méndez. “But the main ideas that stuck with me [from Frears] were to be precise, to find the meaning of each scene and stick to it. There were no big discoveries. No big surprises. I don't know if this is good or bad, but my producer is happy!”

Extracted from an article written by David Patrick Stearns for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

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