On Friday, the first part of the Soderberg-lensed Che gets its limited release. It stars Benicio del Toro in the role of the beloved guerillero and follows Guevara during his Cuba years (the second part of Che is set for release early next year). SCREEN COMMENT met with Soderberg and Del Toro to discuss icons, what Fidel Castro would have thought and how to market long films.
Steven, you live in the States, a country with no diplomatic ties to Cuba and here you are making an impassioned film about a Cuban revolutionary (Steven Soderberg) I’m interested in Che, he’s great movie material, he’s had the most fascinating life in this century. We were focusing initially on the campaign in Bolivia, because there’s a good deal of mystery there, but unless you understand what happened during the years in Cuba, you’re lacking a context for what took place in Bolivia.
Benicio, how do you play the part of an icon, someone who nowadays is better known as a T-shirt symbol than an actual person? (Benicio Del Toro) It’s not my imagination, you do a lot of reading, you meet people who have known him, you see the pros and cons of the character, you watch as much footage as you can, that’s how you go about it. I grew up in Porto Rico and I never knew much about Che when I was a kid. I only knew one side of him, there was a connotation of him being a bad guy. I remember going into a bookstore and seeing a picture of Che and he had a really warm smile. Going to Cuba and meeting tons of people that loved this man made me want to get to know him better.
(S.S.) The whole film is an elaborate scheme to sell T-shirts (everyone laughs)
The current political climate in Latin America shows that the left is still strong, in fact it’s making a comeback. There’s a certain timeliness about this film, isn’t there? (S.S.) Yes, it’s interesting that this movie comes out now that Evo Morales is running thing in Bolivia now, it makes you think that Che was forty years too early.
What’s the main thrust of Che? (S.S.) The bottom line is we’re trying to give you a sense of what it was like to hang out around this person, that’s really it. The scenes were chosen on the basis of, what does that tell us about him? All these interactions mean something. Take all the research and make a four hour-plus long film about it. That’s the hard part.
What happened as you became more and more familiar with who Che Guevara is? (B.D.T.) In terms of research I became more and more like the deer in the headlights. I kept telling Steve, well what about if we do this, what about if we do that?
You decided to make the film in Spanish and it’s over four hours. It’s a significant challenge in terms of market and the US is the one country which needs to be enlightened about Che Guevara. Did alternatives ever cross your mind, like doing a more Hollywood-style biopic, dubbing the film or splitting it off in two movies as has been speculated on a lot lately? (S.S.) I can only make the film that I want to see, otherwise you’re second-guessing yourself and you’re lost. I can’t make a film at any level of credibility in this case unless it’s in Spanish. I hope that we’ll reach a time when the spread of the specific brand of cultural imperialism has ended. Regarding all the discussion about subtitles, etc. I’ll tell you one thing that people hate, and that’s dubbing. Every time they’ve tried to release films that were dubbed, it was a disaster. The issue of whether to release as one or two movies is something that we’re discussing right now, and it will be a challenge.
How would want this film to be show in theatres, if you had it your way? (S.S.) For the first week the movie would be shown as one piece and then it would be split off in two films, a sort of road show engagement, no credits but with a printed program. To me that would be an event, that would be something fun.
Benicio, you’re a little gruffy in this movie. How real was your approach, did you actually not shower? My fingernails still have a little bit of dirt under them.
(S.S.) There’s one aspect which I wish I could have translated, which is smell (everyone laughs). There was a smell on the set.
How is your Spanish? Did you have any difficulty with the language? (S.S.) It’s more complicated than it appears. I speak Porto Rican Spanish, which is very different from Che’s tongue. My Spanish is not great. I last spoke it when I was 13 and Che Guevara was an intellectual so he spoke a very strong Spanish. But I got a lot of help from a lot of people.
Would you like Fidel Castro to see the film? What do you think he would say about it? (S.S.) I visited Cuba five times before the making of Che. Our shoot was arranged by the State Department. Everybody knew we were there. While we were there we were told repeatedly, “Pedro may be calling you.” And you know that call could come at anytime. Castro’s apparently known for calling you at 2 in the morning and saying ‘come over, let’s talk.” I heard that he likes to watch movies. Apparently when he watches movies if he sees something that he wants to discuss, he stops the film and talks, and starts the film up again. Well, Fidel Castro may not survive “Che” (laughs).
(B.D.T) I met Castro for about five minutes at a book fair. He knew about the project, he said to me that he was very happy that we had spent so much time researching the subject and that he’d like to see the movie. I take his compliments and… no one knew Che better than he did.
Have you seen the other movies about Che, like the one Walter Salles made? (S.S.) Yes, I have seen them, I had them with me while we were shooting. Walter’s movie is really Act I of our Che movie. Now it’s a trilogy you could almost say.
How does one separate the man from the myth, and are you a believer in Che’s revolution? (S.S.) I came into this as sort of an agnostic. I’m not personally invested in building him up or tearing him down, I’m just interested in him. I can make a film about a true believer without believing everything he believes. I’m just compelled by the fact that twice he gave up everything to go put his ass on the line for somebody else. Especially the second time, he walked away from everything, his family, his kids, to try and do it again in Bolivia. That will is really fascinating to me. And as we got further into the project, we realized why he’s such a difficult subject: on the one hand, Che Guevara is tailor-made for the movies, on the other there’s so much writing on him that the editing process was really intense and took a long time.
How did you manage such a large-scale project, especially as regards the cast, shooting in the jungle, etc? (S.S.) I think there was a legitimate camaraderie amongst the cast partially because my attitude with them was, I’m not going to take care of you, we’re going to move so fast you’ll have to do everything for yourself. We have 39 days on each of these films to shoot. I’ve never had to move this fast, and I usually move very fast normally, but this was off the charts. I explained to everybody, it’s all on you, I’m so overwhelmed trying to shoot this thing on schedule. But the good news is that everybody formed a support group to survive it.