As synopsized by Panamá IFF: "A mysterious plague unleashes on the streets of Havana, with zombies starting to be seen and multiplying exponentially by the minute. The authorities blame imperialistic maneuvers from the North on the vicious takeover, and are soon overwhelmed by the mounting chaos. The apocalypse seems irreversible. But before all hope is lost an unlikely team is formed that can possibly defeat the odds: Juan, a middle-aged man of unspecific occupation and his pal Lázaro are luckily on a fishing excursion at the beginning of the outbreak. The two men quickly realize there is a business opportunity if they stay alive, and start offering their zombie extermination and removal service to the living that can afford it. 'Juan of the Dead, we kill your loved ones' is their slogan."
Josh Hurtado writes: "The film is filled with clever dialogue, plenty of solid gore, the blackest of black humor, and geek humor for miles. There are very inventive zombie kills, including one in particular that involves a truck, a wire, and about three hundred of the undead that is really the piece de resistance of Juan of the Dead." Quiet Earth declares "how much fun it is to see the zombie apocalypse in yet another new locale, and the Havana alleyways, rooftops, tenement buildings, and beachfronts are consistently lush and brim with detail and character." And Latin Horror reports: "Brugués and his partners created their production company 5a Avenida and secured a whopping $2.3 million for special effects via financing from Spain's La Zanfoña Producciones."
Screenwriter and director Alejandro Brugués was born in Buenos Aires. He graduated from Cuba's International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños. He co-owns and writes for 5a Avenida Productions. His first feature Personal Belongings (2007) secured worldwide distribution. Anticipating its popular appeal, Panamá IFF has booked his sophomore feature Juan of the Dead for one of its late-night en plein air screenings. My thanks to Blanca Granados and the Toronto International Film Festival—where Juan of the Dead had its world premiere—for providing the opportunity to sit down with Brugués to discuss his film. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
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Michael Guillén: Straight off, Alejandro, I want to say that I found Juan of the Dead to be an accomplished genre piece in its humor, sterling special effects, and wry but lighthanded sociopolitical commentary.
Alejandro Brugués: Thank you very much.
Guillén: Tell me about your background. This is your second film, no?
Brugués: This is my second film as a director but my sixth film as a screenwriter. I just wanted to be a writer when I got into filmmaking so I studied screenwriting and my career began as a screenwriter. Then I started to not like the films that directors were making out of my scripts. Of course, when you're a writer and you're on the set, the director's role looks easy—he just tells the actors what he doesn't like and what he wants them to do—so I thought, "I can do that. If someone's going to screw up my screenplays, it might as well be me." So I started directing. I made my first feature film Personal Belongings—which is a completely different film from Juan of the Dead; it's a social drama—and then, when we were doing the post-production on Personal Belongings, I had the idea for Juan of the Dead. I began writing. When I talked to my producer for the first time, he told me, "This is going to be big." Then when he read the script, he said, "This is much bigger than I originally thought." So it became a matter of figuring out how to raise the money.
Guillén: Which you did. You raised $2.3 million through Spain's La Zanfoña Producciones.
Guillén: It's a great idea that works on many different levels. Not only is there a lineage of films about zombies associated with tropical islands, but zombies in themselves can be used to embody almost any kind of social commentary. You used your zombie outbreak to comment upon U.S. imperialism and capitalism, but—more importantly—the survival of the Cuban people in the face of consistent aggression.
Brugués: When I started in on this project, I wanted to talk about how Cubans react when faced with problems. I knew it was going to be fun because I was taking things I'd seen happen in real life but adding zombies to the mix. You wouldn't believe how much truth is actually in the film. When things get bad, Cubans usually keep on living as if nothing has happened. They either capitalize on what is happening or try to leave the island for someplace else. Those are equally wrong approaches. If you really like something, you have to fight for it. That's something I wanted to say in the film.
Guillén: Which is exactly what Juan expresses in the final sequence when he decides to stay and fight?
Brugués: Juan in many ways is a parable about living through the past 50+ years of revolution in Cuba. Cubans see Havana deteriorating but they just keep on living. So many people leave but I've always said, "Why would you leave? If you really like it, stay and fight for it."
Diana Sanchez wrote it up for the program capsule. She wrote that Juan of the Dead "depicts Havana as a place where elevators rarely function and medicines are usually out of date; things are falling apart, yet people know how to have a good time." You cleverly make sure that your protagonists find rum first, and then food. And because I am dealing with my own little viejita of a mother, the scenario that most spoke to me as real but hilarious was when Juan is being attacked by a zombie while his mother is gossiping on the phone. I howled at that.
Brugués: Thank you. I think anyone can take something away from the film that has a basis in their real lives. What comes to mind, for example, is when Juan is teaching the neighbors how to defend themselves by using a ninja star. I took that from a real-life self-defense class. I was taught that—in case we're invaded by the Americans—we had to be able to defend ourselves with anything. I was taught that you can cut ninja stars from the lid of a can. At the time I thought, "Is this guy for real? C'mon. If the Americans invade us, this is what we're going to do?" But the truth is, yeah, the Americans better be prepared, because we will.
Guillén: You described your first film as a social drama, what inspired you to turn towards genre?
Brugués: I love genre. I would like most of my career to be spent making genre films; but, at that time, I had two scripts: one was genre and the other was this love story social drama about a guy who wants to leave the country and a girl who wants to stay; a take on Romeo and Juliet but very Cuban. I did that film because it was easier to fund and also because at that time the Cuban attitude was, "We don't do genre films." Most Cuban films were comedies or dramas so it was easier to get Personal Belongings done. But Juan is more the kind of film I want to do.
Guillén: I'm intrigued that you talk about a Cuban cinema and distinguish it from your own ventures into genre. In fact, I've been told now and again that some filmmakers specifically use genre to move past the concept of a national cinema to reach an international audience. When you first imagined Juan of the Dead, did you see your audience as an international one?
Brugués: Of course! That was the case even with my first film. Films have to be international so that audiences can understand them no matter where the film is from. The point was to make a film that had international appeal but at the same time one about how we are in Cuba and make it interesting. In the case of Juan, I also had to make sure it was a good zombie film. I'm a big fan of zombie films. So I had to please the zombie film crowd at the same time that I offered social commentary about what I observe as an artist.
Guillén: Has there not been a genre film like Juan out of Cuba before?
Vampires in Havana (1985). It's very good but it was a cartoon. I also have to talk about one filmmaker, Jorge Molina. He actually plays Juan's sidekick Lázaro in my film, though he's not really an actor; he's a genre film director. He's a cult filmmaker. He loves to do very gory horror stuff with lots of naked women and all that. He's awesome and he was great in my film.
Guillén: You qualified earlier that you felt under pressure to make a good zombie film. The quality of your special effects have helped you achieve that. Your practical blood effects are great and the scenes of Havana falling apart, the buildings on fire and smoking and collapsing, are really well-done. Who did you work with to achieve those effects?
Brugués: First of all, there's a lot of Havana that's actually falling apart. [Laughs.] That's one of the things I wanted to show. Sometimes there are locations in the film that you might think we've retouched or that have had some art direction; but, no, those places exist like that. Also, we had a Cuban team for the practical effects. Three Spanish companies were in charge of the CGI and a Mexican team for the make-up. Since Cuba doesn't do a lot of genre films, there was a lot of stuff that was being done for the first time there that Cubans didn't know how to do, so we had to bring in specialists from other places.
Guillén: Will Juan kickstart a wave of Cuban genre filmmaking? How big is the filmmaking community of independent filmmakers in Cuba?
Brugués: It's not that big. There's only one production company in Cuba and it's run by the State. Most Cuban films are funded by them; but, ours wasn't. I think a lot of Cuban filmmakers are trying to make more independent films, though I'm not sure they will be genre films. Cubans tend to talk about their problems in straightforward ways. I just thought it would be a lot of fun using zombies. Even though I don't think there will be many genre films coming out, I hope Cuban filmmakers will continue to make independent films. You can feel the change in the filmmakers who have grown up in my generation who have had different influences. I can tell you for sure that I will keep making genre films.
Brugués: The actor Jazz Vilá who played La China was in my first film, where he was amazing. The character of La China was different in the original script; but, I met with Jazz in Spain where he's living now and we had so much fun together that I told myself, "I have to write a new character for him because I really want to work with him again." So I created the character of La China and I knew how I wanted him to look and all that; but, I let Jazz improvise most of his dialogue because he's a genius. He's brilliant. It's lovely to work with him. So most of La China's dialogue is his own invention. It's interesting that you think his performance was political because my sole intention was simply to work with him again.
Guillén: That's fair. But, as a character, La China adds a lot to your ensemble of characters. Let's talk about that ensemble and your casting. You've already mentioned that Juan's sidekick Lázaro is actually a genre film director. How did you develop the rest of your cast of characters?
Brugués: I wrote the script with the two main characters for Alexis Díaz de Villegas to play Juan and Jorge Molina to play Lázaro because—when I first thought about this film—I had this image of Juan standing with his oar ready to fight. I wanted these two guys to be like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and I wanted them to be 40-something because that is a generation that has gone through a lot in Cuba. They were born right after the Revolution and they have seen the best of that time and then—with the fall of the Soviet Union—there was their disenchantment. They saw everything change into bad times. Their's is a generation that has a lot of sadness to it. What I told them was, "What you have felt in all these 40 years, I want you to recreate it in the moments that take place in the film. I want to see in Juan's eyes the sadness and the worry that life around him is falling apart." Lázaro I just wanted to be funny.
Andros Perugorría. I wanted him to represent the new generation, which is a generation that doesn't care about anything. Things happen to people within the country and they just don't care. I believe that's sad. It looks funny in the film but when you think about it, it's sad to be living like that. Juan's daughter Camila, played by the Spanish actress Andrea Duro, is part of the Cuban society who has left. If you're Cuban you probably have someone you love who has left Cuba. La China's sidekick is the big black guy El Primo.
Guillén: The fainter! You used the gag of him fainting at the sight of blood repeatedly and it worked every time.
Brugués: But you know what? We discovered that while we were rehearsing with the actors. They added so much to the script. Eliecer Ramírez who played El Primo is a bodybuilder; he's not an actor. I found him on the street. One day I was driving with my producer Claudia Calviño and we saw him. I stopped the car and said, "That's the guy!" He was lovely and—when we were reading the script and adding stuff—we came up with the idea of a big muscular guy who faints.
Guillén: Can you speak to that process of adjusting your script to accommodate the improvisations of your actors? Do the improvisations get set in rehearsal or do you just turn the camera on and let them go?
Brugués: Each actor is different. Each actor has their own world. For example, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is a very mental actor. With Jazz Vilá (La China), it's all about improvisation. Jorge Molina, being a film director too, knows how to steal a scene. He's a fucker! [Laughs.] Sometimes we would be shooting and we'd be thinking, "What the fuck's he doing?" And then you can't cut it when you're editing the film because it's brilliant. He knows where to stand. He knows how to get the light. I usually tell my actors that—except for specific lines I want them to say—the script is just a starting point. I can tell when we're rehearsing which actors are going to improvise and which are not.
Once when we were beginning to shoot the film, I was wearing my headphones and the actors didn't know their mics were on and I overheard them talking about what it would be like if Juan and Lázaro were in a TV series like CSI? It was fun listening to them because they knew what they were doing. I relaxed when I heard them because I knew they were into their characters and—once I knew that—I could change the scene and have them remain in character.
Brugués: When I grew up it was difficult to see zombie films. I had to go to a lot of trouble to see all the zombie films I wanted to see. Since shooting Juan, and because it was such a big production and got so much attention, there's now more awareness about zombie films; but, initially, Cubans didn't really know what zombies are. That's what I was playing with in that scene. And because Cubans don't really know what zombies are, that's why I could play with letting the television announcers talk about "dissidents." The authorities could blame the United States for the zombie outbreak.
Guillén: In other words, it would be more trouble than it's worth to try to explain it to anybody?
Brugués: You probably didn't notice that the zombie in the water was wearing a Guantanamo Bay t-shirt?
Guillén: I didn't notice that and, undoubtedly, I need to watch the film again to catch these little details. But now I understand how you're playing. In the later scene where Juan and Lázaro are saved by the American and he says, "Kick ass for the Lord", that's a quotation from Peter Jackson's film, isn't it?
Guillén: Since you're clearly citing other films, what earlier zombie films influenced Juan? Other than the obvious references to Dawn and Shaun?
Guillén: A choice that allowed humor. Some funny bits danced around the slow zombies. One thing that lifted my eyebrow, however, was the killing of innocent people, along with the killing of the zombies.
Brugués: That is mainly in Lázaro's character. I wanted him to be the biggest fuck-up. I'm not sure how many ended up in the actual film, but I think his body count of innocent people is seven. I should do a film just about Lázaro because he's such a mess.