Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Next Best Picture Podcast – Interview With “Frida” Director Carla Gutierrez

Frida” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award. It marks the feature directorial debut for Carla Gutierrez, who previously worked as an editor on “RBG” and “Julia.” She also acted as an editor for this film. Gutierrez was kind enough to spend some time speaking with us about her work on the film, which you can listen to or read below. Please be sure to check out the film, which is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Thank you, and enjoy!

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This is Nadia with Next Best Picture. It’s really lovely to meet you. Thank you so much for your time. I’m very excited to be here and to talk to you about your wonderful documentary and directorial debut, Frida, which is such a rich achievement. There’s so much to dive into, and I just wanted to start by saying that your work as a documentary editor has shone a light on so many trailblazing women, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg (in “RBG“) to Julia Child (in “Julia“). And now, we have this very intimate portrait of this iconic surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo. Could you start by telling us about your connection to Frida and what sparked your decision to direct this film?

So, the idea for the film came about, I would say, probably three years ago. But I have had a personal relationship with Frida’s art for over 20 years. I discovered her in college, and I became obsessed. I know I’m only one of millions who have this experience with her paintings. But yeah, when I was in college, I was a young immigrant, and I saw the painting that she has of herself between the United States and Mexico, and it’s a painting actually that you see in the film when she’s actually not happy to be in the United States anymore. I found myself […] my feelings about moving from Latin America to the United States, and this country which has given me so much but wasn’t always welcoming. I was very much feeling the same way that she painted, that canvas […] mixed feelings about my new place, and really longing for my home. I really saw myself reflected in it, so throughout the years, I’ve been going back to her art, and I’ve been seeing my emotions in many different paintings that I’ve seen of hers, which is extraordinary because it’s her face that you see. They’re all mostly self-portraits, but she has the ability to show us her internal emotional state, which I think connects with our own. So that was kind of the beginning of my story with Frida. But when I came to the idea of making the film, I was already a mature middle-aged woman who had lived a lot and had a lot of experience in editing and bringing historical figures to life. So, I felt like I was coming into this project with this experience to give justice to Frida’s own voice and words. I also saw an opportunity to really focus on her own voice. I had not seen a documentary do that, really allowing her to tell her own story, so I thought there was a need. There’s been a lot of things done about her, but there was a need to get Frida’s perspective that was this intimate, which was really carried by her own voice. So I really wanted to do it immediately.

Yes. You did an incredible job of painting that intimate picture because I feel like Frida’s image has become a huge symbol beyond herself. She really is everywhere. Even before this interview, I passed by a Frida grocery market with her image as the storefront sign. So she really is everywhere. I loved that you visualize her beyond her iconic status in this documentary. We’re really getting to know the human being – her thoughts, emotions, personality, and humor. It did feel kind of like watching a diary come to life. Did you feel a sense of responsibility or pressure to interpret Frida in this intimate way?

Of course. We have done a lot of research, but I feel that the research gave us the freedom to take creative risks. The creative risks I feel that we took was to trust that we wanted to make this film about her emotions and not necessarily a list of things that she accomplished in life or that happened in her life. So, so you know, I think we went for it. But I do remember early on thinking, I’m going to be immersed in so much research that I might feel the weight of everything that happened in her life, and I might have a hard time kind of letting go for the service of the story that we were telling, to maybe let go of some details. So, I quickly made the decision to bring support since I was wearing two hats as both director and editor. Let me get a great creative producer [Katia Maguire] and an amazing supervising editor [David Teague], who will help me step back and really see and remind myself, how are we making this film? What we want is to capture the spirit of this woman, the emotion of this woman, and the texture of her personality. So let’s make sure that we take those risks and make those bold decisions to do that to really capture intimacy with her, right? And not feel the responsibility to include everything about her life that everybody knows about.

I think part of what captures that spirit so well is also the narration by Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero. It’s very, very brilliant and evocative. I was wondering which qualities you were looking for when deciding on or visualizing the best voice to represent Frida?

The really funny thing is that, you know, her voice…oh my god, what a blessing it was to find Fernanda. She just brought, you know, this layered, complex, beautiful, beautiful performance and embodied Frida’s spirit as we were looking to do. But the funny thing is that we had to put the film together without our actress to be able to have a final voiceover. I had to read Frida’s voice myself, which was just so, you know, it was just terrible because first I knew that we could get a much better performance. But I also hear my own voice all the time, with a Peruvian accent. I’m from Peru, not Mexico. Looking for Fernanda was one thing. We were looking for […] we had descriptions of Frida’s voice, but we did not want to only look for the quality of her voice, the perfect quality. We were looking for somebody who could give us a performance that could really capture Frida’s maturity and the weight of a life that had gone through a lot of suffering and a lot of loss. A voice that had not lost that curiosity, freshness, and passionate view of the world that she had throughout her entire life. That childish curiosity and rebellious spirit that you feel when she’s a little girl, and she’s a teenager. Fernanda just came with that in her first audition, which was just her performance. And then when we got together with her to record, the idea was to, again, be able to capture a really intimate […] kind of like, Frida’s telling us her secrets. So, the way that we did it was I got pretty close to Fernanda and imagined if Frida was lying on her bed towards the end of her life, recollecting her emotions throughout her life and telling a good friend those secrets. So, that was the first approach we had for recording the voiceover. 

Her voice really adds so many layers to the footage and photography. The documentary itself is like a treasure chest of archival material, and I’d love to hear more about the research process for this. Where was the first place? Where do you start with so much around you? And did you have easy access to all the footage that ended up in the film?

So, access to archival is always like a long process that you have to be very disciplined and persist in to be able to get access. Especially when you discover magical things out there, like, “Oh, this must go into the film.” The first task was to get all of her writings. You know, I’m telling people that it wasn’t that obvious at the beginning that she could carry all of her story. I knew she could tell us quite a bit about her life, but I thought that I was going to be relying on other people’s voices a little bit more. But she took over, and that was because we created the most comprehensive database of Frida’s writing. Some academics might have done that, but they’re not public. There’s no single book that carries all of her writings in one place. So we tracked a lot of academic work that had been done and then went to the different collections to get the writings. Again, access from the different collections was different. Sometimes, we could get access, but getting the letters would take a really long time. There was some convincing that we had to do with other collections. So, that was kind of like the really heavy research that we did. And then we read everything. Our core team, my associate producer, and I read everything. I would say hundreds and hundreds of documents with her writing. Archival research was another thing. We had our fantastic archival producer in Mexico, who physically went to a lot of the sources because many of the archival sources in Mexico don’t have things digitized. So we actually got imagery in our film that had never been digitized before, which was really exciting for us. And again, all the photos of Frida are everywhere in the world in different collections. We just wanted to get every picture we could as we were telling the story and then curate it with as much flexibility as possible. We didn’t have any shooting; we didn’t do any contemporary interviews, so all of our energy and our shooting was really collecting and gathering all the archival, either the voiceover or the visual archival we got.

It’s really incredible how, in that collection, you also get the sense, as a viewer, that Frida was also a very powerful writer. Your film shows her sharp and insightful way with words, which I also loved. And I was wondering, in that whole process of the research, was there any particular material you discovered about Frida that took you by surprise?

My obsession with Frida when I was a young woman was deep. So I knew pretty much every detail of her life. I read a lot about what academics think about her paintings and how those paintings were tied to things about her life or her feelings in her life. But a lot of the stuff that I read of her words were long quotes that people added in books. So, I often didn’t read the entire letter from which those fragments came. So, being able to read those letters in their entirety was surprising. I learned about Frida’s personality and even saw her as a complex, messy, wonderful, powerful woman. Like I remember reading the entire, for the first time, the entire letter where she’s talking about her abortion. Hearing the fragility in her voice was special and new to me. It made me feel closer to her in a way I had never felt reading the books about her that others had written. It’s the same with the sharp tongue you’re talking about; her humor really jumped out of the page from her letters and other writings in a way I’d never heard before in other curated material. So that was also really special. I didn’t realize the extent of her, you know, vocabulary of how to insult people. 

It was very entertaining.

Yes, and again, I was not surprised by any details of what happened to her, but I was really taken and kind of surprised to hear her in a more intimate way by reading all of her writings. 

There’s also a really interesting balance between a period piece and a contemporary piece. Something about it feels so timeless, and one of the supporting factors is the sound of the documentary. The score is a very lively score by composer Victor Hernández Stumpfhauser. And the music overall, I think, adds a really interesting layer of expression to the archival footage, which I’m presuming must’ve been mostly silent a lot of the time. What was it like collaborating with Victor and getting the overall music and sound for the story?

It was wonderful. Victor was game, just like our animators. Victor was game to try anything, and we tried. We went to different extremes to see what would feel right as we edited the scenes. So he was just kind of willing even to put aside work that had been done and then try some things from scratch. But you know, the conversations that we had were mainly about how do we capture Frida’s voice? Also, because we’re using her own words, we wanted to make it feel timeless as if this story was happening in real-time. We’re walking with her through Mexico, which she was experiencing, for example. So how do we make it as present as possible, like the feeling of being contemporary? And so, we talked a lot about how we captured her voice. We ended up using voices in the music, which is what worked. It seems very literal, but the female voice, this abstract voice, sometimes felt like a loud scream of empowerment. Sometimes, it felt like a scream of pain. It clicked for us. Then we played with instruments you could find in traditional Mexican music, like trumpets, but took them out of context and layered things underneath, adding this kind of contemporary feeling to it. We had a lot of discussions based on what Frida listened to back then; what would she be listening to now? We had a lot of inspirational music playlists that had a lot of Latin American female badass singers and a lot of rappers, and we actually played with a lot of cumbia, which I think she would’ve absolutely loved. Mexican cumbia, that had electronics stuff to it. So that was our inspiration, and Victor just found a way to find a mixture of those things that really felt like they reflected Frida’s rebellious energy. We talked a lot about her never choosing to contain her voice. She expressed her voice loudly, and that was something we wanted to capture with the music. I know I’m explaining a lot, but the sound design is incredible. We worked with a group in Mexico City, and they really got into it. They went to record a lot of Mexican sounds. They are not really the cars of now, but they just brought Mexico alive. We also brought a lot of textural sounds to her art, things that were abstract. We played a lot with the idea of ash because she smoked a lot, but also, ash is similar to the sound of a paintbrush going against the canvas, which is a little dry. A little bit of fire, and then, fluids which were so present in her art […] blood, the sea, the tears that she has, there’s all these very delicate fluids. But we wanted to make those as abstract as possible so they were not too literal. And it seemed to work really well. 

Absolutely, and it also has such a complimentary feature with the animation. The visual language of Frida is so fascinating, and it’s creatively rewarding because it gives so much fluidity to the paintings and makes them feel even more alive and interactive. How did you find the animators, Sofía Inés Cázares and Renata Galindo?

So, Renata and Sofia, we found through Instagram. We actually found an artist who collaborated with them a lot and was part of the animation team […] Maria Lumbreras. Then, through Maria, we contacted Renata and Sofia because they had collaborated before. They had either worked together in companies or freelancing. And they put a collective of mostly female animators together to do this. They hired a lot of young females. I have pictures of them, and it’s just so heartwarming. They were the leads, and then they had a bunch of pretty young female animators working on all the details. It was very special to have that female energy from Mexico to work on this, who they knew Frida really well but from the Mexican perspective. Our conversation was always about how to respect the intention of the art but only highlight some emotional aspects so that we can guide the viewer into Frida’s heart and thoughts. That was very special because we interviewed a bunch of bigger companies, and just having this independent collective form for our film was wonderful because it was incredibly collaborative. You could feel the emotional investment that everybody was putting into the film. 

Absolutely. It really pours out of each and every frame. I know we’re reaching the end of our time here, but before we wrap, I just wanted to know: Now that Frida is being released very soon on a huge platform like Prime Video, what is your hope for what audiences will take away from this film?

I really want audiences to get this feeling of cathartic expression, and being honest with your emotions and letting them out is a really good thing. It’s a thing that heals us, comforts us, and gives us a place of refuge. For some of us, it’s artistic expression. For others, it’s just simply talking, right? But I think for women specifically and for non-binary people, we I think believe a lot of times that our internal worlds and our internal feelings are not necessarily important. We should not be talking about them, or we should think about them in shame if we’re having difficult emotions. I hope that they see in this film an artist who could let her voice out, and in a way, that expression gave her life when she had lost so much throughout her actual life. So that’s my little hope.

That’s an incredible, incredibly powerful note to end on. Thank you so much, Carla. Congratulations on this fantastic film, Frida, and thanks so much again for your time. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Thanks so much, Carla. Take care, bye.

“Frida” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

You can follow Nadia and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter @nadreviews

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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