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Interview with screenwriter Alberto Chumaceiro

  • What is the first story you ever wrote?

When I was young, I read a lot and I liked writing my own stories, just a few pages with short tales that were pretty bad but I had fun picturing them in my head. That eventually led to a short film that I co-wrote and shot with some friends, while I was in high-school. It truly was terrible, haha! But the first story that I actually felt proud of and that had a proper screenplay format, was called “Subsuelo” (Subsoil). I wrote it in college with my friend Cris Poe, during a screenplay workshop in 2001. It was about the bond of two men trapped in a mine after a cave in. Shortly after, I co-wrote another short called “Al Llegar a Casa” (When I get Home), with Mauricio Rodriguez, who would eventually become one of my business partners. That was our thesis project and our first serious foray into directing.

  • Growing up, what movies or stories inspired your creative passion?

I grew up in the 80’s so Spielberg was a big influence on me. Stories about regular people in extraordinary circumstances, like E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was also a huge fan of classic adventure and sci-fi films (and still am), like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Goonies, Back to the Future. I remember watching those films in the theater and having a great sense of awe. Another filmmaker that greatly inspired me was Ridley Scott. I remember discovering Alien and Blade Runner for the first time in home-video, admiring not just the story but the worlds he created; they had so much subtle details, they felt totally real and organic. I also liked Peter Weir; films like Witness, Dead Poets Society, and a few years later, The Truman Show, truly resonated with me in those formative years.

  • For an unknown writer, what is the best way to get their screenplay seen?

It’s always great to choose universal themes, stories that most people could relate to, that could resonate with a broad audience no matter where they are from. But you always have to put your own spin on them. Tell them your way, in a manner that feels personal and unique, yet relatable. And if you get the chance to shoot your story, the better. There are a lot of tools and windows nowadays that make it easier to get your work out there and be seen. I also think screenwriting workshops, festivals and competitions represent a great opportunity to get noticed, especially if you don’t have the means to produce your story.

  • What experiences from your life influence your characters?

For me, writing is about conveying emotion. I think every writer, or every artist for that matter, gets inspired, deliberately or not, by their own experiences, by the way they view life and feel about certain issues. So, it’s only natural to write about something that connects with you. It’s a very intimate and personal process on an emotional level. It’s not necessarily about recreating something that happened to you or to someone close to you, exactly as it happened, but those instances being a sort of a creative springboard, emotionally or thematically speaking; a starting point to imagine and create something else entirely. But the root is always there, on a very personal level and that certainly influences the characters you create.

  • Can you explain your character development process?

I think most of the time the story dictates the process so it’s not always the same for me. Sometimes I get a very basic idea for a plot: a place, a situation, an action; something that I want to explore further. The characters just start to grow organically from that. But in other cases, I just get a very clear sense of someone that I want to discover and so the process is the other way around: I start building the world that surrounds the character. That’s what happened with my latest screenplay, bOb. I just got a sense of this fragile character, a bubble, and started thinking what life would be for a someone like him. Everything else developed from that. But either way, one thing I do find useful is talking about the story or character with close collaborators and getting feedback. I tend to rely a lot in close collaborators and partners: Isaac Bencid, Mauricio Rodriguez, Ricardo Delgado, Maru Ríos. We have a very special dynamic, we´ve been working together for years and I feel their perspective help me flesh out my characters better.

  • Do you write bios before you start writing?

I tend to think a lot about the characters, specially where they start of. I might make some notes about specific traits, but I don’t usually write full bios before working on the script. I feel that as you are writing, you get to discover who your characters are, you get a better sense of their personalities, motivations and actions. I like to experience that as an audience would do, with some sense of mystery and wonder.

  • How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create?

While writing, pretty attached. Your characters are like sons and daughters in a way, you are giving life to them. You are channeling their emotions, their motivations. You need to be sympathetic, to understand their choices and actions. You get to know them inside out. However, once a draft of the script is done, I tend to distance myself a little. That´s the only way to get some sense of objectivity, of what works and what doesn´t. As you rewrite, you have to make tough choices and you can´t get too attached. Everything has to be in the service of the story and character traits, moments or scenes you cherished, might change or get completely cut in the process.

  • What are your thoughts on structure?

Structure is very important, especially in short films where you don’t have the luxury of much time to develop your characters or plot. You have to get your pacing right and be very precise to tell an impactful story that engages your audience. For me, structure is your blueprint and your foundation; it sets the important beats. Without it, your story might not be as solid as you want it to be. And even if you´re trying something unconventional, you need to know about structure in order to bend the rules a little or even break free from them. So, it’s something that you have to pay a lot of attention to, while writing.

  • Do you outline before you start writing?

Yes, it’s always good to know where you’re heading, to have a destination even if you change course during the process. I like to have a general sense of the story as a whole before writing, with a clear beginning and an ending; it makes it easier to start and not get lost. But I think an outline should always be taken as a starting point; as you are writing, the story takes a life of its own and might send you in another direction that you had not anticipated. And that’s perfectly ok; in fact, it’s great to be surprised like this during the process.

  • What is the most important aspect of building a great character?

They must feel real, in the way they talk and the way they behave, in how they interact with each other. They must have both virtues and flaws, talents and quirks, just like regular people. It doesn´t matter if they are a hero or a villain, or someone in between. I think the only way to truly get invested in a story is through those details, which make us see the world through the character’s eyes. The moment you feel something is fake, you lose interest and you become detached. As I said before, it’s all about emotion. To get truly invested in something, it needs to feel authentic, real! That´s how you connect emotionally to a story.