Samuel Kishi Ieopo is a Mexican screenwriter, producer, editor and film director. His short Mari Pepa won Mexico's Ariel Award for Best Short Fiction Film; its feature adaptation Somos Mari Pepa premiered at Morelia, Berlin, Guanajuato and Miami, where it won a Special Mention.
In an exclusive interview for Filmatique, Samuel Kishi Leopo discusses the power of music, adolescence, working with nonprofessional actors and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Somos Mari Pepa is the story of Alex, a 16-year old living with his grandmother who spends the summer trying to chase girls and playing with his friends in a punk band. The film feels very much like an ode to a certain moment in life, the gateway to adulthood, when one feels equally fearful and free. What inspired you to tell this story?
SAMUEL KISHI LEOPO: I remember that during that time I was blocked writing another story, so I called my brother Kenji to tell him my idea. We went out for a few beers and instead of talking about my story we started to talk about our grandmother who at that time had become very ill— we spoke of how she took care of us, the maniacal way she would clean herself with alcohol, the songs she sang to us and the time she lived with us in the neighborhood of Atemajac. One memory led to another, up to an unsuccessful garage band we played in as kids, and another punk band my brother had called "Mari Pepa"— how it was growing up in the neighborhood and the adventures we lived there. It was then that I knew I had to write about something I knew, about those issues and the people I cared about. That night I abandoned my previous idea and started working on the script of Mari Pepa.
FLMTQ: It's heartwarming and almost comical how bad the music that Alex and his friends play is, as they don't seem to care about winning the band wars so much as just playing. Can you remark on the importance that music can have to boys of this particular age, and how you sought to incorporate these ideas into the screenplay?
SKL: Music is fundamental in all aspects of life; in adolescence it's a scream of anger, a manifestation of our fury, our differences, fears and uncertainties. It doesn't matter if you only know how to play four guitar chords badly—that's enough to raise your voice. What I wanted to transmit in the script was that the boys of Mari Pepa don't know how to play well, but they know how to play hard.
FLMTQ: Stylistically, the film is shot in both crisp widescreen images and rougher-looking footage that evokes the aesthetic of Youtube. What were your ideas about expressing certain parts of the story though photography, and how did you work with your cinematographer to achieve them.
SKL: From the beginning the DP Octavio Arauz and I conceived of telling this story in many formats. We wanted the viewer to feel as if he was in between the line of documentary and fiction, which is why we included material recorded by the same kids, in their language and their forms, which moreover provided a dirty and improvised image that is consistent with the music of the band.
On the other hand we discovered the scene and camerawork through rehearsals. We decided that in interior scnes, especially with the grandmother, the camera had to be more anchored, more orthodox; that these scenes had a more lethargic rhythm subject to the rules of a universe governed by the grandmother, the adults. For the exterior scenes the idea was the opposite, a playful camera searching for the frame, not fully in focus, urban, and at times more frenetic, just like the music they play and the streets where the boys of Mari Pepa travel.
FLMTQ: Somos Mari Pepa evolved from your 18-minute short Mari Pepa, that also went to Morelia. Can you speak about the process of translating your short into a feature film? What was the most difficult part of the process, and what was the most fun?
SKL: I had many ideas that were left out of the short film, and I also continued to get together with the kids who were living through the process of becoming adults, making the choice of a career, having to work, abandoning their boyish dreams. It made me wonder what our society has to offer young people and how young people viewed adults, how dreams changed and the fearsome uncertainty of growing up.
The biggest difficulty was the financing. We did not find public or private funds at that time and the actors were growing up. If a year had passed the story probably would not work in the same way. So my co-producer Toiz Rodriguez and I decided to spend our savings to finance the film and we were very fortunate to join a wonderful team that believed in the story and supported us with their work.