An obese man, his grouchy sister, the skinny brother-in-law and a youngster who works in a photo store are the charming characters featured in the film Walking Distance [Distancias cortas], “an urban fairy tale about a 440-pound man who has trouble moving,” in the words of Alejandro Guzmán Álvarez.
“Walking distance can also be very long,” said the Mexican filmmaker about his entertaining and funny first feature film, produced by the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica in Mexico City, where Guzmán migrated to study cinema. “A country boy who went to the big city.”
Originally from Mazatlán, Sinaloa, where as a young man he drew film-based comic strips for a newspaper, twenty years later Guzmán makes frank cinema without any glitz, by telling a story in a simple, human, lovely manner.
We talked with Alejandro Guzmán Álvarez and the actress Martha Claudia Moreno after the screening of Walking Distance at the Guadalajara International Film Festival in México — about the feelings in this turbulent relationship between brother, sister, brother-in-law and young friend.
Congratulations to both of you for this fun, charming movie from beginning to end. The audience laughed and really enjoyed the screening yesterday. Alejandro, how did you work with the actors to achieve that sense of humor, that freshness?
[Alejandro] The starting point was the script written by Itzel Lara, our dramatic, emotional map for the film. And obviously, the contribution of the actors to their characters also helped. I was very careful when selecting the actors, since I wanted them to have some trait of the characters.
Paulo’s character, this young lover of comics, despite being a little lonely he is the engine of the relationship of the male trio. He is a fun character, very energetic, very purposeful. And Joel [Isaac Figueroa], the actor playing this part, is also that way to some extent. He is the heart of the trio, the one who is always pushing, the machine that pulls the other two out of their routine and boring life. He helps them move on, have another point of view in life. Same in the case of Martha Claudia for her character of Rosaura. She had many physical characteristics that related her to Federico, because they had to be brother and sister in fiction, and it was important they looked alike. And Martha also has some character…
Grouchy character! She keeps scolding her brother on and on… Martha, tell us about your character Rosaura, a controlling woman…
[Martha] A little, yes. She had to be the adult in the family. In families you have to take certain roles since childhood, and she happened to be the responsible one, the adult. That is why she takes responsibility for her brother. That’s why she’s so cold.
[Alejandro] Rosaura ends up being the antagonist. She is the one who takes care of him, and that care stems from the fact that she adores her brother, she loves him and wants what is best for him. But, simply put, she does not place the thermometer in the right place and it gets out of hand. So we worked on that kind of relationship with Martha Claudia. It is not that she wants to make life impossible for her brother Federico, that she’s a villain in the strict sense of the word, but she does it out of love, because she cares.
Martha, the other day you said something very interesting in the sense that Rosaura is annoyed by Federico’s situation, who has this problem of being overweight, who finds it hard to do anything, and who is very likely to die young… Rosaura knows it, and she’s very angry, but she’s angry because he loves him, because she does not want to lose him.
[Martha] It’s easier for her to be angry than devastated because of his condition. She’d collapse if she’d be on his side, her heart would break apart and she’d be depressed. The unconscious and affections are like that, they seek to balance out. So the balance, even though it may seem aggressive, is a mechanism to make him react.
And Rosaura finds her brother’s sudden hobby for photography pointless.
[Martha] But beyond photography, she wants him to take care of himself, she wants him to eat well, to care for his body…, the most elemental things.
Is the script written by Itzel Casas based on personal experiences?
[Alejandro] The script is inspired on her mother and brother, who had a degenerative, genetic disease that makes mobility gradually more painful in patients. They find it hard to move, even to reach out to grab a bag. Walking to the bathroom or to the kitchen to pour a glass of water is a very long distance for them, a very painful adventure. And here is were the play on words lays, the metaphor that walking distances can also be very long distances. It all depends on how you look at things
Itzel did not want to directly address the issue of her mother’s and brother’s illness, so she found many similarities with people suffering from morbid obesity, because the exact same things happen to them. For a person suffering from morbid obesity, advancing 50 or 100 yards can be exhausting. I was very involved with a group of people waiting to have a gastric bypass surgery done while doing research for Federico’s character. I spent some time in a hospital with different groups and it really changes your perspective on things. It helped me a lot to later work with Luis “Luca” Ortega as an actor ,and to place the camera when we were filming. You get up in the morning, go to work, come back home, spend time with your family, have dinner… but you are not aware of your body.
The film’s first shot is amazing. We can see Federico’s massive body from behind, setting the story so well right from the beginning…
Yes, it is massive. We are not really aware of how much we depend on our body until we get sick, old or, if we have a morbid obesity problem like that of Federico Sánchez. Tying our shoelaces in the morning may be the most ordinary thing in the world for us without even being aware of it. But for a person who suffers from morbid obesity, it is a big job. That person feels the presence of the body as if carrying a corpse. It is not just your body, but another body on top of it.
So, Itzel wrote the script for you, or how was the thing?
No, she worked out the script as part of a workshop called Almadía, with Pablo Markovic, sponsored by IMCINE in Mexico City. After the workshop, the script was published and nothing happened to it. At the time, I had been working on another project for two years and I was immersed in a spiral which I did not like. So I put it aside and started to look for a new project. I talked to writer Gibrán Portela [The Golden Dream, Güeros] and told him, ‘Hey, help me with your fellow writers to see if anyone has any projects to make it into a film.’ And among all those projects Itzel Lara’s popped up. It trapped me that same night I first read it. I fell in love. I could hardly sleep.
It feels like a movie directed with passion, your first feature.
Yes, it was very curious. Shortly after I read the script I learned it had already been published. I could not understand how it had not been made into a film yet, how such a good story with such lovely characters would not have made it happen.
And you did research in a hospital to prepare before the shoot you said…
It was a lot of research, and at the same time I was also looking for someone to play Fede’s character. I didn’t know any actor who had Fede’s physical characteristics, who weighed some 440 pounds. I knew I had to chose a person who suffered the disease or something similar. So it just happened that my photographer told me she had seen someone at a film’s premiere party and met a musician named Luca Ortega. I looked him up on Facebook to figure out who he was. I sent him the script and it took him three weeks to answer. We met in a cafe and he told me that, even though he was not an actor, he was interested in starring in the film, with the one condition that he’d compose the music for the film.
Well, thank you for making an enedearing film with such a positive message, unlike much of the Latino films we see in the United States that revolve around miseries like war, poverty, injustice… I hope San Francisco audiences get to see Walking distance.
As a matter of fact, someone was asking us on Facebook yesterday about the dates for these type of things to arrive in San Francisco. Well, I hope that it is soon!