Translating any book to the screen is a daunting task for a filmmaker. That task is exponentially more challenging when the book is as beloved as Benjamin Alire Sáenz's award-winning YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Thankfully, director, screenwriter and executive producer Aitch Alberto was up to the task.
"I read it in one sitting and I had this visceral, almost spiritual experience," she says. The book arrived to Alberto, who is Cuban-American and trans, amidst her own journey of self-discovery. "Something inside of me unlocked, where it became undeniable that I had to make every attempt to make this a reality."
Aristotle and Dante follows two Chicano boys coming of age in El Paso, Texas, during the late 1980s. As Aristotle (played by Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales) form a tender romance, the film explores notions of identity, sexuality, and intersectionality within the Mexican-American community. Ideas "that haven't been deeply explored when it comes to cinema," as Alberto explains.
Alberto received Sáenz's blessing early on to take his book and do with it as she wished, creatively. Alongside newcomers Gonzales and Pelayo, she cast Kevin Alejandro and Eva Longoria as Dante's parents and Eugenio Derbez and Veronica Falcón as Ari's, with Derbez and Lin-Manuel Miranda also serving as producers on the movie. The final result is a touching tale of self-discovery, love and the healing required to bridge generational divisions.
"A lot of our immigrant parents had to exist in a world [of] adamant survival mode," Alberto says. "In my own exploration, I really landed on the moment of not only humanizing my parents, but realizing that my father didn't have the tools to do it differently. And that's not necessarily his fault. It's because the experience of his father came from a different perspective, and it's up to us and it's up to stories like this to start shifting that narrative."
A.frame: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a very tender film, despite some intense moments. The story is powerful, but it always feels tender and gentle in its approach.
Exactly. That was my intent, while also not shying away from the pain of self-discovery, which is where darker truths come in. My goal was to approach this with a really gentle, sensitive, empathetic lens, which we don't often see when it comes to stories about Latinos. I really wanted to make an elevated YA novel that had something universal. It's so easy to distill it to one aspect of identity, but I really wanted to explore how all the things around identity inform how you exist in the world.
It's definitely a different type of coming of age story for Latinos and Latinas. In the past, films like Mi Vida Loca and Stand and Deliver have been our only coming-of-age films.
Those stories were told by a different generation. It was a different time in the industry. They're not often told by us, so I think they lacked a certain authenticity. For me, it was really important to celebrate the nuances of who we are as a community, which I think these stories often ignore. It's really an exploration of the choice between fear and love, and you see that embodied in both of these boys. And that's informed by the generational differences of the households that they grow up in.
I really like that it was a challenge to tackle all these themes. But when you watch stories that you can easily call queer, you can easily call Latino, it's always focused on one aspect of it. And it's so much more than that. They're a reflection of myself, or reflection of people that I love, a reflection of my experience. I wanted to honor that without belittling it or othering it in a way that didn't feel authentic to me.
It was refreshing to see the film explore those nuances of identity. For the past 15 or so years, it has sometimes felt like that representation has been presented as this loud, in-your-face "we're Latinos and we do this!"
We're also not a monolith, right? So, I think we need more stories like this that continue to investigate our identity as a community. There's differences amongst all of us culturally, which is also, I think, the thing that we still focus on so adamantly, which also divides us and puts us further behind than other minorities. My family is Cuban, and as much as there's differences between the Cuban culture and the Mexican culture, I really wanted to focus on what united us, what was similar. And that was the notion of love, because our families, despite our differences, are always really rooted in love. That's what unified this. I think we need more of that, because there's a lack of that when it comes to stories about us, and representation of us, and everything that that conversation is.
You've said that you were on your own journey of self-discovery while making this film, and that Aristotle and Dante was a pivotal part of that journey. How did you first learn about the novel, and what was the impetus that led you to turn the novel into a feature film?
The novel was recommended by a friend in 2014. I read it in one sitting, and I had this visceral, almost spiritual experience. It's hard to explain what that felt like. Something inside of me unlocked, where it became undeniable that I had to make every attempt to make this a reality. I wrote the script on spec. In 2016, I reached out to Ben, the author, and I said, 'I did this thing, and I want to come and visit you!' We spent four days in El Paso, and I immersed myself in Ari and Dante's worlds and tried to really understand what I was responding to, and how I, from a visual standpoint in my imagination, had imagined El Paso to be and then seeing what a different experience it was to actually live in it and find the beauty in that.
At the end of those four days, we sat together at a Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces, and he said, 'These boys were mine, and now I give them to you.' That was the most pivotal moment of the whole journey, because it was him giving me permission to take this story and do what I thought with it. Then Lin-Manuel Miranda came in. He had a relationship to the novel — he read the audiobook — and so I really wanted to get him involved. We tried the traditional route and nothing came of that. So, then I tweeted at him, and he replied. He agreed to be a producer on the film, and that really set us on an undeniable path.
I had met Eva Longoria when I was pitching on Flamin' Hot — they were looking for a new writer to do a rewrite — and she just had this synergy. I really wanted to be creative with her, and I ultimately fell in love with her and so I wanted to find a way to include her. I also wrote the character with her in mind, so she was our first 'yes.' It was literally putting the pieces together to make this undeniable, and then using their voices and who they are in the industry to make people notice. Because it was dismissed at every attempt. I don't think the industry recognized the value of a story about two brown boys. I think it was so different than what we've seen when it comes to characters like these that there was a resistance to it, and I think there continues to be that. We're so easily put in the box of 'it has to be this narrative,' because this is what we're used to seeing. They don't understand how important it is to champion stories like this and give us, as a community, a different option.
"I don't think the industry recognized the value of a story about two brown boys."
That's interesting, because you would think making a film like this 10 or 20 years ago would have been even more difficult — maybe even impossible — but you're telling me you still needed a push from someone like Lin-Manuel to get it made.
It would have never gotten made if it wasn't for Lin-Manuel, if it wasn't for Eva, if it wasn't for Eugenio, and that's just a fact. It didn't matter that this was a best-selling novel translated into 60-something languages, and it's sold over a million copies worldwide. None of that meant anything. It was just the star power, the names that are so necessary when you're packaging a film. That's how you make things like this happen. That's where people who have value need to step up to champion this and champion me as a filmmaker.
You mentioned Flamin' Hot, on which Eva Longoria just made her feature debut. Did she provide you with any advice or help for your own debut?
She was on set, and she was showing me cuts they had just finished filming of the movie. More than anything, I think she was motivating me to stand in what I was doing. It wasn't advice, but it was more validating and affirming in a position of being a mutual, versus like a star-director, and that was really empowering coming from her specifically.
What was the dynamic on set like with this generationally diverse cast? You have veterans like Derbez and Longoria on screen with many young actors who are new faces on screen.
It was such a supportive environment. Production was truly magical. Everybody showed up with so much love for me, for the story, for each other that there wasn't a distinction of, 'I'm a veteran actor. You're a young actor.' It was really important to me to find younger actors that maybe haven't had this opportunity, and to have those discoveries happen while also supporting them with these veteran actors. It's not only the main three — Lin-Manuel and Eva and Eugenio — there's also Veronica Falcón, who's a powerhouse on her own, and there's Kevin Alejandro, who has been working forever. It was a beautiful juxtaposition of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Were there any moments and scenes from the book that you wanted to include in the film, but couldn't for whatever reason?
There's so much that we didn't use. I shouldn't talk about writing because of the strike, but it’s important! The writing process was one of the biggest challenges, because I thought that so many aspects of the book were so necessary, and I was a fan of the book and I wanted to honor the book and I wanted to honor the fans of the book. We shot a lot of iconic scenes, but the ones that remained on the cutting floor were scenes where we, as an audience, were ahead of the story. They were too intimate between the two characters, where it wasn't guiding or taking the audience on a journey of questioning, like Ari was.
The movie juxtaposes these moments of machismo and toxic masculinity with vulnerability and the choices many characters make to overcome painful, difficult moments by being vulnerable. Why was it important to approach this theme in that direction?
What I wanted to do was investigate the generational differences that we have, culturally, within our community. A lot of our immigrant parents had to exist in a world in a very adamant survival mode, which forms the way that they use language, the way that they use silence, the way that they communicate or don't communicate, and juxtaposing that to the way that Kevin Alejandro's character approaches masculinity, and how he embodies that and the opportunity that they have being from a different generation. This is like the beginning of an invitation for families like ours to start having these conversations, because in some ways, it's like forcing the conversation of, 'Oh, wait, we could redefine the narrative that we've written for ourselves and mostly other people have written for us.'
We've redundantly seen the machista dad that's so disapproving of their child. I remember doing a test screening really early into the process, and at the end of it, this young Latina woman raised her hand and she's like, 'I didn't find it realistic that the dad was accepting of his son.' I was like, how painful of a testament of us not seeing that, of thinking that that could be realistic, which empowered me even more and motivated me even more to really nail that down and to give us that option. We did [another] screening and there was this young Latino who came up to us and said, 'It's so important that Eugenio Derbez is the person who is telling his son, 'I see you and I accept you,' because he's so iconic.' He's been in our homes for so long, and in many ways, has taught Latino men how to exist that it becomes this other added layer to the power of that scene and of his performance in the movie.
By Ivan Fernandez