“My work in the theatre came directly out of my experience with Rolex,” Méndez says. “After working with Frears, I wanted more mentors. And in Peru I found those mentors in theatre, not in film or TV. They were directors I admired and after a while I started working as their assistant. I didn’t have a plan or a project, all I wanted to do was spend time with these directors.”
After working as an assistant director on a stage version of Peruvian writer and Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s La ciudad y los perros and Shakespeare’s Richard III, his mentors encouraged him to direct something himself, which he went on to do with an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Sam Holcroft’s British comedy Rules for Living.
Since making the award-winning film Dioses under Frears’s guidance, he has made three more as a producer and is currently developing his third film as director.” The first was Paraiso, directed by his compatriot Héctor Gálvez, about a group of young people in Lima who have been marginalized by violence.
He then produced Oliver’s Deal, a US co-production starring Stephen Dorff as the hedge fund manager whose sympathy for the Peruvian poor puts him in conflict with his mission to exploit recent land reforms in order to buy up land on the cheap.
This was followed by Icaros, another American co-production, about a group of foreigners who go to Peru’s Amazon region seeking spiritual enlightenment by taking ayahuasca. The psychoactive concoction is traditionally used in sacred rites but has become increasingly popular among Westerners for recreational use but also for its supposed capacity to cure depression and even physical conditions such as cancer.
“There’s a long tradition of medicinal plants in the Amazon and many people are cured by them,” says Méndez. “It’s a different way of looking at and understanding life. The film shows how it’s more than a matter of taking a pill but something deeper, about learning the relationship we all have with nature, and understanding that if you are unwell it’s because there’s something wrong with that relationship.”
He is currently developing a film project that he will direct about a pensioner who falls in love with female prisoners and helps them to escape.
Méndez says he is attracted to projects that involve social issues, stories that give visibility to social and political problems in Peru, stories and people that are not covered in the mainstream. “Not the typical heroes you see on TV,” he says.
“As producer, what I look for are subjects that are important to me, and people who I want to work with, a feeling of empathy with the director, something original that will attract funding. The films I make aren’t easy to make from a commercial point of view. But it’s harder to make documentaries on these topics, and a documentary will have even more problems when it comes to distribution. Fiction has a bigger reach.”
In television Méndez co-directed the hugely successful comedy series Los exitosos Gomes that ran for 18 months. As he explains, working in TV has its own rules and constraints. “When you do a long series you start to adjust the work to what the public wants. When you do a series of 80 or 100 episodes the public reacts, they like one character more than another and so you start to write taking this into account. It’s much more interactive, especially with long series.”
His most recent work for television – as a writer, Associate Producer and Co-Showrunner – is a three-season series called El Chapo about the Mexican drug baron. It has been released on Univision for a US audience to great reviews and ratings. It also began screening on Netflix in June. While Narcos, Netflix’s successful series about El Chapo’s Colombian counterpart Pablo Escobar, was pitched at an American audience, Méndez says El Chapo is entirely in Spanish, using Hispanic talent.
Whether it’s film, theatre or TV, what matters is to tell a good story. “Theatre taught me that the most important thing is to tell stories and bring characters to life. Clearly you have different narrative resources as a theatre director compared to a film director. The basic goal though is the same, tell a story and don’t be boring.”
He says that Frears told him he always tries to work with people who are more intelligent than him, which is why Méndez is always seeking out mentors.
“I get the impression that a lot of people, once they’ve become the boss, are not interested in working with someone who knows more than they do. You begin to believe that you know something but the truth is you don’t. Frears said that with each film you realize you don’t know anything and you have to relearn how to make a film. Ignorance is the starting point. What I learnt from Rolex was to seek out people I admire and work with them.”