Stephen Frears and Josué Méndez

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

During the year of mentoring, Méndez shot his feature film Dioses with the guidance of Stephen Frears. While they initially met in Lima, the real discussions between mentor and protégé began on a trip to the long-lost, mountain-top, Inca city of Machu Picchu – an hour by plane plus four hours by bus from the capital. After contemplating the sacrificial altars and communing with the grazing alpacas, what else is there to do but talk about film? "All you can do is ask questions," Frears believes. Méndez has to provide the answers.

"Frears forced me to think what I wanted. He wants you to be sure of everything," Méndez says. "There are many questions that, even now, I'm trying to answer.

Stephen Frears and Josué Méndez

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

An interview with Josué Méndez early in the mentorship

What was your initial reaction when you were contacted by Rolex?
I first received an e-mail and thought it was fake. I thought it was spam. I had no idea! What is this? Then when I was told [on the telephone] that I was a finalist, I thought: “I'm going to be seeing Stephen Frears.” That's a huge thing, just to have somebody like him working one on one. So I was excited about that!

Stephen Frears came to see you in Peru, having read the script to your forthcoming film, Dioses(Gods).
We sat down and said: “Okay, what do we do?” I was completely unsure of what he wanted to talk about. So he started the conversation. He started asking questions about the writing – to make everything more precise. He would help me decide what I was trying to say in any given scene. He'd tell me not to try to say three things at the same time. He asked: “What do you want to emphasize?”

He wants you to be sure of everything…There are many questions that, even now, I'm trying to answer. I should leave certain answers to the audience, but, as a writer, I would like to know, and then decide what I want the audience to know.

You went with Frears to Peru’s ancient, mountain-top Inca city of Machu Picchu. Did you talk about the film there?
That was when much of the talking took place. There isn't a lot else to do up there. The first few days [in Lima], we were very serious, very formal. But in Machu Picchu, I felt a change. I could say whatever I wanted to him.

How will Frears participate in the making of Dioses?
We're going to send all the dailies [film footage] to London. We'll edit the first cut here [in Peru], then the editor and I will go to London and spend some time with Frears. We'll spend a few weeks editing and then come back to Lima and finish it. I don't worry that much about having a script that's perfectly structured. I want to find the film in the editing.

Stephen Frears and Josué Méndez

A year of mentoring

The project (Chapter 3 of 6)

Movie-making is often too complicated to allow much behind-the-scenes mirth. But on this balmy Saturday evening in Lima, Josué Méndez's team of designers and cinematographers are brainstorming over their forthcoming film with exclamations of agreement – "Si!", "Bueno!" and "Let's do it!" – around a table littered with books on their idols.

Dressed in t-shirt, shorts and sandals (typical Lima urban wear), Méndez ceremoniously produces a viewfinder – a cylindrical lens that is standard for most directors, but a luxury for Peruvian ones on a budget. As it teasingly emerges from its leather case, wolf whistles cut the air.

Such are the spirits of those who are young and have little to lose. The world, it seems, is daring them to makeDioses, a satiric, comedy about Peru's hermetic upper-class.

In Peru, the film community is so small that virtually nobody works in it full-time. One of the magnetic leading ladies ofDioses– a popular soap opera actress named Denisse Dibos – makes part of her living producing local stage revivals ofJesus Christ Superstarto supplement her income. Méndez's producer, the charming, resourceful Enid "Pinky" Campos, has seen the world from India to Bulgaria via invitations from many film festivals. But, for financial reasons, she still lives at home with mother. For a last-minuteDiosesfundraiser, they held a beer "fiesta" netting $1,400.

While location-scouting in an exclusive, gated beach community – where desert at its most desolate hits aqua sea shores – they saw one household with Indian servants in uniforms designed to blend in with the wallpaper. In a world this stratified, one community's interior decoration easily becomes another's social commentary. "But they don't know that!" says Méndez, eyes gleaming.

Just manoeuvring around Peru has restrictions wrought by years of terrorism that turned Lima into a city of gates, guards and speed bumps. In one location-scouting mission Méndez was admitted to an exclusive beach community only with an escort on bicycle who was never more than five metres away.

Into this strange world arrived Frears at the start of the mentoring relationship. With Méndez well into the conceptual stage withDioses, Frears was optimistic that he could make a difference. “It was important that Méndez was making a film,” says Frears. "All you can do is go on making films and slowly you learn. It took me a long, long time. You get good people around you, and listen to them. I wouldn't know how to light a scene, for example. But I can see that I can orchestrate it. And I can do the human bits. On a good day."

Stephen Frears and Josué Méndez

A year of mentoring

The lessons (Chapter 4 of 6)

"Frears forced me to think what I wanted. He wants you to be sure of everything," Méndez says. "There are many questions that, even now, I'm trying to answer. I should leave certain answers to the audience, but, as a writer, I like to know – and then decide what I want the audience to know."

Many film-makers don't hesitate to go into production with an unfinished script. Alternate endings can always be shot. Frears once did that, but not anytime lately. "My experience is that if you get things wrong, you’ve probably got it wrong in the writing," he says, adding that you cannot simply use ambiguity. "It's an excuse for something that perhaps isn't a good idea. When you start making films, you're not quite sure about anything, and it [the result] is all a bit generalized. People can't tell what your intentions were. Then, as you gain more experience, you're more confident and become more precise in your intentions. Then, of course, you're accused of having the wrong intentions. So you find a new way of torturing yourself."

Lucky for Méndez that he had such well-established compass points from Frears, since the first days of shooting withDiosesleft little room for anything but dealing with a production crew that turned out to be rather larger then necessary. "The first week was tough… everybody was shouting all the time," says Méndez. "But the main ideas that stuck with me [from Frears] were to be precise, to find the meaning of each scene and stick to it. There were no big discoveries. No big surprises. I don't know if this is good or bad, but my producer is happy!"

Extracted from an article written by David Patrick Stearns forMentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Stephen Frears and Josué Méndez

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Josué Méndez talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

Can you describe your first meeting with Stephen Frears?
We met for a two-hour interview, which I thought was probably going to be the last time I would ever see him. I remember I interviewed him more than he interviewed me. I asked how he got his first film made, about his view of British film. We talked about why he worked for Hollywood. Or why he didn’t work for Hollywood.

In what ways did Frears surprise you?
Something he said every day was that I'll never know what I did wrong until the film is done. And then I'll say: “Oh, Stephen told me that!”

Earlier on, did your parents criticise your choice of career?
My parents never tried to stop me, but they weren't encouraging. My father always hoped, up until a few years ago, that it was really engineering that I wanted. Only after my short filmDias de Santiagowas sold in Spain did he realize that maybe I knew what I was doing. Before that, he'd say: “So, son, have you been thinking engineering? It's never too late.”

What kind of movies do you want to make. Realistic? Abstract?
Realism doesn't really exist. Anything you create in front of a camera doesn't follow the rules of reality. It's completely designed, rehearsed and made for the screen.

Do you worry that people will look atDiosesand suspect that you satirized the upper classes because you're envious of them?
But I am! In one way you can be really critical and say: “How can they live like that?” But, on the other hand, when you're in it, you think: “I would love to live there.” It’s a contradiction. One side of you thinks it's beautiful. Another thinks it's dumb.

Stephen Frears and Josué Méndez

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Stephen Frears

What role has mentoring played in your life up until now?
I often teach at the National Film School of England… as a way of avoiding making films. I get slightly bored with myself. Or I get bored with making films. So I stop and teach. You look at a lot of classic films. You deal with people who really don't know anything. And it makes you articulate. Most important of all, young people teach you a lot and keep you alive in the best possible sense. I never know if I do as much for them as they do for me.

Were there any cultural gaps to be bridged between yourself and Josué Méndez?
There were things in it I didn't understand, having to do with ethnicity. To me, he clearly understood his subject, but of course he has to make it clear. It will require very skilful handling.

What advice do you have about drawing great performances from actors?
Wait until they get it right. You can hear it. You can feel the speed of it. And the musicality. You watch the actors slowly working it out. You have to wait until they're ready.

What keeps you making film after film, year after year?
People ask me to do things that interest me. Before Mrs Henderson Presents, I had never made a film that was all song and dance. At my age to be offered new challenges. It's fantastic!

American cinema can be very formulaic. Screen-writing classes often involve teaching writers to make certain kinds of events happen at a certain time. What do you think of that?
It sounds idiotic.

You've admitted that you don't necessarily have a comprehensive knowledge of film-making. What do you tell young directors about this?
I always worked with very clever people. For a long time I was the youngest person on the set. The people around Josué are very good. If he’s smart he’ll listen to them. I remember making a television film in the 70s. I shot a scene and it wasn't very interesting. And I said to the cameraman: “Why isn't this interesting?” And he said: “You shot exactly the same scene last week.”