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Exclusive Interview: Analeine Cal y Mayor Talks About TREADING WATER, Douglas Smith and Zoë Kravitz

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(All photos courtesy of CAVU Pictures)

Everyone goes through an awkward phase on the journey from the shallow kids’ pool to the deep end known as adulthood. But if you’re like Mica, a boy who smells like fish, it may take a little longer to brave new waters.

That’s the premise behind Mexican director Analeine Cal y Mayor‘s feature directorial debut, Treading Water, a modern-day fairytale, co-written with Enemy‘s Javier Gullón, that reminds us why self-worth is a vital precedent to the start of any new relationship.

Originally titled The Boy Who Smells Like Fish, the Mexican-Canadian co-production stars Douglas Smith as the aforementioned Mica, a young man whose lifelong struggles with trimethylaminuria — a rare condition whose unfortunate bearers release a strong fishy odour through their sweat, urine and breath — makes it harder for him to use “late bloomer” as an excuse for his social shortcomings.

Kids have never been kind to poor Mica, whose parents, Richard (Don McKellar) and Sophie (Ariadna Gil), struggled to find a soap that would prevent him from smelling like shark bait. Now a 21-year-old recluse, Mica favours spending his time by swimming in a pool, confessing all of his problems to his therapist, Catherine (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), and, to a lesser extent, hosting an endless queue of strangers at his home — a museum/former residence of Mexican superstar Guillermo Garibai (Gonzalo Vega).

A fairy tale, however, is not complete without a princess to fight for. And even paupers need a heroine to bring them hope. That light comes in the form of Laura, played by Zoë Kravitz, a young woman who’s the closest thing to a “friend” that Mica’s ever had in his life. But, as he is with anything that involves human interaction, it’s not going to be easy. Romance, with all of its ups and downs, is his biggest challenge yet.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Analeine to talk about developing her first feature, what aspiring/current filmmakers can learn, and why being a fish out of water isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can check out the interview below.

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You found your idea for the story after reading a newspaper article about this girl in Spain who had trimethylaminuria — the same disorder that Mica has. But instead of making the condition into a serious topic, you chose to make it comedic. Was it a challenge to balance both the sensitivity of this issue as well as the comedy?

I believe that writing comedy and acting in comedy is more difficult than drama. It’s not fair ‘cause comedy never gets crisis. I think you have to be a really good actor to make a comedy; you have to have very good timing. But I wanted a comedy to see it in a different way. If it was dramatic, I would prefer a documentary. I never imagined a drama. I wanted to make people laugh and smile. For me, if you put a little bit of comedy, I think people receive it better.

I also understand that Douglas Smith was suggested to you by your producer [Niv Fichman]. But how did Zoë Kravitz get cast? And what made her stand out?

Douglas — you’re right. It was an idea from my producer, Niv Fichman. Douglas was always our option; we never doubted it. And I said something in an interview, and then I asked Douglas if he was okay with my comment. He said, “Perfect. Say whatever you want.” Because he’s really attractive and talented. He has something awkward with his body sometimes. (laughs)

Before our producer finished reading the script, he thought Douglas was perfect because he was really, really tall and sometimes — yes, sometimes his body is separated from his… it seems that he’s not…

Confident?

Yes, he reminded very much to the character, Mica. We thought Douglas was perfect. With Zoë, I wanted someone with a lot of energy. Actually, Douglas suggested to me — Zoë Kravitz. We were trying to reach to her before we even got the number of her agent, through other friends, because they both… I think that they actually met — Douglas and Zoë — because they both are musicians as well.

So we were trying to contact her like the way you’re not supposed to contact a person in Canada and [the] U.S. It’s not through their agent. (laughs)

Douglas was locked in the bathroom, trying to speak with her. And I was writing notes and sending the notes under the door to Douglas. “And tell her this, and tell her this…”

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(laughs) Oh, interesting.

She has the right energy. There’s several beautiful actresses with talent. She needs to be very outgoing. I think there’s energy that’s part of the person; it’s not the acting. Even if you’re very talented, maybe you don’t have it.

Speaking of those two, how were you able to help them develop their chemistry?

We didn’t have that many rehearsals. Neither Douglas or Zoë live there in Toronto. We did rehearse some sequences. For example, the night they’re kissing and making out in the sofa. It’s a difficult scene both for the actors and for me as a director. The difficult scenes, we did rehearse, even if it was in my hotel room with a sofa. And I helped them always. If they feel comfortable, what positions feel real… and also the characters in the story, they are shy. I think it was fine if both Zoë and Douglas were nervous. I think it also helped the characters.

The film shows us the importance of loving ourselves before we can love others. Because of his secret, Mica can’t really be himself around Laura. How important is it for people to accept themselves, including what they think their flaws are, before they start a relationship with someone?

Even after I wrote the script — I wrote it in 2007. For me, it’s still important — the same message. I want to tell it to the audience, but I need to think about it as well for me, you know? I went to therapy once a week. When you see the therapy from the film, it’s from my own experience. (laughs)

But it’s not even a message for teenagers. I think it’s also for us — for adults. You’re not comfortable in something or in a relationship. Later I realize it’s because I don’t feel comfortable with myself.

Although you wrote the script in Spanish, you said in a previous interview that you always pictured it [the film] to be in a North American neighbourhood. Was it a challenge to write about a setting that is foreign to your own life?

I first started writing it while I was in L.A. with the other scriptwriter — with Javier Gullón. I think the idea of the museums in houses are… I have never seen that; we don’t have it in Mexico. Well, I’m lying — there’s one. There’s just one. The Frida Kahlo. I always imagined stories of a Mexican musician [who] was very famous. He was international, and he had houses all over the world.

Since I’ve been writing it in the U.S., my imagination was in an American neighbourhood. I always told everybody — the art department and the visual department — that the neighbourhood had to be very calm, very organized. For me, Mexico City is very interesting but very chaotic. So I wanted a contrast between his world in the house and the outside.

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Speaking of international, you’ve traveled to places like Austria, New Delhi and Berlin for film. How important is it for filmmakers to educate themselves about cinema from around the world and to travel?

I think it’s really important to travel. I tell my students — last year, they had a homework from me that they could do in a whole year. Some film students have to go out of Mexico to travel, and some didn’t have to travel but had to read. There were classic French novels, Russian… and some had to read theatre. A lot of film students — their education and their background is only from other films. I think they need to look a lot more deeper. I think traveling is one of the best things they can do to get experience and point of views. And another thing would be reading, looking at paintings…

Another thing that I found interesting is that you said that you studied with teachers — like Judith Weston — who teach directors how to properly direct actors. How important is it to hone those skills? Is there a lesson that you learned from those classes that you think is the most important that everyone should know?

Yes, when they ask me, I always recommend Judith. She really goes deeper. Like I was saying, traveling and reading is going deeper to direct or write. Also, teachers like Judith Weston, they really taught me how to not be on the surface. A lot of directors — I’m not gonna give any names — but a lot of directors don’t really work on the script. They’re really on the surface of asking for really vague things like, “Act more happy; do it more sad.”

If an actor is always studying, I think directors should also continue to study. After they make their first feature, they think they know everything they have to know. I’m looking for workshops for scriptwriting. A lot of it comes from experience, but we cannot be so arrogant to think that after film school we’re completely ready to direct wonderful actors. We should keep searching and be curious.

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For two years in a row now, Mexican film directors — Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu — have won the Oscars for directing. I obviously have to mention Guillero del Toro, who’s probably the most famous director [from Mexico]. How has their success been for the filmmaking community in Mexico? Is it really encouraging?

Between my circle of colleagues, another prize that is very important, in Cannes Film Festival, a Mexican director has also won two years in a row. Amat Escalante’s film Heli won in Cannes — Best Director. The previous year, another Mexican also in Cannes, won Best Director — [Carlos] Reygadas. So, in between the Oscars and Cannes, we’re doing really good.

I mean, for some it’s probably an inspiration. I’m happy for them; I really like their work. Children of Men — I really like it. Birdman is a masterpiece. I think it’s a team. Iñárritu did a great job…Of course, the DP [Director of Photography], [Emmanuel] Lubezki. I think they’re amazing. But I don’t think that because I’m Mexican, I should be proud. I’m not proud; I just love their films.

And I think that more Mexican teenagers are starting to think about studying film. That’s a good thing as long as somebody tells them that the scripts are very weak in Mexico and as long as they know that they should keep working on the stories. Because now that it’s easier to film and everybody has a video camera, there’s a lot of people shooting, but they don’t really know how to write a story. I think we should really pay attention to scriptwriting.

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I have to ask — I didn’t know it was filmed in Toronto until I saw the cars. I’m like, “Hey, that’s my city.” (laughs) How was it like filming here?

(laughs) I am a fan now of Canada. It was one of the best experiences in my life, really. Before arriving in Toronto, I really wanted more Mexican crew. I thought, I don’t speak the language — it’s not my first language. I don’t know anybody… I don’t know the DP; I don’t know the production designer. The only Mexican who was there was the sound mixer, which I also didn’t know very well. I felt a little bit lonely when I flew to Toronto, and when I arrived everything disappeared. All the insecurities of the language, of not knowing my team.

Every time I have the opportunity, I tell my wonderful experience of shooting in Canada. I keep saying, for example, that nobody interrupted anybody in the meetings, which is amazing. I come from living in Spain and Mexico. The first thing I noticed is that, in Canada, you finish your sentence, and then the other one continues, and nobody interrupts. It’s completely respectful.

On my set, nobody raised their voice. Nobody said any swear words. It was important for me because we were also working with children and babies. There’s a lot of directors who do shout; I think they’re old-school Mexican directors. But I don’t think that right now it’s the way of working.

That’s great to hear. Finally, do you have any upcoming feature films that you can talk about, or are they still in the development process?

I finally found three wonderful producers… But again, I need a co-production. Probably, it’s gonna be Germany.

Oh, interesting. Is it not in English this time?

It’s a Mexican family that travels abroad. So the family speaks in Spanish, and then the main character — he hides from his family. And the rest of the film is going to be in English. So, yeah, I guess it’s still in development.

Well, thank you so much. I thought the film was very charming. Congratulations.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

Treading Water opens in various U.S. cities starting on Friday, March 13, including the Cinema Village in New York City and one week later at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. Watch the trailer below.

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The Author

Alfonso Espina

Alfonso Espina

Alfonso Espina is a Toronto-based freelance writer and graduate of the Journalism program at Ryerson University. He has written for The Huffington Post, Tribute Magazine, Next Projection, Pop Wrapped, MuchMusic, Screen Invasion, Flicks And The City, and UpandComers.