At the “Bel Canto” premiere, Julianne Moore, director Paul Weitz and other stars of the film discuss the making of the new thriller.
At the New York premiere of Bel Canto at the Cinépolis Chelsea, The Knockturnal got the chance to talk to a number of the stars and makers of the film. Read below to hear what they have to say about music in movies, the message they hope audiences can learn from the film, and more!
The Knockturnal: What attracted you to the movie, and what was your relationship with the book before you began filming?
Paul Weitz (Director, Co-writer): I was given the novel six or seven years ago by my co-writer Anthony [Weintraub, also the producer], and he had written a draft of [the movie], and I read it and I wanted to look into it… It’s also about opera which at the time I didn’t know anything about, and now I know a tiny bit. And also it’s like a weird sort of romantic Dog Day Afternoon, where all of these people are stuck together for a really long time. And so it’s also a beautiful novel. I actually realized I was going to make it when I sent it to Julianne Moore and she said, “yeah, I’m gonna do this.”
Gabo Augustine (“Ishmael”): I had heard of the book but I wasn’t very familiar with it. I knew Ann Pratchett as an author, but I hadn’t read the book. But I couldn’t say no.
The Knockturnal: What was the collaborative process between Julianne Moore and Renee Fleming [who provides Moore’s singing voice] like?
Julianne Moore (“Roxane Coss”): It was fun! It was so much fun. I knew very little about opera, and the opera that I’ve seen had been minimal. So it was a real immersion. I studied with her vocal coach Gerald Moore. I sat next to her when she was recording, I went to her concerts, I went to the Met [the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York] a lot, I sat in on vocal coachings with other people who were singing, I interviewed everybody that I could, I listened to her nonstop… It was really, truly wonderful because the access that we’re given as actors is kind of incredible. You don’t usually have the opportunity to do this.
Paul Weitz (Director, Co-writer): It was really cool, I was there with Julianne when Renee recorded the songs and was a few feet away from them, but I wasn’t there when they had rehearsals and when Julianne was working with Gerald Martin Moore, who is Renee’s accompanist and was Julianne’s opera coach during the movie and who was there every time that she sang on set. And a lot of it is when [a] breath is supposed to come. Julianne was really singing on set, and you have to do that to keep it realistic. But she asked me to crank up Renee’s voice so that no one could really hear her but there was one moment when the sound system shut off and I heard her sing.
The Knockturnal: Tell us a little about your characters in the film.
Tenoch Huerta (“Comandante Benjamin”): My character is Comandante Benjamin. He is the leader of the group that goes into the house of the vice president. As the leader of this group, he is responsible for the lives of everyone in the house. Not just the guerillas, but the hostages as well. For me, it is important to talk about [this] kind of things, because in Latin America we have this problem of security, and it’s not the same opportunities for everyone that lives in this country. So the character, in a sense, is the guy to bring back the balance. He is struggling not just to release his partner but is struggling against a tyrant. And the way that people think that he is either a bad guy or a good guy is not true. He is just a human.
Gabo Augustine (“Ishmael”): Ishmael is a guerrilla soldier in the undisclosed South American country. He’s a very reluctant kid, he doesn’t want to do what he’s doing. He doesn’t want to hurt people.
The Knockturnal: Gabo, this is the first movie that you ever made. How was it getting used to the set of a film?
Gabo Augustine (“Ishmael”): It was a learning curve, in the sense that I had done commercials and TV shows but never a feature film. So it was amazing.
The Knockturnal: Paul, between this and looking back at About a Boy and Mozart in the Jungle, you’ve done a lot of projects that involve music and various musical things. Is there something that draws you to music in your movies?
Paul Weitz (Director, Co-writer): Well, I’m interested in performance and one thing that I learned from being around opera singers is that yes, they’re presenting these pieces of art which are really swinging for the fences when thinking about internal questions, but also they’re almost like athletes and they have to practice every day, very specific physical things. And I really love the juxtaposition of something that we think is very lofty with something we think of as very mundane and physical. So yeah, I am always conscious when I’m making a film that I am putting on a show in some way. From Mozart in the Jungle, we did a fake opera recital.
The Knockturnal: Tenoch, what was it like transitioning from working [with Weitz] on Mozart in the Jungle to a darker story?
Tenoch Huerta (“Comandante Benjamin”): He is a really good director. A great director is good whether it is a comedy or music or terror. And he has a lot of movies and shows behind him so I think for him it was easy. He is a really sensitive person, so he managed to direct everybody inside the house really well. For me, it was easy to work with him because I am [not] used to working with directors who directed actors, and we built together a story and a character. It is a great opportunity as an actor to find that kind of creator.
The Knockturnal: It’s a movie with a very international cast. What went into working with such a wide net of origins, backgrounds, nationalities and beyond for actors
Paul Weitz (Director, Co-writer): I think that, in a way, that was one of the most fun things about the movie. I wanted to make a kind of Tower of Babel, where the divisions between people and languages got erased over time. One big thing was María Mercedes Coroy. I saw this movie she did [Ixcanul] which was all in her native language of Kaqchikel, and her second language is Spanish. That was really key because I had seen a bunch of really wonderful Spanish and Latin American actors for [Coroy’s role of Carmen], but that brought authenticity to the role.
Julianne Moore (“Roxane Coss”): It was so exciting. She [Coroy] is so, so talented. It was really interesting. I saw Ixcanul and was blown away by her performance, and it was played so easily and lovingly. She’s magnetic.
The Knockturnal: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Julianne Moore (“Roxane Coss”): For me, what’s fascinating about this film is the meld of different cultures. You have these people from all over the world, and of course, we had actors from France, from the United States, from Guatemala, from Mexico, from Japan… Everyone was speaking their own language, but we really formed this incredible community. These [characters] are people who all felt isolated in their own lives, but together they were able to form a world of their own.
Tenoch Huerta (“Comandante Benjamin”): [Bel Canto is] a reflection of how the world works. It’s not about good and bad, and maybe if people tried to see the other side of the street and tried to understand other people—why people are forced to go and kidnap people and put guns into faces… something really wrong must have happened in life to push you to do that. My character is a teacher, he is a guy who wanted peace. And why this kind of guy entered the war, people can’t understand that.
Gabo Augustine (“Ishmael”): Not to judge someone based solely by circumstance, to take in the whole picture. The biggest thing about Bel Canto is that music can connect people who don’t speak the same language, but you can bond over the beautiful artistry. Withhold judgment and have an open mind and you can learn.
Paul Weitz (Director, Co-writer): The essential message of the film is that the things that make us think of other humans as “others” are illusions and that the most important things are the things we share.