After Mexican director Luis Mandoki won international success (and an Oscar nomination) with his debut feature “Gaby–A True Story” in 1987, he was invited to Hollywood and began a nearly twenty-year stint in the studio system, helming such major films as “A Man Loves A Woman,” “Angel Eyes” and “Trapped.” Recently, though, he returned to his native land to make the Spanish-language “Innocent Voices” on a much smaller budget than he’d grown accustomed to. He was immediately drawn to the story of a youngster trapped in the violence of the civil war that wracked El Savador during the 1980s, in which boys were regularly compelled to join the government forces when they turned twelve. Mandoki discussed the resultant film during a recent visit to Dallas with Oscar Torres, the screenwriter on whose own experiences the tale was based, and little Carlos Pedilla, who plays Torres’ screen surrogate Chava.
“As a director, you’re always looking for great stories,” Mandoki explained. “And it’s unusual to come up with such a powerful story, a true story that had to be told. Even though it happened in a particular place, it’s about child soldiers around the world. And it’s also a movie about the way children are able to keep their spirits and their humor in the middle of these horrors. That’s very inspiring.”
Mandoki came upon the story when he met Torres, who’d fled from El Savador to the United States as a child and was now working as a busboy and occasional actor, on a commercial shoot and the young man pitched him a script he’d written–about a song that had bolstered the people’s morale during the terrors of the conflict. “The original script was a story about the song,” Mandoki recalled, “so when I met him, I said, ‘I want to make a movie, but about the boy, about you.’ And that’s how the whole project started.”
Torres remembered that Mandoki’s prodding him to write his own story was difficult–in a way different from watching the actual shooting of the film. During the writing, he said, “when the memories were tough, I could stop that. And that’s why, in the first script, I would go back and forth between the story of the song and [my life], because whenever I got to an uncomfortable place in my story I could flash back to the story of the song. But on the set, when the M-16s were going off and the bombs were falling and the house started shaking, that I couldn’t stop. I would leave the set sometimes.”
One of the cruxes in the writing came when Mandoki suggested to Torres that in constructing the story, they might have to take some liberties to make it more dramatic. “I think that was my first fight with Luis, when he said, ‘You know, we have to give ourselves some creative license,’” Torres said. “But the problem was, at that point I hadn’t told him everything yet. [By the end], we actually had to bring it down. We actually had to bring things down because there was too much. One of the challenges for us was not to embellish, but rather how do we take all of that and make it into a plot?” Mandoki added, “When he started telling me the whole thing, there was no need for creative license. The black humor that happens in terrible circumstances–I don’t think any writer would have thought of that. He lived through that.”
Mandoki emphasized the psychological obstacles that Torres had to overcome to write the story. “He always said, ‘No, that’s a story I always wanted to forget.’ He would say, ‘You don’t have the right to ask me that, and I’m not going to go there.’ I felt he was right–who was I to tell him what to write about? But there was something hanging, like a void, and I’d say, ‘Maybe I don’t have the right, but I want to know–I think it’s important.’ And at moments I sort of felt guilty. He would be there sobbing, and I would feel [terrible]. But I couldn’t stop it. And in spite of those moments when we would have these explosions and rages and crises, he would come through. And now I think we both understand why I probed him and why he accepted [it], because in a way by telling everything, he was able to purge it.”
Torres added, “I was getting, without knowing it, the greatest therapy of all time. Whatever I had I still carry with me, but I’ve learned to channel it in a better way. I think that’s why a lot of people identify with the story. Everyone who has lived through that story can relate [to it]. It was a catharsis for them, just like it was for me.” Mandoki added, “When we took this movie to El Savador, and people had not talked about this story, about what happened to them, since the war ended…the movie started this conversation in El Salvador, where people suddenly are able to express to their families their memories. I don’t know why this movie opens that door, but maybe because Oscar opened that door [for himself].”
It was, of course, a long road from writing the script to showing the final film, and one of the major problems involved finding the right young actor to play the boy on whom the story depends–especially because of the decision to set aside the politics of the war and portray it entirely from the child’s viewpoint. “I asked [Oscar], ‘What side were you on?’” Mandoki remembered. “And he said, ‘You know, the bullets that came through the walls of my house came from both sides. So I hated them [both]–I hated the war. I wanted to play.’ So we made the choice together that we were going to stick to the child’s vision of this war, his experience. We always had to be disciplined in staying in that pure way of looking at things. In a way it was also a story about [his] always looking for fathers.”
But that artistic choice meant finding the right child for the part. “We looked for him for a long time–six months,” Mandoki said. “Some of the other kids who are in the movie were candidates for that role. But I felt, no. And I kept saying to the casting people, bring me more kids. [My sister] brought me his [Carlos’] tape finally one day. And I could see that he had no experience, hadn’t acted before. But there was something very fresh, very pure about him, very unpredictable–and his face was very special. He was much younger and shorter [than most] but my instinct was, this is the guy. So we cast him, and I was right. He has this purity. In the beginning he had no idea about anything; at the end he knew all the technical language [of film]. He really grew, but there was something real [in him]. He could go into these emotions, but he was acting–he was not a method actor.”
The diminutive Padilla, who opened the interview by shaking hands and even giving an impromptu reprise of a dance he does for his girlfriend in the movie, spoke about his part with Mandoki acting as interpreter. “The role is about a boy who has to go on and struggle so that he could be the man of the house. But it’s really the mom who keeps them alive. It’s difficult [to play], because he’s not a normal boy; because of the war, he could have died–especially in that scene [at the end of the picture] when [the soldiers] are going to kill him. I went inside the character–I had to think they were really going to kill me.”
Working not only with Pedilla but scores of other children posed special difficulties on the set, of course. Mandoki remembered a schoolhouse scene in which soldiers burst into the building to summon their new recruits. “I had to shoot that scene in two days,” he said. “Which means I had to use four cameras simultaneously. I don’t have eyes to look at all the angles. Then I would watch some video to make sure I had it. But it was insane. Sometimes you would get it perfect, but one of the extras would be laughing in the middle and destroy the shot completely. So I would scream–I usually don’t scream in movies. I never stopped screaming in this one.” Torres recalled, “There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t walking around with my laptop in one hand and three kids on one arm and another one on my back. That was their way of wanting to know more and wanting to research their characters.” Padilla, he said, was especially insistent, even kissing Oscar’s girlfriend and saying Oscar couldn’t complain, because he was Oscar.
Mandoki, however, believes that all the pain Torres suffered in drawing the story of “Innocent Voices” out of his past, and all the work involved in making the film, was well worth it. “[Oscar] was able to tell the story for all the kids who were not able to tell the story,” he said, “and for all the kids that are still living it today. This story had to be told for them, so that the world can start taking some awareness about them, and maybe stopping some of their lives [from being lost].”