Miguel Angel Ferrer & Carlos Manuel Gonzalez on Getting Back Into the Rotation in “The Shadow of the Sun”

“I’m writing the perfect song for this,” Alex (Anyelo Lopez) tells his older brother Leo (Carlos Manuel Gonzalez) with the hope he might sing it at a local music competition in “La Sombra del Sol (The Shadow of the Sun).” There are a number of reasons why Leo wouldn’t – he hasn’t performed for an audience since he was 15 when his band broke up and he hardly feels like stepping on a stage now, recently fired from a lowly gig at a warehouse where co-workers couldn’t even trust him to get the lunch order right and his wife Yolanda (Greisy Mena) has tired of his temper tantrums. However, the more obvious reason that Leo has for declining Alex’s entreaty is that he has never known his brother to write music, let alone hear it when he was born deaf. Still, the $5000 prize is about the only hope that Leo has of keeping his house, which Yolanda’s uncle would like to sell soon, and whether he likes it or not, he soon finds himself tuning up for a competition in Caracas.

While Leo negotiates a split with Alex where he isn’t about to give his brother a family discount on the potential prize money, the prospect of working with one another is bound to bring them closer together in director Miguel Angel Ferrer’s entertaining drama that was recently picked as Venezuela’s official selection for Best International Film at the Oscars. Already, Ferrer clearly has different notions about what winning means than most when Leo and Alex don’t need to make it to the capitol city for their travels to be considered a success when the need to develop a song rekindles Leo’s passion for music and it gives Alex a voice in a world where he feels he has none. As the two set about making some noise in the quiet town of Acaragua, their recruitment of Leo’s former band mates, none of whom are all that eager to get back into action, and the assembly of a makeshift recording studio comprised of old egg cartons for soundproofing can be seen as the start of building something even bigger when it instills confidence in them both and that growing sense of conviction can be sensed in Ferrer’s direction as well, transcending a premise that initially sees the brothers as an odd couple to observe how alike they are in their desires and how complimentary they can be in helping one another achieve their destiny.

On the eve of a special screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on November 26th, Ferrer and Gonzalez, who gives a magnetic turn as the wily Leo, graciously took the time to talk about their collaboration, making the discovery of Lopez and how they found a common language on set and eventually one that they could share with the world.

Miguel, how’d this come about for you?

Miguel Angel Ferrer: It really was inspired by my travels through the interior part of Venezuela with one of our producers, Wil Romero, and meeting the people of Acarigua, the warmth of the plains of El Llano, and also my experience here having one foot in the United States, and another foot in Venezuela. I’ve been here 26 years, and seeing people that sometimes would die to have the same opportunity, but maybe they won’t, and maybe they never will and that frustration that I had with myself where sometimes I don’t take advantage of the gifts and opportunities that we have because life happens. So [I thought] what was the best way of putting this into a film, and [it came as] the story about two brothers — one who has this amazing, powerful voice, this gift that he has never used and he has let slip away, and his younger brother who doesn’t have a voice, but would die to have it. In fact, the younger brother, even though he’s deaf, really has a much louder voice than his older brother, and that inspiration for the characters really [came from] the spirit of the Venezuelan people, which despite the obstacles of everyday life that we face in the country, we attack life with optimism and a resolve and never cease to find hope for a better tomorrow.

That would sell me on this, but Carlos, what grabbed you?

Carlos Manuel Gonzalez: Well, everything. The story was great. The opportunity was there. And Miguel wrote this part thinking of me, and I thank him all the time for that. We met before about a-year-and-a-half prior to this film because I was going to be involved in a short film that he was making and unfortunately the pandemic came about. I was in Caracas, he was here in Los Angeles, and all the airports were shutting down, so we couldn’t meet at that time, we had to wait until all that craziness ended and we decided to get together for this specific project.

This seems to require much more than a typical role with the singing and the sign language. Were those exciting elements for this?

Carlos Manuel Gonzalez: Exciting and hard. I do sing a little bit, but the sign language part was challenging. I had about three months of training prior to start filming with two incredible women from a foundation down in Caracas who work with the deaf community. They came to my house three times a week for two hours to train me and sent me videos for me to practice. It was tough because we wanted to show that I could do it naturally — not forced or theatrical and I would practice also with Anyelo, who plays my brother, to build that chemistry between us and by the time we start filming, we were already great friends. We were laughing at each other and making sign language jokes [with] bad words and cursing — a lot of crazy stuff that shows in the film and shows that brotherly love, which is what we were looking for.

Miguel Angel Ferrer: And the deaf community in Venezuela that has seen the film in the capital of Caracas have been floored with his performance. Even Carlos has asked some of them when he sees them, “Did I do it okay?” And they [say], “It was perfect. It was amazing. There’s a big community in Acarigua that is now going get to see the film for the first time in December and they could not be more excited.

What was it like filming with the community there?

Miguel Angel Ferrer: It was wonderful. Wil Romero, one of our producers is from Acarigua, [which is] why we picked the town and they welcomed us with open arms. [They would tell us] anything you need, how can I help you? Do you need more extras? I’ll call my cousins. And they’d call their cousins and their girlfriends and “we’ll bring the baby and the dog too.” It was just wonderful, and our production coordinators and the producers down there at Granero Productions had never done a film before. Around 70% of the crew had never done a feature, so they stepped up to the plate and really pulled everybody from their Rolodex and they made this miracle happen in 18 days — 16 days in Acarigua and two in Caracas.

What was it like to find Anyelo, who plays Alex?

Miguel Angel Ferrer: Carlos was very involved in the casting process, and with Anyelo, there’s a deaf acting community in Venezuela, but it’s very small, so we saw two young men that are deaf and were interested, but they didn’t quite fit the role. Then these ladies from Fundafid that were teaching us sign language, we told them, “Hey, we need every single young deaf man in the whole country. It doesn’t matter where they are. Find them, we’ll pay the bus ticket, the plane ticket. You’ve got to be in the capital in five days for this casting.” They brought around seven to eight young men between 20 and 30, and they were all sweating and nervous, but Carlos did a chemistry read with them. Then Anyelo came in last, and he just lit up the room. This is a young man that had never acted in his life before. He’s from an area of town that’s called El Valle [in Caracas], and we knew 30 seconds in that he was the guy. Then the tremendous amount of work that he did with the script, with these ladies [from Fundafid], and with Carlos, and then afterwards with me, it just shows on the screen. He’s already won two two best actor awards at international film festivals, so hopefully this is the start to a new chapter in his life.

Carlos, for you was there anything that unlocked the character for you?

Carlos Manuel Gonzalez: When I first read the script, I saw a lot of myself in Leo. Frustration is something that we’ve all felt at some point in our lives, and in my case, being an actor, how many times have I felt frustrated? Countless. How many times have I felt maybe I should pursue some other career path than acting and how many doors have been shut in my face for roles that I wanted, or I haven’t been chosen for something that I would love to be part of? But there’s always this belief in myself to know that I’m good, that I can do it, and that I have to keep on going [thinking] if one door shuts, another one will open. I have friends and family that support me and tell me, “Come on, don’t stop, you can do it.” So of course there is plenty of Leo in me and also getting that rocker out of me also — dusting off all my chains from my youth and wearing those tank tops and those acid washed jeans and motorcycle. It was pretty fun.

There’s a great moment in the film where Leo starts singing for the first time in the bar, and it’s like Superman ripping open Clark Kent’s shirt to reveal the suit he’s been wearing. What was that scene like to shoot?

Carlos Manuel Gonzalez: It’s like his waking up moment, finding out that he still got it and the voice still there and he can actually do something with it. He can actually pick up his dream and start from there again, so it’s a pivotal scene in the movie. And he was forced. The other thing too is that Leo is, like many of us, a character that is scared to follow his dreams. Sometimes we’re scared of taking that first step and he’s put in a situation where he’s actually forced to come to terms with it and to dish it out. That’s when he has this epiphany of saying, this is a possibility, which is sometimes what happens to us in life. We need that push.

Miguel, you use sound in a really interesting way, expressing so much about the characters, not only in how Alex is hearing impaired, but Leo’s reignited passion for music. What was it like developing the sonic landscape for the film?

Miguel Angel Ferrer: Juan Carlos Rodriguez was the executive producer that took care of all the sound and he’s a great friend and four-time BMI award-winning composer. We brought together a team, Sandro Morales Santoro, who’s the actual composer of the film, and Enrique Diaz, who’s the sound designer from Caracas, and we set out to do several things. One is to paint the same way that you paint a landscape visually with aesthetics and the production design. Sound is such an important part of the story because of Alex’s deafness, so [it was a question of] how do you paint that through the character, but also paint the different landscapes of Venezuela. How does El Llano sound? How does Caracas sound? So we were able to travel that fine line between him and the rest of the characters, and we wanted to really paint a picture of what Venezuela actually sounds like during the day, but also at night. What does the street sound like in the urban landscape? What does the street sound like in the rural landscape?

Then as far as the music, we had a lot of conversation. We definitely wanted a classical score to really give that big orchestra feel to the movie, but we wanted to bring in Venezuelan instruments, so the strings were recorded in Budapest and we recorded in Venezuela with Venezuelan instruments and then we also wanted that rock element that comes from Leo’s character. Juan Carlos and I told Sandro, take those three elements and Sandro really was able to compose and to make a beautiful score that paints [with all] the different aspects of Venezuela music — the tamboras at the beginning and the African drums because Venezuela has a lot of African influence, to the harp, to the cuatro, the mandolas, the maracas. We were very proud of that and now when people hear it, especially people from Venezuela and from the region, it’s a bit of a homecoming because they’re not only seeing their country and their land, but they’re hearing it.

“The Shadow of the Sun” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will screen in New York on November 26th at the Museum of the Moving Image at 3 pm.

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