Walter Salles
July 2004
Los Angeles

Director Walter Salles burst into global cinematic consciousness in 1998 with his second feature film, Central Station, an unflinching yet empathetic examination of humanity’s capability for good and bad set in his native Brazil. The film garnered overwhelming kudos from critics and was showered with awards, including several Oscar nomations. His follow-up, 2001’s Behind the Sun, further cemented Salles’ abilities and style.

Salles went on not only realize more of his own daring, unique work but to help other Brazilian filmmakers bring their projects to fruition as well, most notably by producing 2003’s stunning City of God (nominated for four Oscars). At the same time, Salles is becoming more global – after The Motorcycle Diaries he shot Dark Water in Canada with Jennifer Connolly, Tim Roth, John C. Reilly and Pete Postlethwaite. He’s now headed back home to Brazil to start his next film in the new year with Vinícius de Oliveira, the young star of Central Station (who is now 17).

Refusing to compromise his vision for the comforts of success, Salles has taken a huge risk in bringing The Motorcycle Diaries to fruition. As screenwriter José Rivera tells me, “There will be – from the left, from the right, from north and south – every conceivable attack on the inaccuracy or on the soul of the movie”, due to the subject matter these artists have chosen to convey: the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Revered as a hero in the Cuba he helped revolutionize as well as around the world, Guevara has also been reviled by many as a cold-blooded killer since his death at the hands of the CIA-trained Bolivian military in 1967.

But as Rivera, Salles and almost everyone else involved with the film will tell you, The Motorcycle Diaries is not really about Che. It is about the young man he was years before, his state of malleable youth that all of us share in those critical years between adolescence and adulthood, where the potential for us to become anything imaginable still exists. As Guevara's father wrote, "He had the potential to do whatever he wanted, but potential isn't always enough; actually turning the dreams, plans and hopes into reality is the most difficult part." Who can't relate to that?

Upon entering the hotel room for a roundtable interview with a half-dozen journalists, Salles greets each of us with a smile and handshake, radiating the energy and confidence that have made him a great filmmaker. He sits down and recoils in mock horror at the barrage of microphones arranged in front of him and everyone laughs. Then there’s the usual uncomfortable pause before someone decides to speak up. [Note: questions are being asked by a series of journalists, including myself.]

I suppose you did a lot of research on Che Guevara and I’m wondering, because he’s such a controversial figure to a lot of people, was there a line to walk not to over-romanticize him?

Well, it took us five years to do this film and three were devoted to research. We went to Cuba and had access to all the archives at the Che Guevara Center, which his family takes care of – this is the place where they first published The Motorcycle Diaries. And then we did a lot of research with Alberto Granado, who is the idealizer of the journey and who today is an 83-years-old young man with an extraordinary memory. (Laughs) He can talk about what happened in 1952 with this first motorcycle journey as if it was happening yesterday. There we were fed with so much information. Plus, of course, we read the three biographies that exist. And I did the journey three times: two for the location scouting purposes and then the third one for the shoot.

Guevara is such an extraordinarily complex character that you need to listen to all the sources to capture as many angles as you can, and we also wanted for Gael [Garcia Bernal] to play a character that wasn’t full of certitude but on the other hand still plagued by doubts. It’s really a journey of finding one’s identity, it’s a journey of understanding who we are and in what place of the world we want to be and fight for. And therefore it was not only important to know about him but it was important to know about Latin America as well.

I’m wondering how this journey changed you as a person during years of research and doing the film, how much it means to you.

I think it changed all of us who were involved with this so radically. When you spend so many years of your life devoted to one project it already changes you. But this one, because of its characteristics, created something that we all will take with us for all of our lives. We know much better where we come from; it’s as if we have a better understanding of who we are and what our roots are. I would say it’s as if my house now was a little bit larger than it was before, and that the contours of this house have gained focus. It also gives me the assurance that I’m not only a Brazilian film director but I’m also a Latin American film director. That’s something that you carry with you for your life.

The journey itself is portrayed as a very pivotal moment in his life. How pivotal was it? I mean, obviously, [Ernesto] did undergo change throughout the course of it, but was it as pivotal as its portrayed?

You know, many events in Guevara’s life changed probably his path as well, but this one was very important because for the first time he had the possibility to dive into his own source, into his own continent. Alberto Granado told me once that he knew much more about the Greeks and the Romans and the Phoenicians than he knew about the Incas, and I would say the same thing for my generation still today. (Chuckles) In school we know more about or we’re exposed to the Romans and the Greeks much more than to these civilizations that really define who we are still. And I think that that journey was extremely revealing to him. It showed him what kind of social reality the continent really was facing. He changed due to that contact with that reality, and I don’t think that he was the same man at the end of this journey that he was before.

It’s clear in the dialogue that it’s Alberto’s first time outside of Argentina. Was it Ernesto’s?

No – Ernesto when he was 17 had done a journey outside of Argentina because he worked on a boat for a couple of months. This boat actually went to Brazil and then went to the Caribbean – it was a merchant boat and he worked on board. Therefore, he had gone beyond the frontiers of Argentina. But he knew very little of Latin America; he hadn’t been in that part of the world. He had an incredibly adventurous spirit because when he was 16, he had a bike and he put a small little engine on that bike and he did a 3,000-mile journey throughout Argentina on that very small bike with that engine, to the point where later the bike was photographed for an advertisement by the people who built the small little engine because they couldn’t believe that somebody would embark on something like this. (Laughs) So you can you already see the constant movement in there.

And then I think that he never ceased to be that kind of person who never stood still and never accepted a certain I would say classical role in society. On the opposite – whenever you expected him to stay, like after the Cuban revolution, and occupy a very specific role in that society, he felt the need to continue his route and off he went to fight in the Congo. And then again he went to Bolivia to continue to fight for his ideals. So you have there somebody for whom the journey never ceased to exist.

What’s so impressive about him after seeing this story is that I think a lot of people could take a life-changing journey like this but then just go home and fall back into their old patterns. But he was truly, profoundly changed and it’s shown throughout his life. Does that just kind of show what a remarkable person he is, that he actually internalized the journey and made changes?

I think that when you go on the road, you automatically will suffer influences and you can either refuse that and be oblivious to change, or you can be affected if you have the sensibility for that, then take the measures that result from that. I think that he was a sensitive man for sure and on that journey he understood that his career as the doctor that he would be was less important than one of a man who would fight politically to change the social injustice on his continent, and he opted for that. I’m sure that many other young men were exposed to the same social reality but did not take their destiny in their hands. He did. This is what makes him quite unique for sure.

Since you took the journey and went through it through him, has it changed you as a filmmaker or the stories you want to tell? Did it have an impact on you or did it reaffirm what you were doing?

Well, I was already doing films about identity. Central Station is really a result of this desire, and a film I did before Central Station called Foreign Land as well. It reinforced my need to be part of Latin American cinema, and also to help young American filmmakers talk about that social reality. Basically it reinforced my desire for instance to produce the films of young filmmakers in Brazil and to help other people in Latin America to do their films and talk about what they see. Cinema can be a really wonderful way to understand the world we live in. It goes beyond popcorn. (Laughs) Or should go, and this journey reinforced that.

There’s an awakening that takes place with the characters in this film. When you were doing the research, did you get a sense that they had any sort of ideas or premonitions of what their roles might be in addressing some of those social injustices later on in their lives?

I don’t think that there’s a point of rupture, you know? On the opposite I think that the changes occurred in layers as they progressed. And the main changes occurred once the motorcycle broke, paradoxically, because from that moment on they had to improvise, they had to continue on foot, and this is when they started to meet a lot of people that they were unaware of – the indigenous populations in Chile, in Peru. They were much more in direct contact from that moment on with social injustice than they were before, and they started to change slowly, little by little.

And we wanted the film to have this same quality, that the characters would change and you wouldn’t perceive immediately that they were changing – it’s as if you’re walking in a gentle rain and at the end of your walk you’re completely wet but you don’t know what happened to you. (Laughs) And I think that this journey that they went through, these eight months through Latin America, changed them little by little, but radically. At the end, these young men were not the same ones that started that adventure in Buenos Aires.

Walter, I’m curious about the journey of the book into the movie and your first exposure to the The Motorcycle Diaries, how it made you feel and what it made you think about, and then later in discussing the script with José Rivera, what you wanted to bring to the screen from that book.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a cult book in Latin America, and how could it be otherwise, because it talks not only about the self-discovery of these two young men, who they would become, but it talks also about what we could call, quote unquote, Latin American identity. So for us, it had a very, very important meaning. And the idea here was not only to be faithful to these two books, but also faithful to the spirit of the original journey, and that meant that we also needed to be exposed to the same kind of unpredictable adventures that they had been into. And the film is very much the result of a really wonderful screenplay written by José and a lot of improvisation that occurred during the journey.

What did José strive for? I think basically to convey a very human perception of who these two young men were at that specific time and age, and not as the ones that they would become later. This was certainly the biggest challenge – not to let the iconic figure take over too early in the film, because then there wouldn’t be any change.

Can you talk about the people that you met on the journey? What was it like meeting the different people on the journey and what did they give you in terms of making this project?

Well, that was I think the main gift that we could have received, it was to be exposed to so many different persons that came to us and wanted to be part of the film. A few examples: the little boy in Cuzco that talks about the Incas and the incapables, or these four women who don’t speak Spanish but speak Quechua near Machu Picchu. These were encounters that we made on the road and how could we expect those to happen? It just happened as we were filming.

And you can only improvise and do the scenes that we have in The Motorcycle Diaries when you have two actors that are as talented but also as sensitive as Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna because they really managed to find a way to very respectfully talk to these people that we were encountering, and in character. They were so close to the characters they were playing, they had researched so much, there was so much work behind it, that they could really reenact that route and it was not about acting, it was about living those experiences. And a lot of the encounters that we had the possibility to have during this journey, you will find them in the film.

What was the inspiration behind showing the indigenous population at the end of the film? What went into that?

We were exposed to different indigenous groups throughout the journey. At the beginning in the frontier between Argetina and Chile, there’s a group called the Mapuches, and we did film several scenes with them – they are the ones, for instance, you have a father and son that are in the back of a truck after the big motorcycle accident, and they talk in their original Mapuche language. The two youngsters don’t understand a thing about what’s happening there, our two travelers. (Laughs) And then you have of course as you get nearer the Inca heritage near Cuzco and Machu Picchu, then you have the whole Quechua ethnic group that starts to appear and takes over in the film. Then at the very, very end of the film, in the San Pablo leper colony, you also meet again several of those indigenous people. So we were continuously exposed to them and we wanted to of course reflect what we found in the film. There’s an homage to all of them in the pictures in the very end.

You said you researched in Cuba – I’m just wondering, did you attempt to speak to Fidel Castro?

No, I did not because this film was about these eight months that these two young guys lived in 1952 and not about what happened seven years later. Again, we wanted to really focus on this journey and not to let it be impregnated by what happened later. So we did not, but Robert Redford did at the end when the film was completed and he brought it for the Guevara family and for Alberto Granado to watch in Cuba. I think that Fidel came and visited him at a specific moment of his stay. But that was it – we didn’t try to talk to him about the young Ernesto because he didn’t know the young Ernesto.

Did Fidel watch it?

No, I don’t think that Fidel Castro was at that screening because it was a screening only for the family.

Did Redford relate to you if Fidel had any reminiscences about Guevara?

Oh, he certainly has, because they fought together for so long, but you would have to ask Redford. (Laughs)

Speaking of Redford, can you explain how he became involved and what that meant to you, because you’re saying something about telling Latin American identity and suddenly an American comes in and says I can relate to this, so clearly it becomes about global identity.

Well, I would say first, he's a North American. (Laughs) Redford was extremely important in this picture. I think that he was the one who sensed that there was an important story to be told in this moment that we live in, a story about idealism, a story about a possibility to change the world as opposed to just sitting on your sofa and living vicariously through what you see on television. He was as passionate about this book as I was and as Gael was, and I think it’s not a surprise because he’s been involved with Latin America for a while. He knows the territory really well. Sundance Institute has a very important strategic role in Latin American cinema through the seminars that they conduct. It was for us very inspirational to have him with us during the whole journey.

Also, the fact that he agreed that the film should be spoken in Spanish and could only be done with actors coming from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, was really a decisive aspect here. Only somebody with his sensibility would probably have accepted this. Now you see the film it seems like it was an obvious necessity but when the film has not even started you’re tempted to look in other directions, and Redford, as the political man that he is, understood that you had to do this with complete integrity, or it was better not to do it. I couldn’t have dreamed of somebody with a better understanding and a better producer for a film like this with such a delicate subject.

The scene of Ernesto swimming across the Amazon on his birthday - did it really happen like that?

Guevara had a certain timidity sometimes in talking about himself so you would have to listen to Alberto Granado talking about the importance of that more than in the book itself where it’s pretty compact, that scene, that crossing of the river. And Alberto was the one who really made us understand the importance of that specific moment. It was about making a choice, it was about opting for the bank of the river that he would stay on for the rest of his life. Ultimately he would fight for it and die for it, so there was a completely emblematic quality to that crossing, and if it wasn’t for Alberto I think that we would not probably have understood this quality.

Motorcycle Diaries intro

screenwriterJosé Rivera

co-star Gael Garcia Bernal

Juliette Binoche at BFI talk

Video: Guardian interview with Juliette Binoche at BFI Southbank

Sep 8 2008: The Academy award-winning star of Three Colours: Blue, The English Patient and Chocolat talks to Geoff Andrew about her career

  1. The Motorcycle Diaries (Los Diarios de Motocicleta)
  2. Release: 2004
  3. Countries: Latin America, Rest of the world, UK, USA
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 128 mins
  6. Directors: Walter Salles
  7. Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Mercedes Moran, Mia Maestro, Rodrigo De La Serna
  8. More on this film

Guardian / NFT interview

Walter Salles

Introducing The Motorcycle Diaries at the National Film Theatre last week, Brazilian director Walter Salles discussed Latin American identity, Argentinian cinema, and the character of Che Guevara. Here's a full transcript

Geoff Andrew
Thursday August 26 2004 12.47 BST
Walter Salles at the NFT

Walter Salles at the NFT: 'I come from a country and also a continent whose identity is in the making'. Photos: Sarah Lee

Geoff Andrew: First, I'd like to thank you so much for coming. I've been trying to get you here since 2000, when we did a retrospective of your films, but you've just been so busy, filming all over the place. What I'd like to do is start off by discussing those clips that we've just seen [Central Station and Behind the Sun] because they do relate to Motorcycle Diaries in different ways. The clips I chose from Central Station show you as a director who uses quite a lot of non-professional actors, which you do again in Motorcycle Diaries . And first, you started off in documentary film-making before you went into feature films. What interested you in film-making in the first place, and why documentary?

Walter Salles: First of all, I'm really honoured to be here. When I come to London, I always like to see what's playing at the NFT. I'm very undeserving to be here, but very, very happy nonetheless. I think I turned to documentary film-making very early on as a way to know a little bit more about my country and my roots. My father was a diplomat for part of his life and I jumped from country to country and culture to culture. So when I was very young, I longed for Brazil. I really wanted to know the heart of it much better than I did. That's why I have always admired documentaries, because they open windows that can make you understand much better where you come from, much better than fiction, I think. So this was a really good place to start. I did documentaries for maybe 10 years before I turned to fiction films. But one of these documentaries helped me a lot to understand what fiction was about: I had an opportunity very early on to make a documentary about a sculptor known as GTM - those are his initials - who came from Minas Gerais, which is the heart of the country, and also where my family is from. And he used to carve animals out of wood - he was an extremely intelligent man; he was illiterate but he was much, much brighter than all of us who were there interviewing him. So I asked him, how do you carve an animal which is not native to Brazil, for example, elephants or giraffes? He turned to me as if this was a very unlikely question and said, "Well, I pick up the wood and whatever is not an elephant, I take out."


WS: I think fiction film-making is a little bit like this - it's deciding what is part of the film and what is not. The necessity to conceptualise has to come very early on, and defining a vector of development for that film also at the beginning of the process will allow you much more freedom as you go along. I don't believe in such a thing as a "locked" screenplay. On the contrary, I'm a strong believer in the necessity of imperfection coming into the film. But I also think that the more you reason collectively about what the project should be at the beginning of the process, the more you can improvise later.

GA: Yes, we can talk a bit more about that aspect when we discuss Motorcycle Diaries . But Walter just told me as we were watching the second clip from Central Station, the scene with the big religious festival, that that was actually improvised. So how did you deal with that?

WS: Well, it was a very well-written screenplay by a couple of young guys who had never done this before but had something more important, I think, than experience - they had the talent and the desire. One of them was a young cinephile who had never written anything before, and the other is a short-story film-maker. So I had this idea for the film but I was shooting Foreign Land and I had written 10 pages on it about what the story should be. And I trusted these two guys who improved the screenplay immensely. But they hadn't been on the ground to actually capture the temperature. So when we were location scouting I saw these religious processions and I really felt that that was so descriptive of what was inherent to that part of Brazil that we needed to plunge it in, so we rewrote the screenplay as we were filming it. I think with road movies, especially, you should leave the door open for things like that to happen. And also, you should be porous to the people that you encounter on the road. You have to be open to let those persons change you and change the fabric of the film.

GA: This is what I like about talking to Walter - I ask him one question and he answers five. Now, the first of those two clips from Central Station has an extremely shallow focus [a sequence with Dora the letter-writer's customers] - all that's in focus is the faces, and all that's behind them is almost abstract. Whereas once they go on the road, you have much deeper focus. I think that shows the importance you attach to the way the film looks. It strikes me, and I tried to show this with the clip I chose from Behind the Sun, that you're a very visual film-maker. The words are there, but quite often you're telling stories through images, primarily.

WS: It's the idea that film and content are tied. With Central Station, the story was basically about the recuperation of one's identity and also, an investigation into the country's identity. In Portuguese, the words for father (pai) and country (pais) are almost the same. So the search for a father in Central Station is also a search for a country. What we aimed to do in this film was to lose the focus at the beginning, just focus on the human drama of the faces in the station, so that as the story gets closer and closer to the father, and by extension, the country, you start to see - through the changing depth of focus - that the reality and the country is actually a lot denser that you first thought. At the same time, the colour also changes - I don't know if you realised, but it's very monochromatic. We opted to use very brown colours at the beginning, and it's as if the characters are unable to see more than that. And the closer they get to the heart of the country, the more colours they start to perceive. So the idea of recuperating one's identity is linked to the idea of having a more wide-ranging sensorial palette as well.

GA: It strikes me that the film you did before this, Foreign Land, which did get a release at the ICA here but has not been widely seen, unfortunately, is partly about being in exile. It concerns something that happened in 1990 when the president of Brazil froze all assets and that caused a lot of upheaval there. Central Station is partly about the search of identity and it shows poverty and religion around the country. Midnight was about prison conditions, in part. It seems to me that you're very concerned to make films that deal with political issues and social problems, but in a very accessible way.

WS: I come from a country and also a continent whose identity is in the making. We're a very young culture, and I think that things are not yet crystallised. So the films that are made in our latitudes, I think, carry that sense of urgency. It's as if the people that you meet on the street and the stories that they bring can influence you directly. Imagine trying to do that in Los Angeles - it's impossible because there's no one in the streets! So little by little, I think my generation became very porous to that. But I think it's not all that different from what the Italian neo-realists did 50 years ago, by taking the camera out of the studio and taking it closer to the faces in the street. And what the Italian realists created was not only an aesthetic revolution but also an ethical revolution which influenced the Nouvelle Vague and Cinema Novo in Brazil. And my generation in Brazil was influenced by Cinema Novo. So we're echoing what's been done way in the past.

GA: There's certainly an echo when you made Behind the Sun. You went to make the film in what you thought was the driest part of Brazil, and it was a place where [Brazilian director] Nelson Pereira dos Santos had made a film many years ago. But then your film got held up because it rained, and you discovered that it had also rained for Nelson. So was Behind the Sun a tribute to an earlier form of Brazilian cinema?

WS: It was, and also I was very moved by this novel by Ismail Kadare, an Albanian writer, which had nothing to do with Brazil. And yet the facts he was narrating, which happened in Albania in 1910, also happened in that region of Brazil at the same time. Therefore, I tried to make the adaptation. I'm a little bit critical of the film, watching it from a distance now, because I think I was somehow blocked by the fact that this was about Brazil in 1910 and I wasn't able to be influenced by what was burgeoning around me. The film therefore had to evolve within its own structure as it had been laid out in the screenplay. I didn't go ahead on Motorcycle Diaries before realising that the reality of South America in 2002/03 is very similar to that described by Ernesto Guevara in his book. The structural problems are pretty much the same, of bad distribution of land and wealth. I realised that our own adventure within the continent could somehow mirror what happened to them on a very small scale, and that improvisation was possible.

GA: Actually I don't think you should be too hard on yourself over Behind the Sun - it's an almost exceedingly beautiful film. And it strikes me as your most tightly-controlled film, which makes it certainly very different from Motorcycle Diaries . And in a way, the reason why I chose that clip [of the meeting of the protagonist and a female fire-eater] was to show you trying to achieve something very mythic, with its element of fire and fairy-tale. Was that something that you were trying to do, to create a myth out of reality?

WS: Watching the clips, I realised that fire was also present in Central Station and I had just never made the link. So I definitely have to ring Freud's neighbour's doorbell and ask what that might mean. I was really interested not only in the mythological but also the almost Greek quality of Ismail Kadare's narrative, the way it touched on very basic elements. I wondered if it was possible to investigate that on film, to work with a scarcity of symbols, but at the same time very strong ones. That departs completely from my experience in documentaries, where you don't crystallise things in advance. And so, the act of filming was not as pleasant as it was, for instance, in Central Station, or as exhilarating as in Motorcycle Diaries.

GA: Motorcycle Diaries feels like your loosest and most relaxed film to date; that's how it feels to the spectator. Was that the experience you had making it, because it seems like you probably had a ball?

WS: It took us five years to get there. I started in 1999 to do the research for this project. Three years of research and interviews, but we had one privilege - the fact that Alberto Granado, the man who idealised that journey, was now an 83-years-young man, still extraordinarily vital and with an incredible memory. And he made us understand not only the importance of the journey as translated in the journals, but also how decisive that journey had been in shaping the future of these two very young men. What you also have to realise is that in the Latin America of 1952, we knew a lot about the Greeks, Romans and Etruscans but nothing about the Incas. And this is pre-television. So these two young men went on a very courageous odyssey, and the social and political reality that they found started to alter their perception of the world. We wanted to be faithful to the two books that they wrote, but we also wanted to be faithful to the spirit of the journey. And their journey got more and more deconstructed as they went along, so I thought of a film that could also be more and more deconstructed and improvised as we progressed. It's a film made by young Argentinians, Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans, Brazilians... so it's really a family effort, a collective effort. And a lot of us didn't know very much about our own continent. It's a little bit like the title of that Wim Wenders film, Far Away, So Close. This was how we all felt when we started working on this film, so we conducted a series of seminars in Buenos Aires three months before we started filming, covering the history, music of Latin America in the 50s. We saw documentaries, feature films, a lot of debates were generated. And the whole crew started to come - in the beginning, it was four or five of us while others found the idea especially boring. But little by little, they all started to come, and something amalgamated prior to the shoot. Therefore, the shoot itself was very interesting because we were bonding more and more as we progressed, but physically it was very, very difficult as you can probably see.

GA: Well, yes, because you also had to do a location search as well before starting to make it.

WS: I did the journey three times, twice to do the location scouting and the third time to actually shoot. And yet, what we didn't want to do was crystallise what was going to happen, in order to leave the door open for improvisation later on. Especially after the motorcycle breaks down. We understood that they started to be completely transformed, not just by the physical geography, but by the people they started to encounter. And we wanted that to happen in this film also.

GA: The people you have Gael [García Bernal] and Rodrigo [de la Serna] talking to in the film, for instance the woman who works in handicrafts, they were actually talking about their lives now, weren't they?

WS: Absolutely. And the little boy in Cuzco, we found him in the streets, or he found us. He came to us and asked if we wanted to know a little bit more about the city and offered himself as a guide. So we said, "Yes, but can we bring the Super16 camera along?" And he said, "Bring whatever you want." And there it was. That scene, everything is Take 1. Nothing was repeated. Later that same day, we found those Indian women who don't speak Spanish but only Quechua, who also started to talk to Gael and Rodrigo. And the two of them were so immersed in their characters that they were able to improvise freely within the framework of the screenplay. You have to be careful not to open all the windows and be totally free and unprepared, but you have to try to capture reality as it happens. You see that very much in a refined and yet very simple form in [Abbas] Kiarostami's films, and I'm so impressed by the immediacy and the truth that you find in his films that it just transports you to a completely different level, as if nothing is truly staged. Ken Loach approaches that as well, I think. I'm an admirer of these two directors' work, and somehow I try to find, in what I do, something which may not completely be in the same direction but echoes that.

GA: Did you ever feel that this enormous journey that you were going to have to make for this film might be too much? You seem to like taking on a challenge, and you like road movies, but this was the biggest challenge yet, surely?

WS: At the beginning I was very unsure that it was even possible to do this adaptation because it was such sacred territory in the whole of Latin America; not only the book itself but the iconic quality of Guevara, which is very intimidating. Which is why it took us three years to do the necessary research before we could move forward. Actually, I didn't generate this project - it was Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute was very instrumental in the making of Central Station: we received a screenplay prize prior to the film being made, which helped immensely in making the film a reality. And Redford was passionate about this book, and he was the first one to talk to me about it. I said, "I know it really well, I've read it many, many times, but it's going to be very difficult to put this together because (1) I don't think you can do this in any language other than Spanish, and (2) I think you have to work with actors and non-actors from Latin America. It's such a complex film to make and you'll probably never get funded." He had a very hard time funding this film. And the screenplay was refused by virtually all the American studios - I'm not going to list them... alphabetically. [laughs] Actually, the problem was two-fold: first, they asked, "Where's act 1, act 2 and act 3?" Of course they weren't there. And secondly, they said, "There's no conflict." But the conflict is internal, not externalised. And if it wasn't for FilmFour here, we would probably never have moved forward. So it was a process that took a very long time, and in between I did Behind the Sun.

GA: Did you ever worry about shooting the scenes in the leper colony? I think you did it in a beautiful way, but did you feel you had problems to be dealt with there?

WS: Absolutely. First we did a lot of research on that specific disease, which has not been eradicated, contrary to what many people think. There are still 500,000 persons afflicted with leprosy in Latin America, so it is still very much present. Secondly, thanks to Alberto Granado, who is a scientist, we learnt so much about it. Thirdly, through our research we met five former patients of the San Pablo leper colony and they said, "Well, if you're going to make a film about this, we would like to be in the film," and they are. So five of the 90 non-actors that you see in the film are people who have actually spent time in the leper colony. So I didn't want to impose our perception of that, but instead be porous to their input. What I soon realised is that what was happening on the south bank [where the patients are housed] - and isn't this interesting, that even that is emblematic, the north and south side of the river? - was much more interesting in terms of exploring life in all its complexity than what was happening on the north side, with the nuns and the doctors. This is why, for instance, you have the football match in there, and that impromptu music session, just so that you don't look at these people in a miserabilist light. I don't know if you have that word or sensibility in English...

GA: It's used mainly of Finnish cinema.


GA: Only a couple more questions before I throw it open. One is, you have this rather wonderful speech that Guevara makes on his birthday about the dream of a united America. I imagine this is something close to you, but I wanted to talk about a united Latin American cinema - because you have been at the forefront of a revival of fortunes in Brazilian film-making, not only by the films you've made but also the films you've produced like City of God. But also you are in frequent communication with people like [Alejandro González] Iñárritu and [Alfonso] Cuarón in Mexico, among others. Can you just talk about your hopes or your efforts towards creating a stronger and perhaps more fluid sense of Latin American cinema?

WS: First of all, you may be surprised that I only saw work by Pablo Trapero [director of El Bonaerense] and Lucrecia Martel [director of La Ciénaga] for the first time outside of Brazil. Their films are wonderful. They are part of the new wave of Argentinian cinema, which I think is possibly the best in the world right now. And these films didn't get to Brazil until very recently - they just weren't distributed because of the control the major studios have over distribution. So I feel a responsibility to help first-time film-makers in Brazil, but also to increase the dialogue between film cultures which are really wonderful and so much closer to us than what we do see on our screens. Also, there are now new laws in Brazil which create incentives for Argentine and Latin American films to be premiered and distributed in Brazil and vice versa. And I hope that this will go way further, because there is much more to unite us than we think. I go and see a film by Lucrecia Martel or I go to see Amores Perros, and they remind me so much of things which are just outside our door in Brazil. I feel that this generation of film-makers is much closer than the previous ones. But also, we live in a freer society. You have to realise that 20 years ago, part of the continent was living under horrible military dictatorships. If cinema has burgeoned, it's also thanks to the fact that democracy - not economic democracy, but at least political democracy - has returned to a great part of the continent. And this allows us to express what we're feeling as film-makers and to try to provide a reflection of that on the screen.

GA: And as the Argentinians' example shows us, you don't necessarily need a lot of money, you just need imagination. It's amazing what they're doing. Okay, my last question. You have a talent for choosing and casting very good-looking people in your films. In Motorcycle Diaries , you have former regular NFT customer Gael García Bernal, who is Mexican, and Rodrigo de la Serna, who's Argentinian. Can you just talk a little about why you cast these two actors in this film.

WS: That also took a long time and the choice of the two actors was made in two different periods of time and in different ways. I met Gael in 2001 when I saw Amores Perros and I was very impressed not only by the viscerality that he had but also his maturity as an actor. Everything was coming from within in a very internalised manner, and that's very rare for an actor of 19 or 20 years of age. I'm not a big fan of "performance" in acting. On the contrary, I prefer what comes in layers, not what is spelled out, and I think that Gael has that quality. But he can also do something like the Almodóvar film [Bad Education] - and he's outstanding in it. He does have the capacity to hit you with very light strokes, like gentle rain. I invited him on board before Y Tu Mamá También premiered, so he's been involved with this project for a long time. On the other hand, I needed to find an actor that could bring to life the Alberto Granado that I knew by that time, and it was so difficult because Alberto Granado is so generous and flamboyant and wonderful and he's also got a certain freshness. Rodrigo de la Serna, I had never heard of him but he came and did a screen test. He's from the theatre in Argentina, and I was in shock when I saw his interpretation of the scenes I was asking him to read because it was as if the humanity that you had in Italian cinema of the 60s, like what Vittorio Gassman or Alberto Sordi had, reappeared in front of my eyes. I stopped the search immediately and invited him to join us. Having said that, more than 90% of the characters in this film are played by non-actors. The Chilean sisters are students, the people in the leper colony, with the exception of maybe three actors out of about 100 and the former patients, so about 95 people there are actually from the little cities surrounding the place where we filmed. It's a pleasure to blend the actors and the non-actors together, but sometimes it's very difficult to find a common denominator and a harmony. You have to work with actors with the talent and intelligence and the generosity of Gael and Rodrigo to achieve that, because it's not something that comes immediately. You have to actually create something behind the scenes and not work specifically on the scenes themselves in order to generate a backstory between them, so that you can then recreate something later in front of the camera. And again, the less obtrusive the camera is, and the smaller the crew trying to capture that, the better it is. For instance, in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, we were 14, including the actors. That's not a lot, you know. On the other hand, in the San Pablo leper colony, we were 150 - there were about 100 extras in there. But it's not that I arrived there and filmed immediately. No, we played football with them, we had collective jam sessions, we tried to create something of a collective history before we did the scenes - you need the ties, you need that bond before you can actually go and introduce the camera into their midst. You have to respect those people, and not try to steal something. The opposite is true, you have to do it in total synchronicity with them.

GA: And it shows up beautifully there on screen. Okay, I'm sure people have got questions.

Q1: There's a trend in Hollywood now of remaking Japanese and Hong Kong films. I've heard that you're remaking Dark Water, is that true? How did you get involved?

WS: Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I wanted to explore something that I hadn't done before. Also I didn't want to do two road films in a row. Also, I knew that the impact of Motorcycle Diaries was going to be so resonant for all of us who went through the experience of making it that I didn't want to do anything that could reflect it. It's like you need a complete break before you can move forward. So that, on a purely personal standpoint, was how I came to make the decision to make that film. The other thing that attracted me was the study of urban solitude and fear. There's a really interesting French historian called Delumeau, who did a book called History of Fear, about how fear has been used throughout the ages to impose a dominant point of view. I thought that it could be an interesting statement about North American culture at this present moment, but what do I know?


WS: Also, it was a possibility to work with really very good actors that I admired, including some British actors like Tim Roth and Pete Postlethwaite. But I made sure that I had a return ticket and I intend to use it very soon. I'm completely uninterested in what you may call a career in film-making. I'm much more interested in living specific experiences in films. And a few times it has been necessary for me to go in one direction to better understand what was on the other front. One example: after I did Behind the Sun, which I felt was very contrived, I wanted to do a film where I wouldn't be defining or blocking the actors and instead try to explore the absence, almost, of the director, which is what I tried in Motorcycle Diaries . After a certain moment, what we tried to do was to liberate the actors within the frame and never to rehearse anything but just film it as fresh as it came. The fact that we had prepared and gone through the seminars and already had a back history among ourselves allowed us to do so. So again, Motorcycle Diaries was a reaction against something contrived. I'm really interested in exploring different routes - unfortunately, I can't work in a straight line, I wish I knew how to do that.

Q2: What has the reaction been like in Cuba? What about the possibility of sequels - there's certainly enough material for it.

WS: What interested me in this was that really, this was a small story which preceded history with a capital H, preceded what we all have access to through documentaries and images that have already been made. This story of discovery, both of the continent and of their selves, was so attractive because it brought about that specific moment. Jorge Luís Borges, the Argentinian writer, said once that every man in every single moment of his life is everything that he has already been and everything that he will be. So this Ernesto that you have in the film is the Ernesto who at the age of five or six could not go into the water because of his asthma and the shortcomings of his social class, but there was already something in him anticipating the man who would implode the limits of that social class, and play a definite role in our continent, of Latin America. But to answer your question, the Guevara family was very close to the project from the very beginning. They opened the doors of the Che Guevara Institute in Havana, we had access to so many photographs which have never been published, and to letters from that period, and that helped a lot to shape what the film is. That continuous support was very, very important. They never asked to read the screenplay, which I thought was really fantastic and gave us an even greater sense of responsibility because it was basically about trust. They saw the film once it was edited. The film was really well received in Cuba on its premiere a few weeks ago, and it's going into wide release there in early October.

Q3: Were you apprehensive about taking on a story about a revolutionary and historical figure, when your other pieces have been, for instance, about a young boy?

WS: I think there was a common denominator, which is the search for one's identity and for one's place in the world. If I had to summarise it in one sentence, I would say that it's about the choice of which bank of the river we would want to spend all our lives. This is present in a minor form in all my other films as well, but this was so much more important to all of us. This was a film made by a crew where everybody had read the same book, which is so rare. And also, this is a film made by people who were not the same at the end of the journey - we were completely transformed by it. The other films, once we finished them, I kept in contact with many of the actors and the technicians - so, for instance, the little boy in Central Station is going to act in my next film in Brazil. But here, it was so much more amplified. There's not a week where I don't receive maybe 20 emails from Chile, Argentina or Peru, or Mexico and Brazil. This film was so important to us and something of that collective force still remains. So it was much more difficult to do than the others, but it's also, in a way, so much more emotionally rewarding than the films I've done before.

Q4: Brazil is such a big country, so I wonder if maybe people don't really see much of a connection between themselves and what they see on screen in your films. And maybe this is even more difficult for the rest of Latin America?

WS: At the beginning of the preparation for the film, I was ... I wouldn't say sceptical, but I really wanted to know if that speech at the end of the leper colony episode was one that was close to the reality of Latin America. I was in doubt about whether such a thing as Latin American unity truly could exist, could be thought of or even imagined. But the more we went into the continent, the more we thought, "Yes, it exists." I think the film really is about that. I don't think we can say what the Latin American identity is, but I think we can try to look for it, and look for the reverberations from it. In Brazil, the film has premiered and has been seen by a lot of people, so I think they are also questioning or now carry with them the very same question that I had at the beginning.

Q5: I want to thank you very much for making this film, for showing the humanity of Guevara.

WS: That was the most important thing for us, not to look for the iconic image but on the other hand, go in the opposite direction to try to understand the man behind the myth. In that sense, the work of the actors and the screenwriter, José Rivera, was so important to enable you to see the character with all the fragilities and not his certitudes, yet. So there could be, in the journey, the understanding of where he wanted to be, that choice of which bank of the river he wanted to stay the whole of his life. So the film was first of all, about choice, really; about the importance of idealism in an age where these words have lost a lot of their significance. Also, every time that we arrived in a different city in our small odyssey, we met people who would come to us and tell us of Guevara's legacy and how it was important to them. And obviously we continually ask ourselves why is Guevara so important today, why is he still so much in synchronicity with this time, and I think one answer to that is that he embodies the necessity of change. And he also makes us understand that it's not utopian to ask for change. And this is very different from what historians like Fukuyama tell us, that we have reached the end of history. Or that we live in an age where all ideologies have crumbled after the fall of the Berlin wall. On the contrary, what Guevara tells us is that you can't live without idealism. This is basically why he still resonates with us. You have somebody who kept his integrity to the end; he was faithful to himself from the beginning to the very last day of his journey.

GA: Sadly, we have come to an end, but I think we have been treated to a film by and an interview with somebody who himself has shown us a great deal of humanity in his movies and has shown that there is a possibility for change. So please put your hands together for Walter Salles.

Mía Maestro, Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Walter Salles, First Assistant Director, Julia Solomonoff, and assistant Pablo Ramos on the set

Trailers and Videos for
Walter Salles More at IMDb Pro »

The dramatization of a motorcycle road trip Che Guevara went on in his youth that showed him his life's calling.
The Motorcycle Diaries [Diarios de motocicleta]

The dramatization of a motorcycle road...

hv post
The Motorcycle Diaries [Diarios de motocicleta]

hv post

A mother and daughter, still wounded from a bitter custody dispute, hole up in a run-down apartment building. Adding further drama to their plight, they are targeted by the ghost of former resident.
Dark Water

A mother and daughter, still wounded...

A mother and daughter, still wounded from a bitter custody dispute, hole up in a run-down apartment building. Adding further drama to their plight, they are targeted by the ghost of former resident.
Dark Water

A mother and daughter, still wounded...

An emotive journey of a former school teacher, who write letters for illiterate people, and a young boy, whose mother has just died, in search for the father he never knew.
Central Station

An emotive journey of a former school...

Clip: New Apartment
Dark Water

Clip: New Apartment

Clip: Stuck In Elevator
Dark Water

Clip: Stuck In Elevator

Clip: Ceci Attacked In Tub
Dark Water

Clip: Ceci Attacked In Tub

Walter Salles More at IMDb Pro »

Photos (see all 17 | slideshow)

The dramatization of a motorcycle road trip Che Guevara went on in his youth that showed him his life's calling.hv postA mother and daughter, still wounded from a bitter custody dispute, hole up in a run-down apartment building. Adding further drama to their plight, they are targeted by the ghost of former resident.
Videos (see all 8)

Date of Birth:
12 April 1956, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil more
Speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and French fluently. more
Won 2 BAFTA Film Awards. Another 36 wins & 16 nominations more
Alternate Names:
Walter Salles Jr.

Date of Birth:
12 April 1956, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil more
Speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and French fluently. more
Won 2 BAFTA Film Awards. Another 36 wins & 16 nominations more
Alternate Names:
Walter Salles Jr.


Jump to filmography as: Director, Producer, Writer, Editor, Sound Department, Thanks, Self

  1. On the Road (2009) (in production)
  2. Linha de Passe (2008)
  3. Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007) (segment "A 8 944 km de Cannes")
    ... aka Chacun son cinéma (France: short title)
    ... aka To Each His Cinema (International: English title)
  4. Paris, je t'aime (2006) (segment "Loin du 16ème")
    ... aka Paris, I Love You (Hong Kong: English title)
  5. Dark Water (2005)
  6. Diarios de motocicleta (2004)
    ... aka Carnets de voyage (France)
    ... aka Reise des jungen Che, Die (Germany)
    ... aka The Motorcycle Diaries (USA)
    ... aka Voyage à motocyclette (France: festival title)
  7. Castanha e Caju Contra o Encouraçado Titanic (2002)
  8. Armas e Paz (2002)
    ... aka Guns and Peace (International: English title)
  9. Abril Despedaçado (2001)
    ... aka Avril brisé (France)
    ... aka Behind the Sun (International: English title)
    ... aka Shredded April (literal English title)
  10. Somos Todos Filhos da Terra (1998)
  11. Primeiro Dia, O (1998)
    ... aka Meia Noite (Brazil: alternative title)
    ... aka Midnight (Canada: English title)
    ... aka Minuit (France: TV title)
    ... aka Premier jour, Le (France)
  12. Central do Brasil (1998)
    ... aka Central Station (USA)
    ... aka Central do Brasil (France)
  13. Terra Estrangeira (1996)
    ... aka Foreign Land
  14. "Un siècle d'écrivains" (1 episode, 1995)
        - Jorge Amado (1995) TV episode
  15. Socorro Nobre (1995)
    ... aka Life Somewhere Else (Hong Kong: English title)
  16. A Grande Arte (1991) (as Walter Salles Jr.)
    ... aka Exposure (Canada: English title) (USA: TV title)
    ... aka High Art
    ... aka Knife Fighter
    ... aka The Knife (Europe)
  17. Chico - O País da Delicadeza Perdida (1989) (TV)
  18. Marisa Monte (1988) (TV)
  19. Krajcberg - O Poeta dos Vestígios (1987)
  20. "Japão - Uma Viagem no Tempo" (4 episodes, 1986)
        - Kurosawa - Pintor de Imagens (1986) TV episode
        - O Outro Lado do Mundo (1986) TV episode
        - Os Novos Criadores (1986) TV episode
        - Os Samurais da Economia (1986) TV episode
  1. The Eye of the Storm (2009) (pre-production) (producer)
  2. A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D'Agua (2009) (pre-production) (producer)
  3. Celestina (2008) (pre-production) (producer)
  4. Leonera (2008) (co-producer)
    ... aka Lion's Den (International: English title)
  5. Nacido y criado (2006) (co-producer)
    ... aka Born and Bred (International: English title)
  6. Céu de Suely, O (2006) (producer)
    ... aka Ciel de Suely, Le (France)
    ... aka Love for Sale (USA)
    ... aka Suely in the Sky (International: English title)
  7. Cidade Baixa (2005) (producer)
    ... aka Lower City (International: English title) (UK)
  8. Hermanas (2005) (producer)
    ... aka Sisters (USA: literal English title)
  9. Madame Satã (2002) (producer)
  10. Cidade de Deus (2002) (co-producer)
    ... aka City of God (International: English title) (UK)
    ... aka Cité de Dieu, La (France)
    ... aka God's Town (International: English title)
  11. Krajcberg - O Poeta dos Vestígios (1987) (producer)
  1. Paris, je t'aime (2006) (segment "Loin du 16ème")
    ... aka Paris, I Love You (Hong Kong: English title)
  2. Abril Despedaçado (2001) (writer)
    ... aka Avril brisé (France)
    ... aka Behind the Sun (International: English title)
    ... aka Shredded April (literal English title)
  3. Primeiro Dia, O (1998) (writer)
    ... aka Meia Noite (Brazil: alternative title)
    ... aka Midnight (Canada: English title)
    ... aka Minuit (France: TV title)
    ... aka Premier jour, Le (France)
  4. Central do Brasil (1998) (story)
    ... aka Central Station (USA)
    ... aka Central do Brasil (France)
  5. Terra Estrangeira (1996) (writer)
    ... aka Foreign Land
  6. Socorro Nobre (1995) (writer)
    ... aka Life Somewhere Else (Hong Kong: English title)
  1. Somos Todos Filhos da Terra (1998)
  2. Terra Estrangeira (1996)
    ... aka Foreign Land
  3. Socorro Nobre (1995)
    ... aka Life Somewhere Else (Hong Kong: English title)
Sound Department:
  1. Socorro Nobre (1995) (sound)
    ... aka Life Somewhere Else (Hong Kong: English title)
  1. Eu Tu Eles (2000) (thanks)
    ... aka Me You Them (USA)
    ... aka Me, You, Them (UK)
  1. Diethnes Festival Kinimatografou Thessalonikis - 11+1 kinimatografistes (2007) (TV) .... Himself
  2. Wanderlust (2006) (TV) .... Himself
  3. Analyzing 'Dark Water' (2005) (V) .... Himself
  4. Beneath the Surface: The Making of 'Dark Water' (2005) (V) .... Himself
  5. Dark Water: Extraordinary Ensemble (2005) (V) .... Himself
  6. Sound of Terror: The Soundscapes of 'Dark Water' (2005) (V) .... Himself
  7. 2nd Annual Directors Guild of Great Britain DGGB Awards (2005) (V) .... Himself - Winner Foreign Language Film 'Diarios de Motocicleta - The Motocycle Diaries'
  8. The 20th IFP Independent Spirit Awards (2005) (TV) .... Himself
  9. The Making of 'The Motorcycle Diaries' (2004) (TV) .... Himself
  10. Onde a Terra Acaba (2001) .... Himself
    ... aka At the Edge of the Earth

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Walter Moreira Salles Jr. (born April 12, 1956, Rio de Janeiro) is a Brazilian filmmaker and film producer of international prominence. He is the son of Walter Moreira Salles, a Brazilian banker and ambassador, and the brother of João Moreira Salles, also a filmmaker. Both, along with two other brothers are heirs to the bank Unibanco, one of the largest and richest in South America.

Born Walter Moreira Salles Jr.
April 21, 1956 (1956-04-21) (age 52)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Other name(s) Waltinho
Occupation film director, producer and editor
Spouse(s) Maria Klabin


Salles attended the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.[1]

Salles's first notable film was Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land), released in Brazil in 1995. Locally, it was widely acclaimed by film critics and a minor box-office hit, and it was selected by over 40 film festivals worldwide. In 1998 he released Central do Brasil (Central Station) to widespread international acclaim and two Academy Awards nominations, for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Foreign Language Film. In 2001, Abril Despedaçado (Behind the Sun), starring Rodrigo Santoro, was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Golden Globes. Both films were produced by veteran Arthur Cohn and had worldwide distribution.

In 2003, Salles was voted one of the 40 Best Directors in the World by The Guardian.

His biggest international success has been Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries), a 2004 film about the life of young Ernesto Guevara, who later became known as Che Guevara. It was Salles's first foray as director of a film in a language other than his native Portuguese (Spanish, in this case) and quickly became a box-office hit in Latin America and Europe.

In 2005, Salles released his first English-language feature film, which is also his first Hollywood film, Dark Water, an adaptation of the 2002 Japanese film of the same name. He also helped to produce the Argentine picture Hermanas which was a major success.

Salles has reportedly signed on to direct José Rivera's screenplay adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, with Francis Ford Coppola producing. See also: On the Road (2007). [1]

Terra Estrangeira

Won 8 international awards, including

Central do Brasil

55 international awards, including:

Abril Despedaçado

The Motorcycle Diaries


Main filmography


^ Notable Alumni, USC School of Cinematic Arts.

External links
  • Video interview with Walter Salles opening Cambridge Film Festival 2008 with "Linha de Passe" ITV Anglia
  • Walter Salles at the Internet Movie Database
  • Interview with Walter Salles at Cannes 2008 on "Linha de Passe" at
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