Commentary: Two-part Spanish 'Che' began as one English movie

Spanish subsidies, Puerto Rican tax rebates saved project

"Che" conversation: A film's Oscar and Golden Globe potential depends on many factors, but a filmmaker's pedigree is one thing that can make a big difference early in the game.

A case in point is "Che," directed by Steven Soderbergh and produced by Laura Bickford, Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro, who stars as Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Given Soderbergh's reputation, "Che" began generating awards interest when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

"Che" is actually two separate movies with a combined running time of nearly four-and-a-half hours. Written by Peter Buchman, whose credits include 2006's "Eragon," the first part of the film is inspired by "The Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara," and the second part is inspired by "The Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara." The film was executive produced by Alvaro Longoria, Belen Atienza, Frederic W. Brost and Gregory Jacobs.

Soderbergh won the best director Oscar for 2000's "Traffic" and was Oscar-nominated the same year for directing "Erin Brockovich." He was a best original screenplay nominee for 1989's critically acclaimed "sex, lies, and videotape." He also was Globe- and BAFTA-nominated for those three films and was a DGA award nominee for "Traffic" and "Brockovich." Soderbergh has amassed a ton of awards, noms and other honors, and he has the distinction of being regarded as a director who's equally comfortable making mainstream Hollywood films or small -- even very small -- independent productions.

When "Che" was shown in October at the New York Film Festival, it was the first of the 2008 festival's films to sell out. In May at the Festival de Cannes, Del Toro won the best actor award for playing the legendary Argentine doctor who teamed with Fidel Castro in 1955 to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The IFC Films presentation opens Dec. 12 in New York and Los Angeles, where both parts of the movie will play together as a one-week full-length roadshow without credits but with an intermission, printed program and special overture. "Che" will reopen Jan. 9 in 25 top markets, with each part of the movie playing separately.

The film also will have a video-on-demand release through IFC in Theaters starting Jan. 21, with 50 million homes being able to view its two parts on cable or satellite TV while it's still playing theatrically. It subsequently will go into traditional pay TV and DVD release.

In "Che Part 1: The Argentine," the focus is on Che's rise as a hero of the Cuban Revolution. In "Che Part Two: Guerrilla," Che disappears at the height of his fame and power after the Cuban Revolution, reemerging incognito in Bolivia to organize a revolution there, which ultimately leads to his capture and execution. The movie looks great, by the way, which reflects Soderbergh having shot it himself, as he typically does when directing.

I was happy to have an opportunity recently to focus with producer Laura Bickford on how "Che" reached the screen. "About 10 years ago I realized Benicio looks like (the famous photo of Guevara) on the T-shirt and asked him if he might be interested in making a movie about him," she told me. "I didn't really know very much about Che Guevara, other than that he was a symbol of sexy youthful rebellion. Benicio said, 'Yeah, let's explore it; let's find out more about him.' At the same time, I was researching 'Traffic' with Steven."

In doing that research, Bickford explained, "We went with a New York Times reporter who'd won a Pulitzer on drug trafficking, all over Mexico and the States, meeting his sources and interviewing them. (The 'Che' project) got put on the back burner a little, but when we were making 'Traffic,' Benicio and I asked Steven if he wanted to do 'Che' with us, and he said, 'Yes.'"

From the beginning, it was clear that a film about Che would have to cover only certain parts of his life to tell his story effectively. "We discussed doing one part of his life in detail to try and avoid being superficial because there's just so much dramatic narrative," Bickford said. "The thing we were all intrigued about was how he died in the Bolivian campaign. We didn't know what had happened to him, where he'd gone or how he died.

"So we had the idea of doing just the Bolivian story in depth to show who he was; we spent about two years researching that. Initially, Steven, Benicio and I took 'Traffic' to Havana to show it to them and started talking to people down there. And we went to Bolivia and met with people that fought against him."

One of the most important things the filmmakers wanted to make clear, Bickford added, was "to understand his sacrifice to have won the Cuban Revolution and be this famous person on the world stage, and then to give up the power and fame to go do it again was extraordinary. That was one aspect of his story that we wanted to (tell). So we decided that we would do (the occasion) when he came to New York in 1964 to speak at the United Nations. We did a lot of research on that and met a lot of journalists that interviewed him then."

Another thing the filmmakers felt was important to understand about Bolivia, she said, was "because it just went so badly so fast -- or that the U.S. and the Bolivian army were so adept at finding him quickly and capturing him, depending on your point of view -- was why he thought it could work. We realized we had to do a piece of the Cuban Revolution to understand the end. You know, if you're doing a movie about the American Revolution or the French Revolution, there's no one to talk to, but (with) the Cuban Revolution, there's still an incredible amount of people to talk to that won't be around forever.

"We tried to do three story lines -- Bolivia, New York and a piece of the Cuban battle, all from Che's point of view -- and Mexico City when he met Fidel. We tried to do it in one movie and intercut it like 'Traffic,' but it kept getting bigger and bigger. I raised the money for one film in English. We shot the U.N. and realized that we needed to do two movies, and we had to go on hiatus and split them into two linear story lines. Then we realized we had to do it in Spanish because once we filmed Che in Spanish, we realized that Che in English was going to be terrible."

On a producing level it was a challenge, Bickford said, "to have raised the money for one movie in English, and then to come back and say it's two movies and have (the financiers) say 'OK,' and then to say (to them that) it's two movies in Spanish. That was a little trickier because U.S. distributors all have put deals for English-language films with pay TV companies, (and) that was no longer valid. That completely changed the landscape because it's a huge part of the recoupment and financing plan (for) whatever they were going to give you.

"So we lost any interest from U.S. financing before we made the film. We ended up as a Spanish qualifying film and getting subsidies from Telecinco in Spain, which is one of the few commercial stations in Spain, and their mandate when the government gave them a commercial TV license was that they had to spend 20% of their profits every year on Spanish-language films. And you also have to spend a certain amount of that money in Spain."

Fortunately, Spain turned out to be a good double for Bolivia. "The landscapes where the story takes place aren't that hard to double, but we were really concerned about the extras and the people because if there were no Bolivians in Spain, it was going to be really bad," Bickford said. "There's a huge Bolivian community in Madrid, so we hired a lot of them as extras and bussed them three hours outside of Madrid, (where) in the mountains we had rebuilt this Bolivian village where Che was captured and executed."

That was where they started filming. "We did the second movie first, and we did it backward because we wanted all the actors to arrive as thin as possible and with as long hair as possible so we could kill them (in the movie), and then they could gain a little weight and cut their hair (to shoot earlier scenes)," Bickford said. "We shot Part 1, which we shot second, in Puerto Rico and Mexico. We did most of the work in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Ricans have a very similar culture and mix of people to Cuba.

"We had looked at doing all of it in Mexico at one point, but the Mexicans don't look like Cubans at all -- like the Spaniards don't look like Bolivians. When you're making a movie about someone who's focusing on indigenous peasants, you can't have them look like Europeans. And, also, Puerto Rico had a great tax rebate, which is a great thing for filmmakers to know because they figured out a way to cash-flow the rebate."

The Puerto Rican Economic Development Bank works with the local film commission and government, Bickford said, "so you can sell your tax credits and get the cash for shooting, which is something producers often forget, including myself on other projects. When you get these subsidies, you want them for shooting, and the banks that are cash-flowing your foreign sales and things won't guarantee them because they come after you've shot. Puerto Rico's been very clever in getting their own bank to guarantee them for a discount."

The combination of Puerto Rico's tax rebate, the fact that the physical locations looked like Cuba and that the extras looked Cuban was important, she said, as was "the fact that Benicio's from Puerto Rico and had never made a movie there. All of those things came together, and it was really very exciting to be working there. We shot in Puerto Rico in September and October of last year, then we went to Mexico. We were there for two weeks filming and left Mexico at Thanksgiving and went to Bolivia and shot a few days (there). Che went in disguise into Bolivia, so we had to shave Benicio's head, so we did that piece last. We couldn't shave his head if we weren't finished with everything else."

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