There is a lot to live up to when the first script you ever write is nominated for an Academy Award. Call it beginner’s luck if you’d like, but screenwriter Jose Rivera knows the hard work it takes to make something like that happen.
In 2004, Rivera, who worked as a playwright before adding screenwriting to his repertoire, earned an Oscar nomination for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The film was an adaptation of two books – Che Guevara’s “Notas de viaje” and Alberto Granado’s “Con el Che por America Latina” – about Guevara’s road trip with his best friend across South America in the 1950s.
In his new film, Rivera, 55, has co-written “Letters to Juliet,” his first romance for the big screen. The film tells the story of a young American girl vacationing in Verona, Italy, who helps a woman search for her long, lost love after she discovers a letter she wrote 50 years prior.
During an interview with me, Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, talked about what still makes letters a special way to correspond with loved ones and what he has experienced writing his own love letters.
What was the experience like writing your first romance for the screen?
It’s my first film romance but definitely not my first romance ever. A lot of my plays tend to be romances. When I was first approached by the producers to write this film I didn’t know anything about the “Secretaries of Juliet.” When I heard about it, I was amazed. It seemed so old-fashioned. I was fascinated by it.
With email, texting, and video conferencing, people don’t write as many letters as they used to 15 years ago. Why do you think there are still some people that write letters?
Well, I write longhand when I write anything from screenplays to plays. I like the feel of pen and paper together. I think people still write letters for that reason. Also, it’s something slower and more thoughtful than an email. Personally, I love to get letters from friends. It’s pretty rare.
It’s very interesting that you write everything longhand.
Yeah, I’ve always done it that way. It’s better for me. I tried writing on a computer but it’s not the same. The computer is too slick. When I write longhand, I have to think about every single word. It’s a deeper process for me.
You must have a great transcriber.
I’m very lucky to have a wonderful assistant, so whenever I finish a draft longhand she is one of the very few people that can read my writing.
Were you able to go to Verona to work on this script?
No, when I got the job, I asked the producers if they could send me to Verona for research and their response was, “Well, that’s what the Internet if for.” So, I didn’t go to Verona to write this, but I had been to Verona years ago. I remembered it very well because it’s a very memorable place.
Were you disappointed because they wouldn’t send you?
(Laughs) Well, you know, I was disappointed because I wanted a free trip to Italy. But it turned out fine. The Internet has a lot of information and photographs. It’s not as great as being there, but it still worked out okay.
Did the meaning of your script change when you found out (real-life husband and wife) Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero were cast as the lost lovers?
Chemistry like that is either there or it’s not. You can’t manufacture it. I had written the script originally for someone like Vanessa Redgrave – a very beautiful, aristocratic, older British woman. It was definitely written for someone of her stature and talent. Beyond that I didn’t know who was going to play Lorenzo.
You’ve adapted screenplays from books and even newspaper articles. What was it like to sit down and have to start the writing process with nothing in front of you other than your research?
It was fun. It was very liberating to come up with the story and the adventure she goes on. I was glad to do something that was very original. I really liked the characters.
What is the biggest different between writing screenplays and plays?
A lot of it is the same. You’re dealing with character and conflict. A lot of those fundamental things are the same. The craft and tools are different. You really have to understand how camera fit into the world of your story. Film is a very visual form. You have to think in images. On the stage, you have to think in the spoken word.
There are so many strong Italian names you could have chosen for the mystery man in this film. Why did you decide on Lorenzo Bartolini?
I just love the name Lorenzo. It’s very romantic sounding to me. My original last name was different than the one in the film. But Lorenzo has this romantic hero quality to it.
Have you ever written a love letter? Can you tell me the experience writing it and what kind of response you got?
Yeah, over the years I’ve written many to different people. It’s a very private and personal thing. You are completely vulnerable on paper. Out there somewhere in somebody’s shoeboxes there are letters I’ve written. I would be really interesting to reread them after all these years.
So, some of them worked out and some of them didn’t?
(Laughs) Yeah, mostly they didn’t work out.
Since I’m a journalist, my wife expects a love letter or a poem from me every so often. Does yours expect the same thing?
Yeah, I don’t know what she expects but I do occasionally write her poetry especially when we’re apart. She’s an actress, so she travels and I travel with my work. It’s nice when were away to be able to express ourselves like that in our letters.
Are you the kind of person that goes through “what if” scenarios in your mind like Vanessa Redgrave’s character in this film or do you like to live in the present?
I don’t like to live in the past. I don’t like to dwell on things that could have been. I don’t have those regrets that her character has. Her character is lonely and I think that makes you look to the past.
You hit a really high point in your career when you were nominated for an Oscar for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Was it challenging to have to start working again knowing that people might expect you to live up to that work?
It’s interesting because it does create expectations that everything you write is something that’s going to be nominated for an Oscar. I don’t put those expectations on myself, but I definitely feel them from people I work with. They turn to me for an Oscar-worthy script for their film. It’s a tough challenge to have to live up to that. I don’t mind it, personally. My feeling is that every movie is different and every movie has it own challenges. I’m going to deal with the challenges of this story and do the best that I can with this story. If it wins an award or something, great, but that’s not my goal.
I’m sure it’s still pretty neat to have the words “Oscar-nominated screenwriter” forever connected to your name though.
(Laughs) It’s very interesting. I think it’s great. I was the first Puerto Rican nominated for a writing award. I carry that with pride.