Mexican filmmaker Roberto Sneider (“Tear This Heart Out”) always wondered why he connected so strongly to renowned writer José Agustín’s 1982 novel Ciudades Desiertas as a young man. One day, it hit him: The story, which revolves around what Sneider describes as a “pretty mature relationship,” depicts—through truth and humor—a foreigner’s experience of coming to the U.S. for the first time.
Thirty-five years later, it’s one of the main reasons Sneider has adapted Agustín’s work into the third feature film of his career, “You’re Killing Me Susana” (“Me estás matando Susana”). In “Susana,” Sneider and co-writer Luis Cámara adapt Agustín’s story, which follows Eligio (Gael García Bernal), a cocky Mexican actor who wakes up one morning to find that his beautiful wife Susana (Verónica Echegui) has left him without a trace. Heartbroken, abandoned and embarrassed, Eligio ventures out to find his wife, who he learns has journeyed to the U.S. to attend a writing workshop, and bring her back home.
During an interview with Sneider, we talked about the timeliness of “You’re Killing Me Susana,” casting Gael García Bernal in the lead role, and what it means to exude machismo in this progressive day and age.
How do you think “You’re Killing Me Susana” parallels with the issues on race and culture we’re facing today?
When we were making the movie, I thought [issues on race and culture] had changed. I thought things had become much more modern. Then, after the [2016 U.S. Presidential] election I thought, “Wow! Things haven’t really changed much—at least not for the better!” I think in cities where there’s not so much diversity, there is still a lot of fear. There is also this [idea] that American culture has all the answers and that it’s the best way to live life. I don’t think there’s a lot of openness [in the U.S.] to discover what other cultures can bring.
Did you always have Gael García Bernal in mind for the lead role? How did you ultimately decide on him?
When I first decided I wanted to make this movie and I started thinking about who could play the role, I auditioned several people. Initially, I wanted someone who had dark skin and more Mexican features, but I felt his attitude was more important. Then I thought, “I need somebody like Gael!” Then I thought, “It should be Gael!” But back then, he was too young for the character. I didn’t think it would really be believable to have someone so young involved in such a complex relationship. Fortunately or unfortunately, it took years to put this film together. So, we had a few years for Gael to grow up. I did contact him back then and sent him the novel. I asked him how he felt about playing the character. His response was the same. He said, “I am too young but I love this character!” So, by the time we were able to put it together, it was perfect. He was exactly the right age. I think something that was crucial and that inevitably changed the character was casting Gael. I think he has the spirit of the character. Eligio has this incredible sense of humor. I felt that Gael could capture his vulnerability and his great zest for life.
What do you think Eligio’s overall idea of American culture is? Does he understand it?
It’s interesting because he is not interested in fitting in. He very much identifies with his Mexican culture. He has a defensive attitude towards Americans. He tries to share his view of the world and he’s not adapting well to the expectations of what the country is. I think that’s fun and refreshing.
Why do you think humor work so well with films that revolve around someone getting his or her heart broken?
I think humor adds a perspective to life that is essential. If you don’t have humor, then life is really pretty absurd—especially when talking about human contradictions. [“You’re Killing Me Susana”] is about a guy who is deeply insecure in relating to this very smart, independent, beautiful, sexy woman. He feels insecure as a man and, therefore, reacts with this macho attitude. It’s funny how rude we act as people when we’re trying to cover up our insecurities. I think humor is very natural. Sometimes people equate humor with not being able to speak about things truthfully or deeply or trying to avoiding things that are painful. I personally enjoy stories that have a lot of humor and talk about real things and are not afraid to go to emotional places or places where you can question certain things.
Are you trying to say anything about the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico in this film? What would you like audiences to see?
It’s funny because we are humans and in that sense [Mexicans and Americans] connect naturally. But different cultures put us out of our element. Therefore, they are threatening from both sides. I think sometimes we react to that in different ways—sometimes by trying to please and sometimes by having this attitude of rejection. We can laugh at Eligio’s silly nationalism because he does bring that with him, but we also see the ridiculous attitude of some Americans who are very close-minded.
Have you ever heard of the word “ghosting?”
Actually, I’ve never heard [the term] before.
It’s what Susanna does to Eligio in this film. She leaves him without a trace. What do you think about the idea of someone “ghosting” someone else?
But I thought really hard about it. I think there are two things playing out with Susana. On one side, Eligio is not really a nice guy. He’s so charming and really attractive and she is very much in love with him, but he’s hurting her. I think she knows that whenever she confronts him, he ends up convincing her and she ends up staying. I think it’s an act of fear when she decides to just go. I also think there is the idea that she doesn’t want to finish things. If you truly want to finish things, you stay and say, “It’s over. Goodbye.” She’s not ready for that. By not confronting or closing anything, she’s also provoking him. She wants him to wake up. It’s very hurtful, but he hasn’t been so nice himself.
Is there a message about machismo that you hope plays into the film? How has the idea of machismo changed over the years?
[Eligio and Susana] were a very progressive couple back in the day when this was written. That’s how José Agustín wrote it. They were forward thinkers. Eligio wouldn’t say he was “macho.” He would ideologically be against that concept. But society was much more accepting of those macho attitudes back then. How much has that changed? Deep down I think a lot of us now think machismo is a really bad thing and we’re not like that anymore. Yet, there is a cultural thing still going on. That macho comes out in you because, socially, it’s very prevalent. I think that’s what José Agustín was exploring. At the same time, I think at the end-all Eligio wants is for Susana to tell him and demonstrate that she loves him. That’s kind of anti-macho in a way. But I don’t think she wants him to lose his manliness. So, it’s an exploration of that. How can you remain manly without being macho? How can you overcome those insecurities created by these macho expectations when you’re with a woman who is beautiful and smart and independent?
What’s the most macho thing about yourself?
(Laughs) I do think that every now and then I have this sense of entitlement of certain things in a relationship from my culture. I’m not going to say more than that. (Laughs) I try to keep it under control. You grow up with a certain culture, and it’s sometimes hard to get rid of it. To be honest, it’s sometimes in the way I see women. When I was a kid, I think we tended to see women objectified. As a kid, that was the culture in school. I think every now and then, I catch myself doing that more than it’s healthy. I think that’s one aspect of it.