A Novelist's Son Finds His Own Voice On-Screen Filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia never intended to write and direct movies: He wanted to stay behind the camera. Garcia explains how he got the idea for the drama Mother and Child and details what it was like growing up as the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
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A Novelist's Son Finds His Own Voice On-Screen

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A Novelist's Son Finds His Own Voice On-Screen

A Novelist's Son Finds His Own Voice On-Screen

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(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Rodrigo Garcia wrote and directed the new film "Mother and Child," which is about adoption from several different points of view. Annette Bening plays a woman who got pregnant at the age of 14 and gave up the child for adoption. That child, who is an adult now, feels abandoned by her mother. She's played by Naomi Watts. Kerry Washington plays a woman trying to adopt a child.

Garcia's work usually focuses on relationships. He directed several episodes of the first season of HBO's "In Treatment," about a psychiatrist and his patients. Garcia's father is a Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia M�rquez.

Let's start with a scene from "Mother and Child." Kerry Washington and her husband are at a Catholic adoption agency explaining to the nun why she and her husband are ready for a child. The nun is played by Cherry Jones.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mother and Child")

Ms. KERRY WASHINGTON (Actress): (as Lucy) We've been married for four years and we've been trying from the beginning but we just haven't been able to. And we've been hoping, you know, against hope, as they say, but that just isn't going to be. And we've accepted that. And we're not bitter, I don't think. Do you think we're bitter about it? No. No, we're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Lucy) So we could be good parents. You know, Joseph is a very tender man, affectionate and we could learn to love a baby in a minute, even if it wasn't ours. Would we get to name the baby ourselves?

Ms. CHERRY JONES (Actress): (as Sister Joanne) It depends on the circumstances. Sometimes the biological parents and the adoptive parents agree on a name.

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Lucy) We can agree to agree.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Lucy) Well, we're ready now to adopt. Blood is important but it's the time spent together that really matters. Isn't that right?

GROSS: That's a scene from "Mother and Child." Rodrigo Garcia, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to center your movie on three women whose lives revolve around adoption?

Mr. RODRIGO GARCIA (Writer, director, filmmaker): My original idea was not about adoption at all. I was actually interested in people who, you know, who are separated, who for some set of circumstances, be it, you know, exile, distance, divorce, death, whatever, sort of live apart from one another and live, you know, longing for one another. A person who sort of has the ghost of an absent one in their lives.

So I thought I would, you know, take a mother and child separated at the baby's birth and that, you know, I made the mother 14, so that clearly she had not made an informed decision, it had been made for her. And the story would really start, you know, 35 years later when the women have never met and are fully grown and they are, you know, making their way in the world with that absence in their lives. You know, they're each other's ghost, as it were.

And then later, you know, I introduced the character of Lucy, played in the movie by Kerry Washington and she's a third woman who's looking to adopt a baby. And I always thought of her as also having that absent person in her life that she longs and it's, you know, that baby that she dreams of that she's never met yet.

GROSS: One of the questions that some characters ask of other characters in the movie is, do you believe in God? Why did you want to put that in?

Mr. GARCIA: You know, when I was doing the research about, you know, some of these adoption stories, accounts and memoirs that people wrote about, you know, it seemed to me - and again, I'm talking about the old system, what they called the closed adoption, the secret adoption. The one that was, you know, surrounded pregnancies and adoptions with shame. It seemed to me that a lot of people who had gone through the looking for someone, trying to find someone, trying to connect felt a little bit under this sense that life had been fated.

You know, if I had been given to this family or if this family had adopted me instead of this other one, you know, the stories of looking for each other were full of near misses and coincidences. You know, women who, you know, might be looking for each other out in the world and then they would eventually find out that for five years without knowing it they had worked in the same building or, you know, lived in the same city at the same time.

Fate, circumstance, a feeling of coincidence seems to hover over these stories. And, you know, it just - for me it inspired the question, you know, is it a fluke? Is it luck? Is it the die rolling is someone, you know, calling the shots? I am not a religious person, so my first instinct is not to think, you know, that there's divine intervention but, you know, I honestly don't, you know, who pulls the strings of some of these extraordinary coincidences of people meeting or missing each other?

GROSS: You mentioned that you did research. What kind of research on adoption did you do?

Mr. GARCIA: I only read accounts. You know, I did not specialists. I read memoirs, diaries, interviews with people who had, you know, been, you know, separated. And I use it as an active verb because again, I'm not talking mostly about, you know, women who are older and who made informed adult choices to say it's better for me and for this unborn baby if I, you know, put the baby up for adoption. I'm talking mostly about, you know, very young girls in the '50s, '60s, even the early '70s who, you know, were pretty much forced, first of all to hide their pregnancy and then to give up the baby.

So, you know, I didn't - the movie was never about adoption. It's not a treatise on adoption. It's not a primer on adoption. You know, it's a look at the nature of a separation, of a forced separation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer and director Rodrigo Garcia. His new movie is called "Mother and Child." He also was the show runner on "In Treatment" and directed and wrote many episodes.

Since you've done a lot of series television, particularly for HBO, I'm wondering if you feel cramped writing a movie compared to having like a whole season for characters to evolve?

Mr. GARCIA: You know, the truth is most of the television I've done for HBO, I've directed episodes and I've directed pilots but I haven't written them. In the case of "In Treatment," I was the show runner which, you know, in some ways, you know, is considered the head writer. There's a writing team that, you know, the show runner is the head writer. You know, were adapting the show from an extraordinary Israeli show called "Be-Tipul," which was just, I thought, wonderful and I thought it could definitely translate into practically any, you know, Western country, for sure.

Of course, we did work. You always adapt and you always try to improve on whatever area that you can but, you know, that show was very good and very strong. So I have never in TV had to face the blank page completely, as it were. You know, I think it's daunting to be a creator, show runner of a show. I don't how, you know, the men who run, you know, "24," or "Lost," or, you know, certainly, "Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," I don't know where, you know, they have the wherewithal to come up - you know, they have writing staffs but still, hour after hour. I mean, that's something that I feel, you know, could crush me.

GROSS: In adapting the Israeli TV series into the HBO series "In Treatment" can you think of an example of something that didn't translate from the Israel version to the American version?

Mr. GARCIA: You know, I think in some ways we did not soften any of the conflicts. You know, we left the conflicts as they were and wherever we could up the conflict we did. Perhaps, and, you know, I'm saying this with a bit of a chuckle because I think people who've seen both series recognize it, there is a more direct way of dealing that the Israeli doctor and patient have with each other. You know, there is a way of talking to each other that I think by American standards would just be very brash.

But I think, you know, I think Israelis, at least in my experience with Israeli friends and Israeli acquaintances, you know, they're very comfortable talking very directly to each other. And I think, you know, in the U.S. people are more circumspect or more polite or, you know, more, you know, they want to sort of sometimes beat around the bush, whereas - even in therapy, you know, whereas the Israeli characters really went at each other.

So we did have to change, I think, the tone of how people spoke to each other. And that's just a cultural thing. You know, it was still therapy whether you're talking directly or indirectly, you know, the Israeli characters, like the American characters, were often lying to themselves also.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rodrigo Garcia and he wrote and directed the new movie "Mother and Child." He was also the show runner on "In Treatment." He directed the pilot of "Big Love," an episode of "The Sopranos," some of "Six Feet Under."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about your life and your work. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Rodrigo Garcia. He wrote and directed the new film "Mother and Child." When we left off, we were talking about directing episodes to the HBO series "In Treatment," about a psychiatrist and his patients.

My favorite storyline in "In Treatment" is the storyline between the therapist, played by Gabriel Byrne, and his therapist played by Dianne Wiest. So I thought I'd played an episode that you developed and directed from season one. And in this episode, Paul, the therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, he's had an infatuation, really, with one of his patients who's been very flirtatious with him, even to the point of like describing in great detail kind of pornographically sexual encounters she's had with men. She's also had an affair with one of his other patients, as if to try to create jealousy on the therapist's part.

So the therapist really wants to have an affair with her. He wants to sleep with her. But he knows that his therapist will say that that's wrong. So here's a scene between Paul and his therapist, who's played by Dianne Wiest.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "In Treatment")

Mr. GABRIEL BYRNE (Actor): (as Paul) I know you think it's a problem that I have this jealousy over Laura's affair with Alex.

Ms. DIANNE WIEST (Actress): (Gina) No, not necessarily.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) Jealousy is not on your list as reactions a therapist should have, or is it a list of no-no feelings?

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) Is that what you want from me, a list? Would that make it easier?

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) I doubt it.

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) Hmm. You keep putting words in my mouth. Maybe you want me to be unreasonable so you have something to push against.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) This topic - this topic always brings us back on to shaky ground, doesn't it?

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) What topic?

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) The boundaries between therapist and patient. Teachers marry students. There's no big deal about it. What's the - I mean, is it really wrong?

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) It's different, Paul.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) I remember Charlie, your patient, he used to call me after sessions and he'd say, this no sex with the therapist thing, it's driving me crazy. Is it for real? There's got to be a loophole. Am I never going to get to sleep with Gina? Okay, let' say I stop Laura's therapy, let's say I send her to somebody else, as you want me to do. Surely in six months time I can call her up and say...

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) No. No, you can't. You can't.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) All right, then a year, 18 months, when it's cooled off.

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) No, Paul, no. There's no cooling off period. It's not about cooling off. It doesn't change the dynamic. In six months or 10 years, she'll still be a patient.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) But that's just some (bleep) some lawyer came up with.

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) No. It's not a law. It's beyond a code of ethics. It's essential. It's something you carry inside you. Can't you see that?

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) So what you're saying is that there is no conceivable set of circumstances in which...

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) None.

Mr. BYRNE: (as Paul) I just (bleep) fundamentalists. You know, there's a lot of people who would disagree with this.

Ms. WIEST: (Gina) Then go to them.

GROSS: That's Dianne Wiest and Gabriel Byrne in a scene from season one of "In Treatment." And that episode was directed and developed by my guest Rodrigo Garcia.

You know, watching the series, I always wondered how could Paul, the therapist, be such a really good therapist most of the time but be such like a really petulant patient.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, like a really irritating patient.

Mr. GARCIA: It's worth clarifying that, you know, part of the problem is the relationship between Paul, played by Gabriel Byrne, and the character Gina, played by Dianne Wiest, is that the nature of their relationship is very messy. You know, she calls him on it more than once: are you here as a patient or do you want me to be your supervisor? Are you asking my opinion as a colleague? Are you asking my opinion as a friend? That's why their discussions like the one just heard, gets so messy. You know, and it doesn't sound like patient-therapist because they keep it messy. You know, they get themselves...

GROSS: And she used to supervise him when he was studying.

Mr. GARCIA: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GARCIA: She used to supervise him and also, you know, he was her prot�g� back when and, you know, they've gone into this and it's messy and I think he keeps it messy. I think he keeps it messy to try to gain the advantage and try to get her to agree with him in these very dicey propositions that he's making. But, you know, fine actors. I have to say, I had not heard this exchange for a long time, maybe a couple of years. And they are so, you know, well-suited to each other and they're just...

GROSS: Oh, they're great together. Yeah.

Mr. GARCIA: It's a great dynamic and no one let's anyone off the hook.

GROSS: You know, Dianne Wiest, she was really a revelation to me in this. You know, I've seen her in movies, but I've never seen her be so kind of self-contained. Like there's so much that she - she is very still physically. She is just always sitting in the chair very, very still and calm. And you could see all these things flickering on her face, like sadness, grief, anger but it's all very contained...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know?

Mr. GARCIA: You know, a lot is made in TV and movies of dialogue. And, you know, great dialogue is great and it can be fun and snappy and provocative but, you know, what great actors do, which is great and what movies do and which and TV and it's intoxicating, is not, you know, people talking but people listening, you know, people reacting. And an actor like Dianne, you know, it's - you can see the thought, you know, on her face and eyelids and the twitch of a cheek. I mean, it's just -it's like this pool of intelligence, emotion, insight.

GROSS: Now, Warren Leight, who was I think one of the chief writers on the series, was quoted as saying one of the qualifications to write for the series was to have been in therapy. Did you already have that on your resume?

Mr. GARCIA: I did have it. I was the show runner the first year and Warren was the show runner the second year, so we didn't really overlap. But yes, I had that. I mean, I'm not a lifer but I had, you know, I had some good experience with it, yes.

GROSS: Well, now, was that helpful to writing the show or were the characters in the show so different and were the confrontations so much more theatrical that your experience didn't quite apply?

Mr. GARCIA: Well, it all applies and it, you know, it's funny how, you know, how much of therapy overlaps with drama. You know, the patients want something. Sometimes they know what it is, sometimes they don't. They come to therapy looking for it. Sometimes they won't admit that they're looking for it. Sometimes they come to therapy to talk about one subject and once they're there they avoid talking about it for days, months, sometimes years, sometimes a lifetime.

You know, there were just some dramatic choices that the original creators made that really, I think, were genius regarding the show. First of all, you know, to center the show around the shrink's own crisis. Of course, the patients have to work and they were very engaging and, you know, they all had to work individually, but at the center of the show is the doctor's own crisis. And, of course, seeing him with his sessions with his on supervisor, you know, helped you get to know him better. But, yes, I mean, you know, everything, you know, draw from everything and your own experience. Lying to yourself in therapy is very useful.

GROSS: Now in addition to working on "In Treatment" for HBO, you directed episodes of "Six Feet Under," the pilot of "Big Love," an episode of "The Sopranos," did they all have different styles? Did you have to learn different styles for each one of the shows?

Mr. GARCIA: They do have different styles and I learned their own styles from those shows. You know, I think "Big Love" is a little different because I did the pilot. And I think in the pilot you work with the creators of the show, the people who wrote the pilot, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer in particular wrote "Big Love" and it was just a very good script.

You know, I worked with them to, you know, bring the pilot together and create a tone for the pilot and a mood for it, et cetera. That's different from visiting an episodic show like I did on "Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under." It's great fun and it can be done well and I truly enjoy it but, you know, I don't want to come in and reinvent anything. You know, I try to watch as many episodes as I can of a series when I'm first on it.

If I can, I watch every episode of the series in order so that I'm really soaked in it, and that I learn that tone from the series and I go in and I work in that key, as it were. You know, I'm not coming in to reinvent. I still want to contribute, do it well, look at performance, try to, you know, give the scenes a spark, make it vivid and juicy, but I'm working in the key of "Sopranos," in the key of "Six Feet Under."

GROSS: My guest is Rodrigo Garcia. He wrote and directed the new film "Mother and Child" and has done a lot of directing for several HBO series.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rodrigo Garcia. He's directed and written a new film called "Mother and Child." He also was the director of many of the episodes of season one of "In Treatment" and he directed the pilot of "Big Love" and did other work for HBO as well.

Your father is the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who's best known for his books "A Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera." He won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. So, he wrote screenplays in addition to novels. When you were growing up, did you think that writing novels were any more important than screenplays from watching your father work?

Mr. GARCIA: No. I mean, it was all storytelling. You know, I grew up in that environment where, you know, storytelling was always in the foreground. You know, all of my parent's friends were, you know, writers, poets, screenwriters, painters, some actors, some playwrights. It was all equally good. You know, everything from telling a good joke well to writing a novel, it was all highly regarded. And when I was a kid my father not only wrote, but he would also write screenplays, usually co-write them often with directors. So, you know, him sitting in the living room hashing out a story with a director was, you know, also part of our childhood.

GROSS: Did he talk about writing a lot and did you pick up things about writing just from conversations?

Mr. GARCIA: Yeah. He was always talking to other writers and, you know, I never thought that I was going to be a director, much less a screenwriter. I always was interested more in images and being a still photographer or in camera work. When I sat down to write what became my first movie, my first screenplay, it was hard to write. But, you know, I had picked up, you know, on some of the way, you know, writers write and rewrite and where inspiration might come from and how you develop inspiration into an idea and an idea into something dramatized into a story. So I did have, you know, a sort of a knowledge of what the bones of what it is, you know, what you need to do to write.

GROSS: Now, your father was famous for magical realism where, you know, magical or surreal things are happening in otherwise realistic settings. You write very intimate stories where the plot revolves around your characters' relationships and their emotional lives. Do you see yourself as working in some ways in opposition to your father's work?

Mr. GARCIA: You know, I work - you know, I write the script that comes out of me. You know, I don't think, you know, is this like him? Is this not like him? You know, I grew up in a world very different from his. I mean, we grew up in the same household, but he as a kid grew up in 1920s and '30s, small town in Colombia, a small town that had seen better days, you know, where he heard stories, you know, from his great uncles and great aunts and grandparents.

You know, I had a upbringing in Mexico City as a, you know, middle-class kid with money, who traveled. And, you know, it's such a different upbringing that, you know, I chose something that is an expression of what I've seen and what I've heard, you know. In some ways it's not by design but I'm glad we work in very worlds, you know, that way I haven't had to suffer the comparison at least of the worlds.

GROSS: So you were born in Colombia but you grew up in Mexico City. Did you see a lot of TV and movies growing up in Mexico City, and were many of them American?

Mr. GARCIA: I did watch, you know, more TV than I should have, I think. You know, I think back then there was less concern with how many hours of TV we watched. A lot of the shows were American. You know, I did as a kid watch, you know, dubbed into Spanish everything from, you know, "The Flintstones" to "The Addams Family" to "Mr. Ed," "The Brady Bunch," "La Familia Brady." But also, movies - I mean, I was not a movie geek by any standard. But, you know, in my teens already my father's own taste in film started, you know, trickling down to my brother and I. And, you know, he was a big fan of Truffaut in particular, and of Kurosawa, so, you know, those were directors that we were, you know, very familiar with.

GROSS: When you were growing up in Mexico, did you watch any of those Mexican vampire movies?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARCIA: Of course, and the vampire movies and the wrestling movies, and often the wrestling movies with vampires in them.

GROSS: Oh, I haven't seen any of those.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARCIA: Oh, the combination is endless, believe me, and maybe a Frankenstein monster somewhere in the back.

GROSS: So did you watch them for fun when you were older or just like when you were younger?

Mr. GARCIA: Yeah, no, just as a kid. It's not really my genre except, of course, you know, sometimes there are excellent examples of that genre. But mostly, you know, I've always been a fan of, you know, the kind of movie that I like to make, you know, that I try to make, which is, you know, the contemporary, you know, realistic, psychological movie.

GROSS: Now, there was a period when I think your father was considered subversive by the United States and he was denied a visa to the United States. And I'm wondering what impact that had on you?

Mr. GARCIA: Well, you know, it's funny because, you know, we grew up in a world, of course, in the '60s and '70s, you know, my parents were left wing and they were openly left wing. So, of course, you know, the role of the U.S. in Vietnam, in Chile, in Argentina and, you know, the training of death squads for Central America, I mean, that was considered, of course, the enemy.

On the other hand, you know, my father had great American friends and a great love and admiration for the U.S. And he always said that his biggest regret was not being fluent in English so that he could, you know, know the country better. And, of course, you know, writers like Hemingway and Faulkner had been really, you know, instrumental in making to some extent the writer that he was.

So, yes, so I found myself in the situation where I was in college here in the U.S. in a country where my father could hardly get a visa to visit, except maybe like a one-time entry or something like that.

GROSS: So, another question about your father, have you ever used him as a first reader or would you prefer he be more of a last reader?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARCIA: You know, he's someone who reads my scripts when I'm, you know, in early pre-production, and he's always been very supportive. In fact, he's an easy reader. In that sense, he's not an ideal reader for feedback because he's quick to be supportive. And he, you know, he's very high on my films and my television work and shows it off to his friends shamelessly.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GARCIA: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Rodrigo Garcia wrote and directed the film "Mother and Child." You can watch clips from the film on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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