|Blessings of the New Moon: Interview with ‘Under the Same Moon’ screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos
by Dan Lybarger
Ligiah Villalobos at the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee. Photo by Carmen Campaneris
Screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos has had a lot of success recently, and she owes it to a pair of small boys.
The first is the animated protagonist of the Nickelodeon children’s series Go, Diego! Go!, in which the title character leads viewers on a series of adventures that teach lessons in science and Hispanic culture. Villalobos has served as the head writer for the show, which is a spin-off of the enormously popular Dora the Explorer. In the episodes she has written, Diego has journeyed to Africa, helped teach a hawk how to migrate and even encountered a giant octopus.
While Villalobos is happy with the impact the series has had on children, her most recent effort has won her numerous adult admirers. She wrote Under the Same Moon (a.k.a. La Misma Luna), which was a hit at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and sparked a bidding war among five different distributors. It was be released on DVD on June 17.
When the movie was released by Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company on March 19, 2008, it set a box office record as the best opening gross for a Spanish-language film in U.S. history, drawing $2.8 million while playing in only 266 theaters. As of this writing, the movie, which was made for $5 million, has now earned $12.5 million domestically and $22 million worldwide.
Directed by Patricia Riggen (Family Portrait), Under the Same Moon concerns a nine-year-old Mexican boy named Carlitos (Adrian Alonso, The Legend of Zorro), who lives with his grandmother in Juarez while his mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo, Trade) toils in the underground labor market in Los Angeles. When his grandmother dies, Carlitos makes a long and perilous journey to reunite with Rosario.
The movie features top Mexican talent like comedian Eugenio Derbez and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte as well as American actors America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Jesse Garcia (Quinceañera).
While the film is not autobiographical, it has some parallels with Villalobos’ own life. She emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico City at the age of 11 and was temporarily separated from her father because of a divorce. After graduating from Brigham Young University, Villalobos found work as an executive for Buena Vista (Disney) Productions where supervised the company’s TV output for Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Columbia and Venezuela.
After leaving Disney and later the WB network, Villalobos took up writing and producing and hasn’t looked back. In addition to executive producing Under the Same Moon, she’s also produced Dancing in September and Walkout and directed the short documentary One World.
She’s currently teaming up with director Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Nine Lives) for Diego Ascending (it has no relation to the Nickelodeon series), a remake of the Israeli film Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi.
In March, Villalobos came to the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee to promote and discuss Under the Same Moon and to explain how the film is changing the way Hollywood is perceiving Spanish-language movies.
Dan Lybarger: Are you surprised with the response to the film since its release?
LIGIAH VILLALOBOS: Yeah, the whole process has been a complete surprise: the fact that we got into Sundance, the fact that it was actually sold, the fact that it’s broken many records and that it has been really well-received. Whether it’s in an art-house theater, or in the Mexican community or African-American community, I think the story has transcended race, socio-economic level and everything else.
Yes, it has been a complete and utter shock that the film has been so well-received.
DL: You had written this about seven or eight years ago in English.
VILLALOBOS: And it was still written in English. This movie has always been in English, and then it was translated in Mexico, because of my writing. I’ve been living in this country since I was 11-years-old. And so in terms of my writing, I started in English, not in Spanish.
And I wanted to make sure whoever did the translation really got the modern-day slang in Mexico and how these people would talk nowadays, not when I came to this country. That was always intentional.
DL: Yeah, because somebody in Juarez is not going to talk like someone in Mexico City. Where did you come from?
VILLALOBOS: I was born in Chihuahua. I never lived in Chihuahua. I was born there, and then I was raised in Mexico City. But even in terms of the socioeconomic level of people, they may not use words that are as big or as complicated, so you really want to make sure that it is a Mexican speaker living Mexico that really gets those small details in terms of slang, dialogue, even humor.
But my career is in English, so I needed to make sure that before it could even be translated my script was perfect in English because that was going to get me other jobs. It wasn’t a script in Spanish.
DL: Because obviously Diego Ascending is going to be in English.
VILLALOBOS: Correct. And everything else I do will probably be in English.
DL: How did the story evolve during this unusually long development period?
VILLALOBOS: The development period wasn’t long because the script was written in four weeks, six years ago. And then the script was not touched for six years. It’s not like I started writing it and then there were all of these revisions. No, it literally sat on a shelf for six years, and then it was resuscitated when an executive who had read the screenplay as a sample of my writing asked what had happened to the script.
And so the re-writing process was approximately 10 to 12 months, not seven years.
DL: Thank you for the correction. You have a wide résumé on the executive side before you moved into writing. What was it like to make the transition?
VILLALOBOS: Well, it was very scary because once you’ve established yourself as an executive, and you are making a very good living, it’s always very difficult and very scary to make a transition to another career. But for me, I was miserable in the last job that I had. And sometimes that’s what it takes to make a change in your life. And that’s exactly what happened with me.
I was working at the (now-defunct TV network) WB in a job that I just hated. And it forced me to take a creative writing class, and I had never written before. So, I didn’t even know if I could write. Sometimes a really bad job opens yourself to other possibilities of what you might be able to do.
DL: And the range projects you’d had is interesting. You’re best known for two projects that involve young, male protagonists. Go, Diego! Go! and Under the Same Moon couldn’t be more different.
VILLALOBOS: Yeah, exactly (laughs). For some reason, I have three screenplays that have eight-year-old boys as the lead. And I have no idea. Something must have happened to me when I was eight years old that I haven’t been able to figure out yet because that seems to be a theme. Diego is eight. Carlitos in the original script was eight. I have another screenplay of a Native American boy, who’s also eight years old.
For some reason, they keep coming back in my writing. You’re right. One is a little superhero and an animal scientist (Diego), and the other is a little boy crossing the border, very different characters.
DL: What is it like to write for an animated show like Go, Diego! Go!? I remember that Michael Maltese, who was one of the main Warner Bros. writers, he and the others had to be able to draw before the storyboards were done. Did you have to be able to do that?
VILLALOBOS: No. We actually have wonderful animators who do all that for us. But what you have to do, which is very different than a regular script. In a regular script, you give stage direction that hopefully, is very minor because it is the director who really stages a scene.
That’s not the case in animation.
In animation, you have to be very specific with the animator about what is happening on the scene. And that really complicated the process with Diego because Diego was a science-driven show, but the animators were not scientists. And so you have to give them a lot of information that you usually wouldn’t in an animated show, like how a llama walks, how a llama eats, what do they to eat, how long do you want the neck?
I did a story with a giant octopus, and the shows were so specific: what level of the ocean does the giant octopus liven in? And what is the sea life in that level of the ocean?
And so we had a ton of experts and scientists that were working on the show that were providing the information that even a regular animation show wouldn’t have to have because you dealing with just funny-looking characters. In our show, we’re dealing with animals, teaching animal science, so we have to be very specific about stage direction.
DL: This isn’t like a Warner Bros. cartoon where you can be totally insane.
VILLALOBOS: Oh, no, no, no. We had seven consultants on Diego. We had an animal consultant. We had a zoo consultant. We had a Smithsonian consultant. We had a Spanish language consultant. We had an educational consultant. And then we had a curriculum consultant. And we had an expert, per animal. So we had a specific person that was an expert on spectacle bears or on anacondas. And all those seven people are giving you notes on your script.
No, it is absolutely not the same. First of all, you’re dealing with an educational show and a curriculum-driven show. And so there are many steps that happen on Diego as well as Dora (the Explorer), which has the same kind of curriculum driven (format). You’re also asking for participation from the audience at home. So there’s a lot of testing that happens on the show that usually doesn’t happen in animation.
DL: One of things where Under the Same Moon and Diego are similar in that you chose to end the former by also forcing the viewers to reach their own conclusions.
VILLALOBOS: Yeah, it’s a different audience. And you’re dealing an art house audience, and you’re dealing with an adult audience that can kind of make those decisions for themselves. On Diego, our audience is three to five years old. And so you can’t leave too much to the imagination when you’re asking the kid to participate in the story. So your have to be very direct, and you have to be very straightforward, and you have to look at the camera and tell them what to do.
Diego was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. And you would never know by looking at the episodes because they look so simple. They look like “I could do that!” But it’s the amount of consultants involved in the show and the amount of research that you do going to preschools and getting the kids’ response about what they like and don’t like, what they do and don’t do that make the show incredibly complicated.
But it was also one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. You’re literally changing the perception of young children about people of color and about getting into science and about taking a second language. All of those things have been really rewarding.
DL: Your movie was able to make some crossover appeal that some other Spanish-language films haven’t?
VILLALOBOS: Like I said, the theme of this movie is not illegal immigration, it is abandonment. And I think that every single person on this earth has experienced that emotion one way or another, whether it is through divorce or a broken relationship or the death of a loved one. Whatever your experience might be, that’s what you’re connecting to in the film.
And so if you can grab on the emotion of what you’re trying to get people to experience, versus a political issue, I think that transcends every thing in the film.
DL: So, you can get it past being a polemic.
VILLALOBOS: Exactly. You really try to deal with what the mother is feeling through this entire journey and what this boy is feeling through this entire journey.
And you worry about the politics as a secondary aspect of the film, not the primary. Who knows why people like the movie, but that’s my theory that they are really connecting to the emotional aspects of the film.
DL: It was interesting that you cited My Life as a Dog and Kolja as influences.
VILLALOBOS: And Central Station and Thief. Because all of those movies are about boys who are left on their own to fend for themselves in life (laughs), and they’re all around eight years old in those films, too. If you remember all those films, too.
DL: Is it tough to recreate a child’s perspective?
VILLALOBOS: In the film, Carlitos is not a typical eight-year-old boy. And what you have to do in writing those things is that you have to put yourself in that experience.
How did you feel when that was happening to you? How did you feel when you were missing your mother? How did you feel when you were missing your father? And so when you’re dealing with so many aspects of what happened to you as a kid, I don’t think it’s that hard to try to go back to that time when you were experiencing those same feelings.
DL: What is it like adapting other material like you’re doing with Diego Ascending? Because with Under the Same Moon, you’re coming up with everything from whole cloth, but with Diego Ascending, you’ve got a template.
VILLALOBOS: In some ways, that particular experience was easier. In some ways it was harder, because I’m not really a comedy writer, and the original movie was really funny. So it was challenging to me to figure out how to change the humor so that it made sense to an American audience or to a Mexican family. Those things were challenging, but in terms of the structure of the story. Obviously, all the dialogue changes, too. You’re setting a lot of the things in the same situation in the original movie, but the dialogue is very different from the original.
But it’s easier because the (original) film is so great. And so when you have a movie that is so fantastic, it kind of helps you to figure out the things that are missing in the story. You know, we changed three arcs from the original story quite a bit. But we had a template that was actually great. There were other kinds of challenges for me, mainly the comedy, that I usually don’t have to deal with.
DL: Mr. Garcia isn’t known for comedy either.
VILLALOBOS: Right. This is going to be very interesting. He tends to do very serious stories, and he also tends to do very depressed women (laughs). For the most part, he’s done a lot of stories about women, women who happen to be depressed. But he’s an amazing director, and I think he’ll be able to do a fantastic job on the story. I was so excited to be working with him.
DL: One of the things you’ve said earlier is that because he’s also a screenwriter, I guess he pushed you to do better.
VILLALOBOS: No, he hasn’t pushed me. The thing that I loved about working with Rodrigo is that because he’s a writer, he has an enormous respect for the writing process. And that’s what I loved about it. Sometimes when you deal with directors, since they know that a film is their vision, sometimes they can very easily forget that there was a whole other experience that happened before they came into the process.
And so for me working with a writer-director, it is a great collaborative experience because not only am I working with someone who I know is going to deliver a beautiful film, but I working with someone who absolutely understands how difficult the writing process is and respects that writing process. But when you’re working with someone like Rodrigo, you up your game because you know how good of a writer he is. It’s like you push yourself to try to please that person because you know how exceptional he is.
But Rodrigo has been amazing. He has completely left me to do my thing. He gives really good notes, and he doesn’t bother you. And he leaves you alone and trusts that you’re going to be able to do what he hired you to do. That level of respect is sometimes rare in features, and I really appreciated him doing that.
DL: One interesting part of Under the Same Moon is the arc you came up with for Enrique (Eugenio Derbez’s character).
VILLALOBOS: Enrique’s arc was actually not what it is in the film now. The person who originally took Carlitos to Los Angeles was actually the father. It wasn’t Enrique. The reason why is because in the original movie Carlitos’ arc was forgiveness, and the father’s arc was redemption. And Patricia, the director was the one that said we need an additional disappointment to Carlitos from the father, and I agreed.
I originally fought that note quite a bit. I did not want that to happen because I didn’t want my father to see himself in the film. And so I was very concerned in terms of my personal experience and the things I was talking about in my own life for my father not to take it the wrong way. And so I had to do a lot of soul-searching in terms of changing that aspect of the story. And I thought and I realized that you have to remove yourself from the process. You have to realize what’s best for that character and what’s best for the movie to what makes it in (to the film).
And so that’s how that change was made as a result of how to get an additional twist in the third act.
DL: What the father does in that scene is contemptible, but at the same time it’s totally understandable.
VILLALOBOS: I don’t know if I would use understandable, but it is expected because it is what he has done for the last nine years. It’s a man that didn’t have the courage to be a father, and after nine years, he still doesn’t have the courage to be a father. I think that is a very problematic thing, especially in this country. And also with the African-American community, you have a lot of young men birthing children and not taking responsibility for those children, without seeing what are the consequences to that child. And so that happens in our community; it happens in the white community; it happens in the African-American community.
Also, if you come from a single parent household, you can really relate to that experience. It seemed to be the more realistic thing to do in terms of how the father ends up, but it was very emotionally difficult to do.
DL: There’s a delicate balance with the film because you want the audience to walk out with little tears in their eyes, but if you make it too rosy the audience will resent it.
VILLALOBOS: To be honest with you, that has been a big criticism of the film. A lot of people think that it is too soft, too sweet. There’s too many coincidences. And it’s funny because reviewers really hate those things in a film, which are all the things an audience loves in a film.
So at the end of the day, you have to decide am I making a movie for the critics or am I making a movie for the audience. And we clearly made a movie for the audience.
DL: But your reviews have generally been strong.
VILLALOBOS: Yeah, we’ve had some really, really strong reviews, and then we’ve had some brutal reviews from like The New York Times. When you look at it, I never expected to get a good review from The New York Times because The New York Times does not like tearjerkers. They don’t like movies that do that.
Overall, we have had really, really strong reviews. You do realize this boy goes through more in a week than most people go through in a lifetime. So you just have to go for a ride with the boy and try and take it in.
DL: It is interesting that in more Spanish-language films, the actors have to learn the regional dialects the same way they do in English-language films. For example, in Traffic, Benicio del Toro had to learn now to speak Spanish with a Mexican accent because he’s Puerto Rican.
VILLALOBOS: But also all of our actors were from Mexico. So we didn’t have that, with the exception of America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia who are English-speaking actors living in the United States, our entire cast was based in Mexico and from Mexico.
What becomes difficult is when you have a Mexican-American trying to speak with a correct accent. We cast the appropriate person for the right role and not worry if an American audience was going to know who Kate del Castillo was or who Eugenio Derbez was. We were there to try to get the best actor for the role for the money we could afford these actors for. And we absolutely got the right cast.
DL: What’s interesting for those of us who’ve only seen telenovelas in passing or when they’re parodied on The Daily Show or Ugly Betty…
VILLALOBOS: Or on VH1, they have a whole show that parodies novelas right now.
DL: But there are real actors who work on those shows.
VILLALOBOS: Absolutely, they’re all actors. They have a different kind of training in novelas because lines are fed to you. So you’re not really going through the process of learning the script. Most of the lines are fed through the ear. And so it’s a completely different way of acting because you’re almost reacting to the line.
I think that’s probably why a lot of the novelas are very melodramatic because they’re reacting to what is being told them through the ear. Most of the novelas are done like that in Mexico.
But Kate del Castillo, who started as a novela actress, is just an amazing actress. She started her career in novelas and I think she’s have a long, fruitful career hopefully in the United States as a film actress.
DL: Is it tough to write a convincing fictional mother.
VILLALOBOS: No, not at all because I think as a woman you just put yourself in that situation and what would you do if this was your child and what would you do if this was your life? That wasn’t that hard for me at all as a woman. Maybe if I was a male trying to write the role of a mother would have been hard, but no, not at all.
I’m sure that Kate, she wasn’t a mother, but I think that the experience is a human experience, and you try to put yourself in the role of the person that is going through that. I’d have to say the mother was not hard. It was changing the father that was very difficult to do.
DL: The stranger (Enrique) makes a better potential father than his biological dad would.
VILLALOBOS: But isn’t that sometimes the case? The people who give you the greatest gifts sometimes? I’m not saying material gifts. I’m just saying are people that don’t even know you.
For example, like with this movie, once the movie is out there, you don’t really know what the response is going to be. And then you start getting hundreds of e-mails from people of how this movie has touched them. Well, I don’t know any of these people, but somehow I have by writing a film like this have helped someone deal with something, whatever it is. So that’s the whole thing. Sometimes, the greatest understanding or the greatest experiences come from a song. You’ve never met the songwriter.
I think you do realize that Enrique recognizes that this is an extraordinary boy, and he’s been traveling on his own for five days, and he’s just trying to get to the mother.
How are you not going to change as a person? Clearly, he does.
DL: This movie reminded me a little of Barry Levinson’s Avalon in that immigrant families begin to lose some of their heritage as they become more assimilated.
VILLALOBOS: I think there’s a difference when you’re born in this country and you become an Mexican-American than when you come to this country as an immigrant. I came to this country as an immigrant having a very strong sense of self.
What I find that Mexicans who have been born here, like second-generation Mexicans that are born here, they’re the ones who have a lot of identity issues because their parents are from somewhere else, but they’ve been born and raised here.
I knew who I was. I was a Mexican woman. There was a very strong sense of self that I came into this country with. I never tried to hide the fact that I had an accent. I never tried to hide the fact that I was a Spanish-speaker.[br]
And maybe that had to do with the fact that I came into this country as a middle class Mexican and not as a poor, lower class Mexican or as an illegal. Sometimes also when you come as an illegal, the mere fact that you are here illegally forces you to hide.
And by hiding, that changes who you are. It changes how you walk; it changes how you look; it changes how you communicate with other people because there’s always that fear over your head.
But when you don’t have those aspects of being an immigrant, you come to this country with a much stronger sense of self. I definitely think that had a lot to do with my parents, and always making sure that we spoke Spanish at home, making sure that we were proud of our being Mexicans.
I came to this country to a pretty much white state. I came to Utah. I was the only Mexican in my junior high or in my high school. But for some reason those were not issues that I had as an immigrant at all.
DL: You just brought up Utah. You attended BYU, but you didn’t attend the film school. They’ve got one of the best film schools in the country.
VILLALOBOS: Some good filmmakers have come out of Utah and out of Brigham Young. I actually was a dance and geography major, and so I’ve got nothing to do with the film school or anything like that. I had an opportunity to go back years later after I had graduated and talk about my first film (as a producer) Dancing in September. It was great to go back to the University and talk to a department that I had not been a member of but with the film at Sundance. I’m hoping to do that as well with (Under the Same Moon) as well.
There’s a lot of Mexicans in Utah because there’s a lot of farming in Utah. So you have a lot of people who have come into the state as farm workers to work the land. There’s actually a pretty big population of Latinos in the state.
DL: Your film has played well among several different Latino groups because, for example, Cuban and Mexican cultures are distinct.
VILLALOBOS: It’s completely different. That is part of the reason Latino films don’t do well (outside) their own communities is they’re so specific to a particular group of people.
This is obviously a very Mexican film. But the reason I think it has really crossed over to the other Latinos is because Cubans have gone through the exact same thing, having to leave family behind. And Puerto Ricans living in New York have a ton of family living in Puerto Rico. And so for some reason, even though we’re telling a Mexican experience, this is something every immigrant—whether they’re Chinese, Vietnamese or whatever it is—has experienced in their own life. It transcends the Mexicanness the movie may have.
If you look at what Cubans went through in the early 1960s, they went through the Peter Pan operation, sending 14,000 children and putting them in planes and sending them to the United States because they were so afraid what Castro was going to do with them. And so there were many, many children in that Cuban experience that also dealt with a lot of abandonment. And a lot of the parents were just trying to do the right thing. They were trying to make sure their children didn’t end up in Russia and be Communized.
It happened with Jewish people being sent on trains to England to protect them from the war. This is an experience that’s been happening over and over and over again. And at some point, I hope that what this movie will do is at the end of the day, the most important thing a child can have is his parents.
Note: Special thanks to David Frese of the Kansas City Star. Portions of this article originally appeared in that publication.
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originally posted: 07/03/08 13:10:12
last updated: 07/03/08 13:14:50