Interview: Heidi Ewing, Director-Writer of ‘I Carry You With Me’
Late in 2020, I was able to get a screener for Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me. By the time the end credits rolled, I knew it was something special. The film follows two gay men who meet and fall in love in 1990s Mexico. Along the way, we learn about their lives and their relationships with their families and even get glimpses of their similar childhoods. Beyond being a love story, it is a tale of immigration and the ‘American Dream’ and what you have to fit for to truly live the life you want to live. And what is even more special about this film, it’s based on the real-life story of Iván and Gerardo, played by Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez in the film. It’s a deeply moving, transcendent piece of art that has the power to speak to all who see it.
I was given the chance to sit down with Ewing virtually to talk about the film, her personal connections to the characters on screen, and what she learned in shooting her first narrative feature after years of being an acclaimed documentarian. It was an awesome conversation and I’m happy to share it with you below.
RYAN MCQUADE: You are obviously connected to this couple’s story. So my first question is, how did you first meet them?
HEIDI EWING: I met them in 2005 or 2006 when I was working on Jesus Camp at the time.
RM: Since you’ve known them for almost a decade and a half, when did you know you wanted to turn their story into a movie?
HE: It wasn’t till like 2012 because I knew them as a couple in the neighborhood. A chef (Iván) and a bartender (Gerardo) who were always working together at the same restaurants. I knew them socially. I knew them as hard working people who worked like seven days a week, and in their free time, they really made the most of it. Always dancing and dinners. They never really spoke about their personal lives, which most men don’t unless you ask them. As our friendship grew over time, we became close friends. And in 2012, they came to Sundance to support my film Detropia, and that night we went out, and I don’t know how it happened, but Ivan told me he had a son in Mexico, and Gerardo started talking, and it led to hours of discussion.
RM: You’re a great documentarian. Yet, this is really your first narrative feature. When did you know you wanted to make this a narrative feature rather than a documentary?
HE: Well the first concept was a documentary because I know how to do it, I’m comfortable doing it. So in 2013, that’s when we did the first interviews, and I started filming them as key moments in their lives, like the opening of new restaurants. They are really strong characters who are very evocative and emotive, but it didn’t take long for me to understand that I had a big problem. All of the drama and the falling in love and the very impactful childhood moments, both of them at the hands of their fathers, weren’t going to be told. I didn’t want them to tell me through interview or recreations or animations. I realized I wasn’t going to make an excellent documentary. I realized it was an epic. For me, it was an epic love story, it had all of the makings of something big and emotional, and I was like “you know what, it belonged in the narrative space.”
And you know, you spend all of this time giving advice to young filmmakers, and one of the first things we always say, “Listen, why should this be a documentary, should it be a film? Do you have visual elements, should it be an article, should it be a podcast, should it be a graphic novel? The story you want to tell, why is it cinema?” And I kind of had to look at myself in the mirror and say “this isn’t a documentary.” So you either have to put it away or push yourself and attempt a narrative, so I bought Final Draft and started writing a movie. I just didn’t want to give up the story. And finally, a story presented itself, that I wanted to tell, that couldn’t be a documentary.
RM: Was there a challenge you found in the narrative components of the film that you’ve never experienced as a documentarian that you found interesting that you will want to use down the road with other films?
HE: Oh yeah. It’s like a dream you have if you live in New York, where you open up a door and it’s a whole other wing of your house. Like if you didn’t go through this small window, you wouldn’t have known you had 2,000 more square feet. And that’s how it was. You opened a door, you can control the environment, you can build a world, take multiple takes, you can get it exactly the way you imagined it. And that was a total joy. But I didn’t want to lose the spontaneity, so the way we shot it, it was handheld, and we didn’t do blocking, we shot the rehearsals. I didn’t want the camera to anticipate the reaction, which happens a lot, and takes me out of a lot of movies if I’m not sitting at the table with the characters.
It was really trying to find the right visual language which I was comfortable with within the narrative space. The pleasures of narrative filmmaking are vast; they also are of documentary filmmaking. Documentary filmmaking is all about what is gonna happen next if you do cinema verite, you don’t know it’s going to end and you need to be in the right place, you have to be ready and on your toes. There is a real high to that and I love that high. I love getting something in the can that will never, ever happen again. And you’re like “I can’t believe I caught that lightning in a bottle.” So it’s not like one form is better than the other, but it was, for me, a big deep breath of fresh air to have to have different tools at my fingertips.
RM: Well, I think this film is a great breath of fresh air because we don’t get to see a lot of narratives in this function. It makes you live on the edge of your seat. And I assume that is the intent when you make a movie like this because this is a tender love story, a story of homosexuality, as well as immigration, and the American Dream wrapped all into one. Can you speak to the idea of making a movie about those broader messages and telling them in a subtle way?
HE: I am allergic to topic films, as well as my documentarian co-director Rachel Grady. Like “I’m gonna make a movie about the environment, or about the prison industrial complex.” We never start with a topic. It’s all character focused and driven. And of course, through characters you love and empathize with, all the broader stuff comes at you and that’s for the audience and critics to talk about. All of these things are secondary but important to the film. And in this case, I had two amazing characters that literally risked their lives, crossed borders, left home, left their son to live together and live together openly. And to pursue… you know what, the American Dream is a cliché, I know it. But people who come from outside use that term and believe in it. And it’s been tarnished a lot over the last four years, but there is the idea of, if you just have talent, if you can just get here, then you can get a shot.
That’s how Iván felt. Iván was a man of ego, of self-confidence, and in theory, he didn’t have to leave. Partly he was leaving to escape his own self because he couldn’t openly live as a gay man. But he also thought he could strike out and his talent would be appreciated in the United States and it turned out to be true. So through the characters, these greater things do emerge and what I’ve been surprised about is the people who aren’t immigrants are finding things to connect with. It’s a movie about fathers and sons and people are looking back and consider their relationships with their children, fathers or parents. I think ever good movie has a scene where the audience is forced to asked themselves what would I do, and for example, when Iván is afraid and leaves his friend in the tunnel, which wasn’t really how it happened because he stayed with her. But I put that in there because I don’t know what I would do, and that moment is when you can judge the character and say “I would never do that” but you know, you might. So I was looking for the human thing of “How would I feel.” Like you know when you first go on a date, or you meet someone you are excited about, and you almost want to rush home so you can think about the person you just met, it’s almost too much to be around them. We did sequences about this in the film where Iván is just cleaning his house or laying on the bed and he’s remembering this person he met. And I think everyone can relate to the idea of sitting there and thinking,” Oh my god, like I just want to sit and think about the night I just had with this person. So we tried putting in these universal themes so it wasn’t just about one person’s experience.
RM: You talked about the handheld scenes earlier, and they are highlighted in the trailer, and it’s these two men walking out on a rooftop and seeing the city and talking to each other like we do with our first love. And it leads to these tender, non-traditional love scenes about these two just embracing each other. And since you know the subject matter and these two gentlemen, based on what they have told you, what sort of responsibility do you have to stay true to the intimacy of the story given to you?
HE: They told me their story, so the couple they are now aren’t the couple we are seeing on screen. It’s almost like a fuzzy memory. It’s the way we remember things from like 15 years ago. The movie isn’t a dream, it’s a memory, we were using vintage lenses so we had a dreamy quality to the romance because that’s how they remember it. And they love it. And I’ve never made a love story so it was fun to put myself in their shoes and sort of bring that to the screen. In terms of the intimate scenes…it was funny because there was a funny chain on Letterboxd about how there wasn’t any overt sex in the movies, and I got in there, and I was like “Guys, come on.” Look I didn’t run away from it at all and shot a whole scene, and we filmed entire scenes and they just didn’t work in the tone. And other people were like, “Oh because it’s a gay movie it has to be really R-rated, X-rated? So there was this whole conversation going on that I wasn’t gonna get involved in but I couldn’t help myself to get involved in.
But the first day of this one scene, we started in the attic, the actors started getting really really intense, it was getting really fast, clothes were coming off, and I was like “Hey, hey guys, let’s do it again, but this time in slow motion. Let’s just take our time.” And that set the tone for those intimate sequences, which are very slow. And some of my direction was “You can’t touch him in these scenes” and the other guy would get separate directions. I tried to create that tension between the two, that sexual tension you can’t show in public. I was really looking for tension because this was a time and place (1990’s Mexico) where they couldn’t be openly gay or even seen holding hands on the street. And that’s still true in many cities today.
RM: Well I think your film is one of the best films of the year.
HE: Aw, thank you so much.
RM: I think it’s great in all realms of storytelling. So my last question for you is, is there something from the 2020 year in film that grabbed you as much as your film has grabbed others?
HE: Well I would say the documentary Time by Garrett Bradley. It’s a real tour-de-force in filmmaking and it’s extremely authored and that’s rare. It’s got a point of view and just think it’s a real work of art. I really enjoyed that film and have been recommending that to people. That and Small Axe.
RM: Thank you so much for talking to me today Heidi and I can’t wait for everyone to see the film.
HE: Thank you so much.