“CONTRACORRIENTE (UNDERTOW)” | writer-director, Javier Fuentes-León

[PREMIERE SCREENING: Tuesday, Jan. 26, 3:00 pm -- Egyptian Theatre, Park City]

Probably the hardest decision during the whole process of making Contracorriente was casting the lead role of Miguel. The story of Contracorriente relies completely on the shoulders of the main character and so I needed a talented actor that could be both strong and vulnerable, masculine and sweet, who wouldn’t shy away from playing a man in love with his wife and with another man and who would be believable in the role of a fisherman and leader of his town. I also wanted him to be Peruvian since the story takes place in a small fishing town in the Northern coast of Peru.

For about three years before the actual shooting of the film, I had been discussing the role of Miguel with a great Peruvian actor who is also a friend of mine. He had read the script more than once and had not only fallen in love with it but given me extremely intelligent feedback regarding the character and his story, which I think is one of the best gifts a director can get from an actor. I knew that shaping the arc of such a complex character as Miguel would be one of the biggest challenges in directing Contracorriente, and so I was very happy with the idea of taking that difficult journey with a friend of mine who I could trust and not another actor I didn’t know whatsoever.

When the film was green-lit I started right away to have casting sessions both in Lima and Bogota. While casting the other roles, I started to realize that I was more focused on finding actors who would fit my friend’s energy, complexion, age, etc., than finding the right actors for the different characters in the story. I was so intent on having my friend play the lead that I was forcing the whole story and cast around him and not necessarily in the best direction. It’s hard to explain what wasn’t working. Suddenly the energy, the chemistry in the main love triangle wasn’t working like I had envisioned. It had nothing to do with my friend’s talent or dedication; I still believe he is a great actor and would be lucky to work with him in the future, but it was becoming very clear to me that he didn’t fit the world I needed to create for the story.

I almost went into a nervous breakdown, not only because all of a sudden I was finding myself without my lead weeks before shooting, but also because I had to tell my friend the truth. I hadn’t given him the role yet, but we had had enough casting sessions and conversations to know that it would break his heart. I decided to give up my hopes of having a Peruvian lead and started looking for actors everywhere. Finally I found Cristian Mercado in Bolivia, and suddenly the role of Miguel and the rest of the cast made sense. I told my friend that I had chosen another actor and I was very surprised by his noble reaction. He had worked with Cristian in the past and thought he was a great choice for the role. A year later my friend told me that it had been very disappointing for him but that later he had realized I had made the right decision. And I agree — it was the toughest decision, but it was the best decision I could’ve made.