Building Trust with the Gringo Mariachi: Aaron I. Naar on Mateo
The story of Matthew Stoneman, “America’s first gringo mariachi singer,” at first sounds more like fodder for the next Will Ferrell vehicle. But in the hands of IFP Doc Lab alum Aaron I. Naar this weirder-than-fiction tale transforms into something far deeper. After a prison stint led to the New Hampshire native’s education in both the Spanish language and Cuban music, the unassuming Stoneman turned his life not just around, but upside-down. With both patience and compassion Naar follows this truly remarkable artist with the voice of an angel as he battles his demons, and ultimately sacrifices everything to realize his magnum opus: a Buena Vista Social Club-level album recorded in Havana.
Filmmaker spoke with the first-time feature director prior to the doc’s L.A. theatrical release at Hollywood’s Arena Cinema on August 21st (to be followed by its iTunes debut on August 25th).
Filmmaker: If I remember correctly, you first learned about Matthew in a newspaper article – and weren’t the only filmmaker interested in bringing his story to the screen. What made you so doggedly pursue (and subsequently stick with) Matthew, especially when you weren’t always sure he was wholeheartedly committed to making this doc?
Naar: Matthew’s backstory was an easy sell for me: gentle “gringo” learns guitar, Spanish and mariachi music in prison while doing time for armed robbery and emerges a new man. Matthew has talked about that specific story a lot, and he tells it really well. Meeting him and hearing from him was very compelling. The combination of first impressions — middle-aged, red-headed, white male singing romantic ballads in falsetto Spanish — combined with Matthew’s enthusiasm for his own work and life really hooked me. But subsequently, trying to find perspective on his life took years. He is very charming and is really specific about everything – from what microphones he uses to record (1950s RCA ribbon mics) to the store where he buys his underwear (Fallas Paredes). So, no stone went unturned. Ultimately, the Matthew we uncovered was much more emotional and universal than we initially thought. He’s just a romantic looking for love.
After about six months of shooting, however, Matthew informed us that he had previously sold his life rights before signing with us. That put a bizarre pause in the project for about a month or so, where we were dreading turning the documentary into a self-referential piece about making Mateo. We subsequently spent weeks with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts carving out documentary rights from the person who bought Matthew’s story. In the end, fortuitously, the production of our film lasted longer than the lifespan of the other company’s option. So, we’re back on top! And yes, trust was restored…or initiated.
Mateo is my first feature as director, so I didn’t know I was being put through the wringer until I was in it. It also really helped that, at the time, I’d just moved to LA near where Matthew lived, and I was living with Benjamin Dohrmann and Seth Cuddeback, the other two other big creators on this project. Ben actually found the LA Times article that initiated the project.
Filmmaker: After meeting you and Matthew in person last year (at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, where I programmed Mateo) I was immediately struck by how different the two of you are. In terms of disposition you’re complete polar opposites, something I probably haven’t seen in a director and subject since meeting James Marsh and Philippe Petit at Tribeca way back when. (Watching you guys interact kind of reminded me of a comedy duo, with you the straight-man director focused on process, and Matthew the mischievous artist always ready to perform.) So how do you navigate working with a subject with whom there doesn’t seem to be, for lack of a better word, a real connection?
Naar: Usually, Matthew just introduces himself as the director and then me as the singer and we take it from there. I take out the tightrope and Matthew speaks French. (laughs) Matthew does love performing and he lights up in front of crowds. I just feel protective and hope no one asks him about hookers. Today, we’re still close, and still slightly awkward. He comes over to my apartment a few times a week to use the computer, and he actually performed at my brother’s wedding. So, that’s as intimate as we’re probably getting at this point.
There were so many wormholes that opened up in Matthew’s life during production (brief new stints in prison, money problems, relationship issues, etc.) that being able to distance myself from those events and him in order to remain serious about the investigation, regardless of the evolving ridiculousness of the situation, became essential. That distance also allowed me to step back from some of the more attention-getting hooks, and to form a more specific and hopefully artistic interpretation of his life. Ironically, that’s how Matthew and I ended up really connecting. And that’s why we are still friends today. Throughout production, Matthew became much more respectful of my work and more complimentary of my point-of-view. We connected over our shared work ethic and desire to tell stories. And now he understands the documentary itself as a form of expression. He says things like, “We’re just two young artists, Aaron.” Forming that mutual respect was a huge part of the process of sculpting the story. Importantly, we overcame the need to create a chronological biopic, at least until he becomes more famous.
Filmmaker: I think we discussed this a bit last year, but was there anything included in the doc that Matthew objected (or semi-objected) to? And conversely, did you leave any scenes he had a problem with on the cutting room floor? I ask, because in the film you don’t really shy away from Matthew’s passion for what I guess could be called the “seedier side” of Havana. (Not to mention the fact that Matthew’s status as an ex-con is certainly part of his story.)
Naar: In the early 1990s, Matthew used to call himself the “Woody Allen of rock.” And then in the early 2000s, he was the one who propagated the “gringo mariachi” moniker. So, from the outset, he was always keen on branding. He used to say, “People love Crumb!” He outwardly embraced the more eccentric aspects of his life, partly because I think he thought those juxtapositions made him more interesting on paper — after all, that’s why I contacted him in the first place.
But, I was always more motivated to tell a story that spoke to the dynamics of his character than I was to scrutinize past crimes or current obsessions. I did specifically try not to vilify anything in his life, however. Being able to shoot naturalistically, highlighting the comedic moments, and showing his romanticized worldview became essential in achieving the more sympathetic portrait I wanted to portray. Overall, showcasing his lighter, more comedic side became more beautiful to me with the exploration and inclusion of some his darker aspects.
Along that note, one part of Matthew’s past life that was cut from the film was a blow-by-blow exploration of prison. Prison was indeed a formative time for Matthew. He found the beginnings of his new life there. But it’s not really a part of this movie or this story. We treat prison in the film the way Matthew talks about his time in prison today — matter-of-factly, fruitful, and as part of a litany of other character details. We did explore that part of his life together for awhile, culminating in us renting out an entire prison in Whittier, CA to shoot reenactments of his earlier years. It was a great shoot. And I know it was cathartic for Matthew. But ultimately, it wasn’t part of the story we wanted to tell.
As far as shying away from depicting the “seedier sides” of Havana or Cuba, that was never an issue. Matthew would call those the “real sides” or “better sides” of Havana. And they are just “sides” — Matthew’s respect, love, and longing for Cuba, its music and people, shine through.
Filmmaker: What was it like shooting in Cuba? Did you feel restricted in any way?
Naar: It was amazing. Havana is so beautiful – it looks like a production designer took control of the Caribbean. That being said, Matthew’s Cuba is a very specific Cuba – it’s full of ice cream and pizza. Going into recording sessions with Matthew at Egrem, the music studio where Buena Vista recorded, and stepping onto the squeaky slats of wood, felt magical. But following him along the seawall, night after night, to look for and at women, was equally as surreal.
The logistical issues of shooting in Cuba were much more akin to the nature of the size of our production – we were trying to stretch light, time, money, crew and equipment. In 2010, when the travel embargo with Cuba was lightened, that definitely helped, as we could then travel from LA to Miami and then directly to Havana without having to send Matthew and Seth on a bus to Tijuana. A huge portion of the credit goes to the stick-to-itiveness of Seth Cuddeback, who shot the documentary. He traveled all around the world with Matthew, often solo, and many times to Cuba alone, following Matthew, shooting hundreds of hours of footage in nooks and crannies where it’s a miracle that even one person could fit.
Filmmaker: I know you’re an IFP Doc Lab alum, but how exactly did you piece together the financing? The film certainly seems like it could sell to Spanish-speaking audiences both in the States and internationally, not to mention Cuban music lovers everywhere. (And since Matthew’s worked with members of the Buena Vista Social Club it also seems Wim Wenders should have signed on!)
Naar: Financing this project began when Benjamin Dohrmann, who produced (among other things), and I applied for fiscal sponsorship from the San Francisco Film Society in early 2009. Kickstarter hadn’t started yet, so we sent out an email blast to everyone we knew to see who would donate. (Tax deductions!) We ended up receiving about 15K. We then received 9K from the Pacific Pioneer Fund several months later. Subsequently, we were then rejected from every single grant and lab we applied to for the next two years (around 25). So Ben and I self-financed for the next two years.
Fun fact: We were actually rejected from the IFP Lab our first year of applying. But in 2013, we applied again and were accepted. During Independent Film Week that year, we met Louis Venezia at CoPilot Pictures, who we were actually introduced to by Emily McAllister, who we met at the Film Independent Lab a few months earlier when she was there with her doc Maidentrip. CoPilot came on to provide half of our finishing funds. Our sales agent Amanda Lebow then got us intro’d to Andrew Lauren Productions, who provided the second half of our finishing funds. We premiered at SXSW in 2014, traveled a year with Matthew to different festivals, and now we’ve just sold North American rights to XLrator Media, who are premiering the film August 21st in LA (and accepting iTunes pre-orders now!) Hopefully, we’ll have a forthcoming international deal to announce.
Currently, Matthew’s music is most popular in Japan and Korea, where he’s released a few different albums. Cuba is in the U.S. spotlight. And documentaries, especially character-driven docs and even music docs, seem to be getting a bit more attention — so I’m optimistic about Mateo finding its audience. You are going to post this, right? (laughs) We also have a soundtrack from the film of all original music by Matthew coming out soon on iTunes, which is really fun. Some of his new songs have some of the few remaining original Buena Vista Social Club artists and a very similar flavor. So we’re planning to use the music and the film to piggyback off one another, to hopefully attract a lovely crossover audience.
I guess I should contact Wim Wenders. Isn’t Lucy Walker doing a BVSC sequel?