Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Faith in his art as a filmmaker

To make '7 Días,' Fernando Kalife just had to believe in himself.

Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2007

Reed Johnson

MEXICO CITY -- If Fernando Kalife had scripted the plotline behind the making of his film 7 Días (7 Days), he might've ended up tossing it away as one of those eye-rolling Hollywood happy endings that's too good to be real.

Instead, Kalife actually lived this improbable life-imitates-celluloid saga, whose cast of characters includes Bono and Larry Mullen of Irish rockers U2 and British supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Here's the setup:

A Mexican guy with a USC film degree decides to write and direct a movie about a likable dreamer who's determined to bring U2 to play in his hometown of Monterrey. After losing a half-million dollar bet on a soccer game with a local mob racket, the protagonist (played by Eduardo Arroyuelo) hopes to save his skin by promising the mob boss' equally U2-obsessed son (Jaime Camil) that he will be able to deliver the band. The mob gives him seven days to make good on his promise -- or else.

But rather than doing the logical thing -- contacting the band first to see if he could obtain the music and concert-film footage rights he needed -- Kalife decided to go ahead and shoot his $1.9-million dramedy, then worry about securing U2's blessing after the fact.

"I kept in the back of my mind what my father always told me: You make a good product, the rest will happen by consequence," says Kalife, who like his main character is a Monterrey native and a lifelong U2 fan. 7 Días, which obtained 40% of its financing from Mexico's national film fund and the rest from Kalife's Moliere Films and private investors, received five Ariel nominations (Mexico's version of the Oscars) when it played in Mexico. It opened Friday in Los Angeles theaters.

Things did indeed start to happen, whether by consequence or by what some might consider a near-miraculous chain of coincidences.

After he finished shooting 7 Días in early 2004, Kalife was still trying to make contact with U2 to obtain the permissions he sought. Then in March 2005, U2 frontman Bono was flying to the beach resort of Cabo San Lucas when an unexpected airport closure forced him and his entourage to land at Acapulco.

While there, Bono ran into an old friend, Jaime Camil, an Acapulco real estate and communications impresario who is the father of the actor also named Jaime Camil. The Camil family also is friendly with British supermodel Campbell, who happened to be in Acapulco for a fashion show and used to date U2 bassist Adam Clayton.

The younger Camil told the unsuspecting Bono about U2's talismanic role in 7 Días and asked if he'd like to watch a copy of the film at his family's home. The rock star agreed, liked what he saw and immediately called Kalife, who was back in Monterrey taking his kids to the circus.

"My cellphone rings and the very first thing I hear is an Irish accent, 'Are you taking it to Cannes?' " Kalife remembers Bono saying. "He was so earnest and so humble that I was just overwhelmed. We talked for about half an hour. He complimented the film a lot."

So did Bono's bandmate Mullen, the group's drummer, when he saw it a few weeks later. While U2 is frequently approached about lending its endorsement and/or its songs to various outside projects, the group is "very particular" about such collaborations because it must guard the artistic integrity of its music, says Mullen, speaking by phone from Europe.

Mullen, the band's founder, thought the film was "a great idea, brilliantly executed," and he agreed to let the director use one of U2's songs, "Miracle Drug," and concert footage in 7 Días. For free. It was the first time that U2 had extended such a privilege to a filmmaker, Mullen says. "I just thought, 'This is a good guy [Kalife] and he's got good intentions.' "

It's an absorbing tale, and Kalife, 43, obviously relishes retelling it as he sips a café con leche during a recent stopover here.

A highly spiritual man, Kalife unhesitatingly attributes his good luck in recruiting U2 to a beneficent God. A large part of his admiration for the band is based on its well-established reputation for exploring spiritual themes in its music and its activism on behalf of charitable and social causes. "They were not afraid they would be cheesy or corny because they were singing about love, peace and God himself," he says.

Kalife says that he too has turned to faith to guide him through life's rough spots. The fourth of eight children, he was born into an entrepreneurial clan of Lebanese immigrants who parlayed two clothing stores into a family business that subsequently branched out into real estate and construction. Both parents were accomplished raconteurs. His father "told me more than 1,000 stories," while his mother, if "you give her five minutes she'll tell a story and she'll make you cry."

Kalife got hooked on movies at age 6, watching two-for-one flicks at the Cinema del Valle in Monterrey. Though he tried his hand at selling clothes for a while, his heart wasn't in it, and by the late 1990s he was signed up in USC's summer film production workshop. Soon after, he was accepted into the university's visiting scholar graduate program in film. His wife of eight years, Raquel, later followed him into the movie business after studying film editing at USC.

Like Kalife's previous short film The Mexican Way, an acidic allegory of the country's former one-party political power structure, 7 Días tosses black-comic barbs at the corruption of Mexican society. It's one aspect of his country that deeply dismays him, Kalife says, and he tries to follow "my teacher Molière" in satirizing this unpleasant reality. He seeks the broadest possible audience for his movies because, he says, "We are not in the time of Godard. It's very comfortable to play Mr. Intellectual and say, 'Well, nobody understands me, that's why I only sell four tickets.' "

Leigh Savidge, founder and chief executive of Xenon Pictures Inc., which is distributing 7 Días in the U.S., thinks the movie represents a "progressive new Latin cinema" that both Latinos and non-Latinos are increasingly receptive to. "People want to pigeonhole an ethnic genre, make it into something easy to understand," Savidge says. "We felt there was a very strong ability of an Anglo audience to relate to the characters, relate to the story."

Savidge hopes that the film, which opened to mixed reviews on a half-dozen L.A.-area screens, will move up to about 20 screens in the weeks ahead.

While he waits to see how 7 Días fares at the U.S. box office, Kalife is developing more feature film projects and shopping around Latin Code, a TV series thriller (he describes the hero as a Mexican cross between James Bond and Jason Bourne). One planned film project is a romantic drama about a Mexican man and an Irish woman, provisionally titled St. Patrick's Brigade. Mullen, on tap to compose an original score for the film, suggested the title, a reference to the renegade Irish soldiers who deserted the U.S. Army and fought for Mexico during the countries' 19th century territorial struggles. Kalife says his first choice for the male lead in the film is Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ), whom he met -- where else? -- at a U2 concert at Staples Center. That's another one of those convergences in which Kalife perceives more spiritual consequence than coincidence.

"I believe in God; it is because of him that I'm here," he says. "Does everybody say this? Of course not. Because it's better to be cool and noncommitted."

© Los Angeles Times, 2007.

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