I Carry You with Me started out as one thing, then migrated to something else entirely. It began in the aughts when documentary filmmaker Heidi Ewing struck up a casual friendship with Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta—Mexican immigrants currently living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the couple owns and operates a restaurant.
One fine day, the men opened up to Ewing in a way they never had before. They revealed how years ago, Iván fled Mexico to escape homophobia and chase the culinary dreams eluding him back home. They discussed how Gerardo crossed the border soon after to join his young lover. Both risked their lives. Both made unthinkable sacrifices. Iván left behind a son. Gerardo waved goodbye to a teaching career.
On hearing of these extraordinary events, Ewing did what any Oscar-nominated documentarian would do: she began filming her friends’ daily lives to preserve their memories on film. But Ewing soon realized that the years of fly-on-the-wall footage she logged could only go so far in telling their story—especially since Iván and Gerardo couldn’t travel back to Mexico to point out their old haunts without risking deportation.
Ewing then pivoted. Along with co-writer Alan Page Arriaga, she began scripting these men’s backstories and ultimately filmed a narrative feature with actors playing their younger selves at various stages.
“My original go-to idea was to film a pure documentary,” Ewing explains. “But then I realized it was all third-act material. I needed to turn this into a narrative feature to convey the epic emotionality of their story.”
Ewing accomplished this by nimbly jockeying between three timelines. We meet ten-year-old Iván, whose delight in donning his sister’s Quinceañera dress doesn’t go over too well with his father, whose emotionally violent reaction won’t be spoiled here.
We see Iván as a young man—not surprisingly closeted. To support the son he fathered, he grinds away as a dishwasher in a job that makes poor use of his culinary degree.
And we’re there when Iván first lays eyes on Gerardo in a smoky gay bar. Their chemistry is palpable, even if Gerardo is miles further out of the closet than Iván. But despite this imbalance, and despite their eventual time apart, their bond has only grown stronger when we see their present-day-versions in the documentary footage Ewing shot.
[Writer’s note: When I first saw this film, I had nary a clue that present-day Iván and Gerardo weren’t actors—perhaps because their affection is so charmingly storybook. Yes, they’re that adorable together.]
Whichever path Ewing took to get there, her end result is an ethereal expression of love winning the day. She spoke to Script about her unique journey in bringing this heartfelt true tale to the screen.
Can you recap the unique origin story of this film?
I met Iván and Gerardo in a wine bar in 2006, and it became a friendship lasting many, many years. They came to my wedding, and we became close, all living on the Lower East Side. And then, after my documentary Detropia, about the city of Detroit, was accepted into Sundance, the guys were like, “We want to come support you. We’ve never been to the mountains, and it’ll be fun!” So, they came to Utah, and everyone thought they were celebrities because they’re super charming and attractive, and people were like, “What movie were you in?” And I was thinking, “This is so classic!”
Then the night before we left, we were having dinner, and they told me their life story--their whole life story. And I was blown away. I didn’t know Iván had a son. I didn’t know how they got to the U.S. and all that they had left behind. Learning about these things changed everything for me, and I started formulating an idea of sharing it with the public because it’s one of the most touching stories I’ve ever heard.
Iván and Gerardo didn’t appear to be the least bit self-conscious as documentary subjects. Why do you suppose that is?
Part of that is because of the many years we’ve been friends. But also, it was just a tiny crew of two people--just me and a cinematographer, filming the big moments in their lives. It’s all verité, observational cinema I did before shooting the [narrative portions of the] movie, and they were totally comfortable because I did it for so long.
The film fluidly serpentines across three separate timelines. How close did the final edit of the transitions and flashbacks match your descriptions on the page?
It’s varied. There was a lot of trial and error in the edit because when you’re working with memory, things that work on the page might not work in the moment, on film. And I knew that would be the case because there are flashforwards and flashbacks, and it’s an elliptical movie where memories are triggered by sights and sounds and smells and songs.
Sometimes we’d start editing it the way I scripted it, and then try it 50 different ways, then come back to how it was scripted. Other times, a scene found a completely new home in the timeline. For example, the scene where Iván and Sandra get dressed up in Quinceañera dresses and the father discovers them was supposed to be one flashback. But as the film became more of a look at how fractured memory is, we decided to split that scene into two parts so that the beginning is paid off much later in the movie. You find out what happened after that delicious and wonderful day Iván and Sandra had together, and how it ended up becoming a seminal and shameful moment in the character’s mind, that he’s never overcome. That needed to be in two parts.
And sometimes, a scene rhythmically tells you when it wants to end, even if it’s just ten frames sooner than expected.
Right. Filmmaking is minutia and pacing, which you can never really nail down correctly on the page.
The food preparation scenes had a tantalizing quality that reminded me of films like Big Night and Julie & Julia. How did you ensure the food was authentically represented on screen?
Since the movie was based on the real Iván, he would have absolutely died if the food didn’t look right, and so I asked him which Mexican dishes were the most complex and had the most ingredients because this was important for the opening sequence. I assumed he would say mole, and he did! So, we got all of the ingredients and made mole we actually could have eaten. Also, some of the people in that opening scene are actual cooks because there’s such ritual about the preparation of mole that had to be shot correctly.
The other big recipe in the movie, Chiles en Nogada [stuffed poblano chile peppers], takes days to make, by the time you marinate the pork and the meat with the apricot and the pears. If someone makes you Chiles en Nogada, they really love you because it’s not just throwing a few things together.
Iván and Gerardo were clearly destined for each other. Was it essential for Iván to initially leave his home country and find himself in order to become a healthier partner for Gerardo?
I think Iván is a person who had ambition and dreams, and ego, who believed his talents would never be realized where he was. And he couldn’t offer his son the life he wanted if he didn’t leave. But he was also living a lie--living in a clandestine relationship with a man, where he could never come out of the closet. So, I think he was being strangled from multiple sides. But he never intended on staying away this long. He only planned to go to America for a year or two, which is often part of the immigrant experience, where you think, “I’ll go and do my thing, then come back, and everything will be just like it was.” But it never really happens that way. So, this movie is a rumination on the price of the American dream, and that price is high.
I Carry You with Me is currently in theatres.