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BEHIND THE SCENES: How 'Sand Dollars' Overcame Casting Challenges to Become Oscar Contender

First Posted: Nov 08, 2015 05:00 AM EST
Laura Amelia Guzman

Photo : Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Last year at the Toronto Film Festival, a small film from the Dominican Republic entitled "Sand Dollars" premiered to great response. However, it went under the radar and continued its festival run. Now a year later, the film, which stars legendary actres Geraldine Chaplin, will be released in the United States and is also the official Oscar selection for the Dominican Republic.

Latin Post had the opportunity to speak with one of the directors of the film, Laura Amelia Guzman. Guzman has co-directed every single one of her films with her husband Israel Cardenas, who is Mexican born. After working a number of years in Mexico, Guzman spoke about returning to her Native country for "Sand Dollars" and the process of working with non-actors.

Latin Post: What was the inspiration for the film?

Laura Amelia Guzman: The movie was born out of a desire to work in the Dominican Republic again. My husband is Mexican and we co-direct. I am from Dominican Republic and the last film we did was in Mexico. Before that we shot a film in Dominican Republic in a region north of the island. Then we found a book that was written in French in the area.

When we read the book we were motivated to do the adaptation. The way that the author described the region and the world, which was unknown to me, was so interesting. It was interesting because more and more relationships with foreigners are seen. I myself was married with a foreigner and that was also something that was close to me.

Also the fact that the two woman in the relationship were very different also attracted me to the material.

LP: What were the biggest challenges during the filming and during the pre-production process?

LAG: It had to be to work with non-actors and Geraldine Chaplin, who is a legendary actress. We had to make sure that the level of acting was on par with Geraldine's. In the case of Yanet Mojica and Ricardo Ariel Toribio, neither one had ever acted or been in front of a camera. But we felt very comfortable working with that. However, working with Geraldine we knew we had to find a balance.

LP: Given that you were working with non-actors, was there a special process that you worked with?

LAG: Actors generally have options with which they work. In the case of non-actors you have to work with the emotions they have on the given day. As a result, we had to be flexible with our shooting schedule. We had to work with what was happening outside the fiction of the story so it could permeate in the film. So it was blending the real emotions of the non-actor with the emotions of the film's characters. We had to make sure that we could take advantage of the improvisation of the non-actors. With Geraldine she prepared the scenes and memorized the dialogue for each day.

However, every so often we would change the scenes for the day because of the non-actors and we had to find the flexibility with her. It was complex but she adapted very easily and she got along very well with Yanet and Ricardo.

LP: How did you find Yanet and Ricardo?

LAG: With Ricardo, we were friends. He is a musician and he lives close to us in Santo Domingo so we knew him. From the start when we were writing the script, we knew we wanted to work with him. He was involved a lot with the casting process for the character of Noeli. He was always there and helped a lot with the script. When we went up north in the Dominican Republic to write and research for the film, he came with us.

As for the character of Noeli, we wanted to work with an actress so it would be easier for Geraldine. But we looked and looked and we did not find anyone. We ended up going to clubs and watched many people dance. And that is how our Noeli appeared.

LP: How did you convince Yanet Mojica to do the role of Noeli?

LAG: Well, one night we saw her dancing and we asked her if she wanted to do an audition for a film. She went the next day with a friend and we did the casting. She mesmerized us because she was spontaneous, open, and natural. She was young and had not finished school so we were a bit scared that we had to rely on someone who had no experience in film. I felt like I had no control and we continued to look.

However, she kept going back into our heads and we felt we should take the risk. And the risk was worth it. We were happy with her work and we felt that she gave so much to the role.

LP: What was the process of getting Geraldine Chaplin to do the film and what was it like to work with her?

LAG: It was amazing to work with her. She is not a diva or complicated. She is flexible and adapts to every situation. Our relationship was super organic and she even agreed to live on location.

She had seen our previous film "Jean Gentil" and she was part of the jury in a festival where the movie was shown. She spoke a lot about the film to the press. When we were doing the adaptation from the book, it was a story about two men. There was a small role for an older woman so we proposed it to her. She accepted it immediately and we met through Skype. It was "love at first sight."

And this is when we realized that if Geraldine is so committed to the film, why couldn't the story be about two women. And we tried it and we liked it more. Originally we wrote a very literal adaptation but changed it completely.

LP: What has been the response in Dominican Republic to the film?

LAG: It's what we expected. We prefer to have our films come out in less theaters so they can expand and not just be the weekend flick. We always rely on word-of-mouth and critics. We don't get a lot of publicity so it was not the same audience that other Dominican films get. Since there are almost 30 Dominican films coming out, the audience has become pickier and has more options. But that is good because people are not only watching what is offered but can watch what they like.

The movie has been shown in Latin America in Mexico, Brazil and France and it is better accepted there. But it also has to do with the proportion of people in each country.

LP: What was the experience of going to Toronto Film Festival a year ago?

LAG: Well you never know the response and you end up leaving with more expectations. You work towards it and when you're finally there you are under so much pressure. You see the actors, the producers and it was also the first time that the author of the book, Jean-Noël Pancrazi, saw the movie. I was very curious and I was very nervous about his reaction. But, he was super positive about the film and surprised. He forgot that it was based on his book. For him it was like watching a movie and he was transported.

After a year you realize this is your movie. At the beginning there is so much information and everything goes so quickly.

LP: What was the feeling of having the film selected for the Oscars?

LAG: It's a dream and it is nice to see that Dominican Republic chose it as the country's best film of the year. That is the real prize to be honest. Now we're doing another roll out in Dominican Republic.

LP: What are your next projects?

LAG: We're developing a script that we want to film next year in Dominican Republic and hopefully with Geraldine Chaplin. It will be less dense and most likely a comedy. We shall see.

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