Ushering in a new age of DC superheroes, BLUE BEETLE, arrived in theaters August 18, having miraculously survived the film industry shutdown during COVID, two studio sales and now two strikes. Featuring DC’s first-ever live-action Latino superhero, the film was adapted from the original comics by AFI Alum Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (AFI Class of 2013) and stars Xolo Maridueña as Jaime Reyes, a first-generation college graduate who returns home to his tight-knit Mexican American family with a pre-law degree and a mountain of student debt. After encountering an ancient alien relic, he is transformed into a reluctant superhero who is thrust into danger and imbued with a wide array of powers.
Born and raised in Querétaro, Mexico, Dunnet-Alcocer attended the Directing program at the AFI Conservatory, receiving the Directors Award grant in 2012 while his thesis film VELADORA was honored with the Bridges/Larson Production Award. He has written and directed award-winning short films, including CONTRAPELO, and penned the feature MISS BALA, based on the 2011 Mexican film of the same name by Gerardo Naranjo (AFI Class of 2001). In light of the Writers Guild of America strike, Dunnet-Alcocer obtained special permission from the WGA to participate in this interview. We sat down with him to discuss his journey making BLUE BEETLE, his cinematic influences and how his experiences in the AFI Directing program shaped his work today.
AFI: What motivated you to apply and ultimately attend the AFI Conservatory?
Gareth: AFI is truly just about making films. I love that the director goes to AFI just to think about directing, a DP is just there to think about being a DP, and that everybody is so focused. The faculty and Fellows loved the craft the same way I did and that exuded in every way. AFI is like this temple of film. I actually didn’t apply anywhere else because I wasn’t interested in going anywhere else. It was very immersive in terms of directing. Everything that the editor is learning goes through you. Everything that the DP is learning goes through you. All these wonderful things, if you are open, go through you as well. I don’t think you can teach film. I think you can learn film, and AFI is a place that generates an environment where you are able to learn.
AFI: What skills did you acquire at AFI that you’ve been able to apply in your career today?
Gareth: First, I learned the craft of directing and as a screenwriter, I use it all the time. I try not to write scenes that a director would consider “un-directable.” A director writes in visuals and sequences. I think that really helped me because all of my movies have attached a director and, when they come talk to me for the first time, they say, “I could just see it.” I also know how to talk and work with directors because I am one, because I learned that at AFI.
The second thing I took away from the Conservatory was the rigorousness. When I went, people would be really honest about your work if you failed at the language, the narrative, the story. People would say it to you in the bluntest way, so you develop this wonderfully thick skin. You would realize this is not about me, but about the film. If you can remove yourself from thinking, “oh my god, it’s really hurting me that you didn’t like this” and take the ego out of it, it becomes purely about the work and the story.
The third aspect that I absorbed was the wonderful passion for storytelling and the philosophy of narrative point of view. I had a teacher named Peter Markham at AFI who instilled in you the power of point of view. It’s really the subjective experience that sets you aside from other filmmakers and you will fundamentally understand that if you go to AFI. For me, it was also so much about the people – one of my agents actually produced my thesis and those you work with at AFI are the ones who you will hopefully want to collaborate with throughout your career.
AFI: How did you stay true to the established DC character of BLUE BEETLE while also making space to put your own personal stamp on the material?
Gareth: When Warner Bros. first approached me, my way into the story was my family members. Building Jaime’s family was a version of my family, and the things that make him Mexican are the things that gave me a map in terms of creating a plot. The film is rooted in a multi-generational immigrant family. One of the characters in the movie, his name is Rudy, and he is played by George Lopez. That character wasn’t in the comics, and his name and persona were inspired by an uncle of mine who represents this wonderful syncretism of the Mexican and the American. He can listen to Blondie but also Los Tucanes de Tijuana and inhabit both identities in a seamless way.
BLUE BEETLE also deviates from a lot of superhero archetypes. If Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider, his first instinct is to hide it from his family. But in BLUE BEETLE, good luck hiding it in a Mexican American family! I thought, what a great opportunity to depict a family where Jaime’s struggle then becomes everybody’s struggle. Also, in superhero movies, the bad guys typically find out the main character’s identity and then pursue the people the superhero loves. But in BLUE BEETLE, it’s the other way around. They kidnap him and then his family has to find him. So many inverses are culturally driven – there’s distrust of the cops because a lot of Mexican American people and immigrants feel that these government institutions are not there to protect them. You don’t call the cops when you get in trouble. You have to figure it out on your own. BLUE BEETLE touches upon immigration and resilience and Jaime’s journey as a cosmic journey. All of those things became access points for me into the story.
AFI: Your director Angel Manuel Soto said that in preparing to make this film, he thought, “How can we do [David] Cronenberg for kids?” Did you have any visual touchstones in mind when you were writing?
Gareth: There’s a notion of body horror to BLUE BEETLE because Jaime’s body is taken over by something else, so there was a lot of Cronenberg influence and inspiration from movies like Guillermo del Toro’s CRONOS and Bong Joon Ho’s THE HOST, as well as anime like AKIRA. In THE HOST a Korean family face something otherworldly and must stick together while in AKIRA, a very normal, common, lonely person suddenly is hit with this enormous power. There are so many aspects like that in the character of Jaime Reyes who is a kid who has just graduated college. I was also thinking what would THE GRADUATE be like if you’re Mexican American and you’re not a rich kid from Pasadena? You return from college, and no one says, “the whole world is in front of you.” The reality is that nothing’s in front of you. You end up finding yourself doing the same jobs that people who didn’t go to college are doing because the ladder of American capitalism is not really built for everybody. Now you’re in debt and have this burden, so what happens then?
AFI: How did you bring culture specificity to BLUE BEETLE while also striving for universal appeal?
Gareth: Honestly, it was an instinctive process that was really guided by character. My mom is tough and very strong like the mom in BLUE BEETLE. I didn’t grow up around my dad, but during this process, I became a father, and I started thinking a lot about what the dad would be like. I first wrote a draft in 2018, and when the studio read it, they said, “we really like the characters, but can you put them on a bigger stage with a bigger story?” Every page has to earn you the movie existing. I wrote a new draft preserving the original characters, humor and tone. As long as I could feel that it was genuine to my family, to my experience as a Mexican, to my experience as an immigrant and to my experience of America, I knew I would be fine.
AFI: What’s the #1 thing you learned from making a project of this scale that you want to pass onto others?
Gareth: Character is everything. So many things can change when you’re making a movie, but if your characters are sincere and truthful, if your tone is genuine, it’ll always be coming from the same place. When I would go watch a movie as a kid, or when I would hear my family after a film, they’d talk about, “when he said this to her or when she felt like that.” It’s all about the people. It doesn’t have to be earnest, just sincere, and then no matter what circumstances the gods of filmmaking throw at you, you’ll be able to survive because your characters are solid. If your characters are just plot servicers, if they’re just mechanisms to get a person from A to B to C, you’re going to be in trouble because then everything becomes interchangeable. The greatest action sequences are the ones that ground you in a subjective emotion, in a subjective experience. My favorite thing to feel in a movie is, “oh my god, I’m like that person” or “oh my god, I know that person.” I know somebody like that, and I love them or I hate them, but, above all, it becomes very personal.