In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are spotlighting writer/director Tomás Gómez Bustillo (AFI Class of 2018) and his feature directorial debut CHRONICLES OF A WANDERING SAINT, which will be featured at AFI’s Latin American Film Festival in Silver Spring, MD, from September 21-October 11.. Both a comedic character study and a poignant meditation on morality and mortality, the film stars acclaimed Argentinian actress Mónica Villa (WILD TALES) as a devout, yet voraciously competitive woman who attempts to deliver a miracle to her local church in order to have a better chance at sainthood.
CHRONICLES OF A WANDERING SAINT also showcases the remarkable work of producer Amanda Freedman (AFI Class 2019), editor Benjamin Gonzales Tolentino (AFI Class 2018), Visual Effects Artist Quinn Else (AFI Class 2019), production designer/executive producer Doriane Desfaugeres (AFI Class 2018), and fellow executive producers Ciro Apicella, R.J. Glass and Samir Oliveros (all AFI Class 2019) who helped Gómez Bustillo bring the film to life. We spoke to the writer/director about what he learned in the Directing Program at AFI, why he’s drawn to magic realism, and his experiences screening the film at SXSW – where it won the Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award, and this year’s AFI Latin American Film Festival.
AFI: How did you first find your way to the AFI Conservatory and what were some lessons you learned from other Fellows/Faculty during your time at AFI?
Tomás: I had just finished studying Political Science in Buenos Aires when I realized I wanted to try directing and move to LA. So many of my directing heroes had gone to AFI, and it felt like the perfect way to land in this city, build a community and learn my craft. There are a ton of lessons I learned during my time at AFI, but two things come to mind right away. One is: “as a director your job is to listen to the movie, so don’t talk over it.” It’s a Rob Spera nugget of truth that reminds me that it’s not about me; it’s about the living organism that is a film. The other one is: “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We are only as good as our collaborators and our communities, and my friends and collaborators from AFI have definitely helped me understand that.
AFI: How did it feel to have audiences embrace CHRONICLES OF A WANDERING SAINT at the SXSW premiere earlier in the spring, as well as the 34th AFI Latin American Film Festival this fall?
Tomás: It was pretty shocking to be honest. I had lowered my expectations so much before SXSW. It’s not like I didn’t believe in the movie. I just thought it was such a strange and small and foreign, little film, that it would certainly not attract a whole lot of attention. When people really embraced it and championed it, I was initially just dumbfounded. I’m still in disbelief about that whole experience, and the award on top of all that. But I’m very, very grateful. It gives me the courage to try and do it all over again.
I’m also very happy to be showing my movie at the AFI Latin American Film Festival. Our film is playing among such incredible Latinx films that just being in this cohort is a huge honor. On top of that, it’s great that AFI continues to support my growth as a filmmaker in this early phase of my career.
AFI: What first sparked the idea for CHRONICLES OF A WANDERING SAINT and what were the greatest challenges you faced going into the shoot?
Tomás: The first spark was an image that popped into my head of a person whose entire body is made of white light who was wandering around an empty field at night. Something about its external perfection contrasting with its internal state of loneliness was intriguing to me, and I wanted to build around that feeling.
One of the biggest challenges was simply trying to get a micro-budget international film off the ground during peak Omicron season. We had to postpone the shoot twice. Another challenge, probably the biggest one for me, is the impostor syndrome I got when the film was green-lit and we started pre-production. And finally, another challenge was dogs. I have a dog and I love him to death, but I hated shooting scenes with dogs. You think it’s an easy scene, but then your whole crew is waiting for hours and hours for the doggie to do one simple command.
AFI: Can you talk about the importance of magical realism in your work and why these kinds of stories resonate with you?
Tomás: When you’re a child growing up in a Catholic household in Latin America, your life is magical realism. I remember seeing and chatting nonchalantly with the spirit of my deceased older brother. Asking him to pray for me from heaven. It’s not morbid. It’s just…normal. So later in life when I got around to reading García Márquez, Allende, Borges, Cortazár and other magical realist authors, that stuff really struck a chord.
AFI: What was it like to direct acclaimed Argentinian actress Mónica Villa and how did you gain her trust as a first-time feature director to come on board?
Tomás: I have to say that at first it was a bit intimidating. She’s an icon in Argentina. But then we discovered a shared sense of passion over the script and the character. We bonded over filmmakers like Bergman and Kaurismäki. I realized she’s a film nerd like me. So that common ground eased a lot of my own insecurity and allowed me to engage with her like a collaborator and not as an idol. Then when you get on set, as a director, you realize it’s a privilege to work with someone like Monica because she has such control over every single expression in her face and body. Every decision is authentic, spontaneous and intentional. With that level of craft and intuition, rather than try to get her to do something I had conceived in my head, every take was about letting her explore.
AFI: You worked with seven other AFI Alumni on your feature. Can you speak to the strength of those partnerships and how they’ve evolved over the years?
Tomás: Doriane, Benjamin and I did our AFI thesis together. We really grew up together, got through the very difficult post-AFI years and dreamed of making a feature one day. We’ve had an ongoing collaboration and communication that feels very intimate and trusting. They have also continued to grow over the years as incredibly talented filmmakers in their own right, so it made total sense to enlist them to bring their craft and vision to this project.
After we graduated from AFI, Amanda, Samir, RJ, Ciro and I co-founded an indie production company, Plenty Good, with the intention of helping each other grow in this industry. We believe in each other’s voices, and actively workshop all of our projects. This movie was Plenty Good’s first in-house production, but we already have more in the works!