To Think, Not React: Heidi Ewing Interviewed by Ken Foster

The director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, Jesus Camp, releases her first narrative film.

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Still featuring Christian Vázquez as Gerardo and Armando Espitia as Iván in Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me, 2021. Photo by Alejandro Lopez Pineda. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Heidi Ewing’s new film, I Carry You with Me, explores the story of lovers Iván and Gerardo in three signatures of time and place: the present in New York, the past in Puebla, Mexico, and the spaces in between. Iván, a young cook with a dream of being a chef and providing for his young son, is torn between his secret love for Gerardo and his desire to flee across the border to do better for himself and those he loves. But in New York, alone, he lives with his memories of Gerardo, still on the other side of the border, and of all the people and places he left behind. 

Ewing, whose documentary work includes the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, makes her narrative debut a striking hybrid. In a twist, the audience realizes that the scenes of the older lovers, reunited in Brooklyn and running a successful restaurant, are actually documentary footage of the real-life lovers who inspired the film. Ewing spoke with me about her movement from documentary to narrative, the inspiration for the film, and an unusual narrative choice that blurs the line between the two.

—Ken Foster

Ken Foster One of the things about your film that struck me was the sensory detail that grounds it so well. The sense of place and physical space feels so specific and vivid. There are also many moments around food. That mole at the beginning of the movie! I still feel like I actually ate that at some point.

Heidi Ewing It is a very sensory film. It’s a love story, and it’s about a chef. These are both experiences where you need up-close moments, moments to feel. You know the feeling of being in a room or at a party where you’ve collided with the energy of two people who are just drawn to each other, and you find yourself studying their faces and their body language, and listening to the tenor of their voices. It’s all these tiny details that make up the thing we call chemistry. I wanted to really get that right. Everyone needs to be persuaded that this is really happening. I talked to my cinematographer about it. It’s like a breathless moment-to-moment voyeuristic floating camera. I imagined it as the camera-slash-us, and we are not supposed to be in that room. Everything was built around that concept. In terms of the food, I wanted real chefs doing the cooking and being the perspective of this movie. I think those things combined with my background in documentary, and so you’re also responding to that.

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Still featuring Christian Vázquez as Gerardo and Armando Espitia as Iván in Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me, 2021. Photo by Alejandro Lopez Pineda. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

KFAnother thing I really loved about the film is that there isn’t a lot of expository dialogue.

HE I cut it all out. In documentary, a lot of times you need to explain things because you missed a lot by the time the camera gets there. You’re forced to get someone in an interview to tell you about their background and backstory. There’s beauty to it, and there’s frustration. One of the most frustrating things for me in documentary filmmaking is the need for expository information that you just have to find a way to incorporate. It’s very hard to do it elegantly. So when I had the opportunity to control the entire method of production, I was able to reduce a lot of that. There are some moments in the film where we’re sliding back and forth in time, where there might be a moment of confusion, but within a few minutes I think the audience figures it out. It becomes about trusting your audience.

KF Yeah, because this story is so intimate, I think it would have been particularly odd for the characters to be telling each other things they already knew.

HE I actually did have a few moments like that originally. In my first draft, before I brought Alan Page on to help me, there was a lot more, “let me tell you about the time that I was ten years old, and I was in the barn on our country farm. And my father came in drunk and pulled me out of bed and threw me into the back of his car and drove me to a field and loaded his gun and threatened to kill me because I was too feminine or he’s ashamed of me.” I had scenes like that in the early drafts. And I think that was because of the documentary experience, where everyone was telling everyone everything. And then I woke up and thought, I could just hire a child actor and show what happened to him in a visceral way. I started replacing a lot of those stories with the actual memories. And I think that that’s how it became a layered film over three age ranges. I thought it would feel more immediate if I could just bring these flashbacks in.

KF Speaking of the three ages at which we see the characters: at the end of the movie, I realized that the actors who were playing the older characters are the actual people who the story is based on. That we’ve been watching them this whole time.

HE That’s cinema verité. None of it is scripted. It’s observational documentary. When did you figure it out?

KF I didn’t realize it until the end, and then in a strange way it made me rethink everything. It’s not a plot twist—it doesn’t change anything—but it gave everything more weight. I hesitated to bring it up, because it feels in some way like a spoiler, even though it’s not. But it is a startling turn, and I wondered how you made that choice.

HE I thought it would be totally obvious to the audience when I made the switch and you’re looking at the real people. And I didn’t realize that it wasn’t obvious until Sundance when people gasped during the credits. I never assumed that people would think they were actors, honestly, because it looks totally different. But now I do think it’s a spoiler because it’s so fun for people to figure it out when they figure it out.

KF I even looked at the credits to find confirmation in the cast list that it was them, but they’re not there.

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Still from Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me, 2021. Photo by Alejandro Lopez Pineda. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

HE Here’s the thing. When my friends told me their story in 2012, I’d already known them for many years, but they hadn’t told me even half of their story before then. I didn’t know any of the dramatic things they had experienced in their lives to be in the United States and to be together. I didn’t even know Iván had a son, and we’d been friends for seven years. My immediate thought was to shoot a documentary, or at least an interview. Then, as I began filming them, I realized it was the third act of a movie. It was far too epic and dramatic and layered to live in the documentary form. It was deserving of a narrative treatment. So I started writing a movie, but I continued to film with them. I couldn’t stop. When it came time for me to decide if I was going to cast actors to play them in their forties, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t going to age my actors twenty years. I didn’t like that. That mostly doesn’t work in my opinion. So that’s how I was able to communicate to the eventual financers, with that footage of them.

KF Now that you’ve dipped into the narrative world, is that a direction in which you’ll potentially continue, or do you think there are ways that it might influence your documentary work in the future?

HE I want there to be more narratives. Listen, I tell people that for a documentary filmmaker to make a narrative, it’s like that dream that we all have as New Yorkers at least once in our lives, where you open up a broom closet and there’s like 3,000 more square feet in your apartment.

KF Did you see it on the news, that woman who found an apartment behind her medicine cabinet a couple of months ago?

HE No, really? Oh my God, I’m dying. I used to have that dream all the time. Like, oh, look, we’ve got a rooftop.

That’s how I felt. The ability to have multiple takes to get everything to look and feel the way exactly I imagined it. To only have to think, rather than react. When you make observational cinema, you’re often reacting: you’re catching, you’re stealing, you’re rolling, and you’re hiding, and you’ve got only one chance to get it. It’ll never ever happen again. Nobody’s acting. It’s a thrill, it’s a gas, but it’s a reactionary type of filmmaking. A narrative approach means being able to shot-list, imagine, location-scout, cast actors, and rewrite and improvise on the set. So now my ability to tell stories has just widened in such a big way.

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Still from Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me, 2021. Photo by Alejandro Lopez Pineda. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

KF What is it that you’re working on now? Can you talk about it?

HE Yeah, I’m writing a movie based on the book called How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog). It’s based on two real-life Russian biologists performing an illegal experiment and trying to domesticate wild foxes to turn them into dogs in Siberia. It’s wild. It takes place between 1952 and 1985, where two people who are in the cauldron of the original war on science, and they don’t care. They’re going to do it anyway. It’s also about the human-animal relationship, and the friendship between this young, brilliant, misfit scientist and her mentor. It’s the most consequential experiment in evolutionary biology that’s happened in the last hundred years.

KF But don’t you also have another documentary coming up?

HEEndangered. It’s a documentary about endangered journalists around the world that we filmed in four democracies where journalists are under threat: Mexico, United States, Brazil, and India. It’s kind of insane. We filmed throughout the entire pandemic because our journalists were doing the work. We’re co-executive producing it with Ronan Farrow, and hopefully it will be done in time for Sundance. We’ll see.

Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me was released in theaters on June 25, 2021.

Ken Foster has written about film, music, and literature for BOMB, Salon, The Village Voice, and other publications. His most recent book is City of Dogs, a collaboration with photographer Traer Scott. His work can be found online at www.kenfosterbooks.com.

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