We talked with Alexis Gambis, writer and director of Son of Monarchs. Playing in the the NEXT program, Son of Monarchs stars Tenoch Huerta as Mendel, a Mexican biologist living in New York. After the death of his grandmother, Mendel “returns to his hometown nestled in the majestic monarch butterfly forests of Michoacán.”
Son of Monarchs is also the recipient of Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize
Catch the second premiere of Son of Monarchs at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 31, 2021
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I know you have a science background, but what drew you to this specific story?
I think one of the things that was really important for me was to showcase the diversity that is in the scientific community. It’s not the main idea of the film of course, but I thought it was a very interesting representation of Latinx in that type of world that we don’t see very often, but obviously, is very, very common. I experienced it when I was a biologist. I’m French Venezuelan. I was studying in New York and the people that I worked with in a lab where it was like — every country was in that in that lab. So I think that’s really important for me in telling stories since we’re talking about Latin Americans. I feel like especially Mexican, we don’t often see on screen these types of stories. I think there are many people, hopefully, that will feel that they’re represented because there are many people in the sciences, in the arts, some people that are legally in the US, that have positions in different parts. I think sometimes cinema has limited them or stereotyped them into specific roles. I definitely have an inclination to make stories that connect science to personal stories. Science to spirituality is something that’s really important for me because I feel like science is sometimes told in a very kind of sterile way. But there’s there’s something about doing science that connects to spiritual, to personal. I feel everything is — I may sound a bit New Age, but everything is very interconnected. In my experience being a scientist, when I was studying in the lab and spending so much time in the lab, I was thinking about my personal life, where I was in all kinds of existential crisis.
So, what drew me to this story? Most of my films are oftentimes channel and animal. I love animal perspectives. I was really interested in how the butterfly connected science and politics because the butterfly migrates from Canada, through the US, into Mexico. It’s been used as a symbol for migrant rights. You’ll see activists and even just people putting up a monarch butterfly and saying, “We are all monarchs, we should be able to cross the border freely. We can fly over walls.” All of these beautiful analogies with the butterfly. The butterfly in Mexico represents all the souls of the dead. The butterfly arrives around the Day of the Dead in Michoacán where we shot. Then in science, people are studying colors and patterns and butterfly wings. So all of these topics are related to the butterfly and I was interested in that. There was also some comments made by– I don’t even want to mention his name, but Trump, like where he referred to Mexicans, rapists and all these things. But he referred to them as like animals. He said they’re animals. So I was also drawn to that idea of like, “Well, actually, we are animals, you know, so…”
Mendel goes through a spiritual metamorphosis through the film, how did that journey evolve throughout the writing process?
The film is ultimately about metamorphosis — about trying to figure out who we are. There was a beautiful analogy between the stages of the butterfly: caterpillar, chrysalis, metamorphosis, and then it becomes a butterfly. That was kind of my metric. That was the timestamps in the film that allowed me to also think about the trajectory that he was going through. The film is ultimately a very internal movie. Existential crisis is something that is in us. It was tough for me to figure out ways in which I would actually show that on screen because it’s not like there’s an antagonist. We talked with Tenoch about what does it mean to be repressed? What does it mean to finally be oneself? And I think we kind of found the emotional trajectory of the character. We didn’t want him to be to recluse, but we also wanted to find ways in which, for example, when he’s in the lab, he’s very in his own world. Then he feels more adapted, more in charge of his surroundings towards the end of the film, more comfortable with being in New York and going to Mexico. You can even see it in the way he like stands. At the very end, he confronts his brother, they have a discussion, so he’s more in confidence, like he’s gone through metamorphosis. He’s become a butterfly to some extent. I was trying to add a little bit of magical realism into the film, like him actually becoming a butterfly with the tattoo, him imagining that he could paint the window because in a way that butterfly is his alter ego. It accompanies him through this journey. That was a big part of working with him (Tenoch) and also in the editing process — trying to have those two worlds in parallel to each other: the butterfly metamorphosis and his own kind of metamorphosis, as well.
Did that change a lot from first draft to final cut? Or did it stay the same throughout the journey?
When I was writing the film, I had some earlier versions of the script where I wanted him to really become a butterfly. Kind of like Birdman — there was that scene with Michael Keaton, where he has wings and I had that idea. But then I kind of pulled. I thought that the film worked better with just touches. I often feel like when you add surrealism, when you add fantasy in your film, it has more of an impact when it’s very little — when it’s one moment, so I wanted it to be somewhat of a subtle. I wanted it to be motivated by him. Most of the surrealism happens in his dreams, or he kind of is the one that at the very end of the film imagines that he’s a butterfly. So it changed. I think the editing process was was definitely a lot of work. I was kind of a second editor we had. We had a main editor that helped us figure out because there’s so many elements to the story. There’s him in New York, him in Mexico, childhood, there’s also all of the imagery under the microscope. It was figuring out that recipe of all of it. One of the big things that we figured out in the editing is that it was very important for us, to start the film in Mexico, and without giving it away — also to end in Mexico.
How do you begin to translate science into narratives for the universal viewer? How do you break down these concepts for someone who isn’t necessarily well versed in them?
One of my other lives is that I run a science film festival. I have a platform that is all about science and film. I think a lot about these topics. In my work, the best way to incorporate science into film is to treat science in different ways. One is to treat it as music. Even if you don’t necessarily understand what is being said I think it’s really beautiful to hear the technical language at times. The way it’s incorporated into the film — a lot of it is in voiceover. He starts speaking science because it’s his safe spot. He feels comfortable speaking about the science more than he feels comfortable speaking about himself and we can sort of understand what he’s talking about. He has a few more technical terms like CRISPR, although people know about CRISPR, because these two woman scientists just got the Nobel Prize for it. I think that it’s important to not dumb down the science. It’s also important to have moments, where you see the scientist without necessarily having to explain in words, just see them work, moments of silence. Tenoch has such a strong presence on camera. He has magnetic presence. I felt that it was important to just see him work at the microscope, or he gets a phone call from his friend, you know, these types of things. Science is a good way to enter into other worlds, like when he looks through the microscope he enters into his childhood, when he talks about science, suddenly, you see his grandmother. I feel like it’s a good way to transition into different time periods. It’s important to incorporate real science. The science that he’s speaking about, whether some people get it or not, is actual science that’s happening. Like today that’s just been published. It’s not science that’s 10 years old. It’s really fresh and so we had a lot of advisors and people that were that were part of it. It’s not necessarily about discovery, although there is kind of a discovery in the film, but it’s more about just the everyday life of a scientist and what science means to them.
I was watching your TED Talk and I thought you something really interesting — science new wave. You said it’s taking scientific data and scientific tools and transforming them into stories. And I wanted to know more about science new wave and your thoughts on it.
So the idea of the science new wave, which is a term that I came up with, and also is for my platform LaboCine. The idea, which I mentioned in the TED Talk, is inspired by the French New Wave, is this idea that in order to tell stories about science, you need to break the boundaries between disciplines which is ultimately what the French New Wave was about. I mean, we know about the filmmakers, we know about Godard, but there were a bunch of other people involved in the French New Wave movement. That’s really important for creating films that bring science onscreen. What ends up being the output is of course important as well, but these collaborations and having scientists involved in the making of the film, having scientists act in the movie. In the opening scene of the movie, the dissection, it’s a real scientist dissecting. I mean, playing the hands of the main actor, but you need to have him involved in all of the steps. In the production design, in the writing, in advising and acting. I think it’s important to have them involved in multiple ways and also having animals involved as well, since they’re such a big part of the scientific world.
I think when we’re talking about representation, seeing someone that could have a similar background to you doing something in science is incredibly powerful for an audience.
Being a scientist, I think it’s incredibly impactful as well. And he’s such a good scientist! I mean, of course, I’m biased, but I feel like him as a character as a scientist. I can definitely feel that like when he’s fragile. Science is kind of his crutch. He believes in science and Tenoch is just an amazing actor. I mean, ultimately, he’s the one who really carries for film. It’s mostly him. He’s good in kind of these sensitive roles. Tenoch is a very sensitive man and I feel like he plays a lot of villains. But he’s very good in this role, it’s very good.
What’s next for you? And what do you hope audiences feel at the end Son of Monarchs?
Most important for me is that people can identify, as you said, like, “Oh, that’s me, you know, like I can understand.” Another thing is that there are different types of immigration that we need to see on screen. There are some people that go through migration and they have to struggle. They have to cross the border for a better life. But there are other types of migration. Migration is very fluid. There are many people — I’m included, we’re privileged. There are many people that live between multiple places that are trying to figure out where they belong. We go a few months to one country and everywhere we go, everybody always says, “Oh, you’re a stranger here.” It happens to me all the time. I’m in France, and people (say) “Oh, you left, you’re no longer French”, then I go to Venezuela and I have the same. A lot of us are expats and live in different places. I hope that that resonates with people. There are many different types of migrants that have different types of roles. Without revealing what the end is about — it’s kind of interesting to not know where he ends up, to not know where is he actually going to settle or where he belongs. It’s a very exciting time because it’s (the film) about to be released. I’m about to get all kinds of love, hate. I find that interesting — to see how people react. I remember one of the comments that I got when I showed a cut of the film, was somebody told me that one of the problems of the film was that he wasn’t suffering enough. They didn’t understand the struggle of being in the US. And it struck me like, oh, because that’s what they’re used to. It struck me as being like, oh, gosh, that’s not what I want.
So two films I’m working on. I’m currently in Madrid, Spain. One is the film that takes place in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s about the father of neuroscience. His name was Santiago Ramón y Cajal and how he discovered the neuron. But he was also a science fiction writer. He was involved in color photography at the beginning of the 20th century. He was involved with the Lumiere brothers. The film is basically a mix of his own life and his science fiction writing. The film is called The Kiss because when he discovered the neuron and the connection between two neurons, he wanted to call it El Beso. The scientific community said, “You can’t call it the kiss, we need to call it a synapse.” It’s the name of the film — in honor of what he wanted to call it. The other film I’m working on is called Mouse Trap. It’s the story of a neuroscientist that studies memory in rats. And he seduces a girl that’s house-sitting in Brooklyn to access the home that he grew up in. I’m going to shoot it in the house that I actually grew up in. So I’m acting in it. The only non actor will be me because my father shot film of me, you know, like in the 80s, and 90s. And so I’m going to use that footage of the house, and we’re going to reshoot the house. It’s going to be a fictional film, but using documentary elements. It’s going to involve a lot of rats, a lot of mice and how we study memory on rats. I’m going to create these miniature worlds where rats are going to be drinking water from water fountains and kind of like Disney World for rats.