Cinema & Politics: A Conversation with Fernando Sulichin

Argentine film producer Fernando Sulichin’s Hollywood career began by accident; a classroom mix-up in college propelled him headlong into the world of cinema, and he has since worked around the globe with such well-known directors as Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, David Lynch and Martin Scorcese, to name just a few.

Sulichin’s films range from adrenaline-filled blockbusters (such as 2012’s “Savages”) to thoughtful political documentaries. The television series “The Untold History of the United States”, directed by Oliver Stone, critically re-examines the role of the U.S. after the Second World War and is currently screening on Showtime.

On a brief visit to his native Buenos Aires, Sulichin sat down with The Argentina Independent to discuss his early years in Hollywood, his views on the current state of Latin American politics, and what’s in store for his production company, Central Films.

Fernando Sulichin (photo by Helena Andell)
Fernando Sulichin (photo by Helena Andell)

You came to the U.S. to study architecture originally. Could you talk a little bit about your move from Argentina to the States and how you became involved in film?

Here in Argentina they always tell you that the States are a better place. The patriotism here, or self-esteem was a little bit low and they thought that everything that came from abroad was better, especially the U.S. And with the monopoly of media and Hollywood, you dream of American culture; I was always thinking that the U.S. was the best place in the world. I was really looking forward to going. And when I was dealing with questions like ‘what do I want to do with the rest of my life? Where do I want to spend my energy?’ I thought that maybe the U.S. was a place where you could expand yourself better than you could have done here. So in a certain moment, when I had my first frustrations, I said ‘OK, I’m going to Los Angeles, where Zorro was from, and I’m going to expand my life there.’ I had been in the U.S. many times during my youth as a tourist, like many people do here, but I never went to really approach real life. So I went to work there, I wanted to try it. I went to study architecture, and I misplaced the class at UCLA. I went to the wrong class; I went to Peter Guber’s producing class. And Peter Guber at that time was the producer of “Rain Man”, but he was ‘cooking’ “Batman”, the first Batman of Tim Burton. I saw the energy of that guy and I really, really freaked out. I said ‘I want to be that guy. I want to have this enthusiasm and I want to learn. How does he do it, who is this guy?’ So I continued studying production, and that was the beginning of the end.

The first film you worked on was Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1992. It had a lot of issues regarding budget constraints, and time issues, it was a controversial film…

It was a tiny budget for a huge film, so we had to be very creative. But I was so happy to work, and to work as a producer, that nothing could make me upset. Every difficulty was a fantastic challenge. Every problem was a possibility for a breakthrough. It was a party for me.

How aware were you before you came to the United States of race relations in the country, and of Malcolm X as a person?

Well, unfortunately, here [in Argentina] there were not many black people. My relationship with black people was through cinema. Like, Eddy Murphy, Richard Pryor, Miles Davis…so I always saw black people as happy people! Even when I saw films like “Roots”, or situations like that, I was not really conscious of the struggles that black people had. As soon as I understood these struggles, I immediately had a lot of sympathy and solidarity, and it touched my heart. I could relate to them in a closer way…I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”, and then I read a fantastic book called “Mama Black Widow” by Iceberg Slim. I couldn’t believe that in this wonderful society I had been looking forward to joining, there existed this kind of misery and injustice, which they’re still carrying now. Then I got…it grew in me and is still there, trying to work for justice and equality. So the U.S. gave me a great platform and great knowledge, I got my whole professional education there. You know, I could say I am professionally a North American. I learned how to work there, I learned how to think there. That’s where my culture relates to.

You worked again with Spike Lee in 2004 on the film “She Hate Me”.

Yes, a comedy. A comedy that was not that funny (laughs).

In the 12 years that had passed from your first movie till then, how had you changed as a producer and how had Spike changed as a director?

As a producer I became more secure. I became more confident. I created my own identity as a producer, which is to work on author’s films, or with difficult directors. Basically I had the opportunity to pay back Spike, by financing a film, for the big, enormous, huge breakthrough that he gave me when I was a young 26-year old Argentine man, with a big smile and ambition and enthusiasm.

"The Untold History of the United States" airs on Showtime.

Another director that you’ve worked with often is Oliver Stone. Could you talk about the television series you’ve produced with him [“The Untold History of the United States”]?

The television series is the best work I have done, and the best work I will do. It creates film karma for me for my next two or three generations. It is a very important piece of work. Why? Because “The Untold History of America” is really revisiting history the right way, in the correct way. It was a lot of work, it was highly researched by my master, the great Oliver Stone, who educated me like a big brother. We spent a lot of time really making sure that I was thinking in the right direction, that I’m aware of things. I opened my eyes. That also taught me about enjoying life and being committed at the same time; one doesn’t compromise the other. He has a fantastic purist approach to things. So, that was fantastic.

Oliver Stone is a pretty controversial figure in Hollywood, and this series in particular has been getting a lot of criticism.

He’s controversial, but…he’s not controversial. He just tells the truth. Everything that tells the truth, and has a different point of view, becomes, in a way, controversial. But it is not a controversial thing, you know, it is quite normal.

In 2009 you and Stone worked on “South of the Border”, a documentary about the “pink tide” in Latin America. I was wondering if, after being based abroad for so long, these documentaries focusing on issues in Latin America were a way of staying connected to the continent, and to the political life here?

No. Basically, we were connected to South America but we also made some films on Palestine, a film called “Persona Non Grata”. The thing is, what’s happening in Latin America is fantastic, and it’s very interesting worldwide at the moment. There are a lot of things happening. You had a president like Lula [da Silva, of Brazil] who took 30 million people out of poverty. You have an indigenous president, Evo Morales. You have a lot of issues which are hard to understand from a foreign point of view. So we went there and we filmed, and we explained to people who are just fed the media’s point of view, which is not truthful or real.

There’s a lot that’s changed since 2009, in Latin America specifically. Hugo Chávez’s health is very uncertain; Lula has become involved in this mensalão corruption scandal; Néstor [Kirchner] has passed away and Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner] is facing a lot of criticism here in Argentina. What’s your take on the current political state of Latin America?

These are new countries, and beyond that they are new democracies. When you want to change a system that has been in the power of so few people for so long, it will take a lot of time to and it will create a lot of social revolt. Why? Because the people who used to have it very easy, and now don’t, are very uncomfortable. So I think it’s a question of time, for things to settle. Also, Latin America is a very anxious continent. In the U.S. people are not concerned with what Obama does every day, or they’re not aware of what the Minister of the Economy does every day. They’re not really involved in the management of government day to day, they just go to work, focus on their situation, and once the government is elected, the government is elected. They don’t really micromanage. In Latin America they do micromanage, and they do criticise every single decision, so it’s a little bit hard with so much media pressure. Everything that happens in these places, it also happens in other places in the world. It’s part of human nature. You could look at Egypt now, you could look at France now. But on this continent they think that this is the centre of the problem and that the rest is great. The rest is not great. The rest is the same.

How do you see the relationship changing between the United States and Latin America in the next few years?

One thing is the U.S. government, and another thing is the U.S. people. The people of the U.S. are fantastic. The government of the U.S… it’s very slow in catching up with changes. And they’re really very self-centred, thinking that everyone should follow their example, which isn’t true. I think the Americans have an opportunity to learn from different experiences. For instance, how is Brazil getting people out of poverty? There is a lot to learn from different places. They should assimilate the culture a bit more, in order to get out of their own fiscal and financial crisis. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but the government has to be more open-minded and less judgmental.

You opened your own production company, Central Films, in 2004. You’re based in Paris…

And Hong Kong, and the U.S. I work in Los Angeles, I live part-time in Paris and I reside in Hong Kong because I’m very interested in China. They own the world now. I think that my American time, I have it in a fantastic way, I was a participant of the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s and created culture in those situations, however everything is owned now and manufactured by Chinese. So I want to get to understand them a little bit better. I still have my job and my offices in Los Angeles, and I get financing from Paris. It’s a weird combination, but it works.

When “Babel” was produced by Central Films it won the Golden Globe for Best Picture [in 2007]. Did you feel then that you’d made it as a producer?

I wasn’t really involved day to day in “Babel”. I was very keen to watch it, but it was just a fantastic investment.

What’s next for you and what would be your dream movie to produce?

I would like to work with Michael Mann. I would like to make something with Scorcese as well, with whom I’ve worked before. I want to make a great ‘70s movie like “French Connection”. Something like that.

Is there a film you’re currently working on?

I’m working on a great film called “Spring Breakers” by Harmony Korine, with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. It’s coming out during…spring break.

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