Carmen Garcia and German Gutierrez: Four decades of creative harmony
In 1984, Carmen Garcia and German Gutierrez embarked on a creative journey that changed their lives and enriched our cinematic landscape. In addition to falling in love and raising two children, they have made an impressive number of documentaries together, including The Coca-Cola Case, Variations sur un thème familier, and Falardeau, a tribute to Quebec filmmaker Pierre Falardeau that won the 2010 Jutras Award for best documentary.
What came first: the romantic or the professional relationship?
Carmen – It was more like serendipitous synchronicity. We were working for different production companies next door to each other.
German – I’d just finished my first documentary. It was on coffee, and I was looking for someone to double check the Spanish voice-over. The people I was working for told me there was a lady next door with a Spanish-sounding name. So, I dropped in to show her the film.
Carmen – I’m sure that was just an excuse! He was well known in the Montreal Latin American community. I was a Spanish girl from Paris. I certainly wasn’t the best judge of the Spanish language and I was immersed in Québécois culture. I’ve heard that story 150 times and I still don’t believe it.
German – That’s the trouble with interviewing couples. They don’t always agree. Back then there couldn’t have been more than four Latinos in all of Montreal so I couldn’t have been awash in a Spanish-speaking sea...
What was your first project together?
Carmen – A film by German on the informal system of working (System D) in the Third World. I’d just wrapped up an international series on women at Ciné-Contact. That’s where I learned to be a producer. I honestly can’t remember why we decided to produce his film ourselves.
German – I was a cameraman or assistant cameraman on other people’s projects at the time and I would take two or three days off to shoot for my own projects. After a shoot in Nepal, I had come back with some material. That’s when Carmen got involved. She came up with the funds to shoot in Peru. Basically, we started producing our own documentaries without even realizing it.
The first collaboration was organic. Why did you continue in that vein?
Carmen – We never got around to setting up a business to officially work together. We had our own projects. German continued working with Radio-Canada, the NFB, and other producers and I had projects of my own with production companies as well.
German – What it came down to is that we worked together because we wanted to say things and share our opinions with a wider audience.
Do you have the same worldview?
Carmen – When it comes to politics, we do have some differences, but we agree on the fundamentals, including social justice, equality between men and women, and the disparities between rich countries and nations to the south that are being exploited.
German – In 1990, Carmen made Beef Inc., a film about beef consumption and its impact on the environment. She’s currently working on a project with an agricultural theme. There are topics she’s always been interested in that it would never occur to me to make films about. I prefer more hard-edged subjects like the war on drugs.
Do you have the same approach to filmmaking?
Carmen – We’re very different but in a complementary way that plays to our individual strengths. German loves to go out with his camera and shoot for days on end. At first his shoots just wore me down. He’d come back with 150 takes on the same bridge. The editors would freak out. As a producer, I just couldn’t believe how much material there was. That being said, he’s got zero patience for editing, while I have no problem putting in the hours checking and classifying everything.
Do you both co-direct and co-produce certain projects or do you have specific areas of expertise?
Carmen – It didn’t take long for me to get invested in his projects, like I do with others I collaborate with. I know I can be a bit overbearing. Eventually I started asking for directing credits on The Coca-Cola Case, Falardeau, and other documentaries that German and I co-directed. I do most of the screenwriting. Sometimes German does the first draft and I finish it off. In the case of his Colombian guerillas project, his most recent work, he worked alone for years. I came along late in the game, so I didn’t ask for a directing credit.
Is it difficult to accept each other’s ideas when they encroach on your turf?
German – I have no problem as far as Carmen is concerned. Everyone knows that a director can’t make a movie on their own. Whether it’s photo direction, editing, screenwriting, or production, you’re looking at a team effort. You need some sort of hierarchy for dealing with organizations and for empowering those with a job to do. Each unit has its manager. When you really think about it, at least three to five top players should get the directing credit.
Carmen – During the making of L’histoire jugera, a film about Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, we lost our editor in the middle of the pandemic, so I got involved in the editing. German made suggestions. I respected what he had to say and did my best in telling him when it wouldn’t work, like in any negotiation. It would be wild not to keep your ears wide open for suggestions when you’re a director. You take some. You leave some. It’s well worth it.
Do you have your own hierarchy with Carmen as producer and German as director?
Carmen – The only areas where I won’t compromise are in financing and administration. You really must be very organized and fully respect all the rules and regulations. I’m in control 100% there. Whenever he tries to convince me to do otherwise, I put my foot down because it’s my name that’s on the line in our dealings with SODEC, Telefilm Canada, and others.
German – In 25 years, I’ve never even come close to contacting SODEC or Telefilm Canada. I wouldn’t dare.
What advice would you give to any creator contemplating co-creation?
Carmen – For one thing, it’s very challenging to write with others. I’m incapable of participating in brainstorming sessions where we all try to find the best way to say something. German likes working on a team and doesn’t mind working for hours with his colleagues. When I know I’ve got it right, I’m out of there and need to be alone. When we’re in the thick of it, writing or editing, I need to fly solo and I’ll only agree to feedback when the job is done.
German – That being said, I still wish everyone could find a producer like Carmen. Creative collaboration can be time-consuming and challenging to fine-tune. You can waste a lot of energy explaining what you’re trying to accomplish. In our case, I can wake up any morning and tell Carmen I’m taking my camera to Colombia for a week and that’s it. It takes time to find someone who can give you that much latitude and still understand what you’re up to. Or maybe she’s just happy to see me go ... (laughter).
The relationship between a director and a producer is already like a marriage. You can’t win every battle and you need to know which ones are worth fighting for, accepting that you can’t always win. Otherwise, you’ll waste your time and get distracted from what really counts. It takes a while to wrap your head around that. There’s no user guide. It’s a question of appreciating each other’s strengths and weaknesses, at work and in life.
How much space do your projects take up in your daily life?
Carmen – German is a bit obsessive, but he does appreciate it when something comes up to give him a break. For my part, I can power through a good number of hours, but then I must change gears completely.
German – We’ve tried to set limits for ourselves, but we also go over them. When we had kids at home, they were the ones who set the schedule. At 7:00 am they had to have breakfast and at 5:00 pm they had to be picked up from daycare.
Carmen – We don’t work 24 hours a day. In the evening we go to the movies, watch TV, read, see friends, and we’ve always known how to party. Of course, now we’re older. It’s possible we were more worried in the early days and needlessly rehashed everything. We’re not the most structured people you’ll ever meet. After all, we’ve been improvising for 40 years.