Filmmaking rarely gets more personal than the award-winning debut feature from Carla Simón. Inspired by the personal tragedy surrounding her mother’s death from AIDS-related complications, “Summer 1993” is a tender drama told from a child’s point of view. As the film heads to US theaters around the 25th anniversary of the events depicted, I recently caught up with Simón to discuss the challenges and fulfillment of making a film from painful memories. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: What made you decide to focus the narrative on this summer and not include the events leading up to it?
Carla Simón: Mainly it was because I made a short film while I was studying at the London Film School, about two kids whose grandma died. After finishing the film, I realized that kids facing death was something that I was interested in and I wanted to keep exploring.
Before going to London I tried to write my mom’s story, from her pregnancy to her death. So I talked a lot to friends of hers and my family and tried to portray these moments of her life. But then I realized that I had no information and no memories and it was very difficult for me to tell her life. So making this short film made me realize it was better to talk about what I knew best. And at the London Film School they always told us to talk about what we know. It was useful advice. Also, I have memories of that period but not before. So it was something I could explore because I could remember it a bit.
It was important to set it during that summer because it was very unique for me. My grandparents and aunt were there all the time. My mom died in March and I moved into that new village in the summer. So the whole thing was different and I decided to give it this frame for the emotions of the girl.
SS: Was the script based solely on your memories, or did you also discuss it with relatives or friends?
CS: I spoke a lot to my new parents and family. It was very interesting because I found these photos from my childhood and I scanned them all. There were very inspiring because the images evoke feelings. I don’t remember many specific things because when you’re a kid and something like that happens to you, it’s like the memory erases and you try to start again. So my memories were not very concrete. I remember more feelings and emotions. Like, I remember I didn’t cry on the day that my mom died and this made me feel very guilty. So I tried to explore this in the film.
My first draft of the script was just a collection of moments and then I had to read a lot about adoption and how kids face death and what they understand at this age. And then from that, I was able to put it into the form of a film. Everything transformed from there. There’s a lot of fiction in the film. I didn’t bring presents to a statue for example. But the feelings of the girl are real.
SS: Was it difficult to find the right child actress to carry this film?
CS: It was a long process. We saw a lot of girls, maybe 1000. And it was long because it was about 5-6 months. Laia was the second to last one. So I had seen a lot of girls before her. Basically I was looking for girls who were a bit like the character in terms of personality. I didn’t want them to create the character. I just wanted them to be themselves and play the scenes that were written. It was difficult because we asked a lot of personal questions to know them a bit. We did a lot of rounds to test different pairs of girls to play the sisters. When we put Laia and Paula together, the relationship that was created between them was similar to the one that was written. It wasn’t the easiest choice, but I felt that they were the most similar to the characters. And this helped a lot because you already have a base to start working with.
SS: One of the most important elements of the script was that the character didn’t understand how her parents died. How much did you explain to Laia while making the film?
CS: We didn’t discuss it actually. At the beginning I asked her some questions about death to see what her experiences were. But she had never encountered death. She just had a Barbie that died! [Laughs]. So I just realized that we had to dig into that because she didn’t have an opinion about death. It wasn’t important to talk about AIDS either because the character Frida doesn’t know about AIDS. I found out my parents died from AIDS when I was 11 or 12. For me it was important that the film was told from the girl’s point of view.
SS: The film is very personal to you but it also touches on a significant social issue from that time period. How did you approach this topic of AIDS, especially when it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the film?
CS: Because I didn’t know about it at that age, I decided that the word couldn’t be said in the film. So I had to find other ways to tell the audience. But at the same time, it would have been normal during this period because people didn’t know much about AIDS and they were all very scared. And in the villages it was even worse. People weren’t so informed. So moments like when she goes for the routine blood test or when she falls down and hurts herself, are ways to make the audience realize that was the disease.
AIDS is such a dramatic issue. I didn’t want to make a film about AIDS. I wanted it to be the context. And that’s why we decided to set it in 1993, because it was so big in Spain and a lot of people died from AIDS. A lot of kids lost their parents like me, orphans of AIDS.
SS: Did making this film change your perspective on that time in your life?
CS: I think so. I had told my story many times in my life. And at some point it became like a tale, something that happened to someone else. So making the film made me feel close to it again and reconnect with the story and understand why I felt how I felt. I now understand that it was tough for my relatives and they had very complex feelings as well.
The most difficult part for me was trying to portray my biological mom in the story. Because I didn’t remember her. It’s very frustrating because you cannot invent memories. I was so little that I don’t have many memories about her. So I even made a short film about her letters and I went to the places where she wrote them and tried to get to know her. And that was the way to put her in the film. In making the film, I learned more about my biological mom.