Interview: Timothy J. Sexton Writer of “The Liberator”
Opening in NY and LA this weekend (October 3, 2014) The Liberator is a historical biopic chronicling the life of Venezuelan revolutionary, Simón Bolívar.
Set in the early 1800s, The Liberator follows Bolívar’s personal and political quest to liberate South America from Spanish rule and unite the entire continent as one free republic.
BlueCat spoke with screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton (Children of Men, Cesar Chavez, The Lottery) about the film and his career as a screenwriter.
BlueCat: So you started out as a journalist, how did you make the transition to film? How did you get your start in screenwriting?
Timothy J. Sexton: Ultimately I started out as a journalist because that was the only paid writing I could find. I had no model, no plan of how to break into movies. I just had this general idea that one day I wanted to make movies. In St. Louis there aren’t a lot of role models toward that path, at least there weren’t then. I just kept edging my way west until I finally landed in the place where they were making movies which was Los Angeles.
BlueCat: What was your first job in film in Los Angeles?
TS: Actually, my first job in film was in Mexico City. I landed out here with two screenplays I’d written in secret and promptly decided they weren’t good enough to show anyone, so I needed to go someplace to improve my craft and Mexico City was close and affordable. I landed there and inadvertently wound up in a whole community of up-and-coming filmmakers.
BlueCat: Is there still an environment in Mexico City for aspiring screenwriters?
TS: I think Mexico City is sort of what Paris was way back when. Where you can go, and live, and be among artists and keep your dream alive. It’s a generous city in that way.
BlueCat: What inspired you to write The Liberator? How did you become involved in the project?
TS: What inspired me was how little I actually knew about his life. Given that I consider myself somewhat educated, I have the degrees or an “educated man”, and yet I was surprisingly shallow when it came to the life of Simón Bolívar which is one of the major lives of the Americas. Out of wanting to address that ignorance, I got into the meat of his life. I was just fascinated by it. For such an important life to be so little known it became my mission to get it out there.
BlueCat: I’m glad you said that because watching the film I felt the same way. That there was a huge omission in my own education, not knowing Bolívar’s story.
TS: Exactly, but I didn’t want the script to dwell as a history lesson. I was trying to get at what was driving Bolívar. What drives a man to go to the lengths he did and ultimately to create this great family. His dream was family and it’s the one thing that eluded him on a personal level. I found access in that.
BlueCat: What did the research for this sweeping epic entail?
TS: Well I decided I needed to be in Venezuela for a while and when I landed in Venezuela to begin my research I was, at that moment in time, the most ignorant person about the life of Simón Bolívar in the entire country. The taxi driver who picked me up actually had a more nuanced understanding of the life of Simón Bolívar. So I had a lot of catching up to do. I found that there are as many Bolívars as there are people in Venezuela. Everyone has their own version of him, who he was and what he means. There is no monolithic Bolívar, it’s very fluid his meaning and his interpretation.
BlueCat: So you went to Venezuela to immerse yourself in it and do the research there because you speak fluent Spanish and have spent so much time in South America.
TS: Right, I had a language advantage that I used to get access to true insights into his life.
BlueCat: What liberties did you take, if any, to create a better story than what history provided?
TS: There is so much that is tangled in myth that has been solidified as the official story. There’s no authentic recordings of what happened, there are versions of it and there are lots of letters. I would say that the piece that has been most controversial about the film is the ending of the film.
The official story is he dies from complications from tuberculosis, but there’s a whole new research based on other letters. The known enemies he had lurking about that suggest at least a possible alternative to how he died, which is his enemies got rid of him. And we don’t land on it exactly in the movie, but we at least leave the door open to interpretation of how he died.
BlueCat: How was it to develop and write the character of Simón Bolívar, a historical revolutionary who is loved and revered all through South America? How did you approach it?
TS: I had to approach him as just a man ultimately. As a man who experienced a lot of loss early in his life. He lost his mother, he lost his father, he lost his first wife all before he was 20. I had to understand him as a man with a big whole in his heart. In his loss of his family on a personal level, he tried to achieve on a grand level, to unite all these countries. His attempt was heroic although it ultimately failed.
BlueCat: Whether it be the dystopian society in Children of Men or the dictatorial monarchy in The Liberator, it seems your screenplays share the theme of hope in the face of immense political odds. Why do you think you are drawn to this theme? Do you think you are drawn to this theme?
TS: I think as a screenwriter you have to basically be a pathological optimist because if you really step back and look at the chances of success, you can get defeated pretty easily if you’re objective. I think that’s definitely a drive for me. Personally I always have hope. Everything I do is infused with some possibility even as I’m looking at the long odds. I think it’s something in my makeup that’s reflected in the screenplay.
BlueCat: Édgar Ramírez is fantastic in the film as Bolívar. How were you able to find an actor capable of doing Bolívar justice?
TS: I wrote this script 5 years ago, or a version of this script and we couldn’t get it made because politically you couldn’t cast a Spaniard to play the guy who drove out all the Spaniards from South America. It would just have the wrong taste for a Latin audience, but there wasn’t a Latin actor with enough panache, with enough international cache, to play Bolívar. It wasn’t until the mini-series Carlos that Édgar Ramírez exploded on the international scene and we could finally get the movie made with a Latin actor.
BlueCat: Édgar is really fantastic as Bolívar and all of his antagonists are too. There wasn’t one, singular antagonist, but multiple political and personal forces against him.
TS: The challenge of doing the life Bolívar is that he did not have a single antagonist. In writing the screenplay, to create a continuity of antagonism to keep feeding the drama was one of the big challenges.
BlueCat: In addition to your film credits, you’re also the creator of the new Lifetime show The Lottery. How do you find writing for a series different from writing a film?
TS: You have more guns pointed at your head (laughs).
There’s always something kind of theoretical about a feature. You live in this intense reality of the deadline on a TV Show. There are air dates and there is programming that will be slotted in and if you don’t provide it, they will shove you aside and put in someone else who will.
But I also find it very invigorating, from a creative point of view that you’re making so many decisions in real time. As the writer, you’re the last word. It took a bit of getting used to, to get comfortable making the decisions that typically a director will make on features. From casting to production issues, to wardrobe. You get to wear a lot of hats as a writer. I found it very invigorating.
BlueCat: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
TS: Move to Mexico City (laughs).
I feel like Los Angeles has a lot of advantages, but there’s a really specific model for success in LA. Being a successful screenwriter isn’t necessarily having an authentic voice. For me, be in a place where you’re able to write and not just trying to be a successful screenwriter. And by the way, they make movies all over the world, not just Los Angeles. LA has certain challenges to finding your own authentic voice as a writer. We tend to try and mimic this path towards success and everyone’s path, ideally, is different.
BlueCat: What’s up next for you?
TS: I have a miniseries at ABC called Los Californios. The story of the annexation of Alta California told from the point of view of the Mexicans.
The Liberator opens October 3rd in NY & LA.