Mucho Mucho Amor
The premiere in Sundance in the days leading up to the pandemic (uhm, January) Mucho Mucho Amor is an urgently needed survey in these difficult times. Doc, staged and produced jointly by Cristina Costantini (Science Fair) and Kareem Tabsch (The Last Resort), produced by Alex Fumero (I think you should go with Tim Robinson) is a fascinating odyssey of Walter's beautifully eccentric world Mercado. The Puerto Rican astrologer, psychological and defiantly non-binary pioneer, who combined the sense of Liberace with the relentless determination of Tammy Faye Bakker, spread his mantra "mucho mucho amor" for decades to an audience of millions – more precisely 120 – Latinx viewers the globe. (This includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, who touchingly transforms himself into a starry schoolchild when he is granted an audience with the icon.) Until one day the bundle of energy had just emerged and disappeared from the television.
The film is extremely thorough and mixes archive images with contemporary interviews with Mercado's relatives, friends and former business partners and even with the hidden Mercado himself. However, the doctor goes further than just putting together the secret of what happened to this once ubiquitous ambassador for happiness . In fact, Mucho Mucho Amor even tries convincingly to explain why this relic from another time, which was 80 years old at the time of production, is important today. Mercado's relentless refusal to speak about his gender or sexuality – while at the same time making it clear that he would never limit himself to one category or closet – made him far ahead of his time. (Historically, LGBTQ people went straight from shame to secrecy to shame if they didn't come out. Of course, it's a burden that Cisgender people in particular never had to bear when they proudly proclaim their identity.) And this unconventional spirit who at some point explains in front of the camera that every morning he wakes up is the first day of his life has had no interest in living life on the terms of others.
To learn more about Mucho Mucho Amor and his uncompromising star (although Mercado states: "I used to be a star and now I'm a constellation"), the filmmaker turned to the trio that rediscovered the legend and more.
Filmmakers: How did this project come about? Was there a plan in case you couldn't find Walter or he refused to attend?
Costantini, Tabsch and Fumero: We all grew up and watched Walter with our Abuelas. For certain generations of Latinos, this is a kind of rite of passage. Kareem and Alex were originally introduced by Andrew Hevia, a producer of Moonlight. The first conversation they ever had was about Walter – since Walter had a Miami real estate sale and Kareem was planning to attend. He would try to contact Walter there.
As it turned out, Kareem met Walter's niece, and Alex and Kareem made a follow-up call to discuss a strategy. 30 minutes before this call, Cristina, a colleague on a television station, called. She said, "I heard you were obsessed with Walter Mercado. I want to make my next film about him." Assuming that Kareem and Cristina had complementary skills, a similar vision of who Walter was and both "No assholes", Alex quickly got the OK from each of them to make a conference call out of it.
An hour later, Cristina and Kareem had agreed to direct together and Alex would produce. Since Walter's career on TV lasted 50 years and he was so pervasive in the Latino media, we knew that there would be a lot of archive material that we could use. But the whole goal of the documentary for the three of us was to hit the man behind the cloaks, so it was probably not on the table to do it without his participation. Fortunately, he was as excited as we were to make the film.
Filmmakers: Did he come on board to be in the spotlight again? Was he even careful?
Costantini, Tabsch and Fumero: Our first call to Walter was the strangest job interview we've ever had. We gave him a game about our career, our growing up when we saw him on TV, our reasons for wanting to make the documentary. His first question to us was: "What are your astrological signs?" We should have seen it coming, but somehow we didn't. Cristina and Kareem are both libras, Alex is a shooter, and apparently that was the right answer.
It didn't seem very careful to go back in the spotlight. In fact, he would never say that he was not in the spotlight. He described the past few years as "taking a break". In this sense, he was very Norma Desmond. Walter always loved the camera and in many ways the tragic events of his golden years prevented him from sealing his legacy, so the doctor gave him an opportunity. He was always very forward-looking and was pleased that three “young people” (as he described us) were interested in doing something new with and about him.
On the other hand, he couldn't understand why we were filming him at breakfast, reading a book and meandering through the house – everything seemed so boring to him. He resisted our curious questions about his personal life with wonderful sayings, some of which he had refined over a 50-year career. We don't think Walter knew exactly what he was signing up for when we started the process. And we didn't quite understand how clever and media-conscious he was and how effectively he disarmed us with his charm and wit.
Filmmakers: I was quite surprised that Bill Bakula, Walter's former manager, agreed to face the camera given the destructive end of their partnership. How did you choose who you'd like to reach in Walter's huge orbit – and ultimately, from those people, did anyone refuse to attend?
Costantini, Tabsch and Fumero: We addressed almost everyone we thought was relevant. In his honor, Bill has the feeling of not hiding anything. He answered all of our questions. The fact is that, despite what happened between them, it's a big reason why each of us heard about Walter Mercado.
Bill's lawyer, who was involved in the lawsuits, could not be reached for comment after several attempts. This is probably the only person we couldn't get. There were a few other relevant celebrities like Ricky Martin, but his schedule didn't allow it. Regardless, we knew we didn't want this to be a direct speaking doc, so we stayed away from too many prominent commentators. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Derbez and Raul De Molina gave us everything we needed. They were selected based on their knowledge of Walter from an English, Latin American and Spanish speaking perspective.
Filmmakers: How was the editing process, especially with regard to the abundance of archive material that you had to go through and put together?
Costantini, Tabsch and Fumero: We started machining when we were still in production. We like to describe it as the plane taking off while the runway is still under construction. One of our big goals was to finish the film while Walter was still with us. Unfortunately, we have not achieved this goal. We reported to Sundance on November 1st and Walter passed away on November 2nd. In the end, he only saw about 20 minutes of the film, which he was very happy with.
The archive material was a challenge because Walter and his family literally kept everything, but did not necessarily keep it properly. Every time we went to Puerto Rico, something new appeared behind something that was lying on something in a non-air-conditioned linen closet. We're talking archive gold on Betamax tapes that were stored in Puerto Rico at 80% humidity and 100-degree weather – and immediately after Hurricane Maria caused leaks throughout his home. We have done our best to save much of it with the generous help of the Wolfson Archives in Miami, which has done a great job.
Kareem, who has a lot of experience working with archive images, was really the leader in this area. We would digitize as soon as possible and send drives back and forth between LA where the editing took place and Miami where Kareem and Wolfson were based. In the end, it was an embarrassment of wealth and we had to leave a lot on the cutting room floor (including an inventive 1970s episode that was completely rotated through an aquarium to give the impression that Walter was under water).
We were also very lucky to be able to work with the wonderful Tom Maroney as an editor. Not only did he appreciate Walter's cheesiness and campiness, he was also one of Walter's "gringo fans" who had met him years ago. Although Tom didn't speak a word of Spanish, he was always fascinated by Walter. So Tom's keen eye and skill really helped determine when we had to lean into the archive material or return to the Vérité.
Filmmakers: It's easy to see how Walter, the gay icon, appeals even more to today's queer generation with his non-binary, non-sexual personality. What is somewhat unexpected is his long embrace by such a diverse, global Latinx community. (I don't think Liberace, perhaps his closest counterpart in the English-speaking world, was ever particularly loved by a no-nonsense patriarchal society.) Walter was just a brilliant seller who allowed the audience to see and hear everything from him it needed? And if so, did you have to stay vigilant to avoid being “filmed” while filming?
Costantini, Tabsch and Fumero: Walter was a master showman with an incomparable, lasting determination. Even though he's a fortune teller that some have criticized, he's never had bad news for you. There were challenges, yes, but nothing that none of us could overcome if we kept the faith and led with "mucho mucho amor". This message of hope is contagious for all of us, but especially for immigrants and people who have problems. At least he's a piece of hope (wrapped up in incredible outfits, makeup, and hair) that will get us through another tough day.
From the filmmakers' perspective, that was a challenge. Sometimes we hurried downstairs in the middle of the interview to "tell" his nieces to Walter because he avoided our questions with funny sayings. It was very disarming, so we had to be persistent, especially when it came to sexuality. And in this way you could see how he managed to triumph within a macho society. He endowed his extravagance with magic, charm and determination – and in many ways this gave him a passport that others might not get. He was so completely different from what people on TV or anywhere in Latin America were used to that he was superior to the fight in many ways.
Here was this magical, esoteric being who spoke in a way and about things that no one else did – so of course he looked so different, so "out there". In a way, we think this was part of the passport that he got mostly from people. Not to mention his positive message, so people were more susceptible to being different because what he brought they wanted to hear. Even so, he was still mocked a lot today, mainly for his sexuality, even though it was a topic he had never talked about. Still, Walter never apologized for who he was, and was, in some ways, gender-specific and strange before these terms became common. He was always a pioneer.