Sun. Aug 9th, 2020

Interview: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor’ directors Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini on the marvel of Latinx icon Walter Mercado

Filmmakers Kareem Tabsch, Cristina Costantini and producer Alex Fumero didn’t know each other before making their new Sundance hit, and newly arriving Netflix documentary, Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (which hit the streamer today). Their love of Mercado, the Puerto Rican astrologer, actor, dancer, and writer, began in childhood as 120 million people across the world watched Walter on TV where he would tell the fortunes of each Zodiac sign. Mercado used his Fabulist-spiritualist persona to convey the message of grace, love and mercy to anyone entranced by his pompadour-feathery hair and luxurious, one of a kind suits and capes. 

After a legal falling out with long-time producer Bill Bakula, Mercado vanished from television, because Bakula owned the rights to Mercado’s name. After several failed comeback attempts, Walter disappeared from the public eye in the early aughts. In his final years, he was thrown an extravagant 50-year retrospective at HistoryMiami Museum, featuring costumes and paraphernalia from his career, and the time leading to the exhibit is the documentary’s focal point. 

I caught up with Mucho Mucho Amor’s directors Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini, who discuss the fallout between Bill Bakula and Mercado, the spiritualist’s complex sexuality, the beautiful tarot card animations they commissioned for the documentary, and how Walter’s cape and costume was the frame of the painting that was his message.

Did you present the documentary to Walter or was his team searching for someone to capture his legacy?

Kareem Tabsch: Christina, our producer Alex Fumero and I had the thought of making a film about Walter Mercado. Alex was an executive at HBO and a mutual friend introduced us, so we had lunch in Bryant Park one day. He asked what am I working on and I said Walter Mercado’s having this big celebration in Miami and I’m going there in a few weeks. He said if there’s anyone I’d ever want to make a documentary about, it’s Walter Mercado. I told him that was one of the reasons I was going; to try to buy one of Walter’s capes, but also to try to make contact with the family. So we set up a time to chat to follow-up after I had gone and half an hour before that Christina called Alex. Christina had just made Science Fair that was about to premiere at Sundance and she told Alex she wants to make a movie about Walter. Alex said, how about we all get on a call and talk about this? And we did. We decided that in there that we were going to make the movie together, although I had never met Christina, but that’s kind of how it started. I met one of Walter’s nieces at the estate sale and preempted the idea of making a film so the three of us took the idea to Walter and his team.

Cristina Costantini: We approached Walter and it took a bit of convincing but he was very excited to be a part of it. And he was a big fan of Netflix, he loved documentaries and movies and so he was very thrilled to be part of it, but it was our idea. 

A few times in the documentary Walter is described as gender non-conforming, but there’s also many times where his nieces and others say he didn’t define himself by his sexuality. Why does the documentary describe him as gender non-conforming if that’s not what he called himself?

Costantini: You know, Walter was doing these things, he would say 100 years before anybody else was, so he didn’t have the phrase gender non-conforming when Walter became popular. It was not used as much as it is now. He would say all the time he didn’t feel like a woman and didn’t quite feel like a man, he felt like both. And sometimes he felt more masculine, sometimes he felt more feminine. He had an approach to sexuality that was formed definitely by the era that he grew up in. But also what he believes his audience would still love him for, so it’s very complicated, the ideas of gender and sexuality are very complex in Walter and so we, I think, approached them head on. We asked Walter what sexuality was; if he was attracted to men, if he was attracted to women and in the film, he answers it in his own way, which is sexuality for him is not just the physical act of sex but his sexuality is spiritual. He has sex with the wind, he has sex with the garden, he has sex with life, as he would say. Walter’s understanding of these things are not in line with how we think of them in 2020.

things he wouldn’t.

Tabsch: I think that’s exactly right. We refer to Walter in the film, and we kind of contextualize it the way he himself did during life. I think as always, we should follow the lead of how people want themselves to be identified and referred to and you know, oftentimes people around him wouldn’t use he as a pronoun. The option of what your pronoun wasn’t even a thing, obviously, when Walter was coming up because he was living so far ahead of his time and in a different era. When we looked at the film, we really just relied on how Walter identified to use that as kind of a reference point whenever we were referring to him, and to kind of paint the complexity of somebody who was gender non-conforming in an era when that term was not widely accepted.

Walter loves his hand gestures and costumes, but he also calls them stupid things that convey his message of love and peace. Will you talk about his style and aesthetic and how it conveyed the message?

Costantini: I think Walter can easily be discounted. And when we started filming in Puerto Rico, one of his friends said to us Walter’s not a lightweight, he’s a heavyweight. At first we didn’t really understand what that means, but I think after spending two years with Walter, what his friend was trying to say was that Walter is a very thought-out, deliberate person, and that these things that he’s employing, are not a mistake. He thinks about the visual medium, and he knows that in order to convey the messages that he believes are of the utmost importance; that we have to love everybody, that we have to treat people with respect and kindness; he wanted to dress them up so that people would pay attention to him. And I think part of the brilliance was that he understood that television was a visual medium and that in order to capture audiences, he had to play to that. So he played to it in a really big and elaborate way and it worked. He said the cape was the frame of the painting that was his message. I think it was brilliant because here we are talking about him. 

Tabsch: And he enjoyed it. That’s the other thing. He knew that the message was the most important part, but he also loved expressing himself in that way. He loved the jewelry, loved the elaborate outfits. He had fun with everything all the time. And he was serious enough that he was able to both take himself seriously and laugh at himself at how over the top of it was. I think that that comes from a place of strong sense of self and confidence and being really smart.

Will you talk about the tarot card animations and how they introduce each segment of the documentary? I thought they were fantastic.

Tabsch: It’s one of these conversations Christina and I went back and forth on. We knew that  Walter is so magical, his story is so magical and we really wanted to lean into the magic of his world. We talked about recreations and we shot some recreations actually. You see them very sparingly in the beginning of the film. We talked about a whole bunch of different ways of bringing viewers into the world of magic. At the end of the day, animation seemed to be the one that captured it the best because it allows you to go into these flights of fancy. Christina smartly said it should be in the style of Walter’s favorite tarot deck, which was the Rider-Waite tarot deck. We had this brilliant animator named Alexa Lim Haas and so we came to them with the idea of helping us get into Walter’s world and let’s use the integration of his favorite tarot deck.

How did you get Bill Bakula to agree to an interview? 

Costantini: Bill was such an important part of Walter’s life. We wouldn’t be talking about Walter if not for Bill. Bill’s the person who made Walter a superstar. Our producer Alex Fumero approached him and Bill was eager to be part of the film because, in part, the achievement Walter had was also Bill’s achievement, so I think he was eager to honor the legacy of Walter and they loved each other to the very end, which I think is confusing to a lot of people. It was difficult to get them to speak ill of each other based on what happened. Bill didn’t hold back, he answered every question to his credit and he knew we would ask him about what went wrong and how it went wrong. I think in his view, the family got in the way and ruined what they had going on. In Walter’s family, he was viewed as taking advantage of the situation. We wanted to present both those sides and let the audience decide. 

Did Ronald Reagan really consult Walter?

Tabsch: So Walter would not discuss any of the people with whom he would have private readings. In fact, he mentioned something in passing about a world leader and we were able to figure out who it was and we mistakenly said that out loud, and they really freaked out because Walter took very seriously the confidentiality of those who had private sessions with him. So Walter would not comment one on one sessions. But it is certainly not surprising because obviously Nancy Reagan and the Reagan’s were really famous followers of astrology, so it all kind of made sense.

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado is currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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