Directors/co-writers Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas had the cast and crew of their latest film, the Spanish-language drama Sand Dollars, live in primitive huts in an unpopulated section of the Dominican Republic for the seven weeks of filming. "We were out 20 miles away from East Jesus," laughs Sand Dollar star Geraldine Chaplin who was in Houston over the weekend to introduce a screening at Latin Wave, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's annual festival of Latin American cinema.
"We were out in the middle of nowhere with no flushing toilets and just a little bit of solar power. I didn't mind, but I did have one requirement - I needed a king-size bed. They had to build a hut around the bed because there wasn't one big enough for it."
Chaplin plays Anne, a much older, rich European woman living in a small town in the Dominican Republic. She's in love with Noeli, a 20-year-old local, played by newcomer Yanet Mojica. Noeli hustles rich vacationers of both genders, constantly asking for money and gifts in exchange for her sexual favors. She passes the cash on to her boyfriend who she tells Anne is her brother. Her real goal is a passport and a plane ticket, a way to get off of the island and escape its oppressive poverty.
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"[Anne and Noeli] have been in a relationship for three years," Chaplin tells us. "I say relationship because there is real love there. Yes, money changes hands, but there is still love involved."
Initially Guzman and Cardenas planned for the two women to have a five years history. "I told them, 'Wonderful! That makes the older woman a pedophile. Great.' I wanted to add some drama to this very undramatic woman. They said, 'no, no, let's make it three years.' They really didn't want to be judgmental of either character. They wanted to present them just as they were, without making either one right or wrong. They are who they are and the movie makes no judgment about either of them or their relationship."
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Guzman and Cardenas also purposefully kept humor out of the dialogue. "There was a wonderful line that I just loved. It was funny and even more so because it came out of nowhere. The girl tells the old woman that she's pregnant. She finishes up by saying, 'It's yours.' I loved it but I couldn't convince them to keep it in the movie."
(Don't worry, that's not a spoiler.)
Chaplin, who has more than 125 films to her credit, says she thinks her performance in Sand Dollars is the best of her career. "I'm so happy with it. It really is the best work I've ever done. It's a wonderful story and [the directors] did such a good job of presenting it without any judgment. I think that's really its strength. I'm very happy with it."
The film is the first for Yanet Mojica. "We found her in a disco," says Chaplin. "They had been interviewing young women and weren't happy with anyone. One night we went to a disco, where everybody was being just wild. [Yanet] was there, dancing. [Laura] went up to her and said, 'Do you want to be in a movie?' She said, 'Sure.' The next day she came to meet the directors and she was perfect."