The Havana Film Festival New York kicked off its 18th annual program with Jonal Cosculluela’s inspiring Esteban. The movie tells the rousing story of a young Afro-Cuban boy (Reynaldo Guanche) who suddenly becomes inspired to learn how to play the piano even though he cannot afford to pay the old, cranky teacher (Hugo, played by Manuel Porto) who realizes how talented the boy really is. Esteban scrounges up money for his lessons, fights with his single mother who cannot wrap her head around this random obsession, and begins getting better and better. It all culminates, as all flicks like these always do, in a final heart-tugging performance. There was barely a dry eye in the house at HFFNY’s opening night ceremony at the DGA Theater, with many an audience member openly shedding happy tears once the credits rolled.
Part of what makes Esteban strike a chord is its spare but emotional musical score. Consisting solely of piano arrangements composed by none other than Grammy Award-winner and Cuban musical icon Chucho Valdés. On hand to present the film alongside his director, Valdés was visibly moved when sharing how every piece he wrote for the movie was performed on his own Steinway piano which is signed by his own father, Bebo Valdés. It’s a detail made all the more significant given that the guy who sold him the piano didn’t even know about it. Talk about meant to be!
Following the warm reception for the film at the packed theater, Jonal Cosculluela was joined on stage by Valdés and his producer and wife Maritza Ceballo. They talked about the perils of shooting a feature film debut, why Reynaldo was the perfect fit for Esteban, and how Valdés improvised the entire score at his studio in Málaga, Spain. Check out some highlights from the Q&A below.
On Getting Esteban Off the Ground
Jonal: It all began when I first was shown this script. I immediately fell in love with it. I always love to say that there’s an element of autobiography in this film—that’s how much it spoke to me. Also, before Maritza became the main producer of the film, I had a couple of other producers lined up but I needed someone who could be there for me 24/7. The people I was working with were busy with other projects so they kept going in and out of our meetings. And the person who was always there by my side at all these meetings were you had to make people fall in love with this project was Maritza. She’s a journalist, not a producer but as we embarked on this journey, it became obvious that she was the de facto producer of the film—and that she was really good at it. All what was missing was the title itself. And that’s how this director-producer pairing came about.
Chucho: For me it was all about digging into the script. That alone drove me to work. And more than that, to see the love and passion that these guys were working with, that alone was an inspiration, really. I also felt like I was a part of a story in a different way. I also starting playing the piano when I was a little kid. Only, of course, I was pretty lucky to have my teacher at home: my father. Bebo was my Hugo. But I also knew plenty of my friends growing up who wanted to learn how to play the piano, and I saw them struggle to pay for those classes and sometimes miss out on them when they had no money to do so. In that way the story felt like my own.