Director Aitch Alberto, Producer Lin-Manuel Miranda on Making a New Kind of Queer Coming-of-Age Film With ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’

·13 min read

It all started with a DM.

Well first, back in 2014, filmmaker Aitch Alberto read — and swiftly fell in love with — Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s coming-of-age novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” a touching story about two Mexican American teenagers who form a unique bond after a chance meeting in the summer.

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At the time, Alberto was unaware of the book’s enormous popularity — or that Lin-Manuel Miranda (in his pre-“Hamilton” days) narrated the audiobook. With a friend’s help, Alberto secured the rights to adapt the novel and, some years later, reached out to Miranda to help the project get off the ground.

“This was in 2018. It was New Year’s Day. I’ll never forget it,” Alberto recalls. “We sent Lin the script the traditional route. And I was like, ‘I want to take matters into my own hands.’ That’s when I tweeted at him, and he replied 20 minutes later.”

Miranda, who admits he was “extremely online” at the time, remembers thinking, “Yeah, that should be a movie.”

Now, almost half a decade after that initial Twitter message — and many starts and stops along the way — “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is premiering Sept. 9 at the Toronto Film Festival. Newcomers Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales star in the film as Aristotle (a.k.a. Ari) and Dante, who, yes, bond over their classical names. (Variety has an exclusive look at that fateful meet-up in the clip below.)

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” coincides with Hollywood’s push to broaden the types of stories in the spotlight. Not only does the movie center on two Latino LGBTQ youths in El Paso, a part of the country that’s often overlooked by the film business, but it also marks the feature film directing debut of Alberto, a transgender filmmaker.

Along with Miranda, the film’s high-profile producers include Kyra Sedgwick and Eugenio Derbez, who also appears in the film as Ari’s father. Alberto jokes the “Latinx mafia” — Miranda, Derbez and Eva Longoria, who plays Dante’s mother — were integral in getting the film across the finish line.

“I am so excited to be in a theater, and apparently we’re sold out, too,” Alberto says. “There are tickets on StubHub, which I find so funny.”

Whether or not audiences scalp tickets on secondary sites, she mostly hopes that people are able to take in the joy and the heartbreak of the movie on the big screen.

“I’m a purist. I’ve made a movie to watch in a theater,” she says. “It’s a beautiful moment that I’ve dreamt about my entire life, and now it’s real. It’s a little trippy.”

Prior to its TIFF debut, Alberto and Miranda spoke to Variety about the years-long journey to bring Ari and Dante’s story to theaters.

How did you come across the book, and why did you want to adapt it? 

Alberto: It was a recommendation from a friend, and I read it on a whim in one sitting. It spoke to my soul in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, and it unlocked so much in me. It subverted expectations and narratives that we see around Latinx people and queer people in such a gentle and beautiful way. It became my life’s work to make it into a movie. So that happened in 2014, and I had no idea the book was such a big hit, and that Lin-Manuel had done the audiobook. None of that was on my radar when I first fell in love with the project. I had a friend look into the rights and I was like, “There’s no way the rights of this book are available.” They were, and I wrote the script on spec and reached out to the author, Ben, and I told him I wanted to meet him. And then a couple of days later, I was in El Paso. We spent four days together, and at the end of that trip he told me, “These boys were mine, and now I give them to you.”

How did you balance honoring the source material while making it your own? 

Alberto: That was challenging to overcome. I felt responsible to speak for all the fans. But through the process, I realized I needed to let that go and give myself the freedom to play with it and find what rings true for me as a storyteller. But the book was so beautiful and perfect that I didn’t want to ruin it.

Lin, what spoke to you about the material and Aitch’s vision? 

Miranda: It’s a really special book, and I came to narrate the audiobook, but you need to know that I don’t narrate a lot of audiobooks. I think I’ve done two that were not books I wrote. The folks at the audiobook company thought of me, and they were like, “We think you’ll like this book.” Just like Aitch, I devoured it in one sitting and was like, “I really wish this book was around when I was a kid.” Aitch reached out to me on Twitter back when I was extremely online and said “I’m working on this movie.” I just thought, “Yeah, that should be a movie.”

Alberto: That was in 2018. It was New Year’s Day. I’ll never forget it. I was driving back from Santa Barbara, and we sent Lin the script the traditional route. And I was like, “I want to take matters into my own hands.” That’s when I tweeted at him, and he replied 20 minutes later. Then three months later, he was in L.A. and agreeing to be a part of the movie. It was a dream come true. And I mean that in a real way, not in a Hollywood way.

What was your involvement as a producer?

Miranda: Making phone calls and opening doors. Aitch already had a great team around her in terms of producers. My job was to say, “What do you need? What can I be specifically helpful with?” I remember emailing Eva Longoria and being like, “I know you get a million things. This is really special.” As the movie went underway, giving notes… I have a little cameo as the radio voice. I asked for many takes. I was a total diva. Probably the toughest actor Aitch had to work with.

Alberto: He was really involved too, from the script [stage]. It was a real collaboration that I was so grateful for. As an artist, having someone like Lin-Manuel validating me and my work was invaluable, and it helped further opened doors for me.

Since Lin recently made his directorial debut with “Tick, Tick… Boom,” did he give you advice about your first film?

Miranda: I was giving lots of first-big-film advice. I was learning the curriculum, like, six months ahead of Aitch.

Alberto: It was all about time and the fact that you’re never going to have any of it. You had also just finished “In the Heights.” So, there was a lot of invaluable information that he was able to give me, especially right before we went into production because a lot of our stuff was exterior. So there’s a lot of advice around how to handle the elements and the weather and just leaning into it.

How did you finance the film?

Alberto: It was a journey to get there. I joke around and say the Latinx mafia was required to show up, which was Eugenio, Lin-Manuel and Eva, and that’s the only way the movie would have ever happened. It’s not far from the truth. They were also supportive of me, and it made people pay attention. We went the traditional route. We pitched it to a bunch of people. We had other directors attached and there were a bunch of false starts. But I always knew it was my story to tell, so I was never rattled when those versions didn’t take off. Once I was on board as director, everything started to unfold very naturally, and we found a partner in Limelight [Pictures].

At what point did you decide to direct as well?

Alberto: I always wanted to direct it. I was at a really different place in my career and in my life. It was pre my transition. In so many ways, I wasn’t ready to tell the story from an honest, empathetic, compassionate lens because I hadn’t fully done that for myself. Through this process, I was able to unlock that. This book was so meaningful in so many ways, and it was a life lesson, while also being a creative journey. But I had to love myself in order to be able to tell the story.

Miranda: You said something so smart Aitch, which is that once you were in the director’s chair, it just started to happen. I’ve gained heroes in the producing world because “Heights” was a 13-year journey, “Tick, Tick” was a five-year journey and one of the things I’ve learned from the folks I’ve been fortunate enough to work with as producers is there’s a lot of time before shooting starts to get it right. There’s not a lot of time once those elements are in place. So we really took our time. We did our due diligence with other directors, and Aitch is absolutely right: it was her story to tell. Once she was at the console, it happened very quickly.

How important was it to find the right actors to play Ari and Dante?

Alberto: There wouldn’t have been a movie without the right Ari and Dante. That was the most important part of the entire thing. We had open calls. I saw so many tapes. In my heart, I wanted two discoveries because both roles required untouched naturalism and authenticity. That’s what we found in Max and Reese. They are the characters both on the screen and off the screen.

Miranda: Ari is a tall order. As a filmmaker, you’re asking for pages and pages of Ben’s beautiful prose to happen in a look as Ari is unpeeling the onion of himself. It reveals beautifully.

Alberto: They were both so game, and they trusted me so much it was almost scary. But they showed up. They wanted to do their best and they cared, which is so special to find in a young actor. They’re my babies forever.

Is there a particular scene from the book that you were excited to see translated on the screen?

Alberto: Toward the end of the movie after Ari has that violent outburst with Julian, when he’s talking to his parents, is one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire film. And I didn’t read it the way we translated it. So that was a beautiful moment to discover through the process.

Miranda: Ari’s first heroic act, when he jumps in front of that car and saves Dante’s life, the rippling effects of that is really heart-stopping moment in the book. It’s handled so beautifully. And the part where Eva[‘s character] says to Ari, “I will love you forever” gets me in the book, and it gets me in the movie. That’s some real parent shit.

The novel received some criticism for concerns about transphobia. How did you address it in the movie? 

Alberto: The book was written in a different time by someone who there’s a generational gap with, who is so willing to learn and is learning. I don’t think it’s rooted in transphobia at all, but instead, lack of education and information. I love when you can take something and sort of rewrite history. The term transgender didn’t exist in the ’80s. I wanted to stay true to that, but also not lean into the trope that we’ve seen before. The lack of that definition is something that I addressed, and the gendering of Bernardo, Ari’s brother’s victim, was something the book didn’t get right, but in the movie, we do.

What do you hope young people take away from Ari and Dante’s journey? 

Alberto: To be slightly more gentle with yourself on your journey, and to be as mindful as possible to not miss the love around you. There are people willing to see you just as you are as soon as you’re ready to do that for yourself.

Miranda: I don’t know that I’m going to say it better than Aitch just said. That was the pleasant joy of reading the book for the first time. It is about two loving Latino families that are willing to meet their kids where they’re at. And so much of Latino representation in film is so machista or rooted in what people see on the 11 o’clock news, which is not our day-to-day realities. I grew up in a pretty accepting family that has many LGBTQ members across generations. Everyone is accepting, and I never read that in a book. It’s always the trope about punishing.

Alberto: I wanted to make a classic American film that was relatable to not only us as Latinos, but everyone. And one that subverted the expectation and the tropes we’ve seen before, which are often violent or lack authenticity to my experience. I don’t come from a super accepting family, but there was always a lot of love. I really hope that translates to audiences.

How does it feel to finally be able to show it to audiences at TIFF?

Alberto: I’m incredibly excited, and I’m trying to stay in the joy of what that feels like and not think about the result. It’s been a long journey to get here that I’m just trying to enjoy every second of it.

Miranda: I’m thrilled. Listen, as anyone who has made movies post-March 2020 can tell you, making movies is impossible under the best of circumstances and everyone now has, like, 50 extra hurdles. Aitch did an incredible job in a very compressed timeframe amidst COVID regulations. The last collaborator is the audience, so let’s go!

There’s a sequel to the novel. Do you hope to make a second movie?

Alberto: Of course, it’s something I’m thinking about, but I want to get through this one first. I would love to live with these characters for a while.

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