In an unprecedented move, multi-Oscar nominated American composer and pianist Philip Glass (“The Hours”) has contributed key music to Mexican documentary “Cartas a Distancia” (“Letters from a Distance”) by Juan Carlos Rulfo.
Credit goes to Glass’s decades-long friendship and collaboration with the documentary’s lead composer and music producer Leonardo Heiblum, whose notable list of film credits include some highly acclaimed Latin American films, including “Frida,” “Maria Full of Grace,” “La Jaula de Oro,” Tatiano Huezo’s Cannes hit “Prayers for the Stolen” and Rulfo’s 2006 docu, “In the Pit.”
According to Glass, he and Heiblum met over 20 years ago when the latter worked for Glass’s company Dunvagen Music Publishers in New York. “He is an accomplished composer in his own right, so he eventually moved on to his own projects. Then I began to see him whenever I visited Mexico, and he would stop by for coffee on his visits to New York; He became an old friend,” he related.
On one of their recent catch-ups, Heiblum mentioned the projects he was working on, including “Cartas,” which still needed some additional music. “I had the time and was happy to write some cues, so it all worked out. I was pleased to work with Leo in this capacity,” Glass told Variety. “I have fond memories of working together on various projects, such as the Tibet House annual benefit concert – Leo is a very good tabla player,” noted Glass, adding: “Leo’s original score is excellent. I am glad to have worked on this important Mexican film.”
“Cartas a Distancia” takes place in the course of a week during the peak of the pandemic crisis in Mexico last year. Rulfo and his producing partner, Eduardo Diaz Casanova of Peninsula Films, had the idea when they were forced to suspend another project because of the lockdown. “We read a news article by Melissa del Pozo about a hospital where the healthcare workers were ferrying letters between the patients and their loved ones waiting outside,” Diaz recalled. Seizing on this idea, they set up outside to interview the families unable to enter the hospital and gave cameras to the healthcare workers toiling inside. One male nurse in particular, a Lucha Libre fan who called himself ‘Calavera’ (‘Skull’), lifted patients’ spirits with his morbid humor and became quite an avid cinematographer, said Rulfo. Aside from letters, they delivered polaroid pictures to them and held up phones to enable patients to Facetime with their relatives.
“Ultimately, this is a homage to communication, how it is the key to life,” Rulfo mused. “It’s the return to the origins of communication: the letter,” concurred Diaz.
Heiblum will be composing some cues as well as producing Glass’s music, which is made up of three pieces titled “Hospital,” “Night in Mexico City” and “The End,” placed at the beginning, middle and conclusion of the doc feature.
“Philip and I have actually never worked together on a film before,” said Heiblum, listing past music collaborations to include “The Suso/Glass Quartet,” “The Spirit of the Earth” and “Concert of the Sixth Sun” with Mexico’s Wixarika indigenous tribe.
World class harpist Lavinia Meijer, who interpreted Glass’s works in her award-winning album “Metamorphosis/The Hours,” has also signed on to collaborate with Heiblum who is known for using environmental sounds in his scores. For “In the Pit,” which revolves around the construction of the second deck of the Periférico beltway in Mexico City, Heiblum used building materials for the score. In “Cartas,” he will use the sounds of a hospital, including its machines and instruments.
Oscar-nominated sound designer Martin Hernandez, who has worked on many of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s films, from “Amores Perros” to “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” is also part of the stellar team.
Plans are to complete the documentary in a month and a half before taking it on the festival circuit.