Who: Timothy J. Sexton is a screenwriter and producer who recently helped give cinematic life to one of South America’s greatest historical figures: Simón Bolívar. His screenplay for The Liberator, which recently made its U.S. premiere, follows Bolívar’s rise in early-19th Century Venezuela, then establishing the first union of independent nations in Central/South America (Gran Colombia), which covered modern Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, northern Brazil and Panama. The subject of Bolívar’s fight against the Spanish Empire was at the other end of the spectrum from a previously-written screenplay about Hernán Cortés, who had helped establish Spain’s dominion in early-16th Century Mexico. Sexton had also been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as part of the writing team behind Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Sexton scripted The Liberator while living in Mérida, Venezuela, covering the walls of his house in note cards with facts about Bolívar’s expansive life accomplishments. After nine drafts of the screenplay (including one told from the POV of Bolivar’s enemies), the result was a story that portrays the arc of Bolívar’s transformation from aristocrat, to revolutionary, to President of Gran Colombia from 1819-30, and his ultimate fall from political grace. Camera In The Sun spoke with Sexton for an October 2014 interview about Bolívar, and his portrayal on the big screen.
When did you first learn about Simón Bolívar?
My first contact with Bolívar was a town south of St. Louis named after him. But they call it “Balliver”. I never connected the name of that town with Simón Bolívar, until I started on this project. But ultimately, when the project was mentioned to me as an idea, I realized how ignorant I was about this life. It became my mission to basically set the gap in my education, and come to know this really important cat in South American history.
The end of his life was the end of a dream of a unified continent that would be cohered by philosophical and humanitarian ideals, and could compete economically with the other developing powers. There’s a Quixotic quest to his life that was ultimately unrealized and tragic.
I think everyone who came across Bolívar was kind of blinded by his light, initially. [Francisco de] Miranda was one of the people that saw a possibility of using that light to shine toward his own ends. And with the exception of [Antonio José de] Sucre, Bolívar really didn’t achieve any long-term allies. What he was able to win with different alliances, those split off, and everyone kind of went about pursuing their own agenda, and using Bolívar toward that agenda. The use of Bolívar began in the 1820s, and continues to this day. In a way, he’s a malleable concept. You can look to Bolívar as a champion of human rights, if that’s your worldview. You can look to Bolívar as a pragmatic unifier of states, if that’s your worldview. I went to Venezuela for two months to research this life. And on the day I landed in Venezuela, I was the most ignorant person about the life of Simón Bolívar in that country. The taxi driver had a much broader view of Bolívar than I did. But what I found is that everyone’s got their own interpretation of this guy. Which made it sort of daunting, because he’s still very much a living concept. But it gave me a certain freedom, because like anyone else, I was allowed my own interpretation. There’s not a monolithic version of Bolívar.
Did you utilize any of Bolívar’s writings for your dialoge?
Concepts, but not writing. Initially, I thought I would be able to lift some of the speeches, or some of his writings. But ultimately, they’re of a very specific time. And while the ideas may be powerful, it makes the whole enterprise feel dated. So with the exception of a few passages from the Carta De Jamaica, I invented all of those speeches. That being said, they’re based on concepts that existed in his thought. But I created a modern vernacular for him.
[I created friendships] based on known relationships that he did have with what we call people of color. There was a very close relationship to the woman that kind of became his de facto mother, Hipolita. He could kind of move easily through those worlds. Also, as part of his journey, he was the biggest slaveholder on the continent when he started. Ultimately, he evolved to this idea of everyone participating to some degree. He still definitely comes from an elite background. But he saw how that time of slavery was coming to an end. He was one of the first to really see the possibility of all of these different peoples coming together.
What’s your take on Bolívar approach to the Presidency of Gran Columbia?
I think ultimately, Bolívar felt that this unification could only be brought about with someone who had a vision at the top — a certain strength that all could look toward. It’s interesting, because a lot of our modern day references to this are people we throw into this strong-arm dictator role — whether it be Tito in Yugoslavia, or Hussein in Iraq. And when these guys go, those unions crumble. I would say what distinguishes Bolívar is this idea of inclusion from the get-go. Who knows how it plays out if he doesn’t die, and he’s able to manage all these countries together. But he had a big dream, and he had a love of humanity also. The man who loved music, and the man who loved dance, loved to eat. I mean, he had a sensual love of life.
He’s a guy who lost everyone close to him at a very young age — lost his mother, lost his father, lost his wife. He was also a man who from the moment of the loss of the first wife, never married. And yet, his ultimate goal was to create this great family of countries in South America. He kind of took the goal of family to a mega level, and sacrificed it on a personal level.
Who is the character of Torkington based upon?
Torkington is a composite. There was a guy named [Maxwell] Hyslop, who was a European who helped Bolívar out of a couple of jams financially. He represented this European support of what they thought was going to be the next wave of South America. In the way that those things go, if you can back the horse that’s gonna win, it’s gonna pay off big for you. So Torkington ultimately became a way for us to understand the international context of what Bolívar was up to. From a dramatic point of view, he’s the one character that gets to see the whole transformation of Bolívar. In a way, he’s the audience who gets to see this guy as this rich kid without any direction that no one knows about, to a man who’s led a revolution of a continent.
Can South American films on this scale make it in the U.S.?
To do these pictures at the scale that some of them require, there hasn’t recently been that sort of funding available to do the “epic”. So we were really fortunate to come upon a subject at a point in time that people were really eager to get made. So I think because of the economies of cinema in South America, certain smaller stories have certainly filtered through. A lot of great Argentine cinema. But again, really character driven stuff, and on a smaller scale. Mexico of course had its golden era in the ’40s and ’50s, and a much more-romanticized period. I think that the economies are such that a lot of these stories are going to be able to find some of the scale that they deserve. The good news is, there are many more stories to be told. I may be embarking next on a miniseries about the conquest of Mexico.