Perfume de Gardenias is a dark comedy about an elderly woman, Isabel (Luz María Rondón), who gets roped into adorning neighbors’ funerals after her husband’s funeral caught the eyes and compliments of the community. Despite the curious behaviors of the new girl gang that takes residence in all funeral planning and the subtle surrounding chaos, Isabel stands grounded in her beliefs and morals. The movie’s mood might be hard to describe without speaking the minutiae details (such as Isabel and her best friend clinking skull-shaped shot glasses filled with coconut “juice”), but it certainly evokes the genre teether that dark comedies should have. It’s the type of film that marries kindness and mortality together but pulls a quick-second decision to make you laugh. Ahead of its virtual screening at BLIFF, I had the honor of talking to director/screenwriter Macha Colón (artistic pseudonym of Gisela Rosario Ramos) about the process of making this film.
BOSTON HASSLE: The first thing I wanted to say, and I hope that it was the intention, was that I thought it was funny. I think one of my favorite types of comedy is when the funny comes from the details and dialogue. What I wanted to ask was: is writing comedy something that comes naturally to you?
MACHA COLÓN: It’s interesting to think about where something comes from. I was always a very shy kid, so I think that being funny helped me connect with people. When I discovered that I could make people laugh, it was a way to communicate. I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it at all. It’s just our sort of way of connecting, period. I was interested in films, and then how to work within that medium. Throughout the years, I discovered that it helped me communicate something serious, which I felt like was so powerful — the ways that you can make people laugh. I really love that pairing. Not to sound pretentious, but I think to be funny, you have to show a kind of intelligence. There are different types of humor, which is fascinating since jokes can be a way to socially connect in situations that are new or awkward or to establish you’re in the same world. But jokes can be prejudiced or historically racist or sexist. That’s why it’s so important to question that, because writing jokes can be a way to reflect our life experiences and where we come from.
BH: Did you feel like you had to navigate it differently when you’re talking about a serious subject like death?
MC: People who have seen the film or who have a Puerto Rican background actually feel that it’s important that we can feel and talk about it in that sense. It’s also important that we can face a serious subjection from a different point of view or from a humorous side. It’s an attitude from people who are marginalized and have experiences of resilience and survival. I think it’s almost a reflex, which is why humor can also reflect your experience and point of view. I’ve been watching the new series Reservation Dogs, which has a lot of humor about things that are serious. It feels like we could laugh and feel bad because there’s pain and gives a sort of invalid permission to laugh about that. It’s not funny just to laugh at something, but it’s funny as part of the process of our experience. I don’t think it’s easy, either. Sometimes it could be a serious matter, or that humor can be very subjective. Like irony isn’t something that everyone gets. You just have to do it in a smart way.
BH: I just watched Language Lessons, which is about a Cuban woman who teaches Spanish to a white man. One of the first things she says is that jokes don’t easily translate from English to Spanish. Did you feel like writing comedy was like a third language? Since this was filmed in Puerto Rico, did you feel like you had to stop and think, “Does this make sense in English?” Or did you want to focus on relating to a Puerto Rican audience and on your own experiences?
MC: I wanted to make a film for the Puerto Rican audience. But we’re a U.S. colony, and culturally, we’ve been influenced in many ways by the entertainment and culture we consume in America. I don’t think it’s completely separate from what we do understand. I must say, when we did a translation of the script in English to submit it to a grant or something like that, it was an interesting exercise for me because we had to translate humor in a way that people can understand in the translation. At the end, I realized that some of the jokes and set ups sounded better in English than when I had it in Spanish. The exercise helped me see better if the joke worked or not. It’s weird, because even though it was mainly for Puerto Ricans, I did want a humor that can be understood by anyone.
BH: When I watched the movie, I didn’t think it was meant for a certain audience. There was one line at the funeral where the women were talking about discounts in the front of the coffin and how one of them said, “I don’t leave the house for less than 60% off.” I think a lot of people would be able to identify that. The woman who plays Isabel, Luz seemed so natural in her role. Is she like her character in real life?
MC: No! Not at all! She’s an amazing actress with tons of experiences. When you go to her house, it looks very neat. But she doesn’t clean! She has a cleaning lady, so she’ll read and watch television all day. She’ll kill me for saying this, but when you go visit her, she just wants to have a beer with you. You can’t leave her house without a beer. But she’s so unbelievable and the camera loves her, so I can totally understand why you would think that.
BH: In the beginning where she’s doing household chores — the meticulousness and the careful way she does things — I was like, “That’s legit.” It’s funny to hear otherwise.
MC: There’s a scene towards the end where Isabel is taking care of the neighbor. She’s feeding her oatmeal in bed, but her neighbor doesn’t want it so she gets up and walks away and Isabel is making the bed. I had to cut the scene there because was like, “I don’t know how to make this bed.”
BH: How much of it was unscripted?
MC: Most of the actresses came from the theater background where the playwright is so respected. I even told them at some point, “I have no problem if you guys started changing words. I just want you to feel comfortable with the language.” Luz Maria, especially, was like, “No, no! I cannot change anything. That was the way it was written and that’s the way I’m going to do it.” The actor who played Isabel’s son came up with the line about the American tomatoes when he was waiting for Isabel in the car. That was the type of humor that his character would have, and that’s something I would have never come up with, so I was thankful for that.
It’s true what they say — sometimes a film takes a life of its own! I had three different endings for the last funeral and filmed two of those endings. I wanted to bring a queer feel to it, so I added a character at the last minute to come up to Isabel and tell her that she’s a fierce bitch.
BH: This is your first fictional narrative. How did you make the switch from documentaries to this story?
MC: I wanted to make films since I was young and I just didn’t know how to get to it, especially since there’s no film school in Puerto Rico. It was a weird journey to get to that, and a long story, but when I finally went to college to study film, I studied screenwriting. But I discovered video editing, and I fell in love with the power of editing. I also enjoyed screenwriting, but both things require a lot of time. It would be easier for me to choose editing because it was emotionally safer. Screenwriting felt like I had to be vulnerable since I really work from my emotions and intuition. I decided to put my time and energy into editing and pushed aside writing. But years passed and stories kept coming up. I could come up with ideas, voices, characters. One day, I wrote a short story and submitted to a festival and won money to produce it. That put the fire again in my belly.
My mother was very active in church. She grew up in Catholicism, Sunday school, stuff like that. When my father was bedridden, she stopped all of that because she felt like she needed to be there for him. One time, I was visiting them and I heard all this laughing and giggling. I saw that she was talking to some friends and neighbors. I asked, “What was going on?” and they said, “The neighbor from down the street died and we’re gonna go to the funeral home.” I was like, “Okay, I wasn’t expecting that.” And then my mom asked me if I could stay with my dad so that she could go to the funeral. She looked so excited and happy and it was like, “Oh my God, she has really nothing else to do.” It was a funny thing, and I had this in the back of my mind. In that same year, something unusual happened where this kid, who was part of this drug trafficking world, knew that he was most likely gonna die. He went to a funeral home close to his house with some clothes and said, “When I die, I want you to put these clothes on me. I don’t want to be lying down in a coffin. I want you stand me up in a corner of my apartment.”
It became a huge controversy. They called it the Standing Dead Man. The conversations that came about were really interesting. Was it right, was it wrong, was it bad taste, you know, all these different things. After it happened, another man asked to be on a motorcycle and then another asked to be in a boxing ring. There was this trend of people requesting how they wanted to be at the funeral. It also mostly came men from a certain social status. I wanted to see what would happen if I give this to a creative space and to this character, an older woman that in a way has nothing to do with it, to see it from her perspective. I think it’s still being done, but it’s quiet now and doesn’t get that much attention. I sorta wished we could have gone more towards that way, but I felt it was too forced. If we’d done that, Isabel would have had to manipulate their bodies and that was just not her realm.
In the last scene, where did you think the neighbor was?
BH: I could definitely be wrong, but there was the big plant structure and I assumed the body was underneath the plant structure.
MC: That’s a good interpretation, but I actually wanted to propose that her body was inside the plant structure.
BH: Based on what you explained, that makes sense, and I like the idea that Isabel integrated the care that she has for these floral arrangements and the love she had for the neighbor into this plant. Do you feel like people have a different conversation and attitude about death after those real-life events?
MC: This movie isn’t really about funerals, but how we prepare for death. That comes from my personal experience because I feel like, sometimes, there are things I missed from living just because I’m afraid of dying. It should be natural to talk about death and I know it’s not easy. I’ve learned that having a chance to say goodbye is a moment of time that you’d be really thankful for. Even if you can’t change the outcome, having that moment of saying how you feel or saying thank you, it’s a wonderful gift.
BH: I know you also make music, too. What’s next for you?
MC: I have a documentary that I’ve had on the side for a while and once I get the funding, it should start next year. I also have another project called Jaya, which is based off a song I wrote that’s popular around the queer community here and roughly translates to “to be found.” From that stems the word jayaera, which is the state of feeling good about yourself. I made up the Temple of the Jayaera, so I’ll be doing events that are about that, some of which is part of the initiative of the Puerto Rican Arts Initiative, which is sponsored by Northwestern University and UT Austin. Because I’m trying to switch my projects under Macha Colón, I should really try organizing myself on the Internet.
Perfume de Gardenias will be virtually screened at this year’s BLIFF starting on Friday, September 24 at 6PM, followed by a Q&A with Colón. For more information and to purchase tickets, check out the ArtsEmerson website!