Meet the Filmmaker: Aaron I. Naar (Mateo)

Matthew “Mateo” Stoneman, the subject of Aaron I. Naar’s new documentary Mateo, lives an unconventional life to say the least: he is a white mariachi performer who learned his craft while serving time in a maximum-security prison. Mateo follows Stoneman throughout L.A. and Cuba as he performs concerts and records an album of all-original songs. What Naar uncovers is a complex human character, an outsider who attempts to honor rather than appropriate the culture his music comes from.

Mateo screens on Friday, July 18 at Industry City, and will be preceded by a live musical performance by Stoneman himself. We spoke with Aaron about the film’s origins, his filmmaking process and the complexity of Stoneman’s character.

Rooftop Films: How did you meet Mateo Stoneman? What drew you to him? Did you immediately know that you wanted to follow him for a documentary?

Aaron I. Naar: It was the summer of 2009 and I had been living in East L.A. for just about a year when my producer, Benjamin Dohrmann, brought me an article in the Los Angeles Times covering Mateo’s life in L.A. and his criminal backstory. At the time, I was looking for a documentary subject that was idiosyncratic and a bit of an outsider, as those are the types of characters that I most enjoy. The article really piqued my interest — I was quickly taken by all the competing visual descriptions of Mateo — he was a soft-spoken convicted felon; a white guy who spent most of his time in Latino communities in the US while longing to spend more time in Cuba; and he sang in Spanish with a beautiful resonance, yet hadn’t been able to develop an audience.

Nearly a week later, Mateo and I met, and he quickly committed to the documentary. So, I just started filming without much planning. For the first year of production, however, it was really hard to capture substantive footage that traversed the fish-out-of-water / white-guy-in-a-Latino-world facets. Mateo had a routine lifestyle and didn’t spend much time with significant others. What occurred initially were a series of rabbit holes and misinformation — there weren’t many people who knew much about him and it was nearly impossible to corroborate his backstory. Mateo did not like to speak candidly or self-reflectively about his feelings, especially on film. But his voice and his music were absolutely captivating from the very first note. I became curious about just how his musical expression reflected his social interactions. After several years of filming, this interplay slowly emerged, along with the beauty and nuances of Mateo’s story and life.

Ultimately, it was the various and emerging contradictions in Mateo’s life that hooked me. I was eager to solve his puzzle.

RTF: Throughout the film, Mateo is widely accepted both by the Mexican community in L.A. and the Cuban community, which we found surprising. Did you ever witness any opposition to Mateo or his music on a cultural or racial basis?

AIN: The malleability of Mateo’s whiteness was one of the most fascinating parts of the filmmaking process for me. From the very beginning, his selection of when to introduce himself as “Mateo” versus “Matthew” seemed ethnographically significant. But the beautiful thing about his music and the quality of his voice is that it is so distinct and lovely based on sound alone, it almost always and immediately cut through any attempt to racialize his actions or dwell on his sense of “belonging.”

That being said, any time Mateo would play in a primarily Spanish-speaking restaurant to a new crowd in East L.A., there would usually be some sort of stereotypic exchange where people were shocked to see a white guy singing in Spanish. Having me there didn’t make things more comprehensible.

RTF: Were you surprised to see how different Mateo’s life was in Cuba compared to L.A.? How did your trips to Cuba fulfill or defy expectations?

AIN: Mateo’s life in L.A. could not be more different from his life in Havana. In L.A., he is reclusive and he works as much as possible. In Havana, he has friends, girlfriends, a surrogate family, places he likes to go, foods he likes to eat, streets he likes to visit, etc. It’s actually one of the reasons it was difficult  to understand Mateo based solely on his L.A. life —  how do you get insight into a person who neither wants to talk about himself nor has significant others to talk about him?

Mateo’s life in Cuba was so much grander and sunnier than his life in L.A. I  did not expect Mateo to be as comfortable as he was there. It really felt like Havana was his home. I used to refer to him as “King Cuba” because that’s the sense I got. He acted more relaxed, walked with a certain swagger, and overall, appeared much more confident.  In one of my first filmed interviews with Mateo, I think he said it best when he described his feelings for Cuba: “If I believed in Heaven, I would want it to be like Havana.”

RTF: There are a lot of intimate moments in the film that seemed difficult to capture. How did you go about building trust with Mateo? Was he immediately receptive to the idea of a documentary?

AIN: Building trust with Mateo was a slow and steady process. Mateo had some notions of what he wanted the documentary to be and how he wanted to go about making it. It took a long time for him to relinquish the director’s chair to me. Showing him some early scenes we edited proved to be very useful. He eased up quite a bit after that. I tried always to be patient, and to be open to shooting things that he specifically requested, regardless of whether I found them to be relevant to the film. Seth Cuddeback, our Director of Photography, was essential in this process. He spent so much time alone with Mateo, filming him from sunrise to sunset, weeks at a time, all around the world. Mateo really wanted everything in his life recorded, and for awhile, Seth was essentially doing just that — filming everything. The amount of time Seth spent shooting Mateo allowed for our fly-on-the-wall aesthetic to be possible.

After about a year or so, I think Mateo realized that we were in for the long haul. He started to really enjoy having the cameras around and would refer to himself as “Mateo Scorsese.” Not surprisingly, shooting interviews with Mateo never became straightforward — he never liked making his thoughts transparent on camera, regardless of my tactics, our relationship, or their importance to the film.

From the outset, Mateo was extremely receptive to the idea of doing a documentary on his life. He just wasn’t too receptive to someone else making it. But four years and about one thousand hours of footage later, we’re definitely good friends at this point.

RTF: There is an underlying sensuality in the film that comes across through Mateo’s relationships with the Cuban women he dates and the women he sees on the street. Did you know this was going to a significant part of the film while you were shooting or did it come together in the editing room?

AIN: Relationships are a really intriguing part of the film to me. For awhile, I thought about the film as a love story, almost a tale of a man searching for love and simultaneously running from it. I had no idea that love and women and sensuality, sexuality and romantic notions were going to be such a vivid motif in the story. But I became fascinated by this aspect of Mateo’s life and by how much of a romantic he is and even more so in his music.

Throughout the film, it was very difficult to coherently thread the ways in which Mateo interacts with women in his life. It is most definitely something that came together during the editing process. Mateo cares deeply for the Cuban women in his life and has been friends with the majority of them for over ten years. I tried to be sensitive to this fact throughout the editing process. Overall, I leaned towards a slightly more romanticized Cuban world, the one that I think Mateo sees himself. Importantly, in Mateo’s mind, it stands in stark contrast to the sterility of Los Angeles. To achieve this, my editor, Nicole Vaskell, and I tried to find visual cues to frame certain scenes. We used a lot of close-up shots to focus certain moments, shots of high heels, lips, legs, etc. I think these images helped to sexualize certain sequences, and reinforced Mateo’s romantic perspective of the world. We also tried to heighten some of the more sensual moments with warmer colors and sweetened audio. We mixed the music differently, used different microphone treatments, put richer resonances on some of the sound. We ended up extracting and distorting many of the female vocals in Mateo’s songs to use as atmospheric notes — I called them Mateo’s siren calls. David Perlick-Molinari, my sound designer and composer, was very influential in this area and did an amazing job. He helped to gauge and control the level of warmth we created throughout the film. I am very proud of our treatment of the sound in the documentary. I think it plays a significant role in shaping and reflecting the subjective and malleable nature of Mateo’s relationships portrayed in the film.