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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Cast and Director Talk Adapting the Hit Book

Aristotle and Dante - FandomWire
Aristotle and Dante - FandomWire

Avid readers may recognize the name Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Playing at TIFF in the Discovery section this year, the film was one of the more exciting acquisition titles of the festival thanks to its star-studded cast and its popular source material. We got a chance to sit down with the film’s writer director, Aitch Alberto, and its lead actors, Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales, shorty after the film’s world premiere at the festival.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is based on a 2012 award-winning young adult book written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. For writer-director Aitch Alberto, this is her directorial debut, which came with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Adapting a work of literature that holds such an important place in the hearts of queer youth was certainly a challenge, but Alberto and co. stepped up to it.

“I feel incredibly honored to have been able to make this film. It’s also a big exhale, because it’s taken me seven years to get it to the screen. I thought it was like a no-brainer. When I read the book, I was like, ‘There’s no way that the rights to this are available. It’s just so perfect.’ And they were available, and I think it was because I was meant to tell the story with these two beautiful boys next to me. So it feels really good. It feels like a moment. It feels timely, and it feels like the perfect time. I think there’s a need for stories like this to be told in a real way by people like me.” – Aitch Alberto

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Cast and Director Talk Adapting the Hit Book - FandomWire
Aitch Alberto, director of “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”

Also Read: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe TIFF Review: A Standard but Endearing Queer Coming of Age Story

Fans would likely think that a film based on one of the most acclaimed young adult books of the past decade would have been made within the studio system, but Alberto made the film as an independent production. Although this came with its own challenges, it was also extremely rewarding, as it gave her the opportunity to make a film that was true to her vision as a fan of the book.

“Well, it was a movie that no studio would have ever made, especially a couple of years ago when this was greenlit just because I’m a trans director, and it’s a story about two brown families with two brown leads in it. I think Hollywood is run on fear. And when you don’t take the risk, or there isn’t someone that is taking the risk for you to tell the story like this, you’re more reluctant or resistant to write. So I’m really grateful for the people that were fearless enough. And I also think that the involvement of people like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Derbez, and Eva Longoria validated the story, and their profile really helped us get there. But had they not stepped in? I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, which is very unfortunate. So I hope this moves the needle to like the next filmmaker behind us and the next story; to continue to have more stories about us exist.” – Aitch Alberto

One of the most exciting things about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is its fantastic representation of the Latino and LGBTQ communities, but it is also a coming-of-age tale that feels very universal. For Alberto, this balance of specificity and universality was key to making the film successful.

“I wanted to also make an All-American story that was accessible to everything and not play into the tropes of what we see in most films about Latino people. That’s not my experience. That’s not Max’s experience, and it’s definitely not Reese’s experience. Our houses are American and are rooted in a culture that is very much where we come from. But like, this [America] is where we’re from as well. So it’s the duality that can sometimes be confusing, but embracing that is really beautiful. We’re American, but we also eat mole.” – Aitch Alberto

“It leads to a very, very specific heritage that meets somewhere in the middle.” – Max Pelayo

“For sure, and  I’m a strong believer that in specificity is universality. I tried to tell a story that was specific to my experience and to what the book said and refuse to lean into the tropes of what we’ve seen before when it comes to Latino stories.” – Aitch Alberto

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Cast and Director Talk Adapting The Hit Book - FandomWire
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe screened at TIFF (2022)


Also Read: Bros TIFF Review: A Hilarious, Intelligent LGBGTQ Romantic Comedy

The film is set in 1987 El Paso, Texas, and for an independent film, it does an extraordinary job of transporting the audience back to this era in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or artificial. The soundtrack and costume design for the film are both fantastic and create a fun, immersive atmosphere.

“Yeah, I wanted to keep it as naturalistic as possible. I didn’t want to sort of play into the gimmicks of what we see when it comes to ‘80s movies, especially when it came to the costumes. I worked with Donna Lisa Gonzalez. She’s from Miami, an old friend who this is her first endeavor and costumes on this side. She’s a stylist. And she just had a real like sensibility that I felt was very much in line to what my vision for the film was? It’s where it can feel timeless. It could be now but it is very specific to what the ‘80s are. And for the soundtrack, I write to music, I love music, I think it’s so important to build a world and create the texture of the world. So I again wanted it to feel like the ‘80s but also feel like it was supporting and enhancing Ari’s emotional journey throughout, and how that music changed once Dante came into his life and the influence of that, too. The music was a lot of fun to explore and see what it could be. And we also had an amazing music supervisor. And then our composer is Isabella Summers, who’s the Machine from Florence and the Machine. And she is just an absolute genius.Her coming on board just like gave me a gift that I never thought I would have. The movie was very visual and soft, but I wanted the music to be also a reflection of our emotional journey.” – Aitch Alberto

For this film to succeed, it depended on strong chemistry between the two leads. However, this is the first major role for Pelayo and Gonzales. Despite them being newcomers to the scene, they have managed to pull something off with their roles that is simply extraordinary, cementing their performances as some of the festival’s best.

“I mean, it was effortless. Max and I, we got along instantly. We instantly connected and we both resonated with these characters so much that it was almost immediate, that connection. I’m really so grateful and lucky to have had Max by my side, and have Max be my partner through all of this. I love him.” – Reese Gonzales

“To both of their credits, they just really showed up. They are these characters, on and off the screen, and they just really trusted each other and trusted me, and in the most beautiful way. They’re there forever and will be a part of my life in a very special way.” – Aitch Alberto

“I will say that we had a month in between us being cast, and then starting production. I live in Texas, Reese is in California. So we didn’t really get to work on much together. So it was kind of us being in the same place on set. And by that time, it was just relying on our natural chemistry. And most of it for us was in the script, so we just followed it, it was all laid out for us.” – Max Pelayo

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Cast and Director Talk Adapting The Hit Book - FandomWire
From Left To Right: Max Pelayo (Aristotle) and Reese Gonzales (Dante)

In addition to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’s strong lead turns from Pelayo and Gonzales, the film features supporting turns from such Latino/a legends as Eva Longoria, Eugenio Derbez, Veronica Falcón, and Kevin Alejandro. For the young actors in the film, working with these seasoned legends gave them an exceptional learning opportunity. 

“I learned so much from just being able to watch, work with, and listen to them and their stories and their advice. They are Titans. Being able to watch them work and just their presence on set, I learned so much from them.” – Reese Gonzales 

“Absolutely. It was a very special experience and feeling in the air because these are actors that had been representing Hispanic people in Hollywood for a long time. So for us to be able to work with them on our first big endeavor was amazing.” – Max Pelayo

“They are people that have blazed trails, especially people like Eva, and Eugenio have really made moves in a time where there wasn’t any room for us, especially as a woman. Eva as a Latina woman in this industry and everything that she’s been able to do — it’s really inspiring. When you meet them and are in a room together, you understand why they’ve been able to be who they are. The whole energy — especially when Eva was on set — the whole energy of that set changed. And Eugenio, I don’t know where to start. He was just one of the kindest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He was incredibly scared to step into this role, because it was something that people haven’t seen from him. But he showed up willing, he took direction and he trusted me in a real way. And Veronica’s just an absolute legend in every way. And so is Kevin, and they’re legitimate actors. And so is Marlene Forte, who played Tia Ophelia. I’m just incredibly lucky that they’re a part of it.” – Aitch Alberto

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a truly special film. It played to several sold-out crowds of enthusiastic fans at TIFF, leaving audiences around the world clamoring to see the film. Although it is an independent production that is currently seeking distribution, don’t expect that to last for long, as it will be snatched up by a distributor sooner rather than later.

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Written by Sean Boelman

Film Critic and member of the CACF.