Alexander Dinelaris talks about writing Gloria Estefan’s ‘On Your Feet!’ and ‘Birdman’ [Exclusive Interview]

Alexander Dinelaris Jr. started his career as a screenwriter on the right foot, winning an Oscar as one of four writers on Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film also won three other Oscars, including Best Picture earlier this year. But he’s also a Broadway playwright and wrote the book for the new Gloria Estefan jukebox musical On Your Feet!, which just opened.

Alexander Deinelaris Jr.
Alexander Deinelaris Jr.

In addition to those two major projects, Dinelaris also has an exciting new television series, The One Percent. It’s another collaboration with Inarritu and the other writers on Birdman, Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone (who was in the room during our interview). The series will air on Starz and has already been given a straight-to-series order. Considering that the cast includes Hilary Swank and Ed Helms, that’s not surprising.

Dinelaris has worked in three different media, but the focus is still always on telling a story well. “It’s all about telling the story,” he said. “It’s just the methodology with which you use to tell it. Whether it’s images or words or a combination of both. It’s all about telling a well-structured story that makes sense.”

Check out the full interview below.

Get On Your Feet!

TCC: On Your Feet! is a love story between Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan. Was it difficult to whittle their life story down to a musical, especially with so many familiar songs to squeeze in? How do you figure out what you have to put in and what to pull out?

Alexander Dinelaris: I met with them initially in Miami and we started talking. I read everything there was to read about their life. I watched all the videos, watched all the interviews and then had to pick a moment in their life to end it.

The most dramatic piece for them is probably Gloria coming out at the American Music Awards after her accident and re-emerging. It had drama to it, when she came to the song – the song she performed was “Coming Out Of The Dark” – and it seemed to be appropriate. So, I worked from there backwards.

They never demanded that I use a particular song. I think they had enough faith that I would pick enough hits. But I made sure, before I said yes to the project, that they would allow me to use songs – even songs that not many knew… any song I needed to move the story forward. Because the hardest part about writing that musical is making the songs seem organic to the musical and the story itself, and not every time, have to stop [the plot] for a song. They should have related to at least, or advance the plot in some way.

TCC: I would imagine that would be pretty hard because so many of the songs were written before, so you have to figure out which ones will fit in with the story.

AD: Yeah, it’s a real challenge. So example, when [Emilio and Gloria] begin to realize that they are falling in love with one another… so I would listen to all the songs – in that case, I would listen to “I See Your Smile.” And when a song affected me, I wrote down the lyrics and when I saw the lyrics to “I See Your Smile,” they look like they could be sung as a duet. And so I broke it into a duet and when they sing it as a duet, it is actually advancing plot. She’s singing, “I know I have to do this, will you hold my hand” straight through it and we understand that she’s afraid to be the center of attention and everything else. So, there’s lyrics that were pre-recorded and worked for the story that I was telling. That’s just one example of that.

The other [example is when] the spirit of her father comes to talk to her. That was a deep cut that nobody knew, only the most ardent fans would know. … I changed one word in the tune [of the song the father sings, “When Someone Comes Into Your Life”], which was “I would love you the same as the first day I met you.” That was the original lyrics. I asked Gloria’s permission and I changed it to, “I would love you the same as I did the first day I held you.” And the rest of the lyrics, if you put it in that context, could sound like a father – could sound like me talking to my daughter. That was an example where the lyrics… could fall into a spot that works. That’s what the job was!

TCC: Are there any similarities between your personal story and the Estefans’?

AD: Well, yeah. My mother is first generation. Her father was from Havana and her mother was from Ponce, Puerto Rico. My father’s family came all the way from Armenia after the genocide in 1915. So yeah, there’s a lot about it… We didn’t come from very much either and I didn’t grow up with a lot of money as a child or any of that. I grew up in a house that sounded and smelled a lot like the one that Gloria and her mom grew up in. So I did feel a connection with it.

TCC: Were you an Estefan fan before you got involved?

AD: In as much as when I was growing up, their music was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. I was more [into] rock ‘n’ roll as a kid, but I certainly knew all the songs . I certainly had a crush on Gloria, as most guys my age did at that time. But I’ve become more of a fan having worked on this.

Really for me, the pop songs are great – and god knows my whole house has been singing them for a year now – but songs like “Mi Tierra” and the sort of Latin tunes really resonated. I think those really pop and even in the musical, they really pop out. Those really impress me.

Movie Work

TCC: Was Birdman really your first screenplay that you had worked on?

AD: It’s the first one that I was credited for. I helped [director Alejandro G. Inarritu] on the film before that, do some preliminary work on a film called Biutiful. My writing partner Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo came in after I left, but I helped with some of the original material. So I worked with Alejandro on that and then, I’ve done some various script doctoring on other films. But my first credit screenplay was Birdman, yeah.

TCC: It’s really impressive to start your career with an Oscar win. What was that like? Was that surprising?

AD: It was surprising for us – it’s funny because I’m sitting right across the table from my writing partner, Nico. When we first finished it, we just thought, “Well, this is the weirdest movie of all time!” We were going to Venice and thought, “If we go to Venice and they boo us off the screen, we will totally understand that.” And then we went and all of a sudden, the first reviews came out of Hollywood and L.A. – Variety and The Hollywood Reporter – and they were glowing, to say the least. And we were very confused. Nico and I looked at each other, confused by the whole thing.

Then, it just took on a life of its own and it resonated with certain people. Birdman’s the kind of film where the people who like it are passionate about it and the people who don’t like it despite it.

TCC: I’m one of those people who love it.

AD: I’m glad! Thank god, otherwise, this would be an awkward interview.

But it did sneak up on us and it was one of those things where we weren’t sure if it would resonate or not. It was the genius work of Alejandro and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], our DP and that cast that was ridiculous… It all conspired to make a movie that somehow hit a nerve. Incredibly lucky… we feel incredibly lucky.

TCC: Were you ever on the set? Did you ever get to interact with Michael Keaton?

AD: All the time! They were a great cast!

TCC: When you were writing it, was the one-take thing there from the beginning?

AD: It was. That was Alejandro’s original concept. When he first called us, he said, “I want to make a dark comedy in one long take.” As daunting as that sounded, we bit and we wrote in all the transitions [which] were all written into the script beforehand. So, the thing was choreographed and written as you see it before we ever started shooting it.

TCC: Was there any talk about you working on The Revenant?

AD: We’re co-producers on it, Nico and I, so we’re – like all Alejandro’s conspirators – we try to help and advise and do that sort of thing, so we feel close to the film. It looks unbelievably beautiful. So if we helped, we helped by giving some advice to Alejandro on it. It’s a gorgeous film.

TCC: Inarritu seems like a filmmaker that really likes to have a large family or group of collaborators that he works with repeatedly.

AD: He is. He’s very much like that. With Alejandro, he has a circle of trust, a group. It’s not very easy to sink into that group, but once you are… He really does trust the people around him, asks everyone for their opinion, never close-minded. He always asks and listens. I think that’s part of what makes him as successful as he is. Because on top of his talent, he surrounds himself with some pretty good people that give him good advice.

The One Percent

TCC: This is the third different medium that you are working in. How different is television from film and even from writing for the stage?

AD: The stage and the big screen are two very different things. On the stage, it’s all about the words, it’s all about saying what you need to say. In film, it’s all about relying on, as much as you can – although Birdman was a bit of an exception – but generally, it’s about the image. It’s about moving the story forward, with the juxtaposition of images.

Television seems to us – and we’re just writing now, we’re just halfway through writing the first season – a middle ground between both. You get to play with dialogue, not too much, but much more than you get to do on film. And also, you get to rely on some visual imagery as well. Television is a middle ground between the other two formats.

But, in the end, it’s all about telling the story. It’s just the methodology with which you use to tell it. Whether it’s images or words or a combination of both. It’s all about telling a well-structured story that makes sense.

TCC: Are you writing The One Percent specifically with the cast you have in mind or do you just have structured ideas for the characters?

AD: We are now. We started the pilot before we were cast, so we had the characters written. But certainly, when you know you have Hilary Swank or you know you have Ed Harris or Ed Helms, you can’t help but have them in your brain when you’re writing. So, in a way, we were developing characters before we knew it was them and then once we knew, then certainly we start writing towards their strengths and what we see them to be and their incredible range. Because all of them have an incredible range. So [casting] does affect what we’re doing.

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Daniel S Levine

Daniel S Levine is a longtime movie fan and a graduate of Hoftsra University. I also know just about everything you might need to know about Star Wars.