Q&A: Aitch Alberto and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Writer and Director Aitch Alberto reflects on her personal journey of bringing the beloved young adult novel from page to screen, and touches on the upward trend of Latinos in media who are telling their own stories
Writer and director Aitch Alberto brings an adaptation of acclaimed novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe to life in the film of the same name which releases on September 8, 2023. Photo Credit: Blue Fox Entertainment

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a new film adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Mexican-American author and poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

The story centers around two Mexican-American teenagers living in 1980s Texas named Dante Quintana and Aristotle Mendoza, who have a chance encounter and begin a friendship which then leads to an emotional journey of self-discovery. The novel has been critically acclaimed since its publication in 2012, renowned for its empathetic approach to queer identity and representations of love and adolescence. With the film adaptation by writer and director Aitch Alberto, the novel will soon find a new audience when it is released on September 8.

Before writing a screen adaptation of the novel, Alberto was first and foremost a fan, pushing for its adaptation for years. Now she has done just that, and with this comes reflection over the journey and how as a Latina creator she has been able to bring the story to life amongst the sparse opportunities to tell these types of LGBTQ+ Latino stories in Hollywood.

Recently she took us through the process of adapting Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe to the screen, from the complexities of getting it greenlit to the support she received from other Latino collaborators on this film, such as producers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Derbez and actress Eva Longoria.

Starring Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, Veronica Falcón, and Kevin Alejandro, the film is scored by English musician and composer Isabella Summers, who is one half of the Grammy nominated indie rock band Florence and the Machine.

To start off, why did you feel that the story of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe should be adapted to a visual medium?

I love that you called it a visual medium. That’s the first person to actually use that word because it is like a very different sort of experience to adapt a piece of literature to a visual medium. But anyhow, I thought what inspired me most was the way that it handled Latinidad, the way it handled queerness with such a lyrical, gentle approach in a way that we haven’t seen before when it comes to our own stories.

And I thought it played against tropes and stereotypes in such a powerful way, where it invited me to give us a different option in a visual medium, which we don’t often, if ever, see when it comes to our own stories.

I’ve read that you’ve said that when you first read the novel, it “affected you to your core.” What has the journey been like adapting the story and looking at it from the other side now that you finished up?

I don’t know if I have the hindsight yet to look at it from the other side. I think it’s still so embedded in my existence, and it’s almost like, become my life’s work. For so many reasons it’s been so fundamental to me as an artist. And personally, so much has happened to me where I’ve stepped into my truth very similar to mirroring the characters in the story, where this will be that piece of work that I think will follow me forever.

And I’m okay with that happening because the pureness of what it unlocked in me, I will never have again in my career. Right now, people send me books to read or ideas to sort of consider. And this was so fully me that it touched me in such a profound way, that it became my guiding force to tell this story. Because I think there’s such a void in stories like this when it comes to our community. And it’s about time for us to tell our own stories about people that we don’t often see in front of the camera and by people that we don’t often see behind the camera.

So I don’t know if I could answer that yet. I think in a few years from now, after I’ve done other pieces of work, I think I’ll be able to answer that more clearly. Right now, I’m incredibly grateful and honored and so satisfied that people are going to be able to see this, especially in theaters.

I think there’s such a void in stories like this when it comes to our community. And it’s about time for us to tell our own stories about people that we don’t often see in front of the camera and by people that we don’t often see behind the camera.





Is there one character or specific story beat that you feel you connect with the most in the film?

At the beginning of this process I considered myself a Dante, but the truth is that I was really an Ari. There was still so much that I had to sort of discover and unlock about myself and accept, which is what the story is about right? It’s about recognizing the love around us, being able to accept and receive that love and then allowing us to guide us to step into our truth. And I think my experience really mirrored that in so many ways. Secretly, my favorite character is Elena because I always love a bad girl. But I think from a core level, Ari is probably my favorite.

Because you were there for the whole process of writing and directing, were there any particular challenges with adapting the book into a film?

Yeah, I think being a fan of the book was a challenge. I think letting go of the book and allowing myself the permission to sort of make it my own was also a challenge. And it took a while and it took many drafts because I really wanted to honor the book.

I think a lot of adaptations often veer so far off the source material that we lose the spirit of it. So I wanted to make sure that I was honoring not only the fans, the story, but also Ben, since this is such a personal story to him. So that, to me, was the biggest challenge. And also getting the movie made.

It took a long time because I think there wasn’t space for stories about two brown boys that go on a really gentle story to discover and accept who they are. But I think what we’ve gone through socially on a universal level has made space. So the time, as much as it was stressful, was also necessary. So I think we’re right on time with this film.

Could you touch on what it was like working with the cast? You have the two young leads in Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales and then you have veterans like Eugenio Derbez and Eva Longoria.

I’m so grateful. Everybody really showed up for love for each other, love for the story, love for me. And the production was so magical because of that reason, because I think everybody recognized how profound and necessary the story was. Again, it was such a beautiful experience to have this sort of melding of generations, to have these veteran actors who are so formidable in the industry and have these two young talents. So I think it was for me, the biggest task was sort of nurturing an environment where everybody really trusted each other and trusted me to show up and be as vulnerable as possible. And I think that’s palpable on screen from every talent that we see.

Now at the beginning of the film, there’s a dedication saying, “to all of us who have had to learn to play by different rules.” Do you feel that that applies to the process of making this film??

Yeah, I think that’s why that’s in there. Because I think to make it in any industry and to make it in the world, you sort of can’t wait for permission and you have to have a certain level of delusional confidence, which innately is forging your own path. And sometimes for people like me and for people like us, in an industry like this, we have to sort of make room for ourselves. And that was what was my guiding force.

It was like I needed to tell this story and I was going to find a way. And I think once you believe in something, you sort of found people along the way that are going to support that. And that’s such a reflection of that. Not only in the producers, like in Lin and all the big talents. I think that was a big part of it. It was like there was a necessity for me and in turn, I think I inspired people to make it a necessity for them to be a part of this.

So the conversation of identity and acceptance seems to always come up in Latino stories and entertainment. Can you touch on what your methods were to get that across in this movie?

I think I wanted this to be, and I say this, I wanted it to be a reflection of myself, of people that I love, and through that, it was never to distill them into the simple thing of identity.

It’s like, “how do I celebrate the nuances of everything that we are?” Because it’s so easy to sort of ‘other’ ourselves, to niche ourselves. But it’s like, “how do you be specific while also being universal?” And I think that’s what makes the movie feel so authentic right? It’s because it’s a celebration of the people that I care about. And it’s like we so often see our stories reduced to this simple idea and it’s because we’re not telling our own stories, but I think now there’s like a movement of Latino stories that’s happening with us at the helm and in front of the camera. And I think it’s made a world of difference.

I really personally enjoyed the music and the score and how it helps set the tone of the time and place. So I was wondering what the process was of arranging that soundtrack and the score.

I wanted to make something timeless that also felt really 80s. So I wanted an audience from today to feel and identify for it to feel like now. And that was never skewing to something that was kitschy or sort of that we’ve seen before when it came to the 80s because I think it’s really easy to kind of reduce that.

But almost every song that’s in the movie, every needle drop, was in the script, which is really lucky. We had an amazing music supervisor and then our composer is Isabella Summers, who’s ‘The Machine’ from Florence and the Machine and her and I really wanted to create a score that, not only did we use the camera that way, but we also used the score to mirror what Ari’s internal struggle was. So that was always sort of like the North Star and the guiding light to, I think, create a really exceptional score. And I’m really proud of it, so I’m so happy that you recognize that.

Last question, thank you so much Aitch. What do you hope that audiences take away from the film, both new audiences to this story and the fans that have already been touched by this book?

I think this is like a film for everybody, right? So my biggest hope is that multigeneration generational Latinos and all sorts of people come and watch this movie and that this unlocks something in them to begin a conversation in a more open way than we’re used to about the themes in the movie and to really remind ourselves that love is our most powerful tool in our existence. And through love, you either have the option of either fear or love, and I think we see that in the movie, and I hope that people walk out with a little more empathy, a little more compassion, and a little more awareness of the love around them, which I think makes us unstoppable.

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