Still without a definite title, the new film from the director of La Libertad and Los muertos combines the poet Fabían Casas as screenwriter and Viggo Mortensen, who is also involved as the producer, as the main character. "We all took a lot of risks," they say.
Image Carolina Camps.
The appointment at the bar for old boys on Colegiales is scheduled at four in the afternoon, but Fabián Casas arrives a little early and asks for a "flank steak special." He knows the place and the waiter, and seems to feel at home. Lisandro Alonso, on the other hand, is extremely punctual (bicycles don't know about bottlenecks and traffic chaos). The interview has a precise and obvious pretext for all those who follow the vagaries of local film production. The rumor, later transformed into news, began to circulate more than a year ago: Alonso, one of the emblematic filmmakers of New Argentine Cinema, was in pre-production for a new film after a break of almost five years. What's interesting (or what's shocking, depending on your prejudices) was that this project had been associated with a couple of names, a priori, that were totally foreign to the universe of the director of La libertad and Los muertos. More than one person scratched their heads thinking about the consequences of a film co-written by Alonso and the poet and writer Fabián Casas, the author of Ocio and Los Lemmings. And if the factor of Viggo Mortensen as the main character and producer is added to the equation? You won't have to wait too long to appreciate the outcome. The shooting of the film - that still doesn't have a definite name but as a formality has been known as Sin Titulo [Without Title] - finished several months ago and Alonso is editing the final version, that probably will start being viewed by the program planners of major European festivals for its possible inclusion in some of them next year.
"Describing the film is very strange, and that's something I enjoy. It's the first time that's happened to me. With La libertad, I could tell you, 'It's the life of a woodcutter' and that's it. Now, sometimes it happens that I tell someone what the thing is about and they stare at me strangely," responds Alonso to the first question of the journalist, who insists, however, in getting some kind of precision. What happens in the story? Is it really a historical film? Casas interrupts: "It's not a historical film in the sense that no one's going to look at the soldier's clothing in detail to see if there are 'mistakes.' In my case, I was inspired as much by books about the 'Conquest of the Desert' as by Mad Max. In general terms, it's the story of a guy who is with his daughter in a deserted place far from civilization. Or where a civilization is trying to get established; it's something very vague. A foreigner in a wild country. His daughter runs away and he has to go look for her. That search produces a kind of mutation in his personality, among other things." "The film itself mutates," Alonso concludes. "The time mutates, the language, the wardrobe, the weather. Some will find it somewhat capricious, but I think there's a unifying element that accompanies all of those changes."
It's the first time that Lisandro Alonso has worked with another person in writing the script. And it's also a first time with actors and a star like Viggo Mortensen. In turn, it's Fabián Casas' first script. How are they feeling about so many debuts?
Lisandro Alonso: They were real challenges. Everything is learning. Time hasn´t yet given me enough distance to realise what changes were for the best and what things will have to continue improving. What I can confirm is that it was a somewhat bigger crew than in my previous films; there were more actors, real wardrobe, translators were required, a young girl of fifteen came with her mother from Europe. In addition, there´s the fact that in 2012 we began shooting in Denmark, and we finished in May of 2013 in Santa Cruz. I think I covered more kilometres with this film than with the rest of my films put together. My creative ability is limited; my usual thing is something more contemplative and minimal. That´s why adding people like Fabián was very important. What´s interesting is that he doesn´t come from the "school of associated scriptwriters," so the things that he was throwing at me ... he was doing it because he believed they were good for the film, without thinking too much about whether they were viable or not. Sometimes he would come up with some dialogue or situations that seemed impossible to me. For instance, there´s a scene in which an Indian dressed like a woman appears. My immediate reaction was to tell him "No, you idiot, stop, we are screwing up." But then you start thinking that it's not like the photographs in history books and the logic of the film is something else; it goes along with the observational, realist and real time stuff of my previous work.
It sounds like a real break in your filmography.
L.A.: This film has a mixture of spaces and times, languages, actors and non-actors, male and female characters; even the subconscious of one of the characters is relevant. For me, it was a great risk, maybe it also was for Fabián. It was probably a risk for Viggo Mortensen; I imagine him asking himself some time ago, "Who is this guy who filmed a woodcutter and a guy traveling in a canoe?" It must be said that Viggo not only ended up acting in the film, but he shouldered the production, did some tweaks in the story, was always active and in good spirits, I´d say, [he was] thinking about the film 24 hours a day. In turn, I worked with a new director of photography, Timo Salminen, the DP of a great many films by Aki Kaurismaki. Timo usually works with a very hard light, very artificial, and contrasting that with what is theoretically a period film with naturalistic sunsets, it ended up having an artificiality that for me is something really novel. I hope I've been able to capitalize on all of that. It would have been stupid on my part to stay in familiar territory.
Fabián Casas: In my case, it also felt like a risky thing. I knew Lisandro's films but not him personally. At this point, I should say that what interests me most in working with another person, beyond my admiration, is that I like him. I have a job as a journalist precisely so that I don't have to do crappy things with people who don't interest me. I think that one does things to experience them, whether it's making a film, having a child or meeting new people. We're very much friends with Lisandro now and that's great, regardless of the final result of the film and of the future, in the sense of whether we'll work together again or not. A world without my friends would be a horrible place. Returning to the work itself, I like going against my skills and writing this script was like being in a complete state of uncertainty. As opposed to comfort which is something that weakens you. I felt very stimulated by Lisandro; he gave me total freedom. If you worked with a more conservative director, suddenly the situation would be very different. According to what Lisandro told me a long time ago, the starting point of the whole project had to do with a person he knew who had been killed in an assault in the Philippines (ed. note: he means Alexis Tioseco and his partner Nika Bohnic, two film critics murdered in September 2009 during a burglary in Manila.) What came to my mind was something that had to do with a dog which turns into a man. Obviously, the two things don't have much to do with one another. But in the discussion between those two tensions, the script emerged that we went about modifying. In fact, I wrote a novel, or rather a proto-novel, because I don't know how to write in script format. I handed scenes to Lisandro and he would tell me, "This is filmable, that cannot be filmed." And we went about proposing things for development in that way.
L. A.: It was a sort of collage, really. I had my ideas, he had others, we shared them. A great part of what Fabián wrote revolved around a dog, but I couldn´t have an animal as the main character because it would bring me production and logistical problems. And besides it wasn´t what interested me most, which was the loss of someone, of a loved one.
Did you finally arrive at the shoot with a strong script, a definitive one?
F.C.: It was a small script, of some twenty pages. We adjusted things at the moment of filming all the time. If the dialog sounded unnatural to us, we changed it, although some of it stayed as it was, because some takes of the film are somewhat artificial, as if it were theatre out on those rocks. [tr.note: "teatro sobre piedras" reference unclear.] It wasn't an ironclad script, that's for sure. Something I liked a lot about the shoot was that, as opposed to what I've seen in my previous contact with artistic circles through my old man's work as manager of Alberto Olmedo for many years - here there was no hierarchy thing, something that's always seemed horrible to me. We were all equals and we were all doing everything, guerilla style.
L.A.: A really graphic example: the first scene of the film in the current edit occurred to the sound engineer. It was a passing comment that explains, in a way, that we had to be attentive and open to what anyone could contribute. I think we all felt that the film was something we didn't have complete control over.
How did Viggo Mortensen join the project?
L.A.: I had seen him only once at the Toronto Festival many years ago. We exchanged two or three words and he gave me a San Lorenzo pin - he's always going around giving people those things. I liked him very much; right then I realized that we could treat one another as equals. He's an actor I love, among other things for the way in which he transmits emotions physically, gesturally. He's not an actor who's usually given great lines of dialogue, but you see him, for example, in the final scene of History of Violence, David Cronenberg's film, and you realize how incredible his work is, the things you can read in his face. Fabián knows him very well; he's been a friend of his for a long time. Besides being an actor, Viggo is a guy with a lot of other interests, things that he does anonymously. For example, he publishes poetry, has a publishing imprint dedicated to highlighting things that interest him in the artistic and journalistic world.
F.C.: He's a person who doesn't give himself any kind of personal importance, very relaxed. I sent him the film script; I wanted to know what he thought of it. And it was like this: he decided to get involved as an actor and later as producer. It was a couple of year process, not from one day to the next, of course.
L.A.: Viggo was also the one who got Ghita Norby's participation, a Danish actress with a lot of career experience, who acted in a Bergman film, for example. Viggo definitely wanted her on the project. And we went to Santa Cruz where it was ten degrees below zero, to a volcano, at times it was raining, water dripping from the camera. We had the huge good luck of being able to get together with people that really loved the project. Any other person could have said to you, "No, look, I'm staying here. I'm not filming today."
Do you now see Liverpool as a sort of creative blind alley, in the sense of the end of a road?
L. A.: Liverpool was playing with the same bottle caps [tr. note: a soccer game children play with bottle caps], the same ball and knowing the field. The situation could be defined in the following way: all the historical or aesthetic questions that up to that moment I wanted to tell were somehow satisfied. And I didn´t want to create myself a character and say, well, now I´m going to show them a guy lost in the Aconcagua. I didn´t want to recreate and reset from a model already mastered. I like to be alert, not closing doors but, on the contrary, opening them.
F. C.: It´s a very great risk, this one of the artist representing himself based on the image others have of him. I associate this with the furor about blogs. And don´t get me wrong, because very good writers have sprung from this format; one doesn´t rule out the other. My generation didn´t have the possibility of writing while knowing at the same time, that we would immediately be watched and read. And not only that, below the text, you have the comments. I´m of the view that it´s good to write alone for a certain time, or be read a little by friends and colleagues, because the risk of constant exposure is to end up being "written" by others.
Leaving aside cinema and literature for a moment, a significant case is that of Los Redondos. Two great, extraordinary records, and suddenly the guy ends up being "talked about" by the kids who went to listen to him. It´s not possible that someone forty years old would write, "I rush to see what the gang in my street is writing on my wall." As a writer, film director or musician, I think you have to be wary of that. For example, I think Lisandro was always alert to not falling for the wishes of those who are film radicalization fundamentalists.